Tag Archives: Star Trek Into Darkness

Countdown to Beyond – Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

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If there is to be an epitaph for the last two decades of filmed entertainment, it will be these two words:  dark and edgy.  I’m not sure you can pinpoint the precise date at which this era began:  perhaps it coincides with the re-emergence of disaster movies in the mid-1990’s, followed by the tremendous downturn in the overall mood of the world since 9/11.  Somewhere in there it became un-hip to look up, and nowadays, you need only tune your receiver to any given TV station to see programs filled with people doing horrible things to other people, whether it be on reality or on scripted television, and receiving accolades for it.  The esteemed professional critics of our time are only too happy to initiate rounds of trained-seal clapping at the most violent and unpleasant pieces of fiction, and to wrench their noses disdainfully skyward at anything that suggests optimism and hope.  I honestly don’t know whether this is our actual culture as a whole being reflected by our entertainment, or merely the small and insular cabal that produces that entertainment inflicting their inner turmoil on the rest of us.  Perhaps it’s a bit of both; how else do you explain Donald Trump?  But sensing the pervasiveness of the “dark and edgy” trend, I did roll my eyes a bit when the title of the twelfth movie in our ongoing series here was announced as Star Trek Into Darkness – a little on the nose, n’est-ce pas?  Besides, Star Trek is supposed to be about looking to the future with anticipation that things are only going to get better.  “Into Darkness” seems like the wrong course to plot.

With a quarter of a billion dollars in Paramount’s bank account as the lights went down on the final screening of Star Trek in 2009, questions about the content of an inevitable sequel to this suddenly-hot-again commodity began to simmer, but, strangely, they were singularly and somewhat simply focused:  “Are you gonna do Khan?  Huh?  Are you gonna do Khan?”  As much as we bemoan Hollywood’s tendency to repeat itself, those outside the bubble seem just as programmed to expect and even desire the recycling of their favorite hits.  The Star Trek universe had been rebooted specifically to open up storytelling possibilities, not to churn out bigger-budgeted rehashes of what had gone before, and yet, here was the public almost daring J.J. Abrams and company to do just that.  Ever the diplomats, and aware that every syllable of their responses would be parsed by fans eager to glean whatever hints they could, writers Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Damon Lindelof would make coy comments musing about how in this new continuity, Khan was out there in space in his sleeper ship, and it would be foolish to “not consider” using him.  Privately, the writing team debated for over a year whether or not they wanted to shoehorn Khan into the screenplay they were crafting that was designed to confront Kirk and his crew with a threat to the fabric of Starfleet and the Federation itself.  Responding somewhat to criticism that Kirk had been advanced too quickly to his captaincy in the previous movie, this story would see Kirk’s inexperience and impetuousness coming back to bite him.

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But to Khan or not to Khan?  The former would immediately invite comparisons to the gold standard of Star Trek films; the latter, observed Lindelof, would be like Batman not using the Joker.  So Khan it would be, but Abrams invoked his “mystery box” policy and clamped down on any mentions of the Enterprise crew’s most notorious foe, leading to what would turn out to be one of the most ineffective disinformation campaigns in the history of motion picture marketing.  When Benicio del Toro was said to be in talks with the studio, only the least astute failed to note the similarity to Ricardo Montalban; when del Toro bowed out, additional Latino actors were considered, and everyone asked, “is it Khan?”   Finally the very much not-a-Latino, but very much in vogue Benedict Cumberbatch was cast as this enigmatic bad guy, which allowed the Bad Robot team at least a modicum of deniability.  The other actors weighed in on the is-he-or-isn’t-he debate as filming got underway:  Simon Pegg called the rumored presence of Khan ridiculous, and Karl Urban blurted in an interview that Cumberbatch would be playing Gary Mitchell (Kirk’s best friend-turned-remorseless-godlet in Star Trek‘s 1966 pilot episode, “Where No Man Has Gone Before.”)  A movie magazine ran a still from production in which Cumberbatch’s character was labeled as “John Harrison” – a bland, meaningless name intended to quiet rumors and creating quite the opposite effect.  When Alice Eve was cast as “Carol Wallace” and Peter Weller as “Alexander Marcus,” it became fairly clear to all that some manner of retelling of The Wrath of Khan was afoot – even if the production crew remained adamant that Harrison was his own, unique man.  They would stick to this attempted subterfuge until the middle of the movie’s second act…

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On the primitive planet Nibiru, Kirk and McCoy are running from some angry aliens while Spock is lowered from a shuttle into a massive supervolcano on the verge of tearing the planet in half, and the Enterprise hides on the bottom of the nearby ocean.  When Spock’s tether breaks and the shuttle can’t retrieve him, Kirk exposes the ship to the natives in order to beam Spock safely back, just before a “cold fusion” device detonates and renders the volcano forever inert.  Nibiru is saved, but the natives begin worshipping the image of the Enterprise.  Spock files a report criticizing Kirk’s decision – even if it was to save his life – and Starfleet strips Kirk of his command and reassigns him to the Academy.  Admiral Pike tells Kirk that he does not “respect the chair,” and that such reckless behavior might one day lead to his entire crew being killed.  Meanwhile, in London, a Starfleet officer with a dying daughter is approached by a deep-voiced stranger who promises a cure, which he supplies by way of a sample of his blood.  The price is agreeing to carry out a suicidal terrorist attack – the bombing of London’s Kelvin Memorial Archive.  A dejected Kirk is approached by Pike, who has spoken in his defense and gotten him reassigned to the Enterprise as first officer, under Pike himself.  But the bombing in London necessitates an emergency meeting at Starfleet Headquarters in San Francisco, led by Admiral Alexander Marcus (Weller).  Spock is also present, reassigned to the U.S.S. Bradbury under Captain Abbott.  Marcus advises that the attack was carried out by one of their own:  special agent John Harrison (Cumberbatch).  He orders a massive manhunt, just as Kirk notices that Harrison is carrying something in the security footage of the bombing.  Kirk recognizes that Harrison must have known that such an attack would precipitate a meeting like the one they are having now.  Abruptly a Starfleet jumpship piloted by Harrison rises outside the window and strafes the meeting room with phaser fire, killing most of the senior personnel including Abbott and Pike.  Kirk is able to disable the jumpship, but Harrison disappears in a transporter beam and materializes on a distant planet.

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In the wreck of the jumpship, a portable transwarp beaming device is found, which Harrison used to escape to Kronos, the homeworld of the Klingon Empire – where Starfleet cannot follow.  Admiral Marcus admits that the Kelvin Archive was cover for Starfleet’s intelligence unit, Section 31, which was researching advanced weaponry and tactics for an anticipated war with the Klingons.  He gives Kirk the Enterprise, with Spock as his first officer, and orders him to hunt down and eliminate Harrison.  He also equips the Enterprise with 72 special long-range torpedoes and assigns science officer Carol Wallace (Eve) to the crew.  It’s an uneasy mission:  Spock is uncomfortable with the idea of executing Harrison without a trial, while Scotty, who is unable to determine the armaments of the long-range torpedoes, resigns his post rather than sign off on permitting them aboard the ship, and cautions Kirk against ever using them.  Kirk makes Chekov acting chief engineer and orders a course set for Kronos.  Swayed by the arguments of his friends however, he advises the entire crew that their primary mission will be to capture Harrison, not kill him.  Spock confronts Carol, telling her that he knows her real name is Carol Marcus, daughter of the Admiral, and questioning the purpose of her presence on the ship.  Suddenly the Enterprise drops sharply out of warp; there is an unexplained coolant leak in the engine.  Chekov gets to work on fixing it while Kirk, Spock, Uhura and a few security guys change into civvies and use a confiscated, non-Starfleet ship to finish the trip to Kronos, to ensure that the Federation cannot be held responsible for whatever happens next.  Sulu, meanwhile, issues a message to Harrison, ordering him to surrender or be eliminated by the advanced torpedoes.  Approaching Kronos, Kirk’s ship is ambushed by several Klingon vessels, and on the surface, Uhura, who speaks Klingon, tries to negotiate with their leader, who is uninterested in the internal disputes of humans and threatens to kill them.  They are rescued by an unlikely savior – Harrison, who takes down most of the Klingon patrol with superior strength and fighting skills, before demanding to know just how many advanced torpedoes Kirk has.  When he is told the number, he surrenders and is confined in the Enterprise‘s brig.

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McCoy takes a blood sample from Harrison, who demands to speak with Kirk alone.  He is aware of the Enterprise‘s engine trouble and gives Kirk a set of coordinates not far from Earth to investigate.  He also suggests that Kirk open one of the torpedoes.  Kirk contacts Scotty, who is sulking in a San Francisco bar, apologizes to him about the torpedoes and asks him to check out the coordinates.  Scotty discovers a secret shipyard near Jupiter, and reacts with shock to what he sees.  Since their message to Admiral Marcus indicating that Harrison has been captured has received no reply and the warp engines are still down, the Enterprise limps to a nearby planetoid where a torpedo can be opened safely without endangering the ship; Carol, whose true identity has now been revealed to everyone, volunteers to try with McCoy’s help.  Inside the torpedo is a cryo-tube with a person frozen in it.  Further examination reveals that the individual is 300 years old.  Kirk demands answers, and Harrison is forthcoming:  he is a genetically engineered human being from late 20th Century Earth, exiled with 72 of his crew into space aboard a sleeper ship that was found by Admiral Marcus after Vulcan’s destruction in the previous movie.  Marcus woke him up to exploit his intellect and savagery in the design of weapons and ships to prepare for a war with the Klingons.  Marcus also arranged for the sabotage of the Enterprise‘s warp drive, figuring that if a Federation starship fired torpedoes against the Klingon homeworld and was then found lurking in Klingon space, it would ignite the war he wanted.  Harrison had hidden his crew in the torpedoes for their protection but thought they had all been killed, prompting his acts of terrorism.  He adds that his real name is Khan.

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Kirk has Khan moved to sickbay under guard, and the Enterprise is approached by a massive, sinister-looking starship:  the Khan-designed, Dreadnought-class U.S.S. Vengeance, double the size and speed and weaponry of any other Starfleet vessel, and commanded by Admiral Marcus.  When confronted with what Kirk knows, Marcus accuses Kirk of being influenced by Khan and orders that the renegade be executed.  The Enterprise tries to escape at warp speed, but the Vengeance easily catches up with them and cripples the ship between Earth and its moon.  Carol pleads with her father to spare the Enterprise, but he simply beams her aboard his ship and prepares to resume his attack, judging Kirk and crew in league with a terrorist and admitting he had always intended to destroy them.  As Kirk looks despairingly at the faces of the crew he has seemingly led to their deaths – just as Pike predicted he someday would –  the Vengeance‘s systems suddenly go offline.  It’s Scotty, who managed to sneak aboard at the Jupiter shipyard and has now sabotaged the warship.  They have a few minutes while the Vengeance reboots.  Kirk asks for Khan’s help, claiming it’s the only chance he’ll have to save his own crew.  McCoy, meanwhile, is further experimenting with Khan’s blood and injects it into a dead tribble to see what effects it might have.  The Enterprise aligns its waste port with the Vengeance‘s airlocks, and Kirk and Khan leap across debris-filled space in thruster suits to reach the warship, reuniting with Scotty and proceeding to confront Admiral Marcus on the bridge.  In the meantime, Spock, left in command of the Enterprise, makes a call to his older self (Leonard Nimoy in his last acting role before his death in 2015) to ask about Khan; Spock Prime reveals that Khan is the deadliest adversary that the Enterprise ever faced and that he was only defeated at great cost.

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Spock orders McCoy to begin work on arming the torpedoes, and the Vengeance‘s systems come back online just as Kirk, Scotty and Khan reach its bridge, stunning everyone except the Admiral and his daughter.  Scotty also stuns Khan.  Kirk arrests Admiral Marcus, but Khan recovers from the stun and attacks them all, crushing the Admiral’s skull as Carol screams in horror.  Khan takes command of the Vengeance and orders Spock to surrender the torpedoes containing his crew.  Spock complies, beaming Kirk, Scotty and Carol back as the torpedoes are transferred to the Vengeance.  But they unexpectedly detonate once they are onboard, damaging the Vengeance beyond repair and driving Khan into a blind rage.  It turns out that Spock had all the cryo-tubes removed before beaming them over, and Khan’s crew is stored safely in sickbay.  But the crisis is not over; the Enterprise‘s engines fail, and the ship is caught in Earth’s gravity and begins plummeting toward the planet.  The warp core injectors are misaligned, and extreme radiation is saturating the chamber where they are located.  Kirk knocks Scotty out, enters the chamber and kicks the injectors back into place, restoring ship’s power and pulling it out of its dive.  Scotty calls the bridge and tells Spock to get down here, that he’d better hurry.  Beyond the glass wall of the reactor chamber, Kirk is dying.  He says he is scared, and asks Spock if he knows why he saved his life back on Nibiru.  Spock says it is because they are friends.  They press their hands against their respective sides of the glass, and Kirk slips away.  Spock’s emotions overwhelm him and he screams Khan’s name.

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Khan sets the crumbling Vengeance on a suicide run into Starfleet Headquarters in San Francisco, and the massive ship plows into the city, taking out several buildings (including Alcatraz Island) and probably killing thousands, though we never see that.  Spock beams down to chase the genetic superman through the streets, and the two battle hand-to-hand on top of a flying garbage barge.  Back on the Enterprise, the dead tribble McCoy had injected with Khan’s blood chirps to life, and they realize there is still a chance to save Kirk.  As Spock and Khan fight, Uhura beams to the barge and stuns Khan, knocking him off balance and enabling Spock to get the upper hand.  Spock begins pummeling Khan remorselessly until Uhura screams at him to stop, that Khan is their only chance to bring Kirk back.  The Vulcan finally K.O.’s his opponent with one last belt to the face.  Some time later, Kirk awakens in a hospital room, having been restored by an injection of Khan’s blood.  Kirk thanks Spock for saving his life, and Spock reciprocates the sentiment.  Khan is returned to cold storage along with his crew, and Kirk presides over the dedication of the rebuilt Enterprise, observing that Starfleet’s true mission has always been one of exploration and that they cannot be lured from that path by those who would seek to do them harm.  Back on the bridge, Kirk orders the Enterprise to commence its five-year mission, with Carol Marcus as a member of the crew, and Spock finally expressing his trust in Kirk’s good judgment.  Warp speed to credits.

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Star Trek Into Darkness is perhaps the most overtly political Star Trek movie, simmering with hard questions about the role of principles, ethics and due process in an era of war against enemies that can rarely be seen or predicted.  It asks whether we can remain true to who we are and the values we cherish, or if victory requires that we become what we despise.  Unfortunately it buries these fascinating discussion points beneath a poorly constructed and far less effective karaoke version of The Wrath of Khan, with a climactic sacrifice undone before the end credits by means of magic blood.  At every turn, punches are pulled; for a movie whose title boasts of a journey into darkness, the story really never has the guts to venture that far down the path.  Who, in fact, is trekking into darkness?  It’s not our guys, who largely resolve their ethical qualms in the first act.  It’s more the Dick Cheney-esque Alexander Marcus, who sets the convoluted plot in motion for our heroes to untangle (and for Cumberbatch to explain mid-movie in an overly long expositional monologue), and who is merely the latest in a long line of Starfleet admirals who are corrupt/misguided/evil (curious in Roddenberry’s supposedly perfect future how the guys at the very top remain morons).  Perhaps the only main character who dares explore his dark side is Spock, in what to me represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the character.  This is two movies in a row now we’ve watched him lose his temper, but what made Spock special in the first place was his ability to make emotional and human choices from an unemotional, flawlessly logical perspective – not waiting to see what will make him fly off the handle and start throwing punches.  When he gave of himself in The Wrath of Khan, he kept his emotions contained to the very end, suggesting that grief was unnecessary because his act was logical – the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.  By contrast, Zachary Quinto’s Spock is always being driven almost exclusively by his emotions, and it betrays the mentality of the writers penning his lines, guys who are accustomed to painting in broad, easily understood by mass audience strokes rather than the more interesting nuances and subtleties that made up the Nimoy version of Spock.

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Be that as it may, the main problem with Star Trek Into Darkness is that only half of it is a good movie.  Its first hour is compelling as we are welcomed back to Abrams’ immersive, budget-busting worldbuilding and genuinely intrigued by the mystery of who this sepulchral-voiced stranger might be… and it finally goes off the rails when the camera tightens in on Cumberbatch as he hisses “my name… is… KHAN!”  From there we can’t help but do exactly what the writers feared we would:  compare to Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek II.  The writers do not help themselves in this regard either, by bringing in Nimoy’s third act cameo to evoke memories of that other movie just as we should be neck deep in this one.  And then, restaging the entire climax of The Wrath of Khan beat for beat, with the roles of Spock and Kirk reversed and the dialogue echoing lines we’ve heard recited a thousand times before.  If we’re going to be asked to take this as the movie’s most dramatic, emotionally impactful moment, we shouldn’t also be invited to wink and smile at the familiar at the same time.  This is blowing the landing, big-time.  When The Wrath of Khan came out, nobody knew whether Spock would come back; here, we know Kirk will make it because this series just started and Chris Pine has a three-film deal.  It’s dancing on the border of “dark and edgy” but skipping hurriedly back because we don’t want to possibly leave a sour taste in anyone’s mouths.  It also sets a dangerous precedent for future films, in that there is now a story mechanism available in this universe for resurrecting any character who happens to kick off during the adventure – just go dig up Khan again and help yourself to a pint of his O-neg.

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There are a few dumb moments that don’t help matters either:  the Enterprise rising out of the ocean, Kirk in bed with two cat-tailed alien girls, the Beastie Boys again, and the much-maligned unnecessary shot of the lovely Alice Eve in her skivvies are products not of good storytelling instincts but of Red Bull infusions for bored writers thinking certain ideas would be “cool.”  Some of the early plot twists don’t make any sense – I’m still not sure why, if Khan hates Marcus so much, he would retreat to Kronos of all possible forbidden locations throughout the galaxy (remember, space is really, really, really big) and give Marcus the perfect excuse to start his desired war with the Klingons.  In fact, everything he does for the first hour seems to be helpfully furthering Marcus’ agenda, rather than trying to stop it.  I can’t quite figure out the order of events following Khan’s waking either.  He says Marcus held his crew hostage, but then Khan hid them in torpedoes, but only managed to get himself away, then thought Marcus had killed them all, then went rogue but was still able to meander about on Earth?  Maybe there’s a piece I’m missing, but I shouldn’t have to think this hard to have things make logical – sorry – sense.  As to the question of the caliber of the guy with the task of succeeding Ricardo Montalban as Khan, Cumberbatch is fine in this thankless assignment, and one supposes that it is a testament to his raw skill that he is able to speak a completely bewildering mid-movie monologue and still arrest your attention.  He’s much less interesting when he’s required to growl and wince while he swings at Quinto – but then, action blockbusters have oft made fools of dignified Shakespeare-trained thesps, and Benedict Cumberbatch is not the first to succumb.

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Sequels, especially first sequels in a franchise, are tricky work in that you have to do the same thing, but different and better.  So much of the tank was obviously emptied for 2009’s Star Trek, because it was their one chance to do this universe over and set it up for a brand new generation of audiences.  They had to leave it all out on the field.  As a result, there did not seem to be much inspiration left for the second entry, necessitating the trip back to an old, much too familiar well.  It would be one thing if The Wrath of Khan hadn’t been seen much since its initial release, but this is a modern sci-fi classic that is screened frequently every year, both in Trekkies’ home video collections and in revival houses across North America, its tropes seared into our pop culture collective consciousness.  You don’t dare tamper with that unless you know you can knock it out of the park – and the best Star Trek Into Darkness can manage is a ground-rule double.  It fails to get any further because it promises far more than it delivers, competently meeting expectations rather than thwarting them or surprising us.  J.J. Abrams has said in hindsight that it was perhaps a mistake to hold back Khan’s identity in the marketing, given that the big reveal was ultimately a source of audience annoyance.  But it never needed to have been Khan at all – the movie would have worked much better if Cumberbatch had played a completely original character in keeping with the freshness of this new direction.  Recycling Khan, even if he is considered the Joker to Kirk’s Batman, brings nothing to the table.  When he announces that his name… is… Khan, that’s for the benefit of us watching it, not for Kirk & company, who in this universe have never met him before and so the revelation within the story is meaningless.  (I was watching the movie hoping that he wouldn’t say it, and when he did, my enthusiasm for the remainder of the movie ebbed like air silently escaping from a balloon.)  And Spock yelling out his name in agony is not an earned, honest character moment, but a laughable callback to one of the most comic examples of William Shatner’s famed overacting.  Montalban’s Khan had a history with Kirk, but this version of Khan is a forgettable villain-of-the-week, provided with just about as much depth and having as little lasting impact.  Though the end sees him stored away for possible future revivals, I very much doubt we’ll be seeing him again.

The challenge for Star Trek Beyond will be to look forward and up once more, to put the lie to the notion that everything has to be dark and edgy to be accepted in this day and age.  The trailers seem to foretell the opposite: a wrecked Enterprise, a lost crew, and a sneering bad guy promising death and destruction (and more Beastie Boys… sigh).  But that doesn’t mean that the movie itself won’t contain what we need it to:  hope, rising from the ashes of ruined starships.

I’ll check it out at the theater and let you know.

In summary:  The non-Wrath of Khan parts are good.  The Wrath of Khan parts are bad.  Magic blood should never be spoken of again.

Final (Arbitrary, Meaningless) Rating:  2 out of 4 stars.

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Star Wars VII and cultural karaoke

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For someone prone to dropping Star Wars references in almost everything he writes, I haven’t had much to say since the official announcement, just a few cycles prior to Star Wars Day, of the cast of J.J. Abrams’ continuation of George Lucas’ fabled saga, in which months of speculation and rumor about who said what and who else was photographed coming out of where were put to rest snugly inside the belly of a Tauntaun.  The lead three from the first beloved trilogy are back:  Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and perennial “Han Solo bores me” grump Harrison Ford (undoubtedly for a handsome chunk of change), along with the unseen but ever-present Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca, Kenny Baker as R2-D2 and Anthony Daniels as C-3PO.  They are joined by a mix of screen veterans like Andy Serkis, Oscar Isaac and the legendary Max von Sydow, and relative unknowns like John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Domnhall Gleeson and Adam Driver.

Nothing was forthcoming, however, about what contributions to the saga the new players are making.  In the leadup, Driver was said to be the preferred candidate for the “Darth Vader-like villain,” whatever you take that to mean.  As an aside, granted I don’t know what goes into the science of casting, but having endured a few minutes of one episode of Girls I can’t imagine looking at him and having my first thought be, “ruthless galactic bad guy!”  I stand by my opinion that young actors make lousy villains – they often come off as spoiled brats having hissy fits because Mommy confiscated the XBox – but yeah, yeah, lesson of Heath Ledger and all that, we’ll wait for the movie.  And although J.J. Abrams says he regrets being coy about who Benedict Cumberbatch was going to play in Star Trek Into Darkness, suggesting that it hurt the movie in the long run, he seems to be sticking with his policy of keeping everything locked in the mystery box for now.  The only other tantalizing tidbit we’ve heard is that Han Solo is supposed to play a major role in the story while Luke and Leia will be relegated to supporting parts.  (I don’t think this works – the character of Han was never meant to be a lead, only a strong foil, but again, we’ll wait for the movie.)

The best decision Abrams made in taking on this daunting yet coveted assignment was to hire Lawrence Kasdan to help him shape the screenplay to his satisfaction.  Kasdan’s work on The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi was invaluable, particularly his gift with sharp, concise dialogue, and his pen was sorely missed in the prequels.  I recall reading somewhere that Lucas did ask him to help with Episodes I-III and Kasdan declined, suggesting that Lucas needed to write his own story this time.  Shame – we might have been spared I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere. Not like here.  Here everything is soft and smooth.  Kasdan comes from the antecedent generation of screenwriters, prior to the reigning group that grew up watching movies in video stores, and as such he’s less likely to fall into the Admiral Ackbar-forewarned trap of making this new movie nothing but a callback to the highlights of the first three – if he can keep Abrams, the leading member of the aforementioned reigning group, and the man with the last word on this movie’s story, in line.

Star Wars Episode VII has a Sisyphean task ahead.  It has to measure up to the standard of the first three movies, expunge the bad taste left in many mouths by the soulless, over-digitized prequels, and convey the feel of the Star Wars universe without simply repeating what is not only familiar, but entrenched in the souls of an entire generation.  Even the original trilogy couldn’t manage to do this; that’s why we had two Death Stars to blow up.  But it’s the challenge awaiting anyone who tackles a sequel, no matter what the series.  People always want more of the same thing.  James Bond has to order the same drink, wear the same tux, introduce himself the same way and end up with a girl in the end.  When he doesn’t, fans (and critics) pout.  Formula is a straitjacket:  stray too far and you lose your target market, nestle too comfortably inside it and you’re lost in the cesspool of endless fan service.

When Super 8 came out, critics were quick to dub it the second coming of Steven Spielberg, at least his late 70’s/early 80’s aesthetic, missing the point that when Spielberg was making Close Encounters and E.T. he wasn’t trying to pay homage to anything, he was just telling stories of the time.  With Super 8, however, J.J. Abrams seemed to be trying so hard just to recreate the look and feel of that era of moviemaking that he forgot to tell a story that had any heart, or was even remotely interesting.  My concern for Episode VII is that Abrams will focus on all the wrong elements again, packing a most visually impressive movie with winky-noddy retreads of beats and lines of dialogue from IV-VI that are so familiar they have lost their original meaning and have become geek and nerd shibboleths instead.  Abrams blew the landing of Star Trek Into Darkness by turning the last twenty minutes into a variation on the finale of The Wrath of Khan, yanking us out of the story with “oh yeah, that’s a reference to X, that’s a reference to Y” right when we needed to be locked deep inside it.  I don’t particularly want to be sitting in the audience at Episode VII and eyeing my watch to pinpoint the inevitable moment someone announces “I have a bad feeling about this.”  We’ve been sated with franchise movies constructed from checklists instead of scripts that have emotional resonance.  That way lies the banality of the Friedberg/Seltzer “oeuvre” (i.e. Epic Movie, Disaster Movie, Meet the Spartans and any one of a dozen comedies built on evoking Pavlovian audience reactions to limp parodies of stale pop culture.)

Note that in the coverage of the cast announcement the new actors are getting much less attention than old.  The new guys (and one girl so far) in Episode VII will be blown off the screen if they are merely retreads on the naive farm boy, the steadfast princess, the wisecracking cynical smuggler, the former hero fallen to the dark side.  They will be dismissed as pale revisions of a superior first draft.  They need to have their own wants and goals and quirks in order to etch themselves into our hearts the way the originals did and to become new shibboleths that we can exchange and quote for another forty years.  They won’t be able to do that if they are plugged into a paint-by-numbers Star Wars plot designed primarily to bring back a sense of 1977.  And if at some point in the movie Daisy Ridley breathes “I love you” to John Boyega and he replies “I know,” we’re just going to roll our eyes.

It’s perhaps ironic to criticize Star Wars for relying too much on repetition of the familiar when it is in itself a pastiche of hero tropes that have existed since cave wall storytelling.  Those tropes are not the problem; the problem is choosing to use them as targets rather than starting points.  That I think is the major issue I have with the kind of storytelling espoused by J.J. Abrams and his contemporaries.  They’re not trying to do anything terribly new, they just want to do their own version of the stuff they liked when they were young, focusing not on creation but on re-creation with a modern spin.  It’s cultural karaoke on a billion-dollar scale, and if we’re going to invest that amount of money, talent, effort and time, it would be nice to walk out of the theater having experienced something worthwhile.  Having been taken somewhere we’ve never been before.  George Lucas himself proved the disconnect that occurs when you construct a story predicated on hitting specific beats (a systematic problem with pretty much every prequel ever made) rather than growing organically from rich characterizations.  We know where you’re going with this, you’ve practically handed us the coordinates and programmed the navicomputer.  And we stop caring.  Just like we stop listening to the guy at the karaoke bar doing “American Pie” for the fifteenth time, no matter how good a voice he actually has.

In any event, the gauntlet has been thrown down, Messrs. Abrams, Kasdan et al, to step away from what’s expected and venture instead into galaxies unknown – dare you pick it up or recoil lest your arm be severed by a lightsaber?

Star Trek, Superman, “coolness,” and truth

Cool.
Cool.

My friend George sent me a link to a really long (but interesting nonetheless) rant about Star Trek Into Darkness the other day.  The author of said rant was not in any way a fan of Damon Lindelof, the Hollywood screenwriter who co-created Lost and contributed to the scripts of both Ridley Scott’s misfired Alien prequel Prometheus and the most recent reimagining of Gene Roddenberry’s vision.  To paraphrase, it’s perhaps enough to say that the author’s main gripe with Lindelof is that his writing forgoes logic, rules and consistent characterization in favor of “gee whiz,” “cool” and giggling at boobies instead.  Even as someone who enjoyed Star Trek Into Darkness for what it was, I found it hard to dispute this point.  One of the biggest of my own gripes about it was the ending, cribbed almost note for note from the superior Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, to the point where it came off as something like a cinematic exercise in karaoke.  Movies in this genre nowadays rarely, if ever, make you feel anything.  And the reason, plainly, is that they are being made by a generation of filmmakers who have not felt, but rather have experienced life only by watching other movies.

I don’t know Damon Lindelof and I can’t pretend to know what he’s gone through in his life.  Certainly his drive and his skill at achieving the career he has is to be admired and envied.  But he seems to be one of a breed of young writers and directors from the mold of Quentin Tarantino, who spent their formative years working in video stores, absorbing thousands upon thousands of famous and obscure movies into malleable brains, uploading raw data Matrix-style to that place where the memories of life would normally be stored.  The work they produce now as the chief drivers of the Hollywood machine is endless pastiche; pieces of other works recombined and reimagined for modern consumption.  I had a discussion with my uncle recently about the decline in quality of movie scripts and I told him it’s because foreign markets make up the majority of a movie’s profit potential, and vehicles driven by visual effects and explosions and “cool!” will do better overseas than more literate works filled with idioms and ideas and cultural mores that don’t translate into Mandarin or Hindi.  Studio executives hire filmmakers who can deliver dollars, not philosophy.  (If they can do both at the same time, fine, that usually means Oscars, but the former is always preferable).  This is where folks like Damon Lindelof find their wheelhouse.  (In fairness to him, Star Trek Into Darkness was co-written by Alex Kurtzman and Bob Orci, and certainly director J.J. Abrams had major story input as well).  They can deliver the popcorn with consistency and efficiency.  But that’s all.

There is a semi-famous story (to Trekkers, anyhow) around the writing of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  When Nicholas Meyer was hired as its director, he was told there were at least five different scripts for it floating around, none of which were suitable to shoot.  Meyer suggested a meeting whereby the creative team made a note of everything they liked from any of the drafts – a character, a scene, even something as minor as a line of dialogue.  Meyer took these notes away and wrote a draft of what would become the movie we saw in only twelve days, forsaking a writing credit simply to get the movie in shape to shoot.  In any other hands such a cut-and-paste job might have resulted in a hackneyed, disjointed mess, but Meyer’s literary background enabled him to infuse a theatrical quality into what was otherwise a straightforward story of revenge and sacrifice.  What was most remarkable about the screenplay was that it dared to present its hero as old, tired and washed-up – traits actors loathe playing because they think the audience will project them onto their real-life selves.  Meyer was young when he wrote the screenplay, but as a struggling artist he could empathize with those things.  Hotshot screenwriters who’ve bounced effortlessly from pre-sold blockbuster to pre-sold blockbuster as the new Star Trek team have done are incapable of this.  They don’t know what it’s like to fail, to come up against your own limitations and find yourself wanting.  They simply can’t dramatize what they have never felt.  And so they reach toward the only place they’ve ever found traces of those feelings – other, better movies.

When I picture Nicholas Meyer writing Star Trek II, I see an angsty face hunched over a typewriter, sucking down his twentieth cigarette, plumbing the depths of his soul as he agonizes over le mot juste, fighting to find the emotional truth of the story.  When I picture the story break sessions for Star Trek Into Darkness, I see a room full of young guys in baseball caps scarfing down pizza and Red Bull and trying to one-up each other with statements like “You know what would be totally awesome?  A shot of the Enterprise rising out of the ocean.”  “How about they come across this ship which is twice their size and totally painted black?”  “COOL!”  “Hey, guys, check this out.  What if the bad guy… is Khan?  And the end is exactly like Wrath of Khan only we switch Kirk and Spock’s places?”  “Yeah!  I love it!”  “It’s pretty good, but we need some hot alien chicks with tails.  And more Beastie Boys songs, that went over so well last time.”

I had the same problem with Superman Returns, which I watched again recently, and I chalk it up once more to a screenplay written by capable but very young scribes Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris (they have cameos in the movie as high school students) who were great at dreaming up “Cool!” trailer-worthy moments like a bullet bouncing off Superman’s eye but not so skilled at crafting emotions or believable characters.  Superman is a difficult character to write even if you’re a seasoned pro, but the main reason that movie didn’t connect with audiences was because Superman really has no story in it.  He’s just… there, as lifeless as the dated-looking CGI used to render him in some of the flying scenes.  He talks about having been gone for a while but doesn’t seem to have been changed by his experience, or have any compelling reason to have come back (apart from using his powers to stalk Lois Lane in several unnerving sequences).  The movie is more interested in the “whiz-bang” spectacle of Lex Luthor’s overly complicated plot to create a new continent in the Atlantic Ocean using stolen Kryptonian crystals and kryptonite, which in the end Superman just ignores as he lifts the entire landmass into outer space (a point not lost on my young son who remarked “isn’t kryptonite supposed to make him weak?”)  And for a movie that directly raises the question of whether or not the world needs Superman, it never gets around to debating this point in a satisfactory way.  Compare the wafer-thin Superman Returns to the profundity in the Richard Donner original that it is paying homage to, and it comes up extremely short – because the young writers of the former simply don’t have the chops of the great veteran Tom Mankiewicz (whom they crib lines from in the movie’s only memorable scenes, just as Lindelof, Orci and Kurtzman quoted Meyer’s famous dialogue verbatim in Star Trek Into Darkness).  Instead, we get dumb gags about dogs eating each other.

Someone once decimated Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace by pointing out that the plot was a series of scenes of characters going from meeting to meeting to meeting, a reflection of the life of George Lucas at the time.  I’m all for encouraging young screenwriters to get their shot at the big time, but as a lover of stories that matter I prefer the visceral resonance you’ll see in works by writers who’ve lived long enough to have had their asses kicked around the block a few times.  If you’ve never been the underdog, you can’t know what it’s like to be looking up at the mountain and be paralyzed with the fear of taking the first step.  In the absence of those memories you reach for what others have done in older, better movies, and cough up pale copies that rely on flash and swagger to cover the absence of substance.  “Yeah, it doesn’t matter that none of these characters say or do anything memorable or touching, ’cause… cool badass aliens with frickin’ laser beams!  Like in that other movie that people enjoyed!”  The abiding irony in all of this is that as it concerns Star Trek, some of the most memorable dialogue in The Wrath of Khan was itself lifted from other sources, namely Moby Dick et al.  But in that movie, it didn’t feel so obviously recycled, because Meyer’s informed writing and directing (and terrific performances, by the by) sold the emotional truth of each word.

I’m not saying there should be some rule that you can’t write a movie unless you’re at least 40, have been divorced once and be suffering a deep psychological resentment of your parents for taking your favorite blankie away when you were four.  I’m saying that some of these young guys pulling in six and seven figures for rewrite jobs should perhaps look away from a screen once in a while, get out and live a bit of their lives.  Read some classic literature.  Rediscover what it means to feel something that isn’t necessarily just the high of sleeping with models after a gala premiere.  Worry less about what’s cool and more about what connects.  Recognize that what touches us about movies and stays with us long after we’ve left the theater isn’t the awesome shot of the ship tumbling end over end into the atmosphere, it’s the quiet dignity of man in his darkest hour and the deep bonds we forge to fight against our intrinsic loneliness.  It’s the humanity.  And if you can’t feel that in your own life, you’ll never successfully translate it to the page, let alone to the screen.

What’s the story, Graham?

Who is that guy?
And while we’re at it, who is that guy?

I’ve never been good at self-promotion.  Perhaps you can chalk it up to formative years surrounded by people telling me keep quiet, don’t boast and give someone else a turn.  Like most people, I enjoy attention, but excessive notice tends to turn my stomach inside out.  It’s why I had to stop reading the comments on the stuff I submit to Huffington (that and the occasional threat from a pissed off Tea Partier).  The problem is that these aren’t qualities that serve one well if one is attempting to establish a writing career.  Publishing firms are tightening their belts and seem to expect their authors to do most of the legwork in marketing themselves.  You see the results often on Twitter – writers following other writers in hopes of a follow-back, and relentlessly pushing their tomes through tweet after tweet.  Seems to work for some; I follow a few who haven’t published a thing yet have managed to build up their own expectant and admiring fanbases.  My attitude has always been that quality will find its own audience, but, after blogging for almost two years to a relatively stable but small (yet tremendously awesome) group of supportive readers, it’s clear that my modest approach isn’t working.  I need to give you more.

If you’ve been reading my stuff for a while you’ll know I’ve made some periodic and cryptic references to a finished novel that has been sitting on my hard drive for far too long.  A few years back I sent out some queries for it, received polite rejections all around, and then set it aside for a while.  (I had a nice one from a literary agent who represents a very famous series of books, who said that her decision to pass was not a statement on the quality of the writing, which, though it may have been a form letter, was still encouraging to a fragile ego.)  About two years ago I went back and rewrote large portions of it while painfully hacking out almost 60,000 words to get it to a publishable length.  Perhaps a dozen family & friends have read it from cover to cover; dozens more have seen excerpts and offered suggestions, some of which have been incorporated, while others have been welcomed but disregarded (you have to use your judgement after all).  Long and the short of it is that at this point it’s in the best shape I can possibly get it into, at least from my perspective.  And I have started sending queries out again.  So why have I not shared more about it here?

Well, in a strange way, I have.  There is a lot here about the book.  And no, you haven’t missed it.  Let me explain a little.

We live in a spoiler-addicted culture.  Everybody wants their appetite sated immediately; we all want to flip to the last page to see who did it.  I went through that phase myself – because I am fascinated by the process of film production (an interest that probably stems from wishing in idle moments that it’s what I did for a living) I devour news about scriptwriting, casting, principal photography, and yes, spoilers.  I had to give myself an intervention of sorts this past summer when I ruined The Dark Knight Rises for myself by reading the Wikipedia plot summary before seeing the movie.  I realized I’d become what I despised – I’d often railed about being able to figure out the ending of rom-coms simply by looking at the two stars featured on the poster.  For Skyfall, I purposely kept myself spoiler-free, and as a result I enjoyed that movie a lot more than I would have had I known how it was going to end.  Trekkers have been driven up the wall over the last several by J.J. Abrams’ refusal to offer specifics on the identity of the villain “John Harrison” played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the upcoming Star Trek Into Darkness.  Is it Khan?  Gary Mitchell?  Robert April?  Harry Mudd?  Ernst Stavro Blofeld?  In promoting his projects, Abrams has always embraced the idea of the “mystery box,” never showing his hand until the night of the premiere.  And controlling the conversation by keeping it where he wants it, in the realm of speculation, is, if managed properly, a great way to keep interest high.  It’s a dance though – give away too much and you spoil it, but say nothing, or remain stubbornly evasive, and people grow bored and move on to the next thing.  My more introspective nature simply lends itself better to Abrams’ way of thinking.

I’ll crack open the mystery box a little:  My novel is a fantasy.  It’s the first part of what will hopefully be a trilogy.  The main character is a woman with magical abilities.  She encounters a mortal man.  An adventure ensues.

Whoa, you’re saying.  Back up a sec.  This is basically Beautiful Creatures, right?

Argh.  As writers we need to support each other and rejoice in each other’s successes, so I’m very happy for Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl.  We all dream of seeing our epics translated to the big screen and I’m sure they’re bursting with joy at their enviable accomplishment, as would I.  But privately I’m suffering a few gutfuls of agita.  You can’t help feeling like the guy who was late to the patent office when Alexander Graham Bell released the first telephone, even though our stories are completely different.  Theirs takes place in the modern day; mine is set in the past in a fictional world.  Their lead characters are teenagers discovering themselves; mine are world-weary adults.  And of course the supporting characters and indeed the plot bear no resemblance to one another.  But to the casual observer, they’re treading similar boards, and even though I could have written a story about a lawyer or a doctor or cop without garnering so much as a whisper of comparison, I have no doubt that someone will now accuse me of trying to cash in on a trend, particularly if Beautiful Creatures does become “the next Twilight” and thousands of lesser imitators flood literary agents’ inboxes (I’m fortunate I didn’t choose to write about vampires.  Luckily, I find them tiresome.)  Indeed, witches are all the rage in pop culture at the moment – we had Hawkeye and Strawberry Fields hacking their heads off a few weeks ago and we’ve got Mrs. James Bond, Meg Griffin and Marilyn Monroe bandying their magical wiles with James Franco coming up in March.

Well, it is what it is and no sense sulking about it now.

I’m going to sidestep into politics for a moment.  My beloved federal Liberals are conducting a leadership race right now, and candidate and former astronaut Marc Garneau has recently fired a shot across presumptive favorite Justin Trudeau’s bow by accusing him of failing to offer up concrete plans.  But Garneau (and those who are praising this as a brilliant strategic move) should understand that people don’t respond to plans, they respond to ideas – the why, not the what.  Our current PM came to power not because he had a thoroughly researched and scored eighteen-point economic agenda, but because his campaign message was that the previous government was corrupt and he wasn’t.  It worked.  His two subsequent election wins have been based on similar themes – I’m reliable, the other guys are scary unknowns.  I go back to Simon Sinek’s brilliant observation that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.  It was the “I have a dream” speech, not the “I have a plan” speech.  The trick, when it comes to trying to pitch a book through a query letter, is that you’re required to try and hook the agent through what is more or less a 250-word encapsulation of the basic plot.  But the plot isn’t why I wrote the book and it’s not why I want people to read it.

For argument’s sake, and I’m certainly not trying to make a comparison here, but let’s quickly summarize the life of Jesus Christ:  A baby is born to a virgin mother and grows up to become a carpenter, lead a vast group of followers and spread a message of love to his fellow men.  This offends the ruling powers who condemn him to torture and death, after which he is miraculously resurrected.  If you had no knowledge of Christianity or the substance of Jesus’ message, you would never believe based on what you just read that these events would inspire a worldwide religious movement that would endure over two thousand years and counting.  The plot doesn’t make you want to read the book.  You get no sense of the why.

After an enormous detour, we now come back to my novel and its why.  The why is here, all around you, in the archives of this site.  It’s in my values, the things that matter to me and that I ponder as I type, post and share.  My opinions on politics, conservatism, the Tea Party, faith, spirituality, organized religion, charity, economics, ecology, literature, women, love, the loss of our parents, the shifting nature of good and evil, even James Bond, the Beatles and the writing of Aaron Sorkin as a part of the entire human experience – they are all represented in some form or another in my novel.  Gene Roddenberry taught me that a great story can’t just be a journey from A to B to C, it has to be about something more.  So mine is an adventure story that is as much an exploration of my personal philosophy and observations on the human condition as it is sorcery, chases, narrow escapes, explosions and witty repartee.

It is written in first person, from the point of view of the sorceress.  Why did I choose to write as a woman?  Part of it was for the challenge, I suppose, to see if I could do it without falling into chick-lit clichés about designer shoes, the appeal of sculpted abs and struggles with mothers-in-law and PMS.  But more to the point, if the story is to connect with an audience, its themes must be universal, as must its emotions.  Men and women both know what it is like to feel alone, to be consumed by a longing for something or someone you cannot have, and to make any kind of connection, no matter how meagre.  We can both crave intimacy so deeply that we don’t care who we receive it from – even if we know we are asking for it from a person who is absolutely wrong for us.  My fictional leading lady has tremendous powers, yet she remains vulnerable to the stirrings of a long-closed-off heart and the desire to be accepted, even by a man who despises everything she represents – a married man, to complicate matters further.  The evolution of their relationship is the absolute center of the plot, their interactions the driver of all the events that follow.  I avoid a lot of the external mechanisms common to fantasy like endless prophecies, quests, magical objects, creatures, specific rules about the casting of spells and complicated mythologies.  Sorry, no Diagon Alley or Avada Kedavra or Quidditch or even white walkers, folks.  The progression of my story hinges on emotions, personal choices and consequences, not getting the Whatsit of Whatever to the Mountain of Something Else before the next full moon.  The people are what matter and everything else to me is background noise.

Does it sound like something you’d like to read?  I hope so.  I hope if you’ve come with me this far you’ll want to come a little further, and maybe invite a few friends along.  Over the next few months I’ll post periodic updates on how we’re doing submission-wise, and maybe a few more details like character names, excerpts of scenes, even (gasp!) the title.  We’ll see if we can get a couple more folks interested to the point where we reach critical mass and something truly amazing happens.  It’s a story I’ve put a lot of heart into and really want to share in its completed form.  But as I said, if you’ve been following this site and listening to what I have to say, you already know much of what you’re in for.  Think of it as a buffet table of themed appetizers leading to a sumptuous main course – one that I promise won’t leave you with indigestion.

As they used to say on the late night talk shows, More to Come…