Wednesday, July 3, 2013

"Man of Steel" vs "Star Trek Into Darkness"

            Two of the biggest movies that came out this year, and two that I liked, were "Man of Steel" the start of a new Superman franchise as a creative collaboration of David S Goyer, Christopher Nolan, and Zack Snyder; and "Star Trek Into Darkness" which is a project by JJ Abrams and Damon Lindelof (I think, I am cutting out several writers, but this script has a Lindelof-ish taste that I can't shake).

            The movies sort of parallel each other in some ways, a collection of 50+ year old science fiction characters battling against an evil mastermind in a gigantic spaceship, that villain kills a father/father-figure of the protagonist, and ultimately the movie ends with a knock down drag out fight in a major metropolitan area devastated by the conflict.  Both have large ensemble casts and play with big ideas ("Steel" deals with "Eugenics, conspicuous-consumption of natural resources, stagnation of societal evolution, militarized-revolution begetting fascism and abandonment of outward-looking intellectual curiosity" -Moviebob, while "Trek" deals with Eugenics, preemptive war, drone strikes, and the socio-political ramifications of its own interstellar navy: Starfleet).  The point is I think that neither completely realizes the ideas they are shooting for, but for two entirely different reasons.
            "Steel" doesn't fully explore its ideas because it is setting up a franchise that will address them.  Christopher Nolan is big on three act structure, and is very capable of delivering a social essay in the form of a movie.  Since he is producing, and the Warner Bros. studio is pleased with the movie and furthering the franchise in this direction, the ideas that were not fully put to use (because they somehow managed an origin story with a highly complex villain) and did not have time even with the epic length.

            "Trek" fails because it has Lindelof as a creative driver.  Lindelof makes stories that I like to term as "Studded".  Much like a denim jacket with shit tons of glittery bits of metal pressed into it, the ideas and symbols presented in "Trek" are not really a matter of function, but instead of flash.  Things are presented and dropped not because they have value to the story, but because the audience will go "Oh, okay".  That bit of familiarity, that bit of meaning is analogous to seeing the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast, it is meaningful because of what the audience brings to it, not because the toast wanted you to have a religious experience.

Cumberbatch plays a cool character that just keeps getting betrayed, to the point where he is far more sympathetic than he really should be.  Actually, he kinda has a Jesus thing going on because he has blood that can heal you if you get it transmitted to you.
            Now I do not want to blame JJ Abrams for why "Trek" fell short.  He is not a "Trek" fan he is merely a mind-blowing-ly competent director of visuals, pacing, action, and acting.  JJ can't be expected to delve into the mythos and make sure to draw a clear line between well developed story with homage to classic stuff, and functional story studded with references to instill the material with associative weight and strength, that is the writer's job... THEIR ONLY JOB on a "Star Trek" movie, or any movie with an established lore.

            To go back to "Steel" almost all of the ideas hinted at and introduced have appeared in the comics and cartoons.  But at the same time they picked very specific aspects to focus on.  Superman's world is a rich science fiction universe to draw on, with god like aliens, doomed civilizations at their zenith, and the perils of scientific rationality taken to dangerous extremes for any number of reasons that are unethical.  "Steel" is the introductory paragraph to a bigger message using the familiar aspects and iconography of Superman to explain and explore the issues, it is actually only held back by a lot of movie conventions.  You know what character didn't really need to be in the movie?  Lois Lane and the entire Daily Planet crew.  I like them well enough, they are well cast and promise to hold their own in future movies, but pretty much nothing in this has anything to do with them needing to be there, and number of characters could have served Lois' role in the story, and done it better (I am looking at Richard Schiff who played the underused Dr. Hamilton, he could have followed Superman into the ice cave to find the Kryptonian ship, he could have asked to be brought along to Zod's ship when Superman is taken up, he could have talked with Jor-El and worked to modify Clark's Ship into the weapon used against the Kryptonians, Lois did not need to be there.  In fact everything she does would have worked better as the cold opener to a second movie, but movie conventions say that you need Lois, you need the love interest for Superman to save... Whatever.)

Shockingly, this Emmy winning actor was cast to play a character I consider to be rather prominent in the Superman universe and is used far too little in this movie.
            Lastly the big difference is the endings, which I won't spoil really.  "Steel" ends more ambiguously, Superman's relationship with the government is murky, his place in the world is still being felt out, and he is left burdened with how the fallout of the movie's events will play out in the future.  "Trek" just sort of ends.  They tie up the loose ends, no lasting effects are felt, there is no indication for what will happen in the future.  Even events set up in the first half of the movie (an impending war with the Klingon Empire) are not mentioned, even though the movie's epilogue is a flash forward to one year after the events of the film proper.  The bad guy gets an unsatisfactory conclusion (in a way it is quite horrifying) and a lot of bad precedent is set, a get out of jail free card that will end up ignored in the future.  I still liked "Trek", it was fun.  But it has issues, and I don't feel they were intended to be followed up on.

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