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Liftoff – Star Trek Beyond (2016)

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The Star Trek franchise is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and those who remember tuning into NBC on a cool September night in 1966 to see a hammy William Shatner and a Satanic-looking Leonard Nimoy battle a shapeshifting salt vampire through cardboard starship corridors couldn’t possibly have fathomed that we’d still be talking about this thing five decades later.  As late as the Nemesis debacle and the failure of Enterprise, when Star Trek seemed to have attained its final frontier and been dismissed by the masses as terminally uncool, the property of sad neckbearded nerds in plastic pointed ears, we worried that we’d never have anything new from that universe again to keep us going – other than perpetual commercial-crammed reruns keeping us up late on lonely weekends, or old DVD’s dissected for some hitherto unknown piece of production trivia to make the whole thing seem fresh again.  Trek was a box office loser, a past glory fated to fade away in a whimper rather than burn out.

And yet… here we are in 2016.  Still boldly going.

Over the course of 37 years and now 13 films, Star Trek, like its audience, has evolved and adapted to changing eras, trends, and expectations.  As leaps forward in visual effects technology have obliterated the limits of what moviemakers can realize with their imaginations, so too have the goalposts been shifting in terms of what the people sitting in the theater will crave.  What stirred us as kids can jade us as adults; what once had us clinging to the edge of our seats will eventually yield only yawns.  Our demands are nigh near impossible to accommodate:  repeat the past note-for-note, we caution, and be labeled unoriginal; wander too far from the formula and be damned as a demographic-chasing heretic.  Make it the same, but different, and better.  Rising to the challenge, a football stadium’s worth of people have wandered through the Star Trek cinematic universe since 1979 attempting to put their stamp on it, appeal to the times and, perhaps in defiance of those first two objectives, stay forever true to the vision articulated by the late Gene Roddenberry of that hopeful, diverse future where the conflicts that make headlines today have been relegated to the realm of head-scratching ancient history.  The success rate seems to hover at about 50/50; we’ve spoken about the odd-numbered Star Trek movie curse, we’ve seen triumphs when it hit all the right notes and embarrassments where it flailed vainly to speak to people who’d stopped listening to what it had to say.  We’ve seen it make the most of limited resources and almost strangled by the ego battles associated with movie studio politics.

So on to this demanding stage steps Star Trek Beyond.

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It’s strange to think that after only the second voyage of this rejuvenated and financially potent Enterprise crew that there might arise the need for a behind-the-scenes shakeup, but with J.J. Abrams lured from our galaxy to the pressing needs of another significantly more distant, Paramount was suddenly left without a captain for its flagship, even though Abrams would remain attached as producer (albeit with his workload likely reduced to mere infrequent consultation).  Instead, Roberto Orci, who had co-written the two previous movies with Alex Kurtzman, took the lead on developing the script with writers J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay and lobbied the studio suits for the opportunity to helm his first feature.  Wary of entrusting this important tentpole to a novice director, Paramount nonetheless extended Orci an offer to direct, contingent on their approval of the screenplay.  The story ideas floated at the time however suggested a franchise unsure of where to head next:  one intimated that the new movie would pick up where Star Trek Into Darkness had left off, with Starfleet going to war against the Klingons and Benedict Cumberbatch returning as Khan, and another said that there would be no villain at all and that the movie would try to recapture the original series’ spirit of exploration.

Whatever was in Orci’s pages, it wasn’t enough to seal the deal, nor was his cause aided by his online behavior:  always an enthusiastic participant in social media and on Star Trek message boards, Orci had become bitter and foul-mouthed in his responses to fan criticism of Into Darkness (one exchange had him boasting “this is why I get to write the movies, and you don’t”), and he eventually deleted his Twitter account.  Orci withdrew from the director’s chair in December of 2014 (remaining credited as producer, but effectively with no further involvement) and Justin Lin, veteran of the Fast & Furious series and TV’s True Detective, assumed his place a few weeks later, after a brief campaign by Jonathan Frakes to get the job went unanswered.  The Orci/Payne/McKay script was binned and Lin was told he could come up with his own idea from scratch.  For writing duties he enlisted the aid of Doug Jung, who had worked on the TV series Dark Blue and Big Love, and none other than Simon Pegg – continuing into this new generation the tradition of Star Trek‘s actors contributing behind the camera as well as in front of it.

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In interviews accompanying the announcement of his involvement as writer, Pegg explained that the studio had found the Orci script bogged down in the obsessive minutiae of the Star Trek canon – “too Star Trek-y,” as he put it, with its potential appeal limited only to diehard fans.  His and Jung’s new approach would be to first structure the movie like a heist film or western, and then populate it with the Star Trek characters, in the hopes of reaching the sort of audiences that would happily flock to see The Avengers three times without wanting to or having to understand the decades of often perplexing history that preceded it.  Absent would be questions of politics spread across the light-years; this would be a good old-fashioned action-adventure story that didn’t ask you to remember how to retrofit a warp core, or to keep track of the motivations of dozens of different characters with funny names full of apostrophes.

With the main seven heroes under contract, only three major guest aliens were required:  acclaimed British actor Idris Elba would be slathered unrecognizably in prosthetics as unstoppable villain Krall; rising star Sofia Boutella, who had played a baddie with blades for legs in Kingsman: The Secret Service would be painted in zebra stripes as the helpful, beats-and-shouts-loving Jaylah (taking her character’s name from Jennifer Lawrence’s celebrity moniker J. Law) and Lydia Wilson, from the magic realist rom-com About Time (featuring Pegg’s frequent co-star Bill Nighy) would take the role of Kalara, a mysterious captain whose distress signal sets the plot into motion.  Persian-American actress Shohreh Aghdashloo was also added to the cast late into production as a Starfleet commodore.  To save money, the majority of filming took place outside the U.S., a first for a Star Trek production, with soundstages in Vancouver, B.C. used as the primary location and additional scenes filmed on the futuristic streetscapes of Dubai.

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The hiring of Justin Lin led more than a few fans to speculate yet again as to whether Star Trek was being lobotomized for the ever-crucial and expanding teenage demographic, and the first teaser trailer for Star Trek Beyond did not do much to dispel the notion, featuring Chris Pine’s Kirk leaping across bridges and chasms on a motorcycle as the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” blared.  Simon Pegg sought immediately to calm the Trekkies’ collective frayed nerves, opining that he was not fond either of what had been cobbled together by marketing to highlight the action-intensive parts, and assuring us that the movie as a whole was more substantial than that.  In fact, Pegg assumed the role of Beyond‘s primary defender when the movie waded into a most unexpected – if ultimately minor – controversy around the character of Mr. Sulu in the months before its release.

For a franchise that had prided itself on its long-standing embrace of diversity, Star Trek had steadfastly avoided the question of gender and sexuality, apart from one or two clumsy attempts in the early 90’s.  Gene Roddenberry had frequently told convention audiences that he wanted to introduce gay characters, but those plans never came to fruition – a Next Generation AIDS allegory script that was to have featured a male/male pairing was scuttled before it could be shot, and the agender race in the episode “The Outcast” was cast entirely with female actors for fear that the love story between one of them and Riker would wig folks out.  Deep Space Nine featured a f/f kiss, but it was wrapped in the trope of “forbidden passions” between a character who identified as straight in her other 100 appearances, and a one-shot guest star.  Voyager, Enterprise and the twelve preceding films had steered entirely clear.  For fifty years, Star Trek had never dared to breach the final frontier of establishing one of its heroes as gay, but it was 2016 now.  Surely we had outgrown the last of our old prejudices?

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In Star Trek Beyond, Pegg and Jung wanted to make a statement without making a statement; that is, portray the sexuality of an important main character (not a quickly forgotten redshirt) with the kind of casual indifference that would be shown if it were entirely heteronormative, as would be expected in the more evolved world of the 23rd Century – when interaction with multiple alien species would lead humans to embrace a much more pansexual and fluid gender view of themselves.  In tribute to George Takei, who had become an icon and activist for the worldwide LGBT community since coming out eleven years earlier, the writers chose Sulu.  Sulu was given a husband, Ben (played by Jung himself at John Cho’s suggestion) and a young daughter, Demora (as established by Star Trek Generations).  Perhaps it was hoped that Takei would be moved by the portrayal, and indeed he was, but in the opposite direction.  Takei took to the airwaves to claim that Roddenberry had never intended Sulu to be gay, that he was conceived as a straight man and should have remained such.  Pegg wrote a rebuttal on his blog explaining their decision and providing an in-universe rationale as to how the Prime Sulu (eg. Takei’s version) could be heterosexual, preserving Roddenberry’s original intent, while Cho’s version wasn’t.  But the debate would be laid aside when tragedy struck just  before release:  Anton Yelchin died suddenly at the age of 27 when his own vehicle ran over him in the driveway of his home.  The question of Sulu’s sexuality became immediately less pressing as the cast and crew grieved for their friend under the spotlights of red carpet movie premieres.

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(Author’s note:  this would normally be where I would go into a detailed summary of the plot; given that Star Trek Beyond is still in theaters as I write this, I will demur in order to avoid specific spoilers, but before you tread further, please note that they may come up in the course of the actual review.  Consider yourself duly warned.)

Beginning in 2009, the revitalized Star Trek had essentially owned the big screen science fiction market, cementing itself as the yardstick by which pretenders to the genre would be measured.  This worked fine for a while as even the underwhelming Into Darkness manage to achieve massive box office success.  But in December of 2015, the world was introduced to Rey, Finn, Poe and BB-8.  Star Trek immediately became something of an afterthought, with reactions to its rollout akin to are they still making those?”  Fairly or not, Star Trek Beyond would fall under the shadow of Star Wars, and to a certain extent the surprise Marvel sci-fi smash Guardians of the Galaxy, which had come out two summers before (and featured Saldana as one of its leads).  Would it stake new ground or let itself be influenced by its competitors?  The answer is the latter, with the caveat that such influence doesn’t in this instance make for a lesser experience – so long as you go in with the right attitude.

Being a fan of the modern Star Trek cinematic universe is accepting that the days of plots hinging on characters engaging in heated moral debates over a briefing room table are long gone.  The pulse of these new movies beats much quicker, and you can either choose to keep up or let them race ahead without you and seek solace in your copy of The Wrath of Khan instead.  Star Trek Beyond is a trek for the age of Marvel and The Force Awakens, with a similar lightweight, straightforward plot about a group of rag-tag heroes who have to come together to stop a ruthless bad guy from using a superweapon to destroy their world – nothing more complicated than that.  Of course, our heroes here aren’t a band of misfits, they’re a professional crew who have already been through two adventures together aboard a state-of-the-art starship, so Pegg and Jung’s script essentially pushes the reset button by destroying the beloved Enterprise and stranding the crew in separate pairings on an alien world before the movie has reached the thirty-minute mark.

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Ironically those first thirty minutes are where Beyond reserves the majority of its sheer spectacle; a quality that the first four decades of Trek films lacked.  Starbase Yorktown, where the Enterprise docks for resupply after being out in space for three years following the end of the previous film, is a jaw-dropping creation that Gene Roddenberry and his 1960’s designers could only have dreamed about (assisted by a few era-appropriate doses of acid).  Described on-screen as an elaborate snowglobe in space, it’s a visual feast of skyscrapers and hundred-mile-long glass tunnels large enough to accommodate starships stretching out in every gravity-defying dimension, with infinite minute details that it would take at least a dozen viewings to absorb and sort out, and the only shame is that we don’t spend nearly enough time there before the plot kicks in and we set out into space again.  Star Trek has too often underwhelmed in its visuals, and it is as if Justin Lin and his effects team are trying to make up for every missed opportunity of the past by cramming them all into one.

The planet on which the majority of the film’s action takes place, Altamid (taking its name from an anagram of Matilda, daughter of Simon Pegg) is likewise an effective exercise in the subtlety of worldbuilding:  if Pandora from Avatar is filmed sci-fi’s gold standard and the endless boring trips to L.A.’s Bronson Canyon that characterized most of Star Trek‘s alien landscapes to this point are the definition of half-assing it, then Altamid scores a respectable silver.  It is never weird enough that we spend all our time gaping at the scenery to the detriment of losing our focus on the characters, but there are lovely little added digital touches (in the form of unusual plants and tiny creatures scrabbling over the local rocks) to give us the sense of elsewhere and that this isn’t just a municipal forest tract five miles from the studio.  It speaks to a most welcome level of care about the details, about recognizing that we as an audience want to be immersed in a place that we’ve never seen before.  We want to explore strange new worlds just like the characters do, and we’re savvy enough to recognize an indoor set when we see one.

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Pretty scenery isn’t worth a bucket of tribbles if you don’t populate it with interesting characters, however, and Star Trek Beyond succeeds not only in giving each of the ensemble something substantial to do (one cannot help but grin at Pegg’s significantly larger role this time around given he was the one co-writing it) and in introducing a compelling new member of the family (Boutella’s spry and upbeat Jaylah) but in finally making Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk seem for the first time like a real captain, seasoned and tempered by his time in the chair instead of the impulsive, somewhat out-of-his-depth maverick he was in the first two films.  His uniform collar is higher, and he stands straighter.  Certainly part of this evolution belongs to the actor:  no longer the unknown under the pressure of his big break, Chris Pine has become a major movie star with plenty of significant roles under his belt, and he moves and speaks with an authority that he simply didn’t have before (and was most glaringly absent whenever he had to share the screen with Benedict Cumberbatch).  When he gives an order, it’s with conviction and certitude, and you can’t imagine the crew still thinking of him as that smarmy punk who fell ass-backward into a captaincy.  But as Beyond begins, this new commanding Captain Kirk is restless, wondering about a greater meaning to his life, and worrying that he is losing himself to the unknown that frames his every day of existence.  It takes a kick in his complacency – the destruction of the comfortable confines of his ship and an encounter with a man who has lost himself to the unknown to lead Kirk to rediscover his purpose.

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In my rather snarky review of Star Trek Nemesis I talked about the misguided choice to make that movie largely about its (lame) villain.  Star Trek Beyond, by contrast, is a much better example in how to craft your bad guy from a personification of your hero’s flaws.  The remorseless Krall comes on initially like a force of nature with his endless swarm of alien ships, wrecking the mighty Enterprise without much of a fight and stranding its crew on his world.  We discover as the movie goes on that he is not as alien as we first thought, and that he was a human Starfleet captain named Balthazar Edison, a veteran soldier whose ship crashed on Altamid a hundred years ago with only three survivors.  With no help forthcoming due to their remoteness and the inability of communications signals to escape the local nebula in which Altamid is located, Edison employed alien technology to prolong his life by draining others, which mutated him beyond recognition.  He has literally lost his humanity, and as an old soldier put out to pasture with no one left to fight, he believes that the peace and unity among worlds promoted by the Federation will only make humanity weak (one suspects he and the war-hungry Admiral Alexander Marcus from Into Darkness would be kindred spirits).  To that end he seeks to assemble an ancient life-consuming biogenic weapon (the “Abronath,” which sounds suspiciously like a small village in Scotland – likely writer Pegg being cheeky again) and unleash it on the diverse population of millions inhabiting the Yorktown in the hopes of renewing a galaxy-wide conflict.

This is Kirk’s listlessness and loss of purpose amplified with a healthy dose of rage, and in Edison/Krall, Kirk can recognize what he might become given similar circumstances and thus stake his own moral compass determinedly to the opposite direction.  Although there is an element of revenge to Krall’s thinking, it’s not his sole motivation and it’s certainly refreshing given that we’ve had four villains in a row driven primarily by vengeance.  There is a complexity to Krall that reflects more mature screenwriting, and the pity is that the Edison reveal takes place so late in the third act that we don’t really get the chance to chew over the duality of the basic conflict between himself and Kirk, the contrast between the two once-valiant starship captains.  Also, the heavy makeup the role requires pretty much smothers the great Idris Elba, and he has a hard time emoting through the latex beyond the requisite evil growls and snarls.  I wasn’t wild either about the “life force draining” aspect of his character, given that it (and the design of the corpses left in its wake) reminded me a little too much of that space vampire zombie movie from the 80’s…

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Amidst imaginative visions of alien worlds and a villain determined to wipe it all out using an ancient gizmo that fits into the palm of one’s hand, Beyond manages to fit in a nice arc for Spock and McCoy too, giving their legendary combative friendship attention that has been absent with the first two films’ decision to focus primarily on the Kirk/Spock relationship.  Spock in particular is much more like his old familiar self this time, less formative and more assured, with noticeable restraint shown in both the writing and the performance, and – thankfully – no rage eruptions in sight.  There is a note of tragedy instead, with Spock grieving over the passing of Spock Prime, and doing so with dignity (only a single tear).  It’s tough to gauge in fact where the performance ends and the genuine emotion begins.  There are moments where the curtain drops and you are seeing Zachary Quinto grieving for Leonard Nimoy.  In those scenes Karl Urban as McCoy becomes almost fatherly in his responses, as the character who is supposed to represent stoicism becomes the source of the movie’s deepest expression of heart.

Now, to the stuff that’s not so great.  As a general rule, I haven’t been fond of the sillier scenes that have peppered the most recent Star Trek movies, and regrettably Beyond does cough up a few, including the climactic unleashing of the Beastie Boys as the ultimate weapon against Krall’s swarm ships, which has stretched my tolerance for their ongoing and increasingly grating presence in this universe to its breaking point (though to be fair, I did love McCoy’s subsequent joke about “classical music”).  You just have to roll your eyes a bit and move on.  One thing that is difficult to move on from, however, is the choice by the filmmakers to yet again destroy the Enterprise.  The first time this happened, in Star Trek III, it was a true shock and an important beat in that film’s theme of sacrifice, and the reveal of the Enterprise-A at the end of Star Trek IV was a joyous surprise, a merited reward and a promise of greater things to come.  When the Enterprise-D bit it in Generations, it was as part of a meaningless “wow sequence” designed to allow the series to continue with more modern sets and a sleeker, more cinematic ship (and to make matters worse, the characters didn’t seem that bothered by losing the home in which they’d spent the last seven years).  Watching the Enterprise go down for the third time, early in the movie when we’ve barely gotten to know her and her destruction has been spoiled by the trailer, we don’t feel much of anything at all, apart from “there they go again.”  Since we know the crew will get another ship in the end (as has happened twice before), the impact of this plot twist is muted, and it’s a tired gimmick that I hope we have seen the last of.  However, it crystallizes my key issue with the movie, even as I land on the thumbs up side of the equation.

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Fundamentally, Star Trek Beyond is not a journey forward, it is a stop on the side of the road to fix a tire.  Everything about its story, from the conception of its villain to the construction of its plot, is about getting the characters back to exactly the same place they were in the beginning.  This is not necessarily a bad idea; some of the greatest movies ever made are about finding your way home.  But Beyond feels like a placeholder, or at best, a transition towards an even greater adventure (depending on the final grosses of course, which sadly have not been up to par with the previous two films).  Like the Marvel movies, which manage to be simultaneously entertaining and forgettable, it doesn’t leave you with a lot to think about, except perhaps missed opportunities, and the expectation of something better – deeper, more provocative – the next time out.  The movie does have a lot of good in it, especially in what seems like the most diverse cast of both leads and extras (and aliens) in any movie in recent memory, but it never manages to be greater than the sum of those good parts, perhaps because there is no greater aspiration inherent in its creation other than being a passable piece of fun summer entertainment.  Which it most definitely is, with more heart in it than any other shoot-em-up you’ll see this season.  Justin Lin’s direction, the source of controversy among fans the instant he was announced, isn’t as obnoxious as the trailers would lead you to believe, and while the pace is certainly in keeping with the action blockbusters that have made his reputation, he is astute enough to know to when to slow things down and give the characters (and the audience) a chance to breathe.  And we do love these characters and this universe so much that we will doggedly follow their trek wherever it leads, or whomever is leading it.

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As we’ve looked back at the peaks and valleys of Star Trek‘s cinematic history in the spread of these posts over the last couple of months, we’ve seen that what remains compelling even in its weakest outings is the vision at its core, the one that was first articulated by the flawed Gene Roddenberry, perhaps on some level out of the desire to remedy his own human failings, and shaped by the creativity of the people who came together around him.  It is of a future where human ingenuity has lifted us out of our pettiest problems, where human ambition pursues not the meaningless acquisition of wealth but the betterment of the individual and the all, where fear of the other has been replaced by the unqualified celebration of our differences.  The bells and whistles of special effects and chases across the stars are merely glittering ornaments on a sturdy and ever-thriving tree; that of a welcoming, wondrous galaxy that we want so desperately to touch, especially as our own world repeatedly lifts up leaders who seemed determined to prevent us from ever reaching it.  After fifty years, there remains an unquenchable spark in the vision that is Star Trek.  The hope, in the shadow of this most recent installment, is that next time, it truly does dare to go beyond.

Final (Arbitrary, Meaningless) Rating:  2 1/2 out of 4 stars.

All 13 Star Trek Movies, Ranked (again, arbitrarily):

  1. Star Trek II:  The Wrath of Khan
  2. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
  3. Star Trek: First Contact
  4. Star Trek
  5. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
  6. Star Trek Beyond
  7. Star Trek: The Motion Picture
  8. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
  9. Star Trek Into Darkness
  10. Star Trek: Insurrection
  11. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
  12. Star Trek Generations
  13. Star Trek Nemesis
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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.

Countdown to Beyond – Star Trek (2009)

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On May 13, 2005, the cancelled Star Trek: Enterprise aired its much-maligned series finale, “These Are The Voyages,” and for the first time in eighteen years there would be no new Star Trek on the air in the fall.  Likewise, the box office failure of Star Trek Nemesis had staked the film series through the heart.  Even die-hard fans, weary of repetitive plots resolved by reconfiguring the deflector dish, were pleading that Trek needed a forced rest.  Go away, we cried, echoing Bono, and dream it all up again.  Behind the scenes, life still stirred, as franchise guardian Rick Berman proposed reinvigorating the movies by introducing a brand new crew in a yet-unexplored piece of Trek‘s future history:  the Earth/Romulan war of the 22nd Century.  He hired Band of Brothers writer Erik Jendresen to pen a script with a World War II movie feel called Star Trek: The Beginning.  In Jendresen’s draft, after a devastating attack on Earth by a Romulan fleet, the disgraced Captain Tiberius Chase, an ancestor of James Tiberius Kirk, would lead his hastily assembled, ragtag crew on what would turn out to be a suicide mission to detonate a nuclear bomb in the heart of the Romulan Empire and bring an end to the war.  Fans weren’t wild about Berman’s continued stewardship, and this proposed story sounded pretty depressing after the already dreary Nemesis.  And so it was that in 2006, new Paramount chief Gail Berman (no relation) cancelled development on The Beginning and turned creative control of future Star Trek film projects over to an up-and-coming filmmaker named J.J. Abrams.

Abrams had started young, writing the script for the Harrison Ford movie Regarding Henry at the age of 21 and serving as script doctor on blockbusters like Armageddon before turning to television and achieving success with the series Felicity and Alias.  The latter, starring Jennifer Garner as a spy who has to keep her espionage work secret from her closest friends, attracted the notice of Tom Cruise and earned Abrams a shot at directing the third Mission: Impossible movie, which made $400 million worldwide just as Rick Berman was being advised that his services were no longer required.  M:I-III just happened to be a production of Paramount Pictures, who had signed Abrams to a multi-film contract and realized, well, lookie here, we have this other moribund franchise in need of some adrenaline.  Abrams, who admitted up front he had always been more of a Star Wars fan, signed his Bad Robot Productions on to produce, but wouldn’t commit to direct as well unless the script measured up.  To ensure that it did, he brought along his co-writers from M:I-III who were also veterans of Alias:  Roberto Orci, who described himself as a rabid Trekkie, and Alex Kurtzman, who didn’t.  Immediately they faced the challenge of what to do with Star Trek‘s weighty history:  ten movies, hundreds of episodes and one of the most elaborate – and from some perspectives, creatively suffocating – fictional canons ever assembled.

Their answer:  toss it.

Sort of.

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Abrams wasn’t interested in chronicling the further exploits of Captains Picard, Sisko, Janeway et al, claiming that the various spinoffs and sequels had “disconnected” him from the franchise.  He wanted to return to the essence of Star Trek, and that meant a new take on the classic characters of Kirk and Spock, and, in an echo of the Harve Bennett “Starfleet Academy” movie that had never been made, going back to look at how they first met to reintroduce them to a new world.  He noted, however, that one of the (many) weaknesses of the Star Wars prequels was that there was little dramatic tension in their foregone outcome – basically, you knew Obi-Wan Kenobi wasn’t going to die because you’d already seen him in his elder years.  Abrams, Kurtzman and Orci came up with a concept that in their minds would respect the hundreds of hours of Trek that had gone before but still give them carte blanche to craft a fresh and unpredictable story – without throwing away everything a la Batman Begins.  To wit: using a little time travel to go back before Kirk was even born and create a new, unpredictable alternate universe in which all bets as to the fates of our characters were off.  Satisfied with the progress of scripting, Abrams agreed to direct and his participation was confirmed by official press release in February of 2007.

It was then a matter of finding new faces for this new universe.

Casting Captain Kirk’s original crew for the first time since 1966 was a daunting task; the fanbase would rebel, and quite rightly so, if the iconic roles were filled with a bunch of vapid CW flavor-of-the-month types.  Although Academy Award winner Adrien Brody (The Pianist) was interested in playing Spock, and Matt Damon had to call Abrams personally and ask him what was up after reading trade rumors that he would be cast as Kirk, the choice was made to go with actors who had solid experience but remained relative unknowns so they wouldn’t overwhelm the parts with offscreen personality.  Zachary Quinto, who was earning notices as superpowered supervillain Sylar on the TV series Heroes, and looked more like a young Leonard Nimoy than Leonard Nimoy, was the first to be announced in July 2007 – along with Nimoy himself.  The Bad Robot team had visited the retired actor at his home and pitched him their story and the significance of the presence of the elder Spock in it, and, uncharacteristically perhaps for a Vulcan, Nimoy was so moved by their presentation he could not speak for quite a few moments after they had left.  With Nimoy having rejected multiple previous offers to rejoin the cinematic Trek universe, his enthusiastic participation calmed the nerves of fans who didn’t know what to make of these new kids who’d been trusted with the sacred keys to the Enterprise.  After Nimoy and Quinto came the rest:  Zoe Saldana, who had played a Star Trek fan in the Steven Spielberg movie The Terminal – where the legendary director taught her the split-fingered Vulcan salute – was cast as Uhura.  Anton Yelchin, who had been born in Leningrad, got the role of Chekov, while John Cho, best known for his comedic roles, took over as Sulu.  After working with him on Mission: Impossible, Abrams cast Simon Pegg as Scotty simply by sending him an e-mail asking him if he wanted the part (would that we could all get jobs so easily.)  And Lord of the Rings veteran Karl Urban was first rumored to be playing the villain before it was clarified that he’d be succeeding DeForest Kelley as McCoy.

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The guest cast began to fill in with interesting names as well:  Ben Cross, as Spock’s father Sarek, became the second actor from Chariots of Fire (after Alice Krige) to take on a Star Trek role.  Jennifer Morrison from TV’s House and Once Upon a Time signed on to play Kirk’s mother Winona, her presence in the movie confirmed after paparazzi snapped a picture of her walking to the set in a bathrobe to conceal her costume.  A more famous Winona – Winona Ryder – would play the cameo part of Spock’s mother Amanda.  Bruce Greenwood got the role of Captain Christopher Pike on the strength of his work as John F. Kennedy in Thirteen Days.  After trying his hand at being a superhero in 2003’s controversial Hulk, Eric Bana decided to err on the side of villainy as the embittered Romulan captain Nero.  Some other Australian guy no one had really heard of at the time named Chris Hemsworth was cast as Kirk’s father George.  The crew needed its captain, though, and while Mike Vogel, who had worked for Abrams before on the 2008 shaky-cam horror movie Cloverfield, was said to be a front-runner, the successor to William Shatner was ultimately announced as Chris Pine.  Pine’s father Robert was a veteran TV character actor who had guest-starred on Enterprise as a Vulcan, and Chris’ most prominent role to date had been alongside Lindsay Lohan in a 2006 rom-com called Just My Luck.  Pine looked not to create an impression of Shatner but rather to Harrison Ford’s roles as “accidental heroes” Indiana Jones and Han Solo as inspiration in his interpretation of Jim Kirk.

Shooting began in November of 2007, just as the Writers’ Guild of America went on strike.  As a result, for fourteen weeks of production, Abrams could not make any changes to the screenplay (very, very few scripts are “locked in” once shooting begins – on-the-fly rewrites and polishes may be required as stuff that seems brilliant on the page often doesn’t work when the cameras finally roll and the actors have to say the lines).  But the overall impact on the production was minimal, and because writers Kurtzman and Orci were also credited executive producers, they could be on set the entire time and provide indirect assistance in shaping scenes without violating their union rules.  Of course none of that would have mattered to those of us who were awaiting this new take on Trek with equal measures of excitement and apprehension; thrills at the spare-no-expense blockbuster treatment balanced with fear that the entire affair would be a trendy Hollywood dumbing down of what was still thought of as the more cerebral of the world’s two leading cinematic space franchises.  The first teaser trailer, which showed the Enterprise under construction to echoes of the sounds of the early American space program, did much to heighten our enthusiasm that perhaps this would finally, after a string of false starts, be the Star Trek movie we were waiting for.

May 2009 arrived, the theater lights dimmed, and we held our breath…

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In a prologue set in the year 2233, the starship U.S.S. Kelvin encounters an enormous, spider-like vessel, the Narada, emerging from a lightning storm in space.  Quickly crippling the outmatched starship with their advanced weapons, the Romulan crew demand that the Kelvin‘s Captain Robau come aboard to discuss surrender, leaving first officer George Kirk (Hemsworth) in command.  The Romulans want to know the location of a strange jellyfish-shaped ship and its pilot, an Ambassador Spock.  When Robau admits he does not know of either, the Romulans’ leader Nero (Bana) kills him in a fit of rage and resumes the attack on the Kelvin.  Kirk orders the entire crew to the shuttles and escape pods, including his wife Winona (Morrison) who has just gone into labor.  With weapons gone, Kirk sets the Kelvin on a collision course, but the autopilot is disabled and he must remain behind.  He hears the first cries of his baby son, and he and Winona agree to name the boy Jim.  The Kelvin cripples the Narada and allows the shuttles to escape, but George Kirk is killed, leaving the newborn Jim fatherless.

A decade later, we peek in on our two lead heroes:  teenage Jim Kirk is leading a rebellious life in Iowa, while on the planet Vulcan, young Spock is bullied over his half-human heritage.  A college-aged Spock (Quinto) is eventually accepted to the Vulcan Science Academy, but rejects the honor after the Vulcan elders refer to his human half as a disadvantage.  In Iowa, a group of Starfleet cadets are celebrating before shipping out to the Academy, and townie Kirk (Pine) makes a drunken attempt to flirt with Uhura (Saldana) before getting his ass kicked in a fight that is stopped by Captain Christopher Pike (Greenwood).  Pike talks about Kirk’s father and how he represented an element of daring that Pike feels Starfleet has lost.  He notes that in George Kirk’s twelve-minute captaincy, he saved 800 lives.  Pike dares Jim to do better and suggests that he enlist in Starfleet.  After a late night bike ride to contemplate the U.S.S. Enterprise being built in a cornfield, Jim accepts Pike’s challenge and boasts that he will complete the four-year Academy program in three years.  On the shuttle ride to San Francisco, Kirk meets up with the man who will become his dear friend, Doctor Leonard McCoy, who laments that his recent divorce has left him with nothing but his bones.

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Three years later, Nero’s crew, which has been waiting out in space for a quarter century, captures the mysterious jellyfish ship when it emerges from a second lightning storm, with Nero growling “welcome back, Spock.”  At the Academy, Kirk is taking the no-win Kobayashi Maru simulation test (first mentioned in The Wrath of Khan) after failing it twice, this time beating it by reprogramming the simulation.  A disciplinary hearing is convened and Kirk is dressed down by the test’s programmer, Spock.  But judgment is interrupted when a distress call comes in from the planet Vulcan, which says it’s under attack.  All cadets are assigned immediately to different ships, with the exception of Kirk, who is grounded pending a decision on his status.  McCoy injects Kirk with a vaccine to make him ill and invokes a regulation regarding transportation of patients to bring him onboard the ship to which he has been assigned – the brand new U.S.S. Enterprise.  A Starfleet armada warps out of orbit headed for Vulcan, with the Enterprise delayed a few moments as its helmsman Sulu (Cho) forgets to disengage the inertial dampeners.  But when a woozy Kirk overhears Chekov (Yelchin) talking about the appearance of a lightning storm in space preceding the attack on Vulcan, he makes the connection with the lightning storm that occurred on the day of his birth prior to the arrival of the Romulan ship, and realizes the Enterprise is heading into a trap.

nuship

The Enterprise drops out of warp into a scene of carnage:  the entire fleet of starships destroyed by the Narada’s advanced weapons, and its laser drill carving a deep bore into the surface of Vulcan.  Nero orders his crew to destroy the new arrival too until he realizes what ship it is.  He hails the Enterprise and addresses Spock, advising him that they will know each other quite well in the future.  Nero also demands that Pike surrender himself by shuttle.  Pike agrees, leaves Spock as acting captain and promotes Kirk to first officer.  He assigns Kirk, Sulu and Chief Engineer Olson to space-jump to the drill platform to try to disable it.  The thrill-seeking Olson (dressed appropriately in red) waits too long to deploy his chute and is killed, and the explosive charges he was carrying are lost.  Kirk and Sulu still manage to overpower the Romulans on the platform and disable the drill, but not before Nero’s crew launches a probe filled with mysterious “red matter” into the drilling site.  The probe detonates inside Vulcan’s core and a singularity begins to form – a black hole that will consume the planet.  Spock beams down to locate his parents, but his mother is lost as the group beams aboard, and Vulcan is destroyed.

spacejump

Left in command of the Enterprise with the death of his mother and his planet weighing on his mind, Spock decides to retreat to join the rest of Starfleet in the Laurentian system.  Kirk objects, insisting that they should be hunting Nero down.  Frustrated, Spock renders the combative Kirk unconscious and dumps him on the icy world of Delta-Vega.  There, Kirk is saved from a ravenous local monster by an oddly familiar old Vulcan:  the original Spock (Nimoy).  Spock Prime explains everything:  one hundred and twenty-nine years from now, a star will go hypernova and threaten to destroy the galaxy.  Spock was sent to use red matter to swallow the nova with a black hole, but he was not able to act in time before the planet of Romulus was destroyed by the cosmic explosion.  Nero held him responsible and chased him down, but both ships fell into the black hole and were transported back in time, with Nero arriving first, and changing history by destroying the Kelvin.  Nero now has Spock’s ship and the red matter and intends to destroy every remaining planet in the Federation in retaliation for the loss of Romulus.  Spock Prime knows he has to get Kirk back to the Enterprise and takes him to someone who can help:  Montgomery “Scotty” Scott (Pegg), who has been assigned to a derelict Starfleet observation post on Delta-Vega.  Spock completes Scotty’s formula for transwarp beaming and transports Kirk and the engineer back to the Enterprise, where Kirk forces the younger Spock to relinquish command to him after provoking him into a wild display of anger.  Kirk orders the Enterprise to chase after Nero, who is on his way to Earth after obtaining the system’s planetary defense information from a tortured Pike.

ksfaceoff

After a conversation with his father in which he realizes that his emotions can be a source of strength, Spock returns to duty and makes amends with Kirk.  The Narada arrives at Earth and begins drilling into San Francisco Bay, while the Enterprise conceals itself in Saturn’s rings and Kirk and Spock beam to Nero’s ship, where Spock obtains the details of Nero’s scheme and the location of Captain Pike from a mind-meld with an unconscious Romulan.  They locate the jellyfish ship and its supply of red matter, and the ship recognizes Spock as its pilot and permits him to steal it.  Kirk confronts Nero, who brags that he will deprive the young captain of his future just as he did Kirk’s father.  But their fight is interrupted as Spock uses the jellyfish ship to destroy the drill, and Nero orders his crew to pursue it.  Kirk defeats Nero’s second-in-command and heads off to rescue Pike.  Spock sets the jellyfish ship on a collision course with the Narada, and Nero fires everything he has – only to be surprised by the Enterprise, which destroys Nero’s missiles and allows the jellyfish ship to complete its kamikaze run, with Kirk, Spock and Pike beamed to safety.  The red matter ignites on impact and a black hole begins to form inside the Narada.  Nero refuses assistance and quietly closes his eyes as his ship is crushed.  The black hole begins to pull in the Enterprise as well, but Scotty ejects and detonates the warp core to push the starship clear.

spocks

At a ceremony on Earth, Kirk’s field promotion to captain is made permanent and he is assigned the Enterprise in relief of Pike, who assures him that his father would have been proud.  Spock encounters his future self, and Spock Prime promises him that his friendship with Kirk will come to define them both.  The Enterprise crew is reunited and sent off on its first formal mission, and the elder Spock narrates the famous “space, the final frontier” speech as the grand ship hurtles into warp, and sequels.

Well then.

Star Trek was always popular, but not that popular, really – it had consistently been a moderate box office performer, a sort of useful pinch-hitter who comes off the bench every few innings for a single up the middle right when it’s needed, but never sets any records or makes the playoff roster.  There had been attempts to lure non-fans, but both production and marketing for each film release tended to linger on the conservative side of the ledger, operating from the perspective that “we know we’ll get the Trekkies, and if we get a few other folks wandering in too, hey, that’s gravy.”  Never had there been a concerted effort to really strive for that glittering true blockbuster ring hovering like a tantalizing tempter just out of reach, the gilded echelon achievable only by those who dare to leap for it with both feet.  It was a credit to Paramount’s confidence in J.J. Abrams that they gave him and his team the resources with which to try.  While previous entries relied on story and performances to create a sense of scale, the truth of the matter was that most of the time you still felt you were watching a TV production shot on cardboard sets, and what should have been a massive universe still seemed very small and confined.  The Wrath of Khan got away with this because the people and the stakes were larger-than-life; The Search for Spock could have stood comfortably alongside a two-part episode of MacGyver.  The Voyage Home created scale by being able to shoot in real locations without having to hide the cars driving by, but The Final Frontier whiffed with alien environments resembling nothing more exotic than anything you’d find ten miles from the Los Angeles studio gates.  Progressively bigger budgets and more exotic location shooting followed, but the final results remained artificial and hopelessly Earthbound.  It was, perhaps, a failure of ambition.

sanfran

The worldbuilding of Star Trek has never felt immersive until the release of this movie, which finally had the resources and the determination to pay that critical exacting attention to every blessed detail; to make us feel as though you could wander through any door and find evidence of the 23rd Century in every conceivable nook and cranny.  If Abrams borrowed this approach from Star Wars, so be it – but it works, and works well.  And what we wanted from Star Trek in 2009 was not more of the same.  So here are the thousands of extras that William Shatner couldn’t get for The Final Frontier.  Here is the “future with a past” –  fleets of ships both large and small that look banged up by years of re-use and not as though the paint dried five seconds before the cameras rolled.  Here is a movie-caliber Enterprise that looks like the grand old lady we always imagined she was, with dozens of massive decks to get lost on.  Here is an alien threat that doesn’t come off like one guy in a tiny room pushing plastic buttons.  Here are exotic worlds with unifying cultural themes evident throughout their architecture, their costuming and even the lay of their landscapes; aesthetic details that you don’t notice on your first viewing but are saturated in each frame, pushing the experience into your mind on a subliminal level.  And here, finally is the broad and extensive marketing campaign that sells a Star Trek movie as a can’t-miss event.  Not a mere curiosity offered meekly for a small, enlightened clique, but the explosion of a globally inclusive phenomenon that makes you feel foolish for even considering giving it a pass.  Maybe some Trek purists preferred the idea of a protective, hipster attitude towards it – this thing that is ours and that you mainstream people don’t get – but the economics of entertainment don’t always favor that attitude, and Star Trek was stagnating toward the brink of demise.  It needed the kind of movie that would explode and introduce it to a new audience, and it simply couldn’t do that by staring at its own navel through a haze of impenetrable continuity.  “Not your grandfather’s Star Trek,” proclaimed the ads, to the derision of more than a few.

kirkolson

One thing you can certainly never accuse J.J. Abrams’ films of is lacking in energy.  In Star Trek the characters are alive and bursting from the screen in a way they never have been before; perhaps it is their immediate juxtaposition against the more languid Next Generation characters who had preceded them in the drab Nemesis, that makes them seem so vivid and colorful.  As he would later show in The Force Awakens, Abrams always has an excellent eye for casting, and Pine, Quinto, Urban, Pegg, Cho, Yelchin and Saldana slip very comfortably into the roles originated by Shatner, Nimoy, Kelley, Doohan, Takei, Koenig and Nichols and are not burdened by the responsibility.  They never make you forget about the original seven, but, armed with snappy, punchy (and mercifully bereft of technobabble) dialogue, they each bring something new to create complete characters for this new timeline instead of merely doing glorified impressions (Quinto and Urban veer closest to this dodgy tactic in their respective approaches but never quite tip over the line).  Pine in particular is absolutely nothing like William Shatner, and the story’s decision to reinterpret James T. Kirk as a maverick, Beastie Boys-loving bad boy who stumbles into his captaincy by sheer, inherent “chosen one” awesomeness, instead of the dedicated, by-the-book career officer he had been in the original series – in effect playing Kirk as the exaggerated Zapp Brannigan version of himself – is perhaps the most jarring element of this reinterpretation, but to paraphrase The Dark Knight, this Kirk may be the hero we need, not the one we deserve.

That latter statement may be the best pronouncement to be made on the entire movie.  Criticism at the time, of which there was relatively little, opined that this was an action movie, or a Star Wars remake, masquerading as a Star Trek film – that social commentary had been eschewed in favor of gags and broad action sequences.  It was ironic that 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture was lambasted at the time for having “none of the whiz-bang excitement of Star Wars,” and 30 years later the reboot was slammed for being too much like it.  Whose verdict matters most?  The moviegoing public, who decided to the tune of a record-obliterating $257 million in ticket sales that this was the movie they needed:  exciting, optimistic, and fun instead of measured, ponderous and dry.  Star Trek starts to buckle if you apply too much analytical pressure to its weaker points; the science is slapdash, the plot relies on too many encounters of convenience, and the screenwriters don’t seem to understand the process of advancement in military ranks, among many others, but there comes a point where you just say screw it, this is a flat-out great time at the movies and none of that stuff matters.  It is not cerebral, but it does have a genuine heart, and more emotion in its scenes than the last five Star Trek movies combined.  Perhaps it’s to the credit of Star Trek as a franchise that there are so many options on its menu to suit every taste and mood:  some days you want to watch Stewart-as-Picard pitted in heated debate with a recalcitrant admiral and other days you prefer to watch Pine-as-Kirk bounce around in bed with sexy green girls.  The big tent of Star Trek spans the galaxy, and this was the first time it got the proper big-screen treatment it had perhaps not needed, but always deserved.

In summary:  Points for the cast, the boundless energy, the scale of the worldbuilding, stellar special effects, heck, even the lens flares.  Deductions for a plot relying on coincidence, convenience and very suspect pseudo-science, but look, if you can make me tear up in the first ten minutes of a Star Trek movie then I’m cutting you a heck of a lot of slack.

Next time:  Cinematic karaoke goes way off-key as the new crew matches wits against a bad guy who totally isn’t Khan… or is he?

Final (Arbitrary, Meaningless) Rating:  3 out of 4 stars.

I have been, and ever shall be…

Nimoy

Our sky is a little dimmer today with the loss of someone who expanded the meaning of stardom out beyond the final frontier.  Leonard Nimoy, gone at 83, was an actor, director and photographer by vocation but at heart a storyteller and shaper of one of the most impactful fictional characters of our time, who helped remind millions of us feeling like aliens walking an often confusing planet that we were human after all.  And more than that, in an entertainment landscape overrun by buffoons and simpletons elevated by ratings popularity to aspirational figure(air)heads, Nimoy made smart and logical the coolest thing you could hope to be.  With his portrayal of Mr. Spock, Nimoy gave the pursuit and value of intellect a mysterious and, dare-one-say-it, sexy side.  He gave hope to those of us more comfortable with a math book than a bench press.  He showed that brain could be more magnetic than brawn.

When I first watched Star Trek at the age of 10 or so, Spock was the character I was most drawn to.  Sure, Captain Kirk was the swashbuckling hero and Scotty had a cool accent, Dr. McCoy was full of Southern charm and Lieutenant Uhura was simply stunning to behold, but Mr. Spock was, if one will pardon the pun, fascinating.  A teenage kid struggling with hormones and the associated emotional imbalance, particularly in the wake of the passing of his own father, will naturally find himself captivated by this unflappable figure who sets that troublesome turmoil aside and approaches each problem from the standpoint of clear and logical analysis – while never forgetting the all-important human equation, even if he hasn’t quite figured that out yet.  I wanted to learn more about Vulcans and try to emulate their approach to life, even if I didn’t think I would ever become a scientist.  More importantly I wanted to figure out if it was actually possible to neck-pinch someone into unconsciousness – would have helped with bullies back in the bad old days.

Our popular culture contains an infinite assortment of characters whose adventures and traits resonate within our collected consciousness long after they have exited the stage.  With respect to his successor Zachary Quinto, few characters and performers are as inextricably fused as Nimoy and Spock.  Surprisingly, or not, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s initial description of the USS Enterprise’s Vulcan science officer was the very definition of “broad strokes,” a sketch that could have applied to any generic alien from any cheesy science fiction program of the last century:

…Probably half-Martian, he has a slightly reddish complexion and semi-pointed ears…

As most fans know, NBC was so unimpressed with Spock as he appeared in Star Trek’s first pilot that dumping him was one of their conditions for agreeing to finance a second.  Roddenberry refused, of course, and over the original run of 79 episodes, Nimoy took those pencil marks and began to infuse him with depth, gravitas, and even a dose of Jewish mysticism (the source of the famous split-fingered Vulcan salute), creating a lasting icon.  As the Star Trek canon became ever more robust, Nimoy seemed to get its characters and the reason for its popularity more than the behind-the-camera talent did.  Blossoming into a fine director, he took them helm and helped guide Star Trek on its cinematic journey, and those times where it stumbled were those in which his voice was left unwisely on the sidelines.  It would seem strange to wish to try and do anything with Star Trek without the input of Mr. Spock, but so goes the human arrogance that Spock himself would rightfully disdain.

Like so many of his Trek co-stars, Nimoy the actor wrestled with the issue of typecasting.  In the 1970’s, he suffered through a bout of fan misgivings after the publication of his autobiography I Am Not Spock, proof that even before social media the public was apt to overreact to things not worth getting upset about.  Such was the loyalty to the character he had etched into so many millions of hearts.  (Sure enough, when rumors began circulating during the pre-production of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan that Spock was to die, a most illogical wave of threats began bombarding that movie’s producers.)  When he wrote his sequel I Am Spock so many years later, Nimoy reconciled with his alter ego and with the fans who wanted to see him as nothing else, perhaps recognizing that if one is to be known for just one achievement in one’s lifetime, the definitive portrayal of a character who inspires millions of people is not such a bad legacy to leave.

In his twilight years, as he explored his passion for photography and made the occasional TV or film appearance, Nimoy seemed settled into the idea of himself as elder statesman and philosopher.  A few days ago, after he was admitted to hospital, Nimoy’s Twitter account posted several moving messages about life and memory, perhaps from an accepting sense that the days were growing short.  It was, in effect, communicating a final wish to the world that it live long and prosper, as he did.  In the final scene of Star Trek II, the dying Spock’s thoughts and words are not for himself, but for his ship, his captain, and his friend.  “Don’t grieve,” he says.  “It is logical; the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

In the end, Leonard Nimoy is that rare man who can move on from this life with no task left undone and no ambition left to prove.  It can truly be said of him that he left things better than he found them – we could wish no more for him, or ourselves.  And perhaps as his captain might have put it, “of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most… human.”

Quis custodiet ipsos numeros?

An emergency board meeting in Margin Call.

Margin Call, written and directed by J.C. Chandor, is a 2011 movie about the 2008 financial crisis that stars Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci and Zachary Quinto (who also produced).  It features a topical storyline, some strong, subtle performances (particularly from Irons and Tucci), interesting characters and key ethical questions to be asked about the spiritual worth of the pursuit of money.  It is also somewhat difficult to follow if you do not have experience in high finance.  Characters drop references to commercial securities, asset valuations and market fluctuations so fast, without pausing for a breath to catch the audience up, that you almost find yourself wishing for subtitles.  Even when characters make jokes about not being able to understand what they’re looking at, and plead for facts to be explained in plain English (or as Irons says at one point, as if one is speaking to a small child or dog), what follows remains untranslated biz jargon.  Cobbling together what you do comprehend, you conclude that a major investment firm has gotten too greedy and has purchased too many high-risk assets that, due to changes in the market, are about to become worthless, necessitating a massive pre-emptive sell-off that will, in itself, precipitate a further worldwide decline, but may, it is hoped, save a portion of the firm.  (I hope you got all that because I’m still trying to figure it out.)  The moment this becomes clear is when Irons puts it into colloquial terms, declaring, “The music is about to stop and we’ll be left holding a bag of odorous excrement.”

One cannot help but be reminded of the Star Trek trope where one character proposes a long technobabbling resolution to a crisis, summed up by someone else with a much simpler metaphor:  “If we reconfigure the deflector dish to emit a synchronous stream of alpha-wave positrons along a non-linear coefficient curve, we might be able to produce a stable gravimetric oscillation that would divert the asteroid’s course.”  “Like dropping pebbles into a pond… make it so!”  As tiresome as this became, it was done for a reason.  When setting any scene in a foreign environment – be it another country, another world or simply an exotic office – the writer has to walk a tightrope between being truthful to the environment and servicing the demands of drama.  The audience has to be able to relate to what’s going on in front of them, or it might as well indeed all be playing out in Mandarin Chinese.  Yet you don’t want to dumb things down for mass consumption, and you can’t succumb to the dreaded “As you know, Bob” epic fail:  characters stopping to explain things that they already know, and would have no reason to discuss given the course of their day.  If you’re an accountant, are you going to spend any time explaining to your veteran colleague what a trial balance is?  Is Alex Rodriguez going to pause mid-game for a five-minute exegesis with Derek Jeter on the infield fly rule?  Nor does it make any sense for these experienced brokers to sermonize on the basics of brokerage.  Usually a writer gets around this by introducing a “fresh-faced intern on his first day” who can ask the “business 101” questions on behalf of us dummies watching.

There are no interns or other such clichés in Margin Call, which chooses not to explain its dialogue in digestible nuggets for the masses.  Characters in this glass-enclosed world debate, ruminate, decide what they have to do and proceed with their financial chicanery, complicit in what may turn out to be their own destruction.  And after scratching your head for an hour and a half, you discover that what is sneakily clever about Margin Call’s screenplay is how it turns the incomprehensibility of its subject matter into a revelation about its subjects – the wheelers and dealers of the Wall Street world, men and women who are as much prisoners of an impenetrable capitalist system as those of us who can scarcely be bothered to look at our mutual fund statement every month.  No one understands this stuff, not really; they just want it all to work seamlessly and invisibly to make them rich, which is part of what makes the system so vulnerable to collapse.  Depressingly, here in the real world, four years on, the same cycle of greed has circumvented the installation of proper safeguards to ensure that these mistakes are not repeated.  It’s too complicated, no one really gets it, they can’t be bothered, it’s trivial, that’s the other guy’s problem, the market will regulate itself as it always has.  But the genie is long out of the bottle.  In a moment of insight, Jeremy Irons’ character judges this world thus: “It’s just money; it’s made up. Pieces of paper with pictures on it so we don’t have to kill each other just to get something to eat.” 

The problem is we are killing each other over these pieces of paper – we are letting the numbers control our lives, and as Margin Call demonstrates, no one is truly in control of the numbers.  It’s all gambling, and as any experienced gambler will tell you, no matter how well you play, in the end the house always wins.  I’m not sure who “the house” is in this case, but I’m fairly certain that it isn’t us.