Skyfall (2012) and Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

September 29, 2013 § Leave a comment

Skyfall is the most confident, polished and elegant Bond film since the 1960s. In that sense (and mainly in that sense, as the nods to the past are only occasionally obvious here) it’s a perfect film for the fiftieth anniversary of the franchise, certainly demonstrating its ability to reinvent itself. If you go back and watch an earlier film like my personal favourite You Only Live Twice it has a measured pace, confidently switching from a more romantic scene to an action scene that’s not frantic, but is quite engaging and memorable, as when Bond puts together Little Nellie to fly out over a volcano that may be a hidden base, or when he fights a desperate fight with a very large man, and only wins by clonking him over the head with an odd statue. You could accuse this of being a series of set-pieces, but let’s be honest, any critic hauling out this accusation forgets that there was never a Bond film that stood around anywhere for very long. Before I go any further, there are mild and significant details spoiled for both films here. 

Skyfall begins with an engaging spy story, but soon takes the time Daniel Craigto include more character detail, certain relevant questions about the possibility of outliving your usefulness, even as the action is refreshing, extremely watchable and polished. Finally, the film pays tribute to the past with certain nods to the ejector seat (Goldfinger). And while the first few Daniel Craig films wisely declined to repeat the Bond formula for a while, this one comfortably reintroduces Moneypenny (who is finally a character who can prove her worth in the field, even as Bond jokes she doesn’t) and Q, the technical expert and gadget man, also nicely reimagined. As viewers, we seem to be refreshed and ready for all this. Daniel Craig and Judi Dench, both quite confident in their roles, are both superb. Finally, after fifty years, people who followed the franchise both casually and more seriously can learn more about where Bond came from, and even luxuriate in a whole sequence set there that helps the whole film feel more grounded and in a way, almost anchored.

Star Trek Into Darkness is undoubtedly entertaining and has equally polished action, but suffers, by comparison, with more obvious and almost blandly irritating cultural recycling. I reviewed the first film in the Star Trek reboot series, which confidently both acknowledged and shoved aside any earlier Star Trek as a way to begin a new Trek universe. Not a bad idea, but they rushed things, and I fretted the characters have little backstory as a result. Kirk was now an undisciplined punk who rode a motorbike until he suddenly had a starship. Let’s ignore that he would’ve needed to first be a junior officer here, or posted there.

This time around, there’s a possible attempt to address that and say Kirk is still undisciplined and needs to learn something, but it feels like repeating an idea from only the last film, and at the end of the film it isn’t quite clear what he learned. He recites an oath for captains at the end of the film, but in a misguided moment they used “Space, the final frontier: these are the voyages… ” which has always been a shorthand explanation of the show in the opening credits. It doesn’t work as an oath, as it contains no code of behaviour or loyalty to anything in particular, except to “boldly go,” and all that. This is right after the characters literally stand around saying dialogue along the lines of “Well, what are we going to do now?” The most graceful part of the ending (and a theme the film briefly touches on a few times) is a brief moment it’s acknowledged that in fighting terrorism, we risk awakening demons within ourselves.

As for the story itself, many fans already know it recycles the second-ever Star Trek film from back in the 1980s, The Wrath of Khan. Trek films have borrowed from this one from time to time ever since, and never beaten it. Directed by Nicholas Meyer, it was fashioned into more or less Moby Dick in space, with an extremely vengeful Khan returning from the TV series to defeat and humiliate Kirk at all costs. Wrath of Khan was a gripping tale that left you with absolutely no questions about motivation, how something was accomplished, or anything else. This time around, the action is great, but the story has been retold in ways that don’t work as well, leaving the viewer with assorted questions (provided they think about it, some certainly won’t). Why does Khan hate Starfleet even when he appears to be getting everything he wants? He has a backstory, but Kirk wasn’t there, and neither were we, leaving the character to stand around and explain it. He’s physically impressive and played well by Benedict Cumberbatch, but his backstory is mainly that he’s an enhanced human from another era, fiercely loyal to his people, and determined to destroy Starfleet. In other words, closer to nutbar than proud with a deeply poisoned soul. We get more of Kirk zipping around in a space suit, and more of Kirk and Spock trying to beat the living daylights out of someone, which feels, for a fan, a bit like meatloaf two nights in a row. A scene that was supposed to quite moving, involving the death of a central character, is an interesting reversal from what we saw before, but I wasn’t moved. Perhaps others were, but I somehow didn’t feel these new versions of the characters had earned passionate farewells just yet. Regardless, the rug is almost immediately pulled out from under the idea anyway, as he’s brought back to life.

It was probably a difficult choice for the writers. Do we return to the most respected film the series ever knew, freshen it up somehow and give it to our newly imagined characters? As for the fans, they probably wanted to see it and didn’t want to see it. It’s a fun idea, but not likely to top the original, which is exactly what happened. I’m both glad I saw it and thought they fumbled the ball, overall.

Interestingly, Star Trek is another unstoppable franchise, and is now approaching fifty years old. If they make another film in time for the fiftieth anniversary of Trek, perhaps the filmmakers can take a lesson from Skyfall and confidently strike out on their own with a new story for these characters that pays tribute to the past mainly by reproducing the tone and spirit of the show at its best. Someone in this latest Star Trek film says something along the lines of “We’re supposed to be explorers.” Yes, I think that’s the idea. Unfortunately, they’ve also painted themselves into something of a corner with the shortened backstories they’ve created for the characters. Perhaps Kirk can miss his motorcycle.

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