Saturday 11 May 2013

Star Wars Into Darkness

So I've given you my thoughts on the previous Star Wars film, and since I've now seen Star Wars Into Darkness, I think it'd be fun if I did a review of it.

... This was a Star Wars movie, right?


Now, Star Wars' debt to Star Trek has been obvious for a long time, and from the very beginning. Obi-wan's reaction to the destruction of Alderaan in Star Wars: A New Hope is eerily similar to Spock's reaction to the destruction of the Intrepid in "The Immunity Syndrome":

J.J. Abrams carried on that tradition here, but to a rather unrealistic degree: Characters share names with those from the original series and the first few motion pictures, aliens and planets similar to them appear, even iconic scenes are replicated. Indeed, with all the references to all the Star Trek series, I can easily imagine someone mistaking this for a Star Trek film.

But it quite clearly is not: like the 2009 film (mystifyingly called Star Trek, which was initially rather confusing for me), Star Wars Into Darkness is a rip-roaring rollercoaster adventure imbued with thousands of years of traditional Campbellian archetypes. The film is lathered in gorgeous and breathtaking imagery: worlds unlike any in our solar system (for the most part, there's a very earth like planet near to a gas giant very like Jupiter), fascinating alien species sentient and non-sentient, strange and interesting technologies.

The difference between what Star Trek and Star Wars does in regards to strange new worlds, new life and new civilisations, is that those elements are ostensibly a primary focus of Star Trek, and supplementary to Star Wars. Star Wars is an old universe: everyone is familiar with aliens, droids and beasties, they're part of the scenery. It's rare in the films that characters will come across new life or worlds: after all, it's a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. In Star Trek, the audience's joy and wonder of discovery is shared by the characters.

The cast of Star Wars Into Darkness also betray another difference between Trek and Wars: diversity. Back in the day, Wars was very much a boy's club: Princess Leia the only major female role of substance outside of Aunt Beru and Mon Mothma. Likewise, the "humans" of Star Wars were almost entirely white, Lando Calrissian injecting a much-appreciated dose of colour into proceedings: no major roles for Asians, or any accent beyond American, English, or "Alien." Star Trek, on the other hand, was ahead of its time in its inclusiveness: a black woman in a prominent role, an Asian helmsman portrayed by an actor who personally experienced internment in Rohwer and Tule Lake, a Russian weapons officer at the height of the Cold War, and an alien played by a Jewish actor born of Ukrainian Yiddish immigrants who looked a little too close to Satanic for the hypersensitive. It was incredibly bold for the 1960s, and very much in keeping with its stated goals: to portray a future beyond our present petty wars and conflicts, to show a crew of disparate nations, genders, and planets working together to explore the galaxy.

Wow, that's uncanny: do you think J.J. Abrams is actually a Trek fan?

Star Wars Into Darkness was released in 2013. It isn't the '60s or even the '80s anymore, so having a main cast that is still predominantly white male puts it very much in a traditional mindset. Since this is a Star Wars film, it's a shame they haven't gone beyond the late '70s in their casting diversity. If this was a Star Trek film, it would be a significant step backwards, since one of the most powerful appeals of the franchise is that diversity is part of its entire modus operandi. Hence how Star Trek: The Next Generation had a blind black man, a black alien, an android, and three women as part of the main cast, as well as a black alien woman whose "guest star" credit belied her regularity on the show. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine upped the ante to have a black man in command, two women in high command positions, a North African medical officer, and the captain's son (joined in later seasons by the black alien from TNG). Then Star Trek: Voyager had a woman captain and engineer, a Native-American first officer, a black alien, and an Asian ops officer. Star Trek: Enterprise may have started out chronologically earlier than TOS, so their black helmsman, Asian comm officer, female alien first officer and alien medical officer isn't quite as impressive, certainly not considering the time period.

Consider Nichelle Nichols' remembrances of a famous Star Trek fan:

Whoopi Goldberg, she's just marvellous. I had no way of knowing that she was a Star Trek fan. When I finally met her it was her first year on the Next Generation.
She loved the show so much and she told her agent she wants a role on Star Trek. Well agents go 'Big screen, little screen, no, you can't do that'. Well you can't tell Whoopi 'You can't do that'.
And so they finally asked, and they had the same reaction at Star Trek office, specifically Gene. And she said, 'I want to meet him and I want him to tell me to my face. If he tells me he doesn't want me and why, I'll be fine.'
Knowing Gene he had to take that challenge, and so he met with her. She said, 'I just wanted you to tell me why you don't want me in Star Trek.'
Gene said, 'Well, I'll just ask you one question and I'll make my decision on that. You're a big screen star, why do you want to be on a little screen, why do you want to be in Star Trek?'
And she looked at him and she said, 'Well, it's all Nichelle Nichols' fault.'
That threw him, he said, 'What do you mean?'
She said, 'Well when I was nine years old Star Trek came on,' and she said, 'I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, "Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there's a black lady on television and she ain't no maid!"' And she said, 'I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be, and I want to be on Star Trek.'
And he said, 'I'll write you a role.'

I'm sure folks interested in improving ethnic diversity in media will appreciate Star Wars starting to take baby steps in Star Trek's direction, though if this was a Star Trek film, I fear they may be disappointed at the scant roles given to the black woman in a command role, Asian helmsman, and Russian weapons officer** in a film made decades after the American Civil Rights movement, reparations given to Asian-Americans who suffered under internment, and the fall of the Soviet union and subsequent end of the cold war. At least the black helmsman who relieves Checawv wasn't a sassy stereotype.

Star Wars is a traditional fantasy for kids of all ages to follow the time-tested archetype of the smalltown farmboy destined for greatness who must go on a hero's journey, gaining sage advice from a wise father-figure, who encounters strange figures before coming back home. Star Trek, at its best, offers an idea to the marginalised and downtrodden - an idea that your story is just as worthy.


 If this was a Star Trek film, I could see a whole episode being set here. But it isn't, so it's just a nice wee opening setting that we'll never see again.

Oh, this film starts off almost Trekkian, though: we see a very strange new world, all weird colours and enigmatic lifeforms, as what I presume is the equivalent of an away mission is taking place. This could be the start of infringing on Star Trek's territory, if this turns out to be first contact, or something along those lines - but it ends up being an action-packed chase, where the alien beings are little more than angry savages, and the world a colourful background for the running and jumping. Another Star Trek stalwart, the Prime Directive, is mentioned, and I'd love to know the circumstances which led to the ship not in geosynchronous orbit, but floating in the ocean, for a reason I simply cannot fathom.* The question of why the ship is in the ocean is as pertinent as to how the ship got into the ocean without the indigenous peoples discovering them. In any case, what could have been a chance for some real atmosphere and discovery is shoved aside for a good old action scene: Star Trek needn't worry about Star Wars horning in on its turf.

The cities of this film are also very Warsian: there's a massively industrialised metropolis with steam and oilworks and engines and all sorts of stuff that vaguely recalls the Industrial Zone, with only a few relatively clean places that actually look high-tech, as opposed to current technology inflated to a preposterous scale. The pseudo-earth gives the impression of a place that's grown and grown over centuries without, say, a world war that left 600 million dead clearing away a great portion of the city's architecture like you'd expect, possibly the sort of place where a telecommunications company could survive. And, of course, even though the world has tractor beams, molecular transport (a VERY big leap from previous Star Wars films) and spaceships, for some reason cars, forklifts and cranes still exist. But be the place industrial or natural, weird or familiar, they exist primarily for one purpose: an obstacle course. A video game. First level: planet of red plants, land anemones and mysterious natives. Second level: windswept wasteland, cyclopean architecture, abandoned save for scavengers. Third level: asteroid field. Final level: high tech city with floating platforms that seem to float around for absolutely no reason that I can see other than the ones you see in every platforming video game.

There's a little bit of leeway with mythic science fantasy like Star Wars that you just don't get in Star Trek: for all Trek's flights of fancy and divergences from current scientific thinking, there is an inherent, earnest desire for realism. Star Wars can have entire planets covered in cities regardless of the logistical headache, multi-kilometre long space slugs that eat spaceships, and an ill-defined "force" that surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together. For instance, there's a point in the film where a great battle is taking place within sight of a densely populated, earth-like planet, which appears to be far more technologically advanced than ours, and is the centre of a vast confederation of planets. Yet despite the fact that our planet right now has telescopes which can see all across the galaxy, apparently not a single person on this earth-like planet noticed the epic space battle occurring only a few light years away. Indeed, the inhabitants of this "earth" appear to be blissfully unaware of it even as one of the ships crashes into the bay! For a civilisation which apparently has technology far surpassing ours, I have to think even 20th Century humans would have been more on the ball than these folks.

But in Star Wars, you can get away with stuff like that: gigantic spaceships with sophisticated sensors that can somehow completely miss a substantial rebel ship hiding on its stern, swords being perfectly viable defences against dozens of gun-wielding soldiers, rocks and sticks being sufficient to break through the best armour a vast spacefaring empire can offer. And here, it's perfectly reasonable to accept a frankly astounding lack of communication among otherwise extremely advanced and technologically savvy individuals, because it's that kind of story. Star Trek isn't.

There are a few continuity issues with the other Star Wars films that give me pause, though with a bit of work, I think it could work. I'm working under the assumption that this is set in the future, long after Return of the Jedi, and after a time of galactic upheaval. There are references to a "Federation," which may be the Trade Federation under a new name, or perhaps the successor to the old Republic. A Klyngaun Empire is mentioned: either it's a remnant of the Galactic Empire, or, given their alien appearance, a new force which came to power in the vacuum following the Empire's apparent collapse. The ship uses something it calls "warp" which looks a lot more like hyperdrive than what you see on Star Trek, and functions differently too ("dropping out" of warp in this film means falling out of some sort of wormhole, as opposed to the warping of space in Star Trek).

This, like the other Star Wars films, is a fairytale. Our protagonist here, Jemstyberious "Jem" Curc, is still on his hero's journey under his wise old mentor Krystaufur Pyk until the latter's death at the hands of the antagonist. Who is this antagonist? Well, it's hard to get a handle on him. Originally his name was Jon Harussen, and he was supposedly a member of the Federation who's turned rogue, apparently aligning himself with the Klyngaun Empire (the remnants of the Empire, perhaps, or a successor state?) to start a war. After catching out the Star Fleet admirals and killing a bunch of them, Harussen escapes, and Curc vows to bring him to justice. After much heavy-handed post-WTC bombing allusions, Curc and the crew of the Enterprise (which is uncannily similar to the Constitution class Star Trek ship, though of course just different enough so as not to be mistaken for the Jeffries design) are sent to destroy Harussen, but Curc's conscience convinces him to act against orders and bring Harussen in for a fair trial. Of course, there's much more to the story than his superiors are telling him...


Having still not seen Sherlock and not being particularly interested in doing so precisely because there's only so much recommendation I can take before I start to sour on any given thing, I only know Benedict Cumberbatch from his Stephen Hawking biopic - and he was absolutely brilliant there.

And here comes one of the most divisive aspects of the film.


You sure?


Benedict Cumberbatch's true character is none other than Cahn, a genetically engineered superhuman preserved in cryosleep for hundreds of years, awakened by a secret organisation to aid the Federation in finally destroying the Empire. Given his preternatural strength and agility, it seems clear that not only is he a superhuman, he seems to have the Force. My guess is that Cahn is one of the infamous Clones of the wars in which Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan fought, as yet unfilmed - and with his obvious force powers and evil nature, he must be at least an apprentice to the Sith, if not a Sith Lord himself.

The comparisons to Khan will be obvious, and there are certainly a few similarities, but it's absolutely transparent that the two are entirely different characters. Khan represented a very powerful and potent idea in the famous science fiction idea of the genetically-engineered master race: the breaking of the link between ethnicity and superiority. In so many narratives, genetic supermen were the epitome of the Nordic Conqueror, and all the hideous connotations of Manifest Destiny therein. Comparisons to everything from the despicable policies and programs of the early 20th century to the ultimate nightmare of Nazi Germany, and the many unthinkable campaigns made against one people or another in the spurious name of "purity," "improvement," or "superiority."

Then Khan came along, and the Genetic Superman was... an Indian with a Mexican accent. Not only that, but his crew were explicitly from all ethnic backgrounds: Scott notes in the script "Western, mid-European, Latin, Oriental" were among the "types" found in stasis, and Enterprise shows there were also black superhumans. A notion of a master race that didn't involve ethnic background, their superficial differences meaning nothing compared to their genetic similarities. It was a shocking new way to address the idea that racial superiority is a threat to all of us, a perversion of science to suit the ends of the arrogant and cruel. And Khan became one of the most, if not the most, magnetic and memorable Star Trek characters of them all.

Cahn, though, is a different kettle of fish by virtue of being played (exceedingly) by Benedict Cumberbatch, who boasts the most English name I've ever heard. By taking a very white, very English actor with a charismatic presence and soft Corinthian leather speaking voice, it is impossible to extricate Cahn from two great cultural boogeymen: white superiority, and British imperialism. In other words, a retrogression into historical horrors, not a look forward to future dangers. Charlie Jane Anders wrote of this in an excellent essay a whole year ago, where she worried that Cumberbatch's character was actually going to be Khan (good grief, could you imagine that?!?):

Making the ultimate representation of eugenics into a vaguely Asian villain played by a Latino was an oddly clever choice — it divorces his claims of genetic superiority from the real-life advocates of eugenics, and forces you to see the issue in a new light. For most of its history, eugenics was synonymous with "white superiority" — but Khan flies in the face of that, by giving us a eugenics experiment in which race is apparently not a factor. (Khan's followers are mostly white, so apparently Khan's ethnic identity is just pure happenstance, and the creators of this master race weren't aiming for any particular skin color.)
A color-blind eugenics program gets past the "white supremacy" aspects of eugenics to reach for the heart of why eugenics is so terrible — the very notion of one group of humans being innately better than another devalues us all. It dehumanizes all people, even the allegedly superior ones, by assigning to us a value based on arbitrary characteristics. It's one more step into making us like cattle, who can be bred for certain characteristics. Or more like things, really.

Khan's superiority was clear, but also human: Cahn's abilities stretched the bounds of credulity, with feats that no kind of human flesh could possibly muster. He could take out three ships' worth of Klyngaun warriors more-or-less single-handedly, as well as survive blows and make jumps that superheroes would be hard-pressed to take.

It's a shame, because if you didn't bring Cahn into the film, Cumberbatch's character was fascinating enough as an enigma. Could he not have just been part of the Evil Organization's movement to re-militarise the Star Fleet to take on the Empire? Aside from the more egregious stunts, couldn't he have just been a particularly badass operative? The central conspiracy stuff was good enough, you didn't need to muddy the waters with something that didn't have much bearing apart from being an excuse for why Cumberbatch's character was working with the Federation to begin with.

EDIT: And just for fun, here's CinemaSins' Everything Wrong With Star Wars Into Darkness.


As with its 2009 predecessor, Star Wars Into Darkness is a good wee adventure that you really cannot afford to think too much about, unless you enjoy picking holes in plotting, characterisation and basic sequence of events.  It has a lot going for it: some quality acting from Karl Urban as Makhoi (eerily similar to Deforest Kelley in his seminal role as Bob Kirby in Variety Girl), Cumberbatch and even Simon Pegg***; lovely effects and concepts; gripping and tightly-knit action scenes; enough humour to keep you going. I highly enjoyed myself, though I'm sure if I let myself, I would nitpick it to the isolinear chips.

It's a good, fun popcorn blockbuster that, again like its predecessor, reminded me of how great Star Trek was, and how much I wish they'd make a new show. We need some good futuristic science fiction that looks beyond the cliches of big space battles and treating aliens like exotic background material, and a story that encourages you to think. To challenge your preconceptions. To - what's that phrase - boldly go where no man has gone before.

*I regret nothing.

**Although the three characters do have their "moment to shine," that moment is essentially them just doing their jobs. They do their jobs well, but they don't exactly go above and beyond what they're supposed to do. Karl Urban's character does some good medical stuff, but seems to rely more on magic blood and basic observational skills than actual ingenuity. Alice Eve's character gets a mere 20 seconds to show off, and again, it's her job - no, I don't mean that bit where she stripped off. Or maybe I do. I dunno, that was a really awkward shot. At least in the previous film the helmsman got to use his sword, which I wouldn't think comes standard-issue with the job.

***In fact, I'd go so far as to say Simon Pegg's character is the real hero of the film. He's the only one who acts completely and soundly on his morality, he uses initiative to work veritable miracles, and he saves the entire crew on his own with no help whatsoever. Pine's character gets all the glory, but Pegg's does just as much on his own, and without getting himself beaten up or killed.


  1. A tasty morsel of a critique indeed. Do you plan to write about Peter Jackson's latest effort, a spin-off of Narnia from what I heard?

    1. Ooh, I wonder if it's like his Dungeons & Dragons trilogy?

  2. Brilliant, couldn't stop reading!