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Gut Reactions: Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

74202_10151312194336999_1827486701_nDirector: J.J. Abrams

Writer: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindeloff

Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Benedict Cumberbatch, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Peter Weller, Alice Eve, Noel Clarke

Plot: Starfleet is rocked by a terrorist attack orchestrated by the mysterious John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). As he escapes across the galaxy, James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and the crew of the USS Enterprise begin a desperate chase to bring him to justice. And to say anything else would be majorly spoilery, so let’s pretend I’ve recapped the entire movie for a moment and wait until after you see the spoiler line below before I say anything else too specific, shall we?

Thoughts: When J.J. Abrams rebooted the Star Trek franchise in 2009, fans of previous incarnations seemed to fall squarely into one of two camps. On one hand, there were those die-hards who felt like the liberties and changes taken with nearly 50 years of canon went too far to be acceptable and couldn’t find enjoyment in the movie. On the other, there were those who were willing to accept the Abrams Trek as a different continuity, inspired by but not beholden to the original, and were therefore more forgiving of the changes. Although I certainly understand the feelings of those in the first camp, I steadfastly belong to the second. I really enjoyed the 2009 Star Trek, and although I tried to keep my expectations reasonable for the follow-up film Star Trek Into Darkness, upon finally seeing it, I think I liked this one even more.

Some general spoiler-free thoughts before I get into the real hardcore nerd analysis that will scare half of you away. This is most definitely not your classic Star Trek. Not only is the tone very different – more high-octane, rapid-fire action, and while the philosophy is still there it’s much more subtle and hidden under flashy set pieces and a hell of a lot of lens flares – but there are certain things in the film that just wouldn’t work based on the physics of the original series. (For example, it was well established that starships weren’t designed to operate in a planetary atmosphere, let alone go through some of the things we saw in this movie.) I had to make a conscious choice to let go of that sort of thing, because if you can’t, there’s really no chance of enjoying the new series. Having made that choice, though, I’m glad I did, because the spirit of this new Trek is incredibly exciting to me.

Abrams’s version of Trek places its emphasis on action. There are some brilliant sequences here, both in the CGI-heavy outer space arena and in more practical moments of hand-to-hand combat, all of which look good. The cast, once again, is great. Karl Urban has encapsulated DeForest Kelley’s Leonard McCoy in a way that would have been impossible to believe not long ago. Simon Pegg’s Scotty very much has the soul of Jimmy Doohan’s, and brings in some much-needed comic relief during the more serious moments of the film. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto as Kirk and Spock, of course, are still the stars of the series. Each of them has a character that’s more of a tangent to the original than some of the other cast members – you can see the blueprints of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy in their performances, but they’ve been dressed differently. More about that in the spoiler section, though.

Benedict Cumberbatch, the man with the most British name in human history, steps into the villain’s role in this film and really steals the show. There’s a taste of his character from Sherlock here, in that he’s the smartest man in the room and he knows it, but replace Sherlock’s inability to empathize with an innate savagery and deep passion for his people (and hatred of virtually anyone else), and you’ve got someone who is scary as hell. Cumberbatch is not only a lot of fun to watch on screen, but terribly menacing at what he does.

Finally, a word for Michael Giacchino, who in a relatively short time has very much earned a place next to the likes of John Williams and Danny Elfman as one of the great movie composers. Bringing back both the classic Trek theme and the new theme he composed for the 2009 movie, Giacchino’s score fits the action and energy of this movie perfectly. He and Abrams have worked together several times now, on Super 8 and the Mission: Impossible films, plus on the TV show Lost. Add to that an impressive body of work for Pixar, and it has become very easy to put together a playlist of the greatest Giacchino scores ever.

Okay, I’m pretty much itching to get into the spoiler stuff, so those of you who haven’t seen the movie yet may want to head out. In closing, I really liked this movie, but I think a person’s enjoyment of it will depend largely on how they feel about Abrams’s new Trek timeline in general. If you liked the 2009 movie, this one will knock your socks off. If you didn’t, there’s nothing here that will change your mind.

And that’s that. Spoilers begin after the line:

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In Into Darkness, we see an Enterprise crew that has been together for a little while now, but Chris Pine’s Jim Kirk has yet to let go of the wild, rebellious streak that defines him. While there’s something to be said for the character’s daring, he doesn’t know where the line is and he doesn’t understand what he did wrong when he crosses it. In this film, we see a real journey for the character. He sees firsthand what happens when somebody goes too far, and the horrific consequences of someone who isn’t willing to accept responsibility for his actions. Peter Weller’s Admiral Marcus is a nice counterpoint to Kirk in this – although he’s one of the ones who comes down hard on Kirk for breaking the rules early, at the end he becomes a reflection of what might be if an officer is left unchecked. As a result, we’re left with a slightly changed Kirk at the end – not one who will be unwilling to flout the rules for what he feels is right, but one who will be more aware of the consequences of his actions. Pine’s Kirk isn’t Shatner’s Kirk, but the man he is at the beginning of this movie wants to hide breaking the rules, while at the end I believe he will become the man who does the right thing but is willing to take the heat for it (as Shatner’s Kirk did in the original Star Trek III and Star Trek IV).

On the other hand, Zachary Quinto’s Spock has taken a rather wide curve away from Leonard Nimoy’s version, and I somewhat think that may be a direct response to Nimoy’s presence. Although Spock’s struggle between his Vulcan logic and human emotion was always at the forefront of his character, this movie really does show us a greater depth of struggle than Nimoy traditionally had. Quinto’s Nimoy has maintained a romantic relationship with Uhura (Zoe Saldana) for some time now – Nimoy’s Spock never had any such connection – and he makes it explicitly clear during the film that he fights to suppress his emotions. He also fails, and fails big, when Kirk dies saving the Enterprise, blowing up with rage and tearing across San Francisco to take down Cumberbatch’s Khan.

Ah yes, Khan. Let’s talk about Khan, shall we? This is one of those times where I sort of bemoan what the internet has become. While it’s a great communication tool, it can sometimes ruin surprises. From the minute a sequel to the 2009 movie was announced, people started asking “Will it have Khan?” When Benedict Cumberbatch was announced as playing the villain, people asked, “Does he play Khan?” When they said his character’s name was “John Harrison,” people asked, “But he’s really Khan, right?” I can’t blame Abrams and the rest of the cast and crew for lying – there had to be some attempt at surprise – but they were fighting a losing battle from the beginning.

Like the rest of the cast, Cumberbatch’s Khan isn’t quite the same man as the original series Khan. His accent isn’t as ridiculous and he never takes his shirt off to reveal a plastic chest, for example. Also, he’s not as upfront about his intentions as Khan Classic. He’s sneakier, more manipulative, toying with the lives of others to orchestrate events in the direction he wants them to go. In case the dedication at the end of the film doesn’t make it clear enough, this is a Post 9-11 Khan, and in that way, he’s scary. He’s also a lot of fun to watch, tearing through a squad of Klingons almost singlehandedly, and helping Kirk in their freefall through space between the Enterprise and Marcus’s warship.

This film uses Cumberbatch very well, but he’s not nearly the only callback to the original series’ two Khan stories. Technically, this is more analogous to the “Space Seed” episode of the TV show (certainly in terms of timeline), but Abrams and the writers never passed up an opportunity to remind people of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. An early scene has Quinto’s Spock reminding us that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” for instance, but from there the film pulls a nice switcheroo on us. Instead of Kirk watching helplessly as Spock dies to save the Enterprise, the reverse happens, with Pine’s Kirk dying to save the ship. The death, like everything else in this movie, reminds us of the original but kicks it up with more action and a heavier dose of special effects, but the result is the same: two men on opposite sides of a pane of glass, one of them dying, one of them grieving, both of them admitting to a friendship that stupid male ego or a suppression of emotion has left unspoken until now. Then we get one more callback – Spock borrowing Shatner’s bloodcurdling howl of “KHAAAAAAAAAN!” just before the final action sequence.

There was one more callback worth mentioning: Alice Eve as Carol Marcus. Sure, they tried to pretend she was somebody else when she first showed up (Carol “Wallace,” her mother’s maiden name), but like Cumberbatch as Khan there could never really be any doubt. This is the new timeline equivalent to the mother of Kirk’s son. Unfortunately, she’s one of the few things in the film that’s kind of wasted. She’s there to look hot in short skirts and underwear (which I’m male enough to admit she is very successful at doing), but she adds very little to the story. It’s likely that Abrams is setting her up to play a larger role in the series down the line, which I’m fine with. Considering how he found great moments for virtually every other player – including Scotty, Sulu and Chekov –it’s kind of a shame they couldn’t do the same for her.

The callbacks, by the way, may seem a little silly to some. They may seem a little over the top. They may seem like the filmmakers are winking at the camera. There’s a reason for that: they are. But they’re over the top and winking in a way that’s really acceptable to me. I think they work, and not just because I’m a big nerd and love that sort of thing (although I am). There’s an actual, honest, in-universe excuse for it if you look back at the first movie. Nimoy, as “Spock Prime” (as they’re calling him now) says that the altered timeline is trying to course-correct a little bit. Although there have been irreparable changes to the timestream, like the destruction of Vulcan, the universe itself is trying to adhere to the old timelime as much as it can. That’s the reason the same characters that assembled as the Enterprise crew in the old timeline all happened to wind up on the ship together in the new one as well. If you extrapolate that, it’s easy to explain the renewed conflict with Khan, Kirk’s introduction to Carol, and even Kirk’s death. (Since Spock wasn’t in place to die in this timeline, the universe found a substitute. And as Kirk, like Spock, was going to come back from the dead anyway, that was okay.) It may be more metaphysical than science fictional, but I like the idea of these characters being tied together by fate, bound by destiny. They are, to borrow a word from Stephen King, Ka-Tet, and they will be Ka-Tet in any timeline in which they happen to exist. These people are together because they’re supposed to be. And there’s something a little inspiring and very comforting about that.

So anyway, yeah, I really liked this movie. I can’t wait to see it again. And although I know Abrams might be a little busy soon with that “other” Star franchise, I really hope they find a way to bring him back to the helm of the Enterprise at least one more time.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Lunatics and Laughter Day 15: Shaun of the Dead (2004)

shaun-of-the-deadDirector: Edgar Wright

Writers: Edgar Wright & Simon Pegg

Cast: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kate Ashfield, Lucy Davis, Dylan Moran, Penelope Wilton, Bill Nighy, Jessica Stevenson, Peter Serafinowicz

Plot: Retail employee Shaun (Simon Pegg) is having a rough time. His job is a joke, his relationship with his stepfather Philip (Bill Nighy) is strained, and his roommate Pete (Peter Serafinowicz) has had it with Shaun’s best buddy Ed (Nick Frost) sleeping on their couch. If that wasn’t bad enough, a chance encounter with his friend Yvonne (Jessica Stevenson) reminds him that it’s his anniversary and he’s forgotten to book a table at a restaurant. He tries to convince his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) to join him for a fun-filled evening at their favorite pub, the Winchester, but Liz has wasted one too many night at the bar. She dumps him and he returns home where he has one more spat with an agitated Pete (who was bitten by a bunch of crackheads) before going to bed.

In the morning, a tired Shaun schleps down to the local convenience store and home without ever noticing the few people around him are acting strange – grunting, stumbling, and covered with blood. Returning home, he and Ed finally figure out something is wrong they are attacked. The reports on the news and the ghouls outside their house make the situation clear. Although neither Shaun nor Ed wants to say it, London is overrun with zombies. The friends fight their way clear with vinyl records and a cricket bat, getting past Pete before escaping. Shaun plans to collect his mother and Liz and hide out at the Winchester until the crisis has passed.

His mother, Barbara (Penelope Winton) is nursing Phillip, who has been bitten. Shaun reluctantly loads them into the car then heads to Liz’s flat, where she’s hiding out with her roommate Dianne (Lucy Davis) and Dianne’s boyfriend David (Dylan Moran). Although they are reluctant to go with him, the encroaching undead soon change their minds. As they flee, Phillip succumbs to his bite and they are forced to abandon the car, trapping him inside. They encounter Yvonne, who has gathered her own oddly familiar group of survivors and who is planning to find help. Shaun insists on following through his his own plan. When they reach the Winchester, they find it surrounded by zombies, and struggling actress Dianne gives the rest of the group a crash course in acting undead. Remarkably, the ruse works and they march through the army of zombies unmolested, until Ed’s mobile phone rings and blows their cover. They barely get to cover inside the bar.

In the Winchester, Shaun discovers that his mother has been hiding a bite of her own. He and David begin sniping at each other as Barbara struggles against the disease inside her, but when she finally dies and rises, Shaun puts her down with the rifle hanging over the bar. As they continue to argue, raw emotions are exposed: David is in love with Liz, something Dianne knows fully well, but she has been settling for what little affection he gives her. As they fight, the zombies overwhelm their barricades and pull David outside. Dianne snaps and rushes after him, being consumed as well. The last three break for the basement, but Ed is bitten on the way. Trapped, the three of them contemplate suicide, but before they can do anything, they find a secret hatch. Ed promises to cover Shaun and Liz as they escape. Biddign his best friend farewell, Ed can’t resist sending a fragrant flume of gas his way one more time. Making their way to the surface, Shaun and Liz are met by Yvonne, along with an entire army battalion that has arrived to put the zombies down. Six months later, Liz has moved in with Shaun and the world has adapted, using the zombies for menial labor and cheap entertainment. Shaun goes out to the shed to relax a little while, sitting down next to his best friend. Ed is now a zombie, but that doesn’t mean they two of them can’t continue to enjoy their video games.

Thoughts: I’ve said that Ghostbusters is my favorite horror/comedy and I stand by that, but damned if Shaun of the Dead doesn’t come in a close second. This film is a flawless combination of things that I love: emotionally honest characters, dry British wit, zombies, Bill Nighy… Any one of those elements is worthy of being loved, cherished, and having praise heaped upon them. Putting them together makes for one of the best horror/comedies ever made.

This film came in near the beginning of the current zombie wave, which has actually gone on much longer than I would have expected. It wasn’t the first zombie/comedy hybrid, but it was without a doubt the most effective, and I doubt the later entries into this subgenre (Fido and Zombieland, for example) would have enjoyed their respective success if Wright and Pegg hadn’t come along first and done such a remarkable job with this movie. The zombies themselves are played perfectly straight, a Type-A horror threat. In fact, they could have marched right off the set of a George Romero movie. In truth, if not for the sort of happy ending at the end of the film, one could easily make the meta-argument that it showed the British side of one of the many zombie apocalypses (apocalypsi?) that make him his own films. He himself was enough of a fan of Shaun that he invited Wright and Pegg to make a cameo appearance in Land of the Dead. (They played zombies.)

The zombie stuff works really well, and the comedy is near-flawless. Nick Frost’s Ed ranks up there with one of the great comedic bumblers. He slows down the group, makes poor decisions, and nearly gets them all killed several times. He’s like Gilligan – anybody in their right mind would have left him to die ten minutes after the zombies attacked. But for all his buffoonery, there’s some sort of inexplicable charm that makes you want to keep him around. It’s probably this, more than anything else, that helps him last right up until the very end. Let’s be honest, if Shaun had walked into the shed to reveal Pete or David chained to the wall, it would have just felt creepy. Watching him chide Ed for trying to bite him, though? It’s weirdly sweet.

Pegg himself is successful as the harried everyman, the ordinary guy who is in way over his head and needs to find a way to rise above it all if he’s to have any shot at survival, let alone getting the girl. It’s that status that makes him such a successful protagonist. Virtually everybody has felt like Shaun at one point in their life. It’s just that few of us are lucky enough to have a plague of the undead come along at just the right time to help us snap out of our funk.

Shaun’s character is just the beginning of these very real characters, though. David’s bitterness comes across as very genuine, and Dianne is a terribly sad character that you can wholeheartedly believe in. The moment of Phillip’s death is a remarkable one as well, turning a character that could have been a cartoon wicked stepfather into someone with genuine heart who just didn’t know how to express his feelings until it was too late. Liz is, if you’ll pardon the gender-specific term, the film’s straight man. She’s not particularly funny, but she allows Shaun and Ed to play off her rather well. The core of her relationship with Shaun, though, is one of true love and legitimate concern for their life. You never think poorly of her in the movie, never imagine her to be the sort of bitchy ex-girlfriend that a lot of movies would transform her into in order to make Shaun seem more heroic. I’ve come to realize that the truly great horror/comedies, whether they’re Type A or Type B, can fall into two categories: either they’re remarkably funny or surprisingly tender. Like Bubba Ho-Tep, Shaun of the Dead presents us with excellent characters that we really feel for. Their deaths aren’t just plot points or gags like in Eight Legged Freaks or Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Each major member of this cast has a role, a purpose, a meaning.

Not to say that it’s 100 minutes of zombies wrenching feelings out of you, not at all. The film is full of sharp running gags (Shaun has red on him, Ed is addicted to his phone, etc.) and Yvonne pops up just at the right time to lend some really successful levity just after Phillip’s crushing end. Shaun’s dream sequences about fighting to the Winchester are both really funny and highly relatable – unless you honestly expect me to believe you’ve never imagined your Zombie Apocalypse Contingency Plan beginning with thrilling heroics and ending with tossing back a cold one at your favorite hangout. Yes it has. You liar.

To put it simply, Shaun of the Dead is the perfect package of horror movie monsters, dramatic story beats, and rip-snorting laughter. If anyone tries to call it a parody of zombie movies, I feel the need to correct them right away. This isn’t a parody at all, this is a zombie movie. It just happens to be one where the prospective buffet left out for the undead is made up of some very, very funny people.