Star Trek Into Darkness (JJ Abrams, 2013)


Star Trek Into Darkness

Ok, to start with an admission: I’m a bit of a Trekkie. Not hardcore, not obsessive, but I like and watched the original series and The Next Generation all the way through, even the crappy episodes, and can happily rewatch the good ones repeatedly. I watched most of Deep Space Nine and Voyager, though gave up as they trashed the legacy with Enterprise.

Kirk (Chris Pine) breaks the prime directive and loses his captaincy but regains it after an attack by a mysterious figure from Starfleet called John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). Investigating further, Kirk uncovers a plot to undermine Starfleet from within… Sorry, I can’t really be bothered with a precis of the plot. Suffice to say: crash, bang, bang, bigger bang, more bangs, etc… The cast do their best (Cumberbatch, unsurprisingly, is excellent) but this is only really of interest to people who like their films loud and fast.

The films have been pretty disappointing, by and large, only Wrath of Khan and First Contact really standing out for me. Abrams’ reboot of 2009 was a film of two halves; the first being an imaginative and engaging new start to an old story, the second being an unimaginative and brainless actioner unworthy of the franchise. I understand that Lost had a repution for an outstandingly bad finish so wonder if Abrams is simply incapable of completing anything well. This second Star Trek film had a repution for being ‘for the fans’ and being a bit more intelligent, if still at 100mph, so I went in cautiously optimistic.

Hmmm.

The experience was pleasurable enough at the time but I find myself disliking it the longer time has passed. Like Prometheus, this film is let down by rampaging stupidity; stupidity that undercuts the raison d’etre for the film and all the claims it makes.

There are dozens of minor quibbles – why does the Enterprise have to start the film underwater? why does Spock need to go into the volcano to set off a bomb? Do the filmmakers really think cold fusion freezes things? But there are bigger problems, too. One of the weakest films prior to this one, Insurrection, couldn’t decide on its ending, adding one crisis after another, seemingly lacking conviction in the sufficiency of the previous one. If anything, Into Darkness, is at least as bad for this, having an extended sequence that should be the climax superseded by another one that is even more long-drawn-out and then that’s not the end either. I simply lost interest.

There is also a suggestion that this film is “for the fans” but clumsy references to other films, often embarrassingly obvious, are only going to satisfy the most easily pleased of fans. Where Star Trek got its reputation, and its large and devoted fan-base, was in intelligent and unashamedly discursive and intellectual storytelling. All of the films, to a lesser or greater extent, have suffered from having to appeal to a mass cinema audience, people who know very little of the backstory or mythos of the Star Trek Universe, while keeping on board the diehard fans whose opinion, if mobilised, could create such a bad buzz as to kill the film. This current film, made by someone who has admitted to having no interest in the TV series or previous films, is not made to please the fans; it’s a film made in fear of them, but made to appeal to an entirely different audience.

Now Abrams has the Star Wars gig, one that he genuinely cares about, perhaps he can make a film that is genuinely for the fans; this isn’t it.

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Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, 2013)


Before Midnight

A word of warning – this film is the third in a trilogy and it’s nigh impossible to discuss it without giving spoilers for the first two.

It’s also highly likely that you’ll only really get the full emotional impact of it if you watched the first two, and if you liked them also.

Before Sunrise, the 1995 first instalment, introduced us to Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) as they meet on a train in Austria on the last night before Jesse heads back to the States. He persuades Celine to spend his last night in Vienna with him and they walk and talk through the night, deciding to meet a year later to see if they can make their incipient love affair permanent.

Before Sunset catches up with them nine years later. Jesse is a successful author, on the back of a fictionalised account of that magical evening, though Celine never turned up on the agreed anniversary. At a book signing in Paris, Celine does make an appearance and they again spend what time Jesse has left in Paris together to see if they can reconnect, though Jesse is now married with a son.

And so to the latest film. It begins with Jesse seeing off his now teenage son, Hank, at an airport as he returns to his mother. Jesse’s ex-wife, it soon transpires, has never really recovered from the divorce and is not only bitter with him but may also be alcoholic (we hear this in conversation between Jesse and Celine, not an unbiased source, so this may not be true). Jesse returns to the car where Celine waits with their two infant daughters. They are staying in the idyllic Greek house of a famous British author for six weeks, as Jesse has continued his success as an author and is now well regarded in academia, and this is their last day before returning to Paris where they now live.

Jesse is unhappy that he is missing (has missed) his son’s childhood and wonders aloud about returning to the US for a couple of years, just to catch what he can of Hank’s remaining childhood. Celine is unwilling to leave France as she knows that Jesse’s worries about Hank reappear every year and are too late to really now make a difference, and she has the opportunity for a new job that is important to her sense of self-worth, as she feels undervalued. This starts an argument that simmers throughout the rest of the film.

Unlike the first two films, there is a supporting cast that gets significant screen time, which makes sense. Jesse and Celine’s lives are no longer entirely their own and they can’t be quite so selfish as previously. The various couples we meet also reflect on our couple’s past, present and future possibilities and allow a more natural discussion of various themes that have arisen in all three films. Yet the film only really takes off once their friends look after the children for the night, sending Jesse and Celine for a ‘romantic’ evening alone in a hotel.

Alone together for the first time in years, they get to talk, as they used to, and as we watched them previously, but resentments and problems that have been buried in the business of everyday life come to the surface and it is not clear that their relationship can last.

Delpy and Hawke have been given co-writing credits on this film and I wonder if the tone of the film, much more melancholy than previously, is a product of this, or whether it is simply a natural and inevitable result of the circumstances of their relationship and age.

It’s beautiful, and I want to re-watch the first film, particularly, again though it won’t be for everyone. There is almost no plot and lots of talking – a film of relationships and ideas.