By Jacob Mertens.
The modern blockbuster has become a strange, new beast before our eyes. In the nascent days of the Star Trek series, the fantasy of galactic travel could only prove as tangible as limited special effects technology allowed. Now, the aesthetics of the science fiction film take on a hyperreality, in which everything appears tangible but also feels too clean and sterile to be part of the living world. However, the viewers’ collective imagination fills in the gaps, much as it did in days of old. And so, after all this time one can say “the more things change, the more they stay the same” and be done with it. Only those words do not quite apply to J.J. Abrams’ new installation of the Star Trek universe, Star Trek Into Darkness. In Abrams’ film, we see the beginnings of a new age of cinema, in which intertextual knowledge of other films significantly alters the way the story is told. Ah, but I get ahead of myself.
Into Darkness begins as if it were the end of another film. The crew of the USS Enterprise struggles to pacify a volcano threatening to destroy a primitive alien civilization, all while hiding their presence, and this climatic action is given little surrounding context. However, the peril to the characters transcends the needs for a developed plot, and the film feels fresh and exciting for its urgent pace. The only meaningful contribution the sequence gives to the story? Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine) breaks federation protocol during the mission and is subsequently demoted to first officer by Starfleet Command.
This demotion marks a problematic opening for Into Darkness. Kirk’s mentor Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) assumes control of the USS Enterprise, and yet the audience must know that a Star Trek film cannot exist without Kirk as captain. Naturally, Pine’s character barely has time to breathe before an attack on Starfleet’s top brass necessitates the return of his former rank. This guerilla attack introduces the villain who will later (and predictably) be known as Kahn (Benedict Cumberbatch). While Kirk desperately chases Kahn down to the hostile Klingon planet Kronos, seeking revenge for this attack, the film finds a great rhythm between action and character development. In fact, the best scene of the entire film takes place before the confrontation on Kronos, as Spock (Zachary Quinto) explains his desperate need to not feel the fear of death, an impulse that follows him witnessing the Vulcan home world’s obliteration in Abrams’ preceding Star Trek (2009).
All this plot summation is more or less given to say that Into Darkness begins on shaky feet but slowly evens out and delivers on the promise of its reboot. In the opening, Abrams unnecessarily emasculates Kirk by stealing his ship away from him, only to tread familiar ground with his character. In other words, James Kirk needs to grow up; he could be a great man but he does not respect the authority of his position (stop me if you have heard this before). Once the film finds its footing with Kahn’s introduction, Into Darkness illustrates the clean precision of its predecessor, and the relationships between its characters mature. And yet, as the film builds to its finale a strange thing happens: the audience never hears a strong explanation of Kahn’s motivations as villain.
If the name Kahn does not ring a bell it really should, because it belongs to the headlining villain of one of the most iconic Star Trek films ever made: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). And for those who watched that film, they go in knowing that the character is a genocidal maniac with a superiority complex. Instead of reinterpreting this characteristic with Cumberbatch’s more subtle approach, Abrams and company work on the assumption that the knowledge is old hat and they can just as soon explain the character’s darkness in a throwaway one-liner. As Cumberbatch gives laconic confirmation to his genocidal nature, one can almost hear the story halt in its tracks to say “One Kahn and the other are more or less the same monster, let us move on.”
Without the existence of The Wrath of Kahn, Abrams’ film could never pull off stunting their villain’s complexity in such a way. And yet, the reference to the older film remains crude but effective in practice and in some ways helps to enrich the viewing experience for the Star Trek faithful. After all, Into Darkness encourages viewers to make a connection between one story and the other, creating a bond between two films that spans decades. On the other hand, the use of intertextual knowledge provides a mercenary function for the filmmakers, who pad their film’s climax with dizzying action, unencumbered by the burden of Kahn explaining himself to the audience.
Notably, Star Trek Into Darkness is not the first film to employ this method. That honor must be given to last year’s The Avengers (2012), which for better or worse changed the paradigm of blockbuster filmmaking. To explain this idea, it must first be acknowledged that in some ways filmmaking is a ‘paint by numbers’ medium. You have a protagonist, he faces obstacles, and he grows or changes as a result: it is the blueprint of any story (barring a gender switch). In The Avengers, writer-director Joss Whedon skipped much of that nonsense outright, a decision necessitated by several protagonists sharing the screen at once. Instead, Whedon wrote his protagonists under the assumption that everyone had already seen the films they hailed from. Interestingly, the only superhero who had a fully developed character arc was The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and again the decision came from necessity. Ruffalo was new to the character, and both previous incarnations of The Hulk (featuring Eric Bana and Edward Norton, respectively) sputtered and died upon theatrical release. Thus, Whedon needed to reinvent the character.
The tactic of using intertextual knowledge as a storytelling device seems to be leading to an industry complex that simplifies a complex story in favor of action. Still, this fledgling trend has not had enough time to develop, and its overall impact remains unclear. It would be amazing if this inclination could lead to a stronger language between films, a staggering leap in the medium’s means of communication not seen since the days of French New Wave. However, until more time has passed, one must simply view it as a curiosity in a film that loses a little air in its sails for the shortcut.
Jacob Mertens is Review Editor of Film International.
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