Thursday, June 06, 2013

Star Trek: Don't Give Away the Goods Too Soon

There's a contrived, gratuitous underwear scene in Star Trek Into Darkness and I didn't notice. I saw the film on a giant screen and in 3D and I am male but I did not register a scene with Alice Eve as Dr Carol Marcus wearing considerably less than a Starfleet-issue uniform. I keep hearing references to it now but it was only when some review included a still from it that I remembered it was there at all.

I obviously saw it, I have zero doubt that I shook my head at the whole thing when it happened. And you can bet that one reason it all left my head instantly was that we see so many women characters wearing so little in so many films. It's just because full costumes are expensive. That's the reason. Austerity.

But the other reason that it left my head a frame later is that Carol Marcus is just not a character. There's nothing there. She ultimately provides a plot point but what's then meant to be deeply emotional is just a bit of a shrug because after most of the film is done, I still have no interest in her. I do remember having that brief kind of half squint, half blink you get when you're trying to work something out: I remember thinking 'why are they doing this?' during her introduction scene. I'll accept anything in a film, anything at all, unless it throws me out of the story and I was a little thrown.

Part of me doesn't want to tell you why because I'm reluctant to spoil a film, but that's silly of me as I'm about to wreck it. And I'm wrecking it because by the end, I wasn't thrown, I was drop-kicked out of the movie. Star Trek Into Darkness has myriad problems and they are all well reported online, but there is one writing issue that I think is a knife and I'm not seeing that mentioned anywhere.

So I'm mentioning it. Alongside mixed metaphors about drop-kicked knives.

Here's an amusing list of the film's head-scratching moments: you'll laugh more if you read it after seeing the movie, but you'll save money if you read it before.

And here's Star Trek writer David Mack exploding about the failed science in the movie. For all that I think science should always be correct in a story, I'm really against the science in this one because it makes so little sense that it damages the tale. You know that Star Trek is all about these spaceships flying around where nobody's yet got to and you know it's all about whether Captain Kirk can save the day against impossible odds and whether he can even live to fight another day though you suspect he just might. By the end of Star Trek Into Darkness, there is no need for any spaceship ever again and nobody can ever die ever again. Ever. And you will swear that the filmmakers didn't notice they'd done that.

I noticed it. I also noticed the time a lot. The 3D process makes films considerably darker and that was a problem because it made checking my watch really difficult.

I didn't initially see this writing issue that now so bothers me but that was because it came at the end. Up until then I was just getting progressively more irritated in general. I really enjoyed 2009's Star Trek and hadn't expected to: it made me a Trek convert and I came to this one very enthusiastically. But there's a bit early on that's a nice little nod to something in the old Star Trek movies and TV shows.

And then there's another nod.

And another.

Then there's a contorted speech that I could hear went down really well with the fans sitting behind me because it referenced a popular episode I do remember seeing some time. Okay.

Only, then there was another.

And if there is one reason that next time I'll wait for the reviews before seeing a Star Trek movie, it's because these references and homages built and built until whole scenes, whole sequences of scenes were remakes of famous moments from old ones. It gets so bad I was thinking "And… cue Spock…" just as he did precisely what you expect him to do. With the very dialogue you expect him to have.

It's a giant emotional scene toward the climax and it is stunningly irritating and empty because all you can think of is that you've seen this before somewhere and it was alright then. The sequence revolves around the death of a major character and death has no impact in Star Trek anyway: I'm sure a real fan could tell me when a character has died and not come back to life next week but I don't know of one. This time it is especially empty because of this pastiche sequence but also because it comes after a risible scene where Kirk abruptly and insanely interrupts an interrogation to ask Dr McCoy "What are you working on that will save my life later?"

He doesn't quite say that but it's only a pixel more subtle. I laughed and the wall of fans behind me growled. I like to think they were growling with me, not at me.

So anyway, we're into the final parts of the film and I am no longer in the story, I am also completely out of Maltesers and having a rotten time, and then they do this. They have a very exciting end sequence and it is completely destroyed because of what happened in the film's very exciting opening sequence.

Follow. When the film begins and we're on some planet or other, the USS Enterprise has been hiding under the ocean. You know in your heart that this doesn't make sense somehow but it's still very exciting as the ship rises up from the sea and flies off across the sky before heading out into space. It's very well done, it looks real, you could clap.

Only, then the end sequence is all about the USS Enterprise starting off in space and, damaged, now falling toward Earth. It's going to hit atmosphere, this spaceship is going to be flying through the sky.

Yes? And? So?

We've seen that, we know the ship can fly really realistically across the sky, it's great. But now we have to buy that this is suddenly a Calamitous Bad Thing when it was Perfectly Fine Before.

Writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman try to turn this into a devastatingly, heart-stoppingly thrilling moment by having some character or other actually say: "This bit's exciting, I know we did this earlier but now it's completely different and we're in such danger, I can't tell you, man, we could even die and everything".

There's a writing maxim that you should show rather than tell and I don't agree 100% – there's a fantastic example in Battlestar Galactica where the telling of a tale is riveting and the later showing of it it is a bit boring – but I think I agree 98%. Star Trek Into Darkness has what should have been and really could have been, actually was, a huge finish with little emotion but buckets of spectacle. Telling us that it's exciting is like trying to put a bandaid on when you really know you should've thrown away that opening sequence.

In television, if the start doesn't grab or seduce you into the story enough, you've changed channels. In films, you're there to the end and it's the end that's in your mind and heart when you leave the cinema. I don't know, maybe I would've walked out of there thinking the film had problems but was exciting. But instead I just walked out of there irritated.

The opening sequence unquestionably cost more millions of dollars than I can imagine, and I can imagine quite a bit, but the film was hurt by it. And if they'd cut it at the script stage, the cost would've been no more than wear and tear on the delete key.

I don't go to films to get writing lessons, I go to be in the story but when you're not, you take what you can. And I've taken away a writing lesson: don't give the goods away too soon.


Daniel Hardy said...

Re: the ending, was fairly certain the reason flying in atmosphere was now an issue was that the engines weren't working and therefore it wasn't a controlled re-entry. Hence rather different circumstances.

Hard to disagree with your other points, though really I didn't care I was so engrossed in it all, even enjoyed all the references.

Ash said...

I was broadly happy with it, but when it comes to Star Trek I'm not completely rational. Carol Marcus had to be there for timeline reasons although they could have made far more of her. Perhaps we'll see her relationship with Kirk explored in the next movie? The science blunders are annoying though. The cold fusion thing was idiotic and unnecessary. I've never understood why they don't hire a scientist to check over the references, it's not like we're expensive, and real science is way more weird and interesting than anything a script writer can imagine.

William Gallagher said...

The TV Star Treks, at least the later ones, did hire scientists on staff and I believed that they listened to them. Doesn't look like it for the film, but I'm with you, I can't understand why.

I was talking with a guy last night who'd read this blog and said that he'd enjoyed the film at least in part because of those remakes of the famous scenes. I think he put up with the science, and he says the same as you about rationality.

Mind you, I so loved Deep Space Nine, I can understand that.