Contributed by firstname.lastname@example.org, tweeting from @M_DiPaola
Baby boomers of a certain age will remember television’s first interracial kiss,* sloppily and forcefully exchanged between Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and Lieutenant Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) on the original “Star Trek” series. The nerdier among us know that the NBC brass had tried to alter the script so that Spock (Leonard Nimoy) got the kiss, thereby placating the delicate sensibilities of America, 1968: a Vulcan kissing a black woman, apparently, would not be so scandalous. But Shatner insisted that his lips steal the scene and he would go on to be snogging with the ladies up and down the galaxy, never deterred by the color of a woman’s skin. Orion females, for example, are a shiny forest green.
The latest — and best — iteration of the spaced-out franchise, rebooted in 2009 by director J.J. Abrams and continuing this month with “Star Trek Into Darkness”, carries on the tradition of sexy time in the 23rd century. Because Abrams and company cleverly insinuated universe-bending time travel into the narrative, they can do whatever they want to familiar plots and characters without incurring the wrath of the fanboys and girls who would otherwise set their phasers on “kill” at the slightest tampering with galactic history.
This time around it is Spock (Zachary Quinto) who gets to canoodle with Uhura (Zoe Saldana). Public displays of affection between the races are ho-hum in 2013, but consider: Quinto is an out gay man, and Saldana thinks of herself as so androgynous, she says, she may well end up raising children with another woman. (I don’t know on what planet the gorgeous Saldana would be considered “androgynous.” Maybe Rigel 7.)
Meanwhile Kirk (Chis Pine) has a little down time with two cat-tailed females; we are fortunately spared whatever grisly maneuvers this required. The captain also shares a strange moment with Dr. Carol Marcus (Alice Eve), who strips down to her skivvies for no apparent reason other than to titillate a certain audience demographic (to which I say, mission accomplished). Co-writer Damon Lidelof actually apologized for the “gratuitous” scene, but with clips of the bra-and-panties clad Eve showing up in trailers and TV spots, it’s probably not accurate to say the scene was conceived entirely without forethought.
But “Into Darkness” is not all fun and games. We meet an old and villainous friend, the genetically enhanced superbeing Khan Noonien Sing (Benedict Cumberbatch), recently wakened from a 300-year cryo-nap (since the end of the Eugenic Wars of the 1990s. Remember those?). Unlike the original Khan’s swarthy Ricardo Montalbán, whose skin was like fine Corinthian leather, this pasty fellow, although evil, is also a bit of a victim. Not to give away too much of the plot, let me just say that the narrative involves humanoid torpedoes, subtitled Klingons (Klingonese is a real language. Its basic sounds were devised by the original Scotty, James Doohan), and a particularly troubled Robocop. You heard me.
Trekkies will enjoy references to familiar elements of the Star Trek universe. The opening scene dredges up the Prime Directive — a rule which states Federation space travelers shalt not interfere with the development of other species. As usual, the rule is casually flouted. A tribble gets a cameo. There is Bones (Karl Urban) issuing his signature ejaculation: “Dammit man, I’m a doctor, not a [something something]!”
Speaking of tribbles, since the timeline of this trekking generation is all fahklumpt, we don’t know what sort of adventure the crew had had with the little furballs. And speaking of Bones, it is he who is hot for Dr. Marcus, though his heat is unrequited, so far as we can tell. Besides her earlier striptease, it is unclear exactly why Marcus is in this story at all, although she does eventually uncork one of the great horrified screams in recent cinema.
One must step back and appreciate what Abrams and his writers — along with Lidelof, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (plus obligatory hat-tip to Star Trek’s late great creator, Gene Roddenberry) — are up against. They are compelled to make a BIG film, but not too big. We want chase scenes and phaser shoot ‘em ups, but we do not wish to linger over them one parsec longer than necessary. We want a fresh story, but we expect a few nostalgic nods to the Star Trek we grew up with. It had better be exciting, compelling, funny, and fun.
“Into Darkness” navigates through these difficult shoals, I think, successfully, but some critics are not giving the film the props it deserves. The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane oozes condescending disdain in his review, seemingly unaware that kvetching about timeworn cliches in venerable sci-fi epics is itself a kind of cliche. Even the über-dorks at io9.com were disappointed in the new adventures of the Enterprise, but I think their expectations might have been set too high by Abrams’ spectacular 2009 film. If you expect “Citizen Kane” every time you walk into a theater, you’re probably going to be disappointed.
Leonard Nimoy once said the Star Trek universe was “more socially and philosophically oriented” than, say, the “Star Wars” or “Indiana Jones” franchises. Thus we expect not only fantabulous special effects and thrills, but a message of some kind, something to make us feel a little less silly for indulging in fantasy in the first place. In “Star Trek Into Darkness” the message can summed up by the adage coined by two-dimensional philosopher Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Bottom line: a good, not great movie. Unlike with the 2009 film, I will not rewatch it with embarrassing frequency, but it will draw me in again, sooner or later. It always does.
*A lesser-known peck delivered by Sammy Davis, Jr. to Nancy Sinatra’s cheek was aired on the teevee a few months earlier than the Shatner-Nichols lip-lock, but that hardly counted as a kiss.