Monday, 13 May 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness: A Khan fan's review

I’ll start by coming right out and saying it: I am a big Wrath of Khan fan. For me it is the only completely satisfying Star Trek film before the 2009 JJ Abrams reboot.

There are other honourable efforts. The Undiscovered Country (Star Trek VI) has a great story, but the cast are so wrinkled and puffy it rather lacks vigour. First Contact, the only good Next Generation movie, is another favourite of mine - but the supporting cast’s performances are a wink away from panto standard and this often causes me to fast-forward entire sections.

So it was that when I saw the first Abrams Star Trek effort, I was rather pleased. It found a simple, elegant way to respect the legacy of the original cast, yet go on to tell its own stories with the same characters.

Of course the actors filling the roles had to be good to pull this off - and Chris Pine as Jim Kirk more than delivered, nodding to the best of Shatner’s outlandish style without descending into outright parody. I was genuinely shocked and delighted by his performance, having been certain that I would loathe any attempt to replicate or replace Shatner.

True, the other parts failed to achieve the same heights - Spock wasn’t quite there for me, while Scotty and Bones produced little more than misfiring impressions – but all in all I was stunned to have found the thing such a pleasant experience, and recognised that there was plenty of space to develop the other characters in future instalments.

The plot was slight, but I could forgive that because the film looked great, barrelled along (which Star Trek rarely achieves), and at least recognised the Kirk/ Spock dynamic as the heart of the piece. It was a decent start. I had big expectations for the next movie.

So it is that I feel a little crushed by Star Trek into Darkness. The movie’s defining image, of the Enterprise hurtling powerless back down to Earth, is an appropriate one. It’s an odd film, because it surrenders all the fresh, virgin territory it fought so hard to win in the first movie - in favour of a creatively bankrupt reheat job.

I had deliberately read nothing about the movie, or even watched more than the original trailer, so what Khan rumours I had heard didn’t concern me when I took my seat in the cinema.

I actually ran with the movie for the entire first half, delighted to see Peter Weller taking up an aggressive bad guy part and intrigued by the possibility of a really strong Klingon based story – perhaps some brilliantly conceived box of tricks that would build to the outbreak of war and set up a third movie.

Then Cummerbach said “Khan” and everything raced off into a shrieking muddle. Suddenly it was grasping at the coat-tails of an illustrious predecessor in a way that the first Abrams movie, whatever you think of it, had made entirely unnecessary.

A performance this big would always
hang over Cummerbach
There is, from a writer’s perspective, no need for the film to become such a deformed and inbred creature. No need at all. Even as it stands the plot is doable without the weird swerve into impersonation and leaden homage.  Cummerbach’s villain could have survived almost unchanged as an entirely new character without affecting the arc of the story.

So what is the purpose of stamping him with the name of a much loved figure from the past? It doesn’t help the story along, only pulls it in several directions – and I assume it can only have made those who know the original cringe.

At its worst, the film’s tribute act is plain embarrassing –witness the switcheroo re-enactment of the conclusion to Wrath of Khan. It plays like a drunken fan fiction experiment, then tosses any trace of impact via a resurrection device worse even than planet Genesis. At its best the film is merely laughable, like some wretched youtube tribute act – just watch Spock’s Shatner howl, if you dare.

The other problem is that the characters simply haven’t progressed. Pine’s Kirk is now so busy running around shouting that he really could be any character in any action movie. Scotty and Bones continue to provide nothing more than weak, weak comedy relief, and Ohura still does nothing but look good and emote – where what is required from the only female crew member is a bit of charisma, a touch of attitude.
I don’t think Abrams will make a third Star Trek, and critically at least he seems to have gotten away with this. And I suppose to someone who has never seen Wrath of Khan, Into Darkness might have played well. Perhaps a different director and a whole new set of writers will make a success of a third and we can put this unpleasantness behind us. I do think the cast have a genuinely good film in them.

Abrams belongs with Star Wars. There’s a franchise whose fans are well used to feeling dirty. Kirk, after all,  hasn’t yet trekked into the darkness of a Vodaphone ad campaign.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

All’s Well that ends Wells

The War of the Worlds, Invasion fantasies and Hollywood.

I spend a great deal of time youtube-ing away the small hours, typing in the names of my various heroes and seeing what marvels emerge from the ether. Recently I happened upon a radio broadcast from 1940, named “Orson Welles interviews HG Wells” - the occasion when the two met to discuss Orson’s infamous 1938 radio adaptation of "War of the Worlds".

It’s a remarkable recording.

First there is the simple pleasure of hearing the mutual admiration shared by two great men. It runs throughout their conversation as HG’s kindly, croaking voice contrasts with Orson’s refined, rumbling tones. More importantly there is the fascinating example it provides of fiction’s role as a mirror to powerful nations’ anxieties.

Wells’ 1898 original was part of a surge of British “invasion literature”, a string of works imagining the destruction of the British Empire which were produced during or shortly after the severe “Long Depression”. Wells’ book stood apart from the jingoistic malice of much of the genre, allowing it to be embraced and retold for a US audience, but it still echoes the genre’s uneasy sense of ebbing power, of imminent decline.

The 1940 interview was made during the realisation of those fears. At the time of the recording Great Britain, once a mighty empire, was on the verge of invasion by Nazi Germany. The US stood apart, widely sympathetic but unwilling to be embroiled.

Listening to it now, during similar troubled economic times, it’s hard not to note the remarkable surge of invasion narratives bursting out of today’s weakened giant, the United States.

Hollywood has never been so busy imagining attacks on the homeland, either from Earthly powers (White House Down, Olympus Has Fallen, Red Dawn), or from aliens (Battleship, Pacific Rim).

Perhaps these new invasion tales may herald a crisis of American power in 30 or 40 years time? More importantly, do any of them match up to Wells' work?

The Writing of the Wars

Having dug out my old copy of the novel and read it again, I would say the answer is no, they don’t.

The book is so accomplished it’s easy to see Wells as a kind of Nostradamus figure. There’s the spooky similarity of his Martians to the German invaders who would threaten British shores forty years later, their hearts hardened by the “pressure of necessity”, their dreadful technology reminiscent of perverted Nazi science.

Then there’s the novel’s environmental awareness. Wells’ Martians come to Earth because their planet is dying, made cruel conquerors by force of their hostile environment. Yet Wells is at pains to point out that humanity are hardly “apostles of mercy”, justifying the extinction of entire species by invoking divine or genetic destiny.

But it is the sheer quality of the storytelling that  sets the book apart from our modern alien invasions.

The pace of the Wells work is masterful. It is not until days after their arrival that the Martians leave their pit and begin spreading chaos and destruction. For a time there is some question as to their intentions.

This pause is hugely effective. Boys, maids and Woking locals linger by the capsule, half curious, half distracted by daily concerns, building tension wonderfully. Obviously it is a time before radio, cars, and aviation, and the speed of revelation is necessarily slower - but it is still an effective means of building tension.

That's something Hollywood productions rarely accomplish.The aliens of films like Cloverfield, Battle of LA and Skyline are clearly aggressive from the moment they arrive. Only 1996's Independence Day emulates Wells’ calm before the storm, when the vast alien vessels hang over landmarks of the world - and it was one of the more effective sections of the film.

That’s not to say the novel is a slow affair. When the Martians do finally let rip, the story accelerates magnificently, the action surprisingly exciting. In Steven Speilberg’s adaptation of the book (which is only very loosely faithful) the tripods have a shield that renders all human weapons ineffective. Why? The book is so much better.

In Wells’ battles the 19th century armies actually manage to damage a couple of tripods - at Shepperton Lock with artillery pieces, and in the English Channel with the heroic action of the Thunderchild. Again, this is considerably more effective at creating suspense and excitement, as the reader is allowed to cling to the possibility of a turn in human fortunes, no matter how slim.

The novel also has an emotional complexity that is entirely absent from Hollywood invasions. Wells’ narrator is a man of “exceptional moods”, who finds himself at turns unaccountably angry with the wife he presumes dead, captivated by the artilleryman’s Facist fantasies, and homicidal in the company of a weak-minded curate. This makes him all the more human - a very far cry from the cut-out protagonists of Hollywood invasions, who are rarely more than flag-kissing soldiers, protective fathers, devoted scientists or speechifying leaders (“Today we cancel the apocalypse!” booms the Pacific Rim trailer - surely one of the weakest lines yet conceived in film history).

Above all, it is the conclusion to Wells’ invasion tale that has yet to be matched. One of the things I have found most frustrating about the recent alien movies is their complete failure to create interesting solutions to the implied technical supremacy of alien invaders.

Each of the recent movies has either lazily chosen to have sheer brute force triumph (Battle of LA) or doesn’t bother to explain how the invasion ends at all (Cloverfield). Independence Day at least makes an attempt to do something more interesting, with the infamous computer virus solution, but as well as being crippled by sheer implausibility it cannot hope to match the elegance of Wells’ solution - where instead of humanity saving the planet, the planet saves humanity.

This is not to say that Wells is perfect, or above the flaws of Hollywood productions. The novel has an amusingly isolationist viewpoint, with the rest of the world barely mentioned. It is simply taken as read that the Martians would open their invasion in Britain, (which is the best country after all), and go from there. Even if Wells had written the entire globe to be under simultaneous attack, you can imagine him referring to other nations with a dismissive, Hollywood-style line like: “Paris has been destroyed” - and then move on without shedding a tear.

But that doesn’t excuse Hollywood from attempting more thoughtful and inventive storytelling. The Wells novel illustrates that it’s possible to write an alien invasion narrative which sees contemplative scenes complement and even enhance spectacular action sequences.

Now obviously the screenplay is a different kind of writing to the novel, and obviously Hollywood is something of a soft target here. Wells wrote at a different time, when as he slyly notes, “even philosophical writers had many little luxuries”.

But the fact remains that Hollywood has yet to conjure a solution to alien invaders as magnificent as Wells' microbial infection. It seems more and more reliant on a rather facist notion of triumphant will for humanity to survive.

That begs a question:

Was Wells blessed to write during a unique period of discovery? Could early science fire the imagination in a way it cannot now, offering tantalising glimpses rather than high resolution images of the lifeless reality? Has our imagination become as stagnant as manned spaceflight?

Or is it just damn hard to write a good ending?