04 March 2014

#2LR Too Late Reviews -- Star Trek Into Darkness and the art of the reboot.

Sequels have been around for pretty much forever in the annals of storytelling.  Even the Iliad had its Odyssey following it.  The continuity of characters and of relationships or situations makes it easy for viewers of the original to be able to relate to the sequel very quickly.  Of course, the authors of sequels are helped as well, as they've already created the groundwork for the story to go forward, they can then spend less time on the nuts and bolts and get to the plot, the rising action that will allow their readers or viewers to really enjoy what they're seeing.

Reboots, however, are a more recent vintage.  It's thought that the term literally comes from the computer term for "reboot", where a computer system comes up after being shut down.  There are BIOS instructions for the computer system to set up and run an operating system so that it will act as if it did before, and it will clear up any errors that may have been introduced in the RAM by other programs.

It's a fairly apt term when applied to the literary equivalent and most recently, movie equivalent.  Comic books had to deal with this constantly even decades ago... when artists move on but leave their creations, it's a property that has already been invested in and built up.  When a new artist comes to fill in on that continuity, what are they to do?

A reboot is not necessarily a remake... remakes have been happening for ages.  It's not as if the original actors of Hamlet can come out of retirement to show us how it's done.  A reboot is in a different world its own.  A remake may be straightforward or it may reimagines the source material in a different light and introduces few if any plot changes.  The remake might emphasize or deemphasize certain aspects of the source work, but overall it does not vary nor is there much added to the source work plot-wise.  A reboot keeps the characters and some of the situations of the original work, but ends up moving off in a completely different direction, managing to make up its own plot distinct from the work that it first used as its basis.

With that said, how do reboots work, and what do they do right?  I recently had a chance to rewatch Star Trek Into Darkness and felt that talking about the high points and low points of reboots would be the right thing to do in the context of this movie.

[Spoiler Space ahead]

The movie opens up on Spock being lowered into a volcano and Kirk and Bones fleeing a group of pale-skinned natives on a planet.  It turns out in the prologue that the volcano is literally slated to destroy the planet that they're on and without Spock's direct assistance this rock might never see the miracle of cheez in a can realized someday.

To escape the natives running after, the two end up taking a flying leap off of a cliff into the water below where we find the Enterprise curiously "docked".  (Ha?)  Why the heck it was placed near the planet's surface instead of safely orbiting I don't honestly remember... much less the nerdy objections to how it can operate in a pressure-filled environment when it is supposed to be in a pressure-less environment.  Or, if the volcano is imminent to explode, why have the starship anywhere near the surface??  Technerd objections aside, Kirk and Bones appear in the airlock and Kirk immediately asks about Spock.  Spock, meantime, is doing his level best to reenact the Mount Doom sequences from Lord of the Rings.

The plot contrivance volcano is giving off too much "magnetism" for the Enterprise to just beam Spock back aboard.  The crew theorizes that they need to get into "line of sight" with Spock, so they have to lift the starship out of the ocean.  Spock vehemently vetoes the idea as he places the Prime Directive above his own safety but Kirk overrules him.  Spock is picked up in the nick of time, the planet's natives start to worship a picture of a starship instead of their previous artifacts, and the Enterprise is returning to Earth at warp-speed.

On Earth, Kirk is caught lying on the report of the incident by Spock counter filing his own report.  Kirk gets busted down to first officer and Spock gets reassigned.  (Here's one of the two spots that I'm highlighting below.)  At around this time one of Starfleet's libraries gets bombed and that draws in the senior command for a meeting.  Kirk rightly figures out that the library bombing was purely a feint to get senior command together in one spot.  Too late though... just as he figured it out, the bullets start flying and the body count continues to grow.

The perpetrator escapes.  He leaves behind one major clue... he's going to the Klingon homeworld to hide out.  Starfleet comes up with a massively cockamamie idea to shoot missiles at the Klingon homeworld from neutral space, even providing 72(!!) of them.  Kirk's crew has major misgivings, from Spock's protestations that it is a military rather than exploratory mission and Scotty's resignation over not knowing the missile's contents.  Kirk cares less as it was shown that Captain Pike, who pulled him into Starfleet and gave him his first commission, was one of the casualties of the terrorist attack.  Kirk just wants blood.  Chekov replaces Scotty as head engineer because they didn't train a SINGLE PERSON in Engineering how to work ALL the parts at once.

The Enterprise gets to the neutral zone point but then warp core problems start.  (I think it was sabotage, at least it would have made more sense to the plot, but I don't remember exactly how).  Kirk, Spock, and Uhura then take a shuttlecraft to the Klingon home world... all the while Uhura and Spock are fighting because Uhura thought it insensitive that Spock considered the Prime Directive over HER FEELINGS.  (If the dude was literally ready to die in order to not break the rules, I think that the relationship was like second place...)  After the odd snit, they manage to get captured by the Klingons... but then the fugitive shows up and takes out about thirty of them via hand-held phaser and massive phaser cannon.  The fugitive asks Kirk about how many missiles are pointed at his head.  When Kirk answers "72", he immediately surrenders... and tells us his name is Khan.

(Sigh.  Yes, Khan's back.)

At this point things get even weirder.  First, one of the missiles is opened and it turns out to be a cryogenic pod containing one of Khan's crewmembers.  All of these dudes are packed in those tubes and it is Khan's intention to recover them to recreate his own group of followers.  He also tells Kirk of the skunkworks he worked at somewhere around Jupiter where one of the Starfleet admirals (Marcus) was creating major weapons of war. Khan has been helping to design and build battlecruisers.  I didn't quite catch if it was the case, but it may have been verboten by agreements with other groups (e.g. Romulans, Klingons, etc.).  Kirk messages Scotty back on Earth to investigate Khan's story.

Marcus wants Khan dead because Khan knows too much... and now by association, so does the Enterprise.  Kirk first attempts to run, but the battleship is just as fast and can shoot at them while in warp-speed travel. After enough of the Enterprise is beat up, Kirk stops near Earth, but is unfortunately far enough away for anyone to figure out what's going on.

The Enterprise is helpless... the engines are out, shields are out, and weapons are offline.  Kirk's love-interest, Carol Marcus, pleads with her father to spare the Enterprise.  Marcus responds by transporting her to his battleship and continues to prime the weapons.  It turned out that Scotty had managed to sneak his way onto the battleship and has disabled the weapons in order to spare the Enterprise, even briefly.  Since there's no way to do anything to the battleship from the Enterprise, Kirk and Khan decide to don spacesuits to get from one to the other via space.

Scotty opens a porthole, both fly in, and then they make their way to the bridge.  Kirk and Khan manage to subdue the skeleton crew of the battleship including Marcus.  Kirk then swings his phaser around to stun Khan.  Khan does not stay stunned.  Khan takes control of the bridge of the warship, parlaying with Spock for the return of his crew.  Spock instead pulled all of the cryotubes from each of the missiles and replaced them with explosives, wired to detonate when transported to the battleship.  The weapons explode and both starships are sent towards Earth's gravity.

The Enterprise can't escape gravity because their engines are still down.  Kirk does his best imitation of one of those human fly performers to climb up the warp core.  At the top he literally kicks one of the two "contacts" in the core to bring them back in alignment.  I am amazed that there are not septuple-redundant systems to do this NOT within the warp core, as going in will subject him to Chernobyl-level radiation doses and death.  He does anyway... and he and Spock reenact the scene at the end of the original "Wrath of Khan", but in reverse... Kirk inside and Spock outside.  Yes, there will be complaints below.

Meanwhile, Khan manages to crash the battleship into Starfleet headquarters in San Francisco, and even manages to survive and run away from *this*.  Spock (and Uhura) ends up chasing him down, capturing him, and returning him *to a cryopod*.

Hokay, I've got to take a break to address this.  Hey, movie, mind executing the dude who massacred many civilians by crashing a starship into the middle of a city?  Not to mention the library explosion, a squad of killed Klingons, the senior command shooting in the beginning?  Heck, what about the skeleton crew of what looked like Blackwater contractors flying the Starfleet dreadnought, that were all "stunned" rather than killed and ended up perishing in the final crash?  No, you need him for future sequels?  *sigh*

Last but not least, we find out that Khan's blood has "regenerative properties"... I suppose Wolverine is still alive and kicking somewhere in the universe's equivalent of a Yellowknife dive bar.  This time though it doesn't take another movie to bring Kirk back, just a plot contrivance.  Yeah, I know that Khan's blood was needed for Bones' super-serum to heal Kirk (hey Starfleet, who will you be sharing THAT formula with...), but there's TONS of time afterward to execute him.  THIS is why reboots end up becoming necessary, by the way, these throwaway "super serums" that end up mucking up a continuity.

As the movie rolls further past the two-hour mark the epilogue is a rededication of the Enterprise, which I am surprised even managed to get *re*built... I would have absolutely believed "built again" considering the massive hull holes that sucked out numerous people.

The summary for this movie is over... though some people may consider the below discussion of the nuts and bolts of the ending spoiler space as well. I've attempted to hide as much as possible, but it can't all be pulled from view. You've been warned...

I wanted to point out the best reason for a reboot.  It was in the beginning when Chris Pine's Kirk and Zach Quinto's Spock are getting dressed down for the actions they took in the prologue to the movie.  Spock protests that Admiral Pike is not considering the overall details of the mission, how it was supposed to have happened, and what then subsequently made the mission fail.  Pike dismisses Spock's concern by telling him that they were merely technicalities... Spock then not only tells Pike that technicalities are the soul of a Vulcan, but managed to get into the technicalities of the technicalities.  I absolutely loved the scene even if it was just a minor thing, and to me this showed the heights that a reboot can provide... it may be a new person writing Spock, but they're trying to stay as true to his character (or perhaps Quinto was improvising?) and I thought that it was a cool touch.

However, the reboot has the awkward task of *reminding* people of the original while not hewing too closely.  I can respect that they would bring back not only old characters but also old villains.  That's fine and fair game to me.  However, the scene between Kirk and Spock that I marked with complaints above is getting mentioned here.  I thought it was not only really unnecessary, it was almost as if the movie had to contort its plot just to make sure that the scene could be included.

See, the problem for me was that getting Kirk into the situation was not easy.  They also had a very tough time trying to establish the stakes of the situation... firstly, Kirk's "killer" was much like the "killer" from The Happening... silent, invisible, and "deadly".  There was an "against the clock" situation accompanying it (as the starship was currently non-operational), but according to the internal logic, the moment that Kirk stepped inside he signed his death warrant.  I remain extremely surprised that the equipment to be able to deal with the situation was not present, especially since it seemed that the problem he fixed was something that could possibly happen in other contexts.  This is Starfleet.  There should be systems backing up systems backing up systems... unless of course, the problem Kirk fixed can be dealt with by a few Ensign Throwaway redshirts.

I couldn't find this final scene even halfway believable either.  After two new Star Trek movies, there'd be no way that they'd kill off one of the marquee stars this easily.  So it was almost as if the movie telegraphed the fact that it would be breaking its own continuity.  And it did, in pretty spectacular form.  At this point, they put in the scene between Spock and Khan at the end of the movie.  There was a lack of suspense in knowing that they would bring back James T. Kirk, but you even knew during the *fight scene* who would win because of it.  So, this scene destroyed the suspense for BOTH of the resolutions.

The screenwriters knew that they couldn't spend a movie bringing Kirk back (like the original series did by bringing Spock back in Star Trek 3), so why even attempt it?  And lo and behold, it wasn't attempted.  As above, they used a method that was outlandish for even comic books to bring Kirk back in about fifteen minutes flat.

This is what I just can't get behind with a reboot.  If you're going to have to change your story to try to incorporate plot points, make sure that it's going to fit in your overarching plot.  Yes, there's a touch of the technerd in me, but it felt like they had to open up a few holes in the fabric of the story in order to get these aspects into the movie... and I can't get behind that.  Give me more "The Universe Hates Jim Kirk's Face" compared to this.

[spoiler space officially over]

It's gotta be the first time that I nested spoiler space warnings.  As far as the more generic judging of the movie, I did feel that it went on about twenty to thirty minutes too long (at almost 2:15, it really could have used an editor or two).  Looking back, the previous Star Trek film was just over the two-hour mark at 127 minutes... but the first film also had to carry the task of introducing the whole reboot setup, so I can forgive it the extra time.  This one really didn't have to carry the introduction issues.

I already explained my love-hate relationship with reboots in general and in the plot of this one in specific.  Please don't think that I disliked the movie though... just like in the August Rush review I posted, I enjoyed the movie but felt that it could have worked out even better.  As far as my scale goes, I popped it into my DVD player only yesterday, so that satisfies the level 3 criteria really well.  However, I will also say that I stopped it about three-quarters the way through the movie... and I'm perfectly fine stopping it where I have it, as I remember enough of the rest of the film.  So, it occupies a weird area where I sincerely enjoy the first one hundred ten minutes and can take or leave the last twenty.

So, I suppose that I will give it a flat 3, as an average of the 3.5 that it sustains for an hour and change and the 2.3 that it finishes with.  It's not as if it's the modern equivalent of The Girl in Lovers' Lane, but it does get my nitpicky hackles rising... if you want to lose yourself in the action sequences or the twisty-turny plot, then you'll enjoy it.

02 March 2014

#2LR Meta Navel-Gazing Part 2 -- Inspiration

In the first meta navel-gazing post, I tried to go into part of the reason that I write these reviews... wanting to talk about art to other people, finding methods that make movies / television shows / anime series / video games work or not work, and wanting to share my opinions of such.  In this post though, I wanted to go into the idea of inspiration a bit more, and to discuss a bit of how it works as far as a critic (slash MST3k writer) goes.

Firstly, I absolutely love Wikipedia.  I collect trivia like other people collect shotglasses, spoons, or other knickknacks.  There's just a wide range of amazing stories... such as the Great Chicago Fire happening the same day as massive fires in both Wisconsin and in two different places in Michigan.  One of these many places happens to be my hometown, yet I hadn't the slightest idea that this coincidence existed until reading Wikipedia articles.

Another favorite story is about an eighteenth-century queen of Denmark, Caroline Matilda.  In twenty-three short years, she managed to provide an heir to the Danish throne (plus a daughter), ended up taking some sort of charge of the kingdom when her husband became mentally infirm, going as far as to dress as a man to rally the troops, embroiled in scandal when it was implied that the king's doctor was the true father of both her children... it's really just a fascinating story to me, and it happened in only a few short years.  At some point, I think I need to find more books about this because I'm sure that the backstory will be even more surprising.

Cruising Wikipedia became my go-to for stories about accidents and other catastrophes for a while too... for me, I enjoyed reading the accounts of aircraft accidents or other disasters, finding out which decisions were the fateful ones, realizing that there's sometimes just that thin thread even if it didn't seem thin at the time.  I wrote a whole post describing more of my enjoyment of "disaster porn" that can be found at the link.

I suppose that one of my favorite subjects recently has been reading the articles posted about music.  The Beatles in specific have been covered quite a bit, but there are more than a few other artists that have articles up about their songs on Wikipedia.  I'm interested by these because I really enjoy hearing about the creative process... pulling just the most random thoughts out of midair, adding lyrics and music to these thoughts, and then bringing them to life to the point that millions of people want to hear more and more.  In all frankness, I've never been a big fan of the Beatles, but hearing the stories behind their work has actually encouraged me to listen a bit closer to their music, and I have been slowly becoming more and more of a fan.

It's really odd where one finds their inspiration, yet I think that the parallel activities of writing MST3k treatments of fanfiction and writing reviews of various types of media dovetails quite nicely.  As I look back, I find myself wanting to comment most on what other people have done, or said, or played, or acted... it's almost like I care just as much about the execution of the idea as I care about the idea itself being shown.  My inspiration and enjoyment comes in writing humor about creative situations, or commenting about the creative situations, and trying to find the thin line between the creators and their creation on one side and how the creations are perceived by the other.

I'm not sure if I'd ever really write anything original, at least not at present.  I suppose I would need to figure out a way to get inspired by my own thoughts, by bringing life to something completely internal rather than something that piques my interest because of how it affects me and makes me feel.

At present though, I'm more than happy to offer my thoughts on the experiences I share with others.  I certainly can understand the critics' soul far more than I did before I started doing this... right now, I'm comfortable in telling what audience we have my thoughts on watching/listening/playing, and hopefully we'll get a few interesting conversations scraped together sometime about how things will work for some but not for others.