!:Warning:! Spoilers ahead – no major plot points, but a character is revealed (if you haven’t already figured it out by the trailers alone).
Let’s start with the good stuff. Star Trek: Into Darkness is a looker. It’s one of the best produced/realized sci-fi worlds that I’ve seen in recent memory. There are some scenes where the fake “hand cam” and auto-focus effect (first used to great effect in Firefly) is distracting, but the CG and the sets all look incredible and have you believe that this universe exists outside of a lime green studio. JJ Abrams knows how to make an action packed movie look fantastic. The cast, especially Chris Pine, does a fine job recreating their characters and there is plenty of personality (aside from Zoe and Zach) to go around. It’s not a great movie by any means, but it’s a nice diversion.
This movie is also better than the last in many ways. Benedict Cumberbatch\Peter Weller are much better villains though their parts are underwritten and underdeveloped. I was never a fan of Eric Bana’s Nero, and the overall story arc of that movie, aside from the pleasing origins of Kirk and crew, is pretty Bana-l. The intriguing setup to the characters and story give way to the truly unbelievable threat that future Nero poses to the Federation. Also ye ‘ol alternate timeline mechanic allows Abrams to stretch the fiction in ways that don’t seem to violate the established canon. This is neither good nor bad, but still feels like a cop-out, done to make this series of movies distinct from the originals while stealing liberally from their best parts. It succeeds and fails for that same reason.
Like its predecessor, Into Darkness struggles to find its own identity. This is the inherent problem of the Remake, which my wife calls, “the do-over”. This same plot line was done much better and with more gravitas and emotional punch in a Next Generation episode called “The Wounded“. I would have almost preferred the movie cutting to that hour long episode rather than relegating Peter Weller’s character into a one-dimensional warmonger.
In my opinion, Remakes are appropriate for comic movies – and little else. Maybe it’s because comic characters have, since their inception, undergone innumerable makeovers in their fiction to reflect the changes in culture and their readers. This is expected and even part of the charm of comics. You don’t like THIS version of Batman? Wait a year or two and they’ll “reboot” the series with a different author and it could be awesome. They’ve taken this chameleon ability with them to the cinema and I think movie-goers have enjoyed the process – just ask Spider/Super/Bat/man.
Look to almost any other remake, with few exceptions, and they are horrid. They are worse than sequels (which are also usually worse with each iteration – Die Harderest anyone?). Why? Because they don’t even have the actors and charm from the originals to work from. Take the recent Total Recall movie for example. Love it or hate it, but Total Recall, the original, had personality to spare and in Arnold one of the most epic and charismatic action superstars of his generation. In this modern remake, all the most important plot points are already given away, because well….it’s a remake. But the creators felt enough responsibility to perform some window dressing to make it seem new and exciting. i.e. Earth vs. Mars. Also, Colin Farrell, who I like, is not a big enough character, literally and figuratively, to carry the movie on the weight of his now sober shoulders. What results is not just a bad movie in its own right, but a movie that is even worse because of its comparison to the original. Just make a new movie! There’s enough money and talent here to actually create a great ORIGINAL story without rehashing old ideas or trying to “recreate the magic” or some BS.
Why do some remakes work? Well, I would say the remakes that do well are the ones that either poke fun at the source material (21 jump street) or its been long enough that an update would look entirely different than the original (The Thomas Crown Affair). However, it still takes stellar writing and compelling personalities playing the leads to pull these off. More so when the characters are iconic and part of the modern cultural mythology. Otherwise, it’s near guaranteed that the remake will be horrible.
Why do studios produce these en masse? Most likely because no matter what I say, these movies make money. They are deemed less risky, because there is a built-in audience here that will probably go to see it for nostalgia if nothing else. In my case, it’s more like nausea – but I’ll still see it (and hate myself). It also spreads the demographics. The older crowd will attend to see what’s changed and the younger crowd will hopefully be intrigued enough to jump in for the first time.
Back to Star Trek. William Shatner, love him or hate him, IS Captain Kirk. His unique brand of charm and overacting has been parodied so many times it’s hard to imagine the character any other way. Leonard Nimoy IS Spock. Nowhere is this more apparent than when Zachary Quinto looks to the viewscreen at his aged self for sage advice. Zachary does a fine job of playing a Vulcan, but by definition it’s a character that’s stiff and unengaging. Only Leonard, who’s lived the role for a lifetime could make that character interesting. The list goes on and on. Simon Pegg is funny, even with the distractingly/annoyingly thick Scottish accent. Zoe Saldana is a horrible Uhura. The original broke down racial barriers and never came across as anything other than competent and professional. Zoe Saldana’s Uhura has erased all social progress and is basically an emotional basket case of female movie tropes. Karl Urban as Bones?
Ok.. he actually does an amazingly good job considering the birdlike muse of the TV doctor, but here’s the thing. They’re all aping the original actors. But this movie isn’t a parody! It’s a remake. And this is the shame of it. If these were all original characters with their own backstories, it actually would be much more interesting. There would be no comparisons and these writers and actors could develop in their own ways. Benedict Cumberbatch does a competent job as Khan, but it pales in comparison to Ricardo Montalban’s intense human intelligence and ferocity. Cumberbatch is too inhuman here and robotic to be truly scary. Having to compare with Montalban is as disappointing as it is unfair.
In the end, I am glad they made the movie. It was fun to be back in the Star Trek universe again, even if it feels a little less cerebral and overly action packed for its own good. It was just done well enough that I could see what could have been. With these actors and writers given free reign enough to create new stories… the results could have been compelling rather than competent. Will people remember Pine’s Kirk or Shatner’s? The answer is obvious and a missed opportunity.
What could be great news is that after watching this movie, I think JJ Abrams has the chops to pull off an impressive Star Wars movie. One of (the many) things that was missing from the Prequels was a soul and the feeling that that universe existed. There are enough great scenes, small and large, in Into Darkness that make me think Star Wars could be a place I want to visit again, rather than just be the movies I cut myself to. There IS still the danger of trying to be “true” to George’s vision. I heard recently that JJ Abrams spent some time with the iconic director to make sure he had his blessing and he knew where it was leading. Hopefully this was just lip service to a great legend. George actually lost his vision almost 30 years ago when he became rich and famous enough to surround himself with sycophants rather than people who would tell him “NO” and actually protect his legacy. But that is another post!
I’ll leave you with one final thought about remakes. In a few years, would it be great or silly to have Star Trek the Next Generation rebooted? Have a bald man with a British accent playing Picard and a perfectly competent actor play Data. LaForge can wear Google Glass and Warf can be played by Jaden Smith. It will be all action-y or whatever the kids want to watch then, and will have all sorts of fun ties to the TV series and movies….. BLEH. No thank you.
Go write some new stories damn you. That is all.