Sunday, 26 May 2013

Sex and Race: The Final Frontiers - Star Trek: Into Darkness

J. J. Abrams' latest Star Trek flick has elicited a mixed bag of responses from critics, with many enthusiastically taking to his pacy, action-packed additions to the franchise, while others have accused him of “dumbing it down”. The divide seems to fall largely between loyal Trekkies and the rest of us approaching these films with fresher eyes. Personally, I feel that Abrams' version does something fantastic in dispensing with the Star Trek series' dull, drawn-out debates and long, static, conversational scenes, without getting rid of its characteristic intellectualism and moral complexity. Instead, he follows that classic film adage - “show, don't tell”, to present the same moral dilemmas and thought processes through exciting action sequences. To compare specific examples, the opening sequence of Into Darkness sees Kirk and Spock arguing over Starfleet rules and regulations – while Spock stands in the middle of an erupting volcano. On the other hand, the opening of The Wrath of Khan sees an ageing Kirk wandering around a surprisingly quiet Starfleet HQ having moody, sulky conversations about how he's getting too old for adventuring.

Far from “dumbed down”, I felt that the political aspects of this film were strong, clear and engaging. The moral dilemmas it threw up were complicated, often remaining unresolved as it played off personal and family responsibilities against duty to society as a whole. The story's inciting incident is a man agreeing to do something terrible in order to save his dying daughter's life. It's extremely difficult to condemn a desperate father, particularly one that informs on himself in advance of the crime he feels compelled to commit. This theme continues as Kirk and Spock are repeatedly thrown into situations that force them to balance the needs of the many against the needs of the few. As both of these characters have lost all blood relatives, their crew is now the only “family” they have left. Sacrifices must be made, and between them they must decide whether or not their duty as Starfleet officers to humanity as a whole outweighs their duty as leaders to their crew.

Connections are repeatedly drawn between the events of the film and real-world terrorist activity. There are several striking visual sequences, including a bomb attack on London, and the deliberate crashing of a spaceship into a major American city, with terrified citizens running about as skyscrapers collapse around them. These present-day parallels fit in well with the film's musings on the nature of time and change. The past/future contrast first emerges in the aforementioned volcano sequence, where the Enterprise, with all its advanced technology, is juxtaposed against a much more primitive civilization. Later on, we see an extremely old character attempting to grapple with modern scientific and cultural developments, and at one point, Spock calls on his alternate future self to ask for help. This interplay even extends to the costume design: Uhura's very 2010s civvies on Kronos contrast sharply with the classic 60s style of the Starfleet uniforms, reminding us of how the story takes the form of a kind of alternate history to the pre-existing Star Trek films and series.

The other main criticisms that have been levelled at the film concern representation. The first of these is race-related, and unfortunately it's difficult to talk about this very much without giving away a major plot point, but essentially the issue is that a white actor has been cast as a non-white character. Given Star Trek's reputation for political correctness (which at times has verged on the ridiculous), this is genuinely problematic, though to be fair to the filmmakers, I doubt that their casting decision was racially motivated: I suspect it was more a question of deciding which star they wanted to include. It's not at all difficult to see why the actor in question was chosen – his performance is undeniably spellbinding. Still, thoughtlessness should never be a valid excuse.

The second concern is a gender-related, and perhaps even less excusable one. Whilst I can appreciate the 60s throwback element of the film, and recognise that the representation of women in Into Darkness is considerably better than it is in older films like The Wrath of Khan (even before they do anything stupid, you only need to look at the way the women are dressed to get an idea), it is incredibly frustrating that Abrams and his writers were unable to resist an unnecessary stripping-off scene for one of its female characters, Dr Carol Marcus. Those who know a little about the franchise and the characters already will of course recognise that this particular scene is actually designed to set up something big between Kirk and Marcus (Kirk being with her when she starts taking her clothes off), but it's still an incredibly lazy, sloppy way of going about this: their relationship would have been much more satisfactorily set up through better development of Marcus' character, and the establishment of proper, believable chemistry between the two of them, rather than just seeing Alice Eve in her knickers.

All that said, one of the best characters in the film overall is Lieutenant Uhura, for whom neither race nor sex seem to be a problem. Although arguably the new addition of Spock and Uhura's romantic involvement in 2009's Star Trek film has seen her relegated to a slightly more sterotypical “love interest” role, Zoe Saldana plays the part with great integrity. Not only is she more than a match for her male colleagues in terms of intellect and courage, but along with Spock, she is the emotional centre of the film, taking the audience with her in her shifts from fear to relief, and from frustration to joy.

Great performances are given by most of the major cast members. There aren't all that many films that can boast multiple actors capable of convincingly playing thoughtful, introverted, intellectual characters, but Into Darkness is definitely one of them. Both Benedict Cumberbatch and Zachary Quinto (quite possibly the two best names in Hollywood), are not only brilliant at conveying their characters' complex interior lives, but also manage wholly to persuade us of their alienness, and this without alienating viewers. Zach Quinto presents a Spock divided equally between Vulcan logic and human emotion, whose feelings are all the more powerful because of his attempts to conceal and out-think them. Cumberbatch similarly wavers between putting up a cold and unfeeling exterior, and offering insights into the deeply troubled and damaged man beneath. Unfortunately, these actors' subtlety rather shows up the lesser abilities of poor Chris Pine, of whom many more demands are made in this film than in the last. Though pretty good at all the Shatner-esque comedy, Pine is undeniably let down by his rather hollow, melodramatic responses to deaths and crises.

Overall, this movie gives you everything you could want from a summer blockbuster, as well as a great deal more. It's great to see successful film franchises like Star Trek and Iron Man refusing to talk down to their audiences, challenging them even as they entertain. Still, it has a few flaws that could easily have been ironed out with a little more care and attention. There are a couple more issues left to get over - a couple more frontiers yet to cross over.

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