“Star Trek Into Darkness” – it boldly went…

Note: The following review is kept spoiler-free. I have no interest in ruining anyone’s experience with this movie, so feel free to read along.

This morning I made a bet against myself, which stated that if I enjoyed “Star Trek Into Darkness” later today, I would make an effort and watch every single “Star Trek” film and all the TV shows. Yes, I admit I haven’t been the nerdiest of nerds so far and I somehow managed to survive until this day having only seen an odd episode of The Next Generation and maybe Voyager, back when it was on TV and there was nothing more interesting to see. Strangely enough, I have always been drawn more towards other types of Sci-Fi with the likes of “Star Wars” at my side.

Well, I think now would be the time to get acquainted with William Shatner and the gang, because I thoroughly enjoyed J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek Into Darkness”. In fairness, ‘enjoyed’ is a bit of an understatement, as I can honestly say that it’s the best Sci-Fi I’ve seen this year – hands down; and quite frankly it is one of the best Sci-Fi I’ve seen in recent memory. On top of all that, it being a sequel (and I think I’ve made myself clear on where I stand on sequels) makes it look even better, with the bar set a couple of notches higher than usual.

It is a very rare occurrence when a sequel surpasses the original and – make no mistake – “Star Trek Into Darkness” does not fall into that category… but it’s damn close, I have to say. If anything, people like Shane Black or Michael Bay should actually ring up J.J. Abrams and request some lessons on how to make a sequel properly, so that it doesn’t suck. My point is that if a given film deserves a sequel, than it needs to be to its original what “Star Trek Into Darkness” is to “Star Trek” (2009).

Even though it is not crucial, the knowledge of what happened in the previous “Star Trek” is highly recommended in order to feel comfortable. While there are plot-points that specifically address some events from the original, they are mostly of minor nature and refer to character development. Anyway, we are introduced to the crew of USS Enterprise a couple of years after the events of the previous film. Of course, we still operate under the assumption that the previous “Star Trek” formed an alternate timeline to what all the Trekkies consider ‘canon’, therefore it is only logical to dismiss any butt-hurt comments on the discrepancies between the old Star Trek and this one as stupid and out of place.

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Right, so we’re back with Captain Kirk and the gang who keep on going boldly where no man has gone before as they survey other species, observe, learn and stuff. Gut-feeling Kirk (Chris Pine) and cold-and-rational Spock (Zachary Quinto) have managed to develop a one-of-a-kind relationship that involves a lot of snappy comebacks and situation humor based on the fundamental differences between them. However, something goes wrong during the mission and as a result the crew gets disbanded, Kirk gets sent back to the Academy and the rest of the gang gets reassigned to other starships. Meanwhile over in England, a mysteriously looking fellow (Benedict Cumberbatch) pulls off a terrorist attack of massive proportions. The Starfleet brass quickly identifies the culprit as one of their own, a rogue agent called John Harrison, whose agenda is not exactly understood, but one thing remains clear – he’s one dangerous puppy. A series of events (that I shall not disclose) leads the Federation to reinstate Kirk and to send him on a hunt to the far reaches of the galaxy with a mission to find and bring Harrison down for his crimes. And it’s no easy task as he seems to be hiding on Kronos – the Klingon home world, and any misstep by our brave protagonists might extend the already tense relationships between the Federation and the Klingon Empire into an all-out war.

As you might have already noticed, I’m no Trekkie (at least for now, but I can’t promise anything), but what I can say is that I can’t help but admire how brilliantly Abrams handled this film; I’d even go as far as to say that I enjoyed “Star Trek Into Darkness” so much because I have little knowledge of the classical Treks. The film is packed with action delivered at a steady pace with the pathos and epic scenes dosed rationally. In fact, it’s the story and the characters that make up for the bulk of awesomeness of this film, because most of the action takes place in confined spaces. There are, of course, some epic sceneries and sequences of catastrophic proportions, but they somehow fail to overshadow what is the most important in this film – the characters of Kirk, Spock and Harrison, and the game they play.

 

Speaking of John Harrison, Benedict Cumberbatch has done a splendid job in creating a real flesh-and-blood villain that a viewer can have an emotional response to. His character is seriously malevolent, scary, vindictive and unpredictable. Plus, his character is responsible for most (if not all) of the story’s dynamic qualities, as his actions trigger very important changes that protagonists will undergo, and this ultimately stands behind the film as its biggest asset. It only goes to show that you can throw away millions of dollars on CGI effects, but the story is what will make the film float or sink. Here we seem to be having a damn near perfect storm of both, with exquisite CGI, action and solid important characters.

“Star Trek Into Darkness” is very much a sequel well done; still a sequel and very much an Abrams’ movie with the characteristic photography, lens flares, dynamic cutting and bold twists. J.J. Abrams clearly knows how to handle a universe of that size and still create something gripping and enjoyable. Additionally, this film does not fall into the trap of ‘bigger, louder and more explosions’ and does its job as a proper expansion on the story-line  characters and the general universe. Sure, there’s action and suspense and the entire bang required of a modern-day big label sci-fi, but “Star Trek Into Darkness” has much more to offer than only that. What I’m about to say might be considered heresy in some circles, but from the point of view of character development, story progression and the overall tone of the film, “Star Trek Into Darkness” is “The Empire Strikes Back” of the Trek universe. The story sets many important things in motion, the characters undergo massive and very important changes that would define the tone of the next installment  some potential momentum is generated, and the atmosphere as a whole is far more dark and ominous than the original “Star Trek”. I can’t say more at the time in the interest of not spoiling anything.

In summary, “Star Trek Into Darkness” is a very good movie on its own and a fantastic addition to the vast Trek universe. The film pays due homage to the classics with the signature lines now part of the wider pop-culture that would make a nerd squeal, and it sports a fair share of laughs, however, not even once does it cross the line. The movie retains its independent style that looks more ‘starwarsy’ than ‘startrekky’, but it works only to the benefit of the film as a whole. The rapid action, witty humor and gorgeous effects are in perfect balance with engaging story, seriously sinister villains and their actions. It truly is a star trek into darkness.

On the proclivity of Hollywood to put numbers on things…

While browsing through movie-related news couple of mornings ago I couldn’t help but notice that a huge part of what is going on in the world of film is related to various sequels, prequels, remakes, reboots, re-imaginings, resurrections and such. I’m sure someone more proficient in English language than me could find some more words that start with ‘re’ that reflect on the sad state of things in the movie industry. Just as I’m writing this, “Star Trek 2” (A sequel to a reboot to a reboot) is slowly making its way towards the big screens, together with the third “Iron Man” only to make way for another “Thor” and “Captain America” this year. We all know that the “Star Wars” franchise is being dusted off by J.J. Abrams and another “Transformers” movie is in the works. Oh, and another remake of “Godzilla” is being shot right now as well. I thought for a second that something’s not right in here, because it would seem that almost every other major project made in Hollywood could easily have a number after its title, so I decided to have a look for myself.

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I took the time to plow through all the major movie releases (thanks to Wikipedia) in the last decade (2002-2012) and fished out all the films that were either sequels, prequels, remakes or reboots to any other movie. Plus, I also included the re-releases as well, because I think they are the most blatant examples of one’s lack of creativity. That’s right, if you want to make more money without lifting a finger, release “Titanic” theatrically once again. It will cost you nothing, but surely you’ll find people, for whom the DVD was just not enough.

chart 1 Anyways, in my search I managed to find 374 such movies. Now, bear in mind that I might have missed some here and there, as the Internet isn’t perfect and neither am I. Especially the further back in time you go, the less reliable these numbers might get, simply because 10 years ago the number of people taking their time and effort to put something up here was much smaller than nowadays and I can’t simply assume perfect linearity in data collection in the Internet, now can I? Nevertheless, I think the trends would stay unaffected even with growing statistical uncertainty here, so I think I’m fine and I can continue rambling. One more thing, these 374 films I found among wide releases in the US. If I had to flick through all the Bollywood pictures I’d probably kill myself instead.

OK, so where was I? Out of 6558 movies noted in box offices (according to The-Numbers.com) in the last ten years, 374 were based on an already existing movie and that constituted 5.7% of the pool. Note here, that the percentage might be slightly higher, because of my inability to find all of those pesky sequels out there. Out of those 374 movies 62% were direct sequels, 29% were remakes, 4% were reboots, 3% were re-releases and 2% were prequels. If one decides to group them together, we end up with 64% (continuations and the like) against 36% (re-imaginings and such). That already says that Hollywood likes to put numbers on things more than it likes to dig out old corpses to revive.

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It’s fine and all, but those numbers didn’t reflect the trends I was looking for, so I broke them down by year and that’s when the patterns emerged. While you can clearly see the upward trend in the number of ‘sub-creative movies’ across the decade (with the profits following a similar, yet more moderate trend), one can already see that the most decisive rise in production of those films commenced right around 2008. When the movies are further broken down into sub-categories, the pattern becomes almost impossible to miss. While it would seem that number of remakes fluctuates across the decade peaking in 2004 and 2010, the number of direct sequels remained steady throughout 2002-2009 and then suddenly jumped in 2010 by nearly 20% and stayed there until the present day. Now that’s something to think about.

chart 3 I can actually understand the behavior in the number of remakes, because these used to be often subject to fads and related band-wagon mentality. For instance, I believe that the surge in remake productions of 2004-2005 can be attributed to the wave of Asian terror cinema that swept the world around the turn of the century and Hollywood labels wanted to capitalize on that phenomenon. These were the years where “The Ring”, “The Grudge”, “Dark Water” and the like got released. Shortly after, the American horror cinema of the 70’s and 80’s got revived to contrast all the long-haired girls walking out of TV sets, which sparked a new wave of horror in Hollywood and contributed somehow to the increase in sequels that followed. However, none of the “Wrong turn” or “Final Destination” franchises can explain what happened between 2009 and 2010. A flat bump by 20% has to happen for a reason.

If you have a look at how the total number of movies registered in Box Offices during that time looked (thank you again The-Numbers.com), you would notice immediately a sudden drop in produced movies that took place around 2008/2009; Hollywood’s output got reduced by well over 30% within two years. At the same time – which really takes the biscuit here – the percentage of ‘sub-creative’ cinema doubled (from 4% to 9%). These further emphasize the importance of a short period of 2008-2009. What could have possibly happened to effectively derail widely-understood creativity in Hollywood?

chart 4 I think everybody knows that this was the time when shit hit the fan and – thanks to banks, mind you – we all got slapped on the wrists; some more than others. People lost their jobs and houses, the global economy shrank substantially, countries went bust… Just turn on the news. It would seem that while all this was unfolding, all the producers in LA went ‘oh crap, we’re going to get poor now’. Surely, when people have to save their money, the luxuries like going out (including cinema) get axed first. In order to prevent that from happening, some things needed to be done. Gone were the artsy risky passion projects… Out with cerebral story lines  What we needed were movies that guaranteed box office success. And what can be more reliable than a well-executed sequel? chart 5

If you look at the Top 20 highest grossing movies of all times, 14 of them can be classified as sequels. And yes, I counted “Skyfall” and “The Avengers” as sequels that they are – deal with it. If you look at the last 11 years (2002-2012, the bracket for my investigations), 9 out of 11 highest grossing films each year were sequels. I’m now not at all surprised that in late 2007 and early 2008 all the studios decided to devote much greater funds towards producing ‘numbered’ movies. After all, they bring revenue. As a result, with the total number of movies produced yearly cut by 30% post-2008, the revenue managed to retain its growing trend. So, yay… Thumbs up – producers, you are getting richer. At the expense of us, lowly ticket-buyers who want something more than another “Iron-Man” (who am I kidding; I’ll probably go and watch it anyway). At least now I know that I can point my finger towards the bean-counting producers, for shame! Why is the movie industry in such a sad state? Apart from what others already pointed out, it’s simply because the studios desperately wanted to get rich while everybody was getting poorer.

Desperate times – desperate measures… and suitably disenchanting results. Now, let’s see what’s happening with the new Star Wars…