Film review – Star Trek: Into The Darkness

JJ Abrams serves up an entertaining but surprisingly shallow sequel to his hugely successful Star Trek reboot of 2009. It is ultimately a glossy remix, which under scrutiny falls well short of maximum warp speed into your wonder cortex.

Anticipating the stylish lens flare on the whiter-than-white decks of the USS Enterprise, and with the same young cast of the previous Trek film, it looks like we are in for another treat from this director in his Hollywood ascendancy – Abrams was announced as the first director of Star Wars Episode VII while Into The Darkness was in post-production.

The film opens on a primitive world with an Indiana Jones-style pursuit of shrouded people by members of a tribal culture in threat of extinction from an erupting volcano. The white-painted tribal humanoids have glossy black eyes that are remarkably similar to the engineers from Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. Behold, the same screenwriter, Damon Lindlehof, has his fingerprints on this film, too. It’s a stunner of an opening as Abrams again pushes the interaction of the Enterprise and the physical world to achieve a strange sense of astonishing scale.

The problems come when we get into the main plot: a terrorist, Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), previously a Starfleet agent, has blown up a sensitive Starfleet installation to attract the attention of its best and brightest to his nefarious doings based on the Klingon home world of Kronos.

As seen in the trailer, he shoots up the resulting Starfleet security meeting, scattering chocolate bourbons, spilling coffee and top brass blood that is close to the heart of Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine). And pine he does, very suddenly with tears rolling down his face as if he’s been kicked in the balls. The Enterprise speeds out to Kronos with specially issued high-powered weapons and instructions to fire them at Khan’s location, with the dubious side effect of a possible escalation to war with the Klingons and an analogy to Obama’s use of drones to fire and forget on enemy combatants (maybe, I dunno). Hmm, best furrow your ethical brow on that one, Kirk old boy. But before Admiral Akbar can say “It’s a trap!” from a galaxy far, far away, it turns out… it’s a trap.

The logic of the plot feels rushed, with extra stuff added in great arcs of improv screenwriting to quickly justify the machinations of the bad guy(s). There is much crying (characters, not the audience) in this outing and it felt odd. Out of character performances forced by direction occur incongruously again and again at moments that feel like speed bumps in the flat emotional terrain of the film. And that’s the real problem with Abrams, he’s great at style, wit and panache, but awful at building a real relationship between characters, so that when a credible level of threat approaches, the sobbing has no value post disaster. The near death of a major character is solved in a lightning fade to black with none of the poignancy of, say, oh I don’t know, a certain scene from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That film contained real emotion and a moving speech after the death of a fellow crewman.

Zachary Quinto takes more of a back seat as Spock, with some truly strange moments of domestic dispute between him and Uhura (Zoe Saldana). There are also some (surely?) unintentional comedic dramatic pauses, for instance, when Khan reveals his real name to Kirk in a blistering close-up using his most deranged English accent, there is the mother of all pauses where the audience at future Prince Charles Cinema quote-along screenings will say, “Dun-duh-daaaah!” in dramatic tones to Kirk’s befuddled expression.

Posters advertising the film show a badly bruised Enterprise descending through the Earth’s atmosphere, sans shields and power, at risk – it is said quite clearly – of burning up on re-entry. But wait, the next shot we see is of the ship dropping through clouds post re-entry, fully intact. So JJ, was there really a threat of losing the ship, or were you just throwing some drama at the grand finale wall to see if it stuck?

The film asks for investment in story arcs that exist for only a few of seconds at a time, like some kind of Goldfish-memory concept of screenwriting. I’m looking at you, Lindelhof. It’s not particularly engaging for the audience and I really wanted to invest more emotionally and be rewarded for that. We never did find out what the “Darkness” was that the title promised. Never mind. At least it looked pretty and things went bang.

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Late film review – Flight

Contrary to expectations, Flight is less a film about a plane crash, but more about a man forced to confront his alcohol and drug addiction.

In Cast Away, director Robert Zemeckis tore a plane apart in visceral style to maroon a man on a deserted island with nothing but himself for company. In Flight, captain Whip Whitaker (Denzil Washington) survives the directors’ force majeure to land a crippled airliner after some pretty fancy flying. The trouble is, he tests positive in hospital for booze and cocaine, and so is forced to retreat from life as he comes under investigation by the aviation authority. He survived the crash, but can he survive himself?

Washington is superb as a man living life on the edge of functionality – swinging from a drunken stupor, barely able to talk, to an enhanced state of mind where he is supremely confidant and razor sharp. His abilities as a pilot are without question; after a malfunction, he enlists other members of the flight crew to help him perform a daring series of unconventional manoeuvres that ultimately save many lives.

Enabled by his drug-dealing buddy Harling Mays (John Goodman), Whip’s personality oscillates between sobriety and stoned as he feels the turbulence of the law – and possible exposure – on his tail. After the plane crash, it’s a plot intended as a second hair-raising ride as the audience watch him grapple, slip and regain control of his life, only to lapse again.

Hanging in the air throughout is the question of whether being stoned assisted him in recovering the aircraft as he did. What some believe to be an act of God may have been an act assisted by intoxication, saving lives for which he may, paradoxically, be punished. It’s a straight story about the choice of redeeming oneself with great cost, or continuing to maintain a deception at all.

The religious aspect of the film is not as prevalent as some have suggested, but it’s a plot device that was lost on me. The concept of divine intervention is not intrinsic to the final equation, yet Zemeckis continues to sprinkle it here and there. Yes, there is a growing moral conflict within Whip as to whether he should confess to being inebriated at the time of the flight or ride along with the union officials trying to cover up the fact – but, perhaps in an indication of the grip of his addiction – his course is affected not by the religious views and efforts of those around him, but by the previously unknown example of someone else much closer to his heart.

As an aside, there is a question about the opening scene, set in a hotel bedroom after Whip and crew member Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez) have secretly spent the night together. While Whip answers the phone, Velazquez is seen completely nude, close to camera for much of the scene as she gets dressed. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m red-blooded and she’s a very attractive lady with a great body, but there doesn’t seem to be any narrative reason for it. Compare this to Helen Hunt’s full-frontal in The Sessions, which had context in a story about the normalising of sex for a man who was terrified of it. Yes, the nudity in Flight is realistic of a woman who has had a night of great sex, but Denzel’s chap isn’t given a similar outing and there’s an imbalance in the lingering shots of her, admittedly well-toned body, that seem gratuitous. It would be interesting to know Valezquez’s opinion.

Let’s be clear: I’m not offended. It just seems a little cheap and I just can’t see what it adds to the movie. It would be a shame if a film maker of Zemeckis’ stature felt obliged to include an 80s-action-film titty-and-crotch shot purely for pornographic gratification, because for that, we can go and watch porn. Just tell us the story, Bob.

Film review – Cloud Atlas

If you listen closely to Cloud Atlas, you can you hear the sound of fortune-cookie wisdom crumbling. This ambitious film from directors Tom Tykwer, and Lana and Andy Wachowski is one that I really wanted to like, but it fizzles out in a narrative muddle of psycho-babble.

The plot consists of six stories in different time periods: a 19th century voyage following a young lawyer dealing in black slaves; in mid-20th century Edinburgh, a young musician composes the Cloud Atlas suite; in 1970s San Francisco, a journalist investigates corruption and murder at a nuclear power plant; in England, the present day, a bankrupt publisher is incarcerated in a care home; in the futuristic, fascist-run Neo-Seoul, a cloned fast-food waitress is given an opportunity to escape and start a revolution; and finally, on a post-apocalyptic Earth, an island of primitive tribal people are visited by more technologically-advanced members of the human race.

The film’s central message is that “everything is connected”, that one individual or action can make a difference across centuries. It’s the butterfly effect served up like a mug of hot chocolate to make you feel all warm inside. Various objects pop up in subsequent time periods, their existence assisting or provoking other individuals to take certain actions.

Another theme is that of being freed from slavery and the confines of a repressive society, even the confines of one’s own thoughts. All noble things, but the Wachowski’s fail to fit it all together, instead making broad brushstrokes with their massive existential paintbrush. Individually, the stories are entertaining and thrilling, but the critical problem with Cloud Atlas is that the collective whole does not pay off.

The VFX-created Neo-Seoul city looks incredible – the soaring skyways glowing with a neon blue energy and extreme skyscrapers – but there are lazy similarities to The Fifth Element and Blade Runner, from an escape scene to the now clichéd neo-punk pedestrians wandering under neon lights carrying transparent umbrellas. This story exists to present a focal point for the film’s message; during an interrogation scene of the cloned waitress Sonmi-351 (Doona Bae) by a Vulcan-like member of the “Unanimity” state, she is asked if she cares if the revolution will fail. She replies that it does not matter because she knows that she has changed the mind of one person, at least.

This idea is also alluded to in the 19th century story, when characters rebel against the authority of a father figure who says that their efforts would be “a drop in the ocean”. The reply, “What is an ocean, but a multitude of drops?” summarises the Wachowski’s optimistic ideal of a minority rising against a greater, oppressive force by the spreading a new ideology. Inspiring, but it’s contradicted by the rest of the film: how can individuals be liberated to change their present circumstances if their success is dependent on a chain of random events occurring over centuries?  Are all our thoughts and actions slaves to the past? What exactly is it that the directors of Cloud Atlas want to say to us?

Another issue is the device of using actors to play multiple roles, but covered up by thick layers of striking prosthetics. I presume we are meant to recognise the same “souls” from one story to the next, but what happens is you end up spotting the actors themselves pop up in different guises, prompting a game of “Oh look, it’s him/her again,” which does distract from the story.

Nowhere is this more of a problem than in the Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) storyline set in modern England. He goes to visit his brother (Hugh Grant made up like a sun-crisped Roger Daltry) who tricks him into checking into a care home. The nurses are Hugo Weaving and James D’Arcy made up to bear an uncanny resemblance to Rupert Everett as the headmistress from the St Trinian’s films. Farce such as this works on the basis of a series of unplanned mishaps that culminate in a comedic pay-off, usually at the expense of the character that is the unwitting architect of his or her misfortune – the butterfly effect again. Unfortunately, in a sci-fi film, the incongruous inclusion of an episode of Waiting for God creates a genre schism.

The final story of tribe member Zachry (Tom Hanks) and Meronym (Halle Berry) could be the most interesting yet, but insists on crowbarring in yet another concept; the conflict between religious belief and science. Except it doesn’t really, because details are threadbare as to what the story is about, so it’s a waste of screen time.

Zachry is haunted by the vision of a voodoo character with painted face and dressed in tattered top hat and tails (think The League of Gentlemen’s Papa Lazarou, as I did with his every screen appearance), judging his actions and urging him to prevent the progress of Meronym’s scientific expedition. What she is trying to do, I don’t know, but it involved climbing a mountain to fire up some kind of machinery to some critical purpose. The characters speak in an evolved form of English that makes things even more incomprehensible.

There is something to be said for weaving a tale with just enough to set your audience’s minds alight with questions, but not so much so as to deny them the exaltation of discovering the meaning for themselves. It is a thin line that the Wachowski’s smudge, throwing too many disconnected philosophies at the screen without resolving them cohesively. More cloudiness than clarity, unfortunately.