Monday, 20 May 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness AKA 'Fan Service: The Movie'

        Spoiler Warning: There are a few reveals and plot points from the new Star Trek film discussed in this article so if you haven’t watched it yet and don't want things to be spoiled, stop reading NOW.

        Star Trek Into Darkness is undeniably filled with almost a ridiculous amount of fan service. Let’s go through the list shall we?

        First off, Khan. Most fans saw that coming despite the filmmaker’s attempts at trying to keep that one a shock reveal. One of the most famous of the Trek antagonists, he was bound to make an appearance somewhere down the line in this rebooted series.
        Others: the epic cry of “Khaaaaaaaan!” (this time by Spock instead of Kirk – oooh twist!), the tribbles, the klingons, Kirk bedding more alien species, references to the Prime Directive, Bones saying, “Dammit Jim, I’m a doctor not a (insert different occupation here)…” and so the list goes on.
        The thing is, I’m not particularly a Trek fan. Apart from the odd random episode caught on TV, I haven’t watched any of the (many) different series or watched any of these previous 10(!) Trek movies before the series reboot in 2009. And yet still, I got all these references. God knows what it was like for actual Trekkies…

        Now I don't have anything against the odd bit of fan service per se, (it serves to reward and give a knowing wink to long term fans) but the problem arises when it comes at the expense of story and drama. Was this film trying too hard to be a throwback to the original enterprise adventures (cough cough Wrath of Khan…)? Surely the whole point of a ‘reboot’ (as opposed to simply a ‘remake’) is to reinvent the original and take it in a new direction and not just ape the past? Even the crew haven’t really changed since the first film – once again, often feeling like they are just doing impressions of the character’s original versions.
        This is supposed to go in a new direction - it's an alternate timeline to the original Trek – as the Leonard Nimoy cameo appearance as the aged 'original' Spock once again shows up to confirm (as well as to dish out sagely advice) – yet again another instance of fan service. What about new stories? New villains? What happened to exploring uncharted space and ‘boldly going where no-one has gone before’? Isn’t that what Trek is supposed to be about? They don't even get to that until the end of the movie!

        On a bit of a tangent – this film also had the problem of its characters escaping a highly against-the-odds peril without a scratch time and time again. Much like the recent The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, too many scenes of characters only just escaping certain death over and over eventually renders them invulnerable in the audiences eyes and thus negates much of the dramatic tension and real sense of threat that these scenes are supposed to convey. Sure, you have a few random crewmembers getting sucked out into space and killed when the enterprise takes a beating but it’s never any of the main characters that are at risk. After you witness Kirk and Spock escape an impossible situation for the umpteenth time you just know they are never really going to be at any risk at any point – with some mathematically impossible timing/chance and/or deus ex machina always there at the last minute to whisk them away to safety. But that's just how some modern blockbuster action movies are expected to be like I guess.

        Anyway, back to the main point – what are the wider ramifications of all this? Well, as only a casual fan of Star Trek, I’m not all that bothered about the direction that these new Star Trek films are taking. In fact, I rather enjoyed the film for what it was and particular praise goes to Benedict Cumberbatch for his standout performance (basically imagine what Sherlock would be like as a baddie - a Sherlock that can crush Robocop’s head and even break out of a Vulcan death grip!), despite not having much to do except run and punch in his latter scenes. The effects are top notch and there is significantly less lens flare on the bridge this time around.
        No, the bigger issue here is the fact that one man now has directorial power over possibly the two biggest sci-fi franchises of all time. Just think about that for a second. That’s pretty insane. Star Wars (the originals at least) have been so much more influential in my youth than Star Trek ever was and I dread to think about how the new Star Wars films may turn out to be like under the hand of J.J. Abrams. Sure, they will be slick and exciting (with characters escaping from certain death over and over again) and at least they will be different from Lucas’ bloated and self-indulgent sequels – but at what cost?
        Will we have someone having their hand cut off by a lightsaber? Harrison Ford uttering “I’ve got a bad feeling about this…”? A stormtrooper being controlled by the force, repeating  “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for…”? A squid shouting “It’s a Trap!” as he swivels around on his chair? Or a character screaming out “Noooooooooooooo!!!” in some ridiculously melodramatic moment of realisation?
        I guess that all remains to be seen.

        At the end of the day however, we can take comfort in the fact that the new Star Wars films (the first due in 2015) aren’t reboots or remakes but a direct canon continuation of the film series. Will they dare to try something new or just fill the film with constant throwbacks and fan service? A franchise as monumentally huge as Star Wars is unlikely to flop on release whatever happens, but it will be interesting to see how they turn out. Lucas’ prequels, despite having many flaws, at least weren’t afraid to try something new with an established and beloved franchise.
        Let’s hope Abrams will follow a similar path. Fan service can only get you so far…

20th May 2013

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