Thursday, May 16, 2013

Into Darkness: a wrath for a new voice

WARNING: This review contains a lot of spoilers for Star Trek Into Darkness. If you want a spoiler free review, then do not read anything other than this paragraph. In short, it's a nice film, it's not the Star Trek I used to know, but that's kinda ok. The cast was great and I had a lot of fun.

The crew of the Starship Enterprise embark on a new voyage in Star Trek Into Darkness. And this time they face one of the original crew's greatest enemies.

Although I enjoyed 2009's Star Trek reboot, I still had some reservations about the new direction JJ Abrams was taking the franchise. I was concerned that the whole retooling of the series into a more action oriented thing would take away the some of the concepts the original series had that I loved: the idea of a peaceful humanity, timely topics and philosophy in a futuristic setting, and good old fun and fisticuffs.

The topic of terrorism isn't new in the Star Trek universe; and in light of recent events some of the actions in this film are brought into light. However, the film doesn't delve into these concepts too much, with only a vague attempt at exploring the notion that some people, given enough motivation, will do anything.

Like the first film, this film doesn't dwell too much into greater concepts like Star Trek VI's treatment of the Berlin wall coming down in space; this is mostly a character piece. And the source material for this movie is quite apt: Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan, one of the most character-centric movies in the franchise (and arguably one of the best Star Trek movies, period.) Does it live up to the source material?

The center of the story is Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan. Cumberbatch is an amazing actor, and he brings a different interpretation to the character: a near-invincible superman of superior genetic breeding, with cunning and charisma, ruthless to the core. My only gripe would be that Khan is supposed to be of Indian descent. Cumberbatch acts the part very well, but it's like casting Heath Ledger as Asiong Salonga: it's going to be the best Asiong Salonga ever acted on film, but you can't sell me 100% on a hunky Australian actor playing a Filipino gangster. Despite that, Cumberbatch's Khan shines in every scene he is in; he radiates a presence of power that few actors can do today.

With the man out of the way, we go to the character concepts the movie touches upon. Wrath of Khan was a deconstruction of Kirk as he reached middle age. He had experience behind him, and in the process, he has prevailed every time. His reckless exploits during his five year mission has come back to haunt him, in the form of a son who doesn't know him and an enemy who wants him dead. He realizes that as an Admiral with a desk job in Starfleet Command, he isn't the same James Kirk that used to go toe to toe with Klingons and Gorn, and at the same time, he wants to go back to that time. He wants to feel alive. At the end of the film, Kirk pulls off a miracle again - but this time, he loses something important to him, probably the first time something like that has happened in his life.

This film, while drawing on the same source material, frames this character study on a Kirk that's just starting out. We know little about this Kirk's exploits, and thanks to the events of the last film, he was probably put into a position that he was not ready to fill yet. This Kirk is too naive, too confident, too sure of his own abilities. In short, the very opposite of the person the Wrath of Khan was deconstructing! As such, it approaches Kirk in a different way. In many ways, Admiral Pike was right: reboot Kirk was a person who didn't know how to lose yet. Original Kirk had the same problem in dealing with losing, but only after having gone through numerous near scrapes and wild adventures throughout the galaxy.

Kirk faces a similar dilemma in both films: how can he prevail in a situation where he must lose, if he has not yet faced loss before? Both films take a very different road in answering these questions; while Wrath of Khan resolves it with Kirk losing a valued friend in the process, Into Darkness makes Kirk take this to heart in a very personal way.

That said, this focus on Kirk overshadows the rest of the crew. While there was an effort to continue the journey that Spock started in the last movie to come to terms with his mixed heritage, it was a bit underplayed here. Kirk's interactions with the other crew members are also limited, especially with McCoy, whose insight and emotional balance to Spock's cold, logical side was absent here. Since Spock is a little more open with his emotions here, McCoy is pushed to the sidelines. I would have liked to have seen more interaction with Kirk and another character from Wrath of Khan, Carol Marcus. The chemistry is there, and I believe in Chris Pine and Alice Eve as actors. But while there's a bit of tension hinted at between the two, those moments are lost in the film's frenetic pace.

That seems to be Into Darkness' greatest weakness: in the process of making the film more accessible to audiences and increasing the pace, the themes of the film become incompletely explored and character development is lost in the process. The movie just runs with it all and never stops. That unfortunately means a lot of things are going to be left behind. Plot holes abound, just like in the first film, in the name of entertainment. It feels a lot like Star Wars than Star Trek. But to be honest, I really had fun watching the film. And I know that the Star Trek of old is gone for now. I'm happy that I'll always have those ten movies and 700+ episodes to keep me company in the time being.

There's a lot of shoutouts to Trek: mentions of Nurse Chapel, Section 31, Gorn and Andorians; models of previous Enterprises; dialogue lifted straight from Wrath of Khan; Sulu in the captain's chair. It's all awesome if you're a fan of the series. I was not really a fan of the new Klingon designs, and the ships looked junky.

Into Darkness was a great and fun ride, and I'm a bit excited for the next installment, which may or may not feature Klingons. I can't wait for a reboot version of Kang, Koloth, or Kor. Also, the legendary five year mission has only just begun. So... Space Nazis? Space Rabbits? Greek gods from Space? Space Indians?

... a reboot version of this?

I can only hope.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Risks of Excess

The Queen of Versailles is a documentary that does its thing in the way only the best documentaries do: let the footage speak for itself.

The Siegels were once at the top of the social ladder. David Siegel was owner of the largest timeshare companies in the world, and was filthy rich as a result. One of his most prominent projects for his family was the Versailles house, which was to be the most expensive single family house in the United States. Life was good.

Unfortunately, the 2008 economic crisis stopped all that. Siegel was losing money, and eventually it takes its toll on his family.

The film is filled with many interesting characters, but none are as interesting as David's wife, Jackie. At first she seems like your typical trophy wife, but she isn't as scatterbrained as one may think (she graduated in Silicon Valley at a time when women taking up such courses were scarce). We watch her spend money frivolously as her husband struggles to keep his company afloat. I see her as someone who has gotten too used to a lifestyle that emphasizes too much on excess. In contrast, we are treated to the story of the Siegel's Filipino nanny, who is also a mother, and who has not seen her son in years. Her story of living in poverty and being happy to just be under a roof is a counterpoint to the events around her.

Of the members of Siegel's family, it is the children who seem attuned to the situation. They are aware that things may not be going that well, so they do the best they can as kids can.

The movie is a rather dark take on the American Dream, showing that the pursuit of material gain is not everything life has to offer. It's one of the best documentaries of the year, go see it.

A coda to this tale: last year, construction on the Versailles house had continued and is now on the market for 100 million dollars. The house is expected to be completed by 2014.