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New films: Star Trek Into Darkness (2 opinions), Kon-Tiki, At Any Price

New films: Star Trek Into Darkness (2 opinions), Kon-Tiki, At Any Price

Multiple bold explorers and a proxy for Monsanto

While the big buzz this week will be focused squarely on the latest entry in the decades-long Star Trek franchise, there are also a couple of smaller, counter-programming opportunities, one of which is oddly related to Star Trek. There’s also a second opinion included in today’s column on the Star Trek movie itself, but be warned in advance: Malcolm’s comments contain a character spoiler (although many viewers probably know this particular detail already).

 

Star Trek Into Darkness
Directed by J. J. Abrams

When the last “Star Trek” movie came out, I strongly praised its balancing act in terms of respecting the canon and the knowledge of the fans, while still offering a fresh take in what was both a reboot of the original series and a prequel to it. The new film continues and, if anything, actually manages to walk that same tightrope while narrowing the rope even further. And it’s still an impressive act.

That’s not to say you’ll necessarily love the outcome, as it’s more of a non-stop action film than we’ve seen before. Every crisis is a crisis related to fighting, war, explosions, etc. – with only the briefest of considerations of the “Prime Directive” and certainly no long and drawn out diplomatic disagreements. In short, it’s back and it’s big, and it’s very well put together, but it also has a different tone to it than many fans of the original series might prefer.That said, I liked it. For me it’

more about revisiting the cast of characters than worrying too much about what particular scrape they’re going to warp/transport/squeeze their way out this time around. And where the last film gave us back the original crew in almost loving detail, the new film throws in a bunch of other similarly preserved and respected references. J. J. Abrams may be happy to admit that he never enjoyed “Star Trek” while growing up, but it’s clear he’s come to love it since then – and we can only hope that attention to detail and respect for the source material translates into similar work as he helms the new “Star Wars” outing.

But J. J. Abrams also comes with his own drawbacks – most notably his great affinity for lens flare. Early on there’s enough to be a reminder – “Hey folks – don’t forget this is a J. J. Abrams film!” But later there are times when the screen goes bright and you just wish he was sitting in the row in front of you so you could slap him across the back of the head every time it happens – “Hey J. J. – we didn’t forget!”

The single best development of the new series here is the addition to the cast of the excellent Benedict Cumberbatch, who is a familiar face to many although new enough to some to produce some awkward moments. In a recent interview, David Letterman asked him if this was his first big film and Cumberbatch looked a little uncomfortable for a moment and perhaps avoided the urge to rattle off a list (“The Hobbit,” “War Horse,” Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” “Atonement,” etc.). Although much of his almost cult status with a core group of fans comes from his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in the British TV series “Sherlock” – where he’s brilliant enough that when you’re not wishing you could slap J. J. Abrams, you might wish you could slap the American TV executive who felt the need to remake the series for the American market.

All in all it’s a neat movie. It also has fun with some neat reversals of fortune that will amuse and perhaps amaze the true Trekkies without causing too much confusion in the newbies. It’s like a wonderfully constructed inside joke that you don’t actually need to be an insider to get. And, as part of its ongoing balancing act, it manages to bring the series to where it needs to be for logical progression. That’s a pretty clever package.

A second opinion by Malcolm Maclachlan: POSSIBLE CHARACTER SPOILER AHEAD!

When it comes to mass-market American pop culture, “Star Trek” is the standard-bearer for nerds. With its high regard for intellect, uncanny ability to predict consumer electronics decades in the future, and elevation of Spock as it’s unquestioned most popular character (not to mention its endless conventions and spin-offs), it has become cultural shorthand for nerd ascendance.

But watching “Into Darkness,” I can’t help thinking the nerds lost and the jocks won. It’s entertaining alright. But there’s something kind of wrong about watching Spock fistfight with Khan across hover-barges. Taken as a whole, it’s loud, fast and not especially cerebral.

Of course, Spock and Khan (who came from the same era as Chaka Khan) are the two most fun characters by far. In a reboot that has most of the principles playing caricatures of themselves (especially Doc, Scotty and Chekov), Zachary Quinto’s Spock impression is uncanny. And yes, that recent commercial pairing him with Leonard Nimoy was brilliant (I think it was advertising a car or something).

Meanwhile, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Khan has nothing to do with Ricardo Mantalban’s vaguely ethnic space marauder, and that’s fine. Besides being perhaps the only actor ever to play Sherlock Holmes who has a more ridiculous name than Sherlock Holmes, Cumberbatch has a tendency to quietly steal movies. Here he does it loudly. My only objection comes to the way his character was written. The earlier Khan mainly conquered with his intellect. This one not only casually take out squads of Klingons and other assorted baddies with fists and phasers, he also makes too many mental lapses for someone with a supposedly stratospheric IQ. But he’s got to lose somehow.

Meanwhile, I don’t especially like how they’ve made Spock all weepy and emotional compared to the original series. He’s basically a stand-in for men who can’t express their feelings. I find the Spock-Uhuru romance kind of annoying and unbelievable (especially since Quinto recently came out as gay, to a collective cultural shrug and lucrative endorsements that would have happened anyway).

Of course, “Star Trek” was always more about respecting smartness than actually being smart. Its scientific lapses are legendary. Some of the ones here: I can roll with cold fusion, but why does such a device need to be hand-delivered? Why would you bother to chase a spaceship through a debris field when you could just hover above and take it out? Why bother making the Enterprise such an all-terrain vehicle? Why don’t other bodies reject the Khan super-cells (you’ll see on all scores).

 

Kon-Tiki
Directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg

In one of those coincidences I dig so much, “Star Trek” opens in Sacramento in the same week as “Kon-Tiki.” And for all of the “Boldly going where no man has gone before” sentiment of “Star Trek,” sometimes it can be just as bold to go where you think someone has gone before.

In the late 1930’s, Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl and his wife Liv were living with and studying native Polynesians. At that time, the accepted wisdom was that Polynesia had first been populated from the West, from Asia. But Heyerdahl came to realize that the winds and currents came from the East, and even local legends referred to “Tiki” bringing the people from the East.

A decade later, after WWII, Heyerdahl was trying to publish his theory with no success when it became clear that the only way anybody would respect the idea was to prove that it would have been possible for ancient Incans/Peruvians to travel to Polynesia on the types of rafts they were capable of building at that time. And so, with very little support and even less in the way of backup plans or safety features, he and a small group of like-minded adventurers drifted away from the Peruvian coast, at the mercy of the winds and currents.
In that post-war period, Heyerdahl’s crazy enterprise was credited with rekindling an interest in exploration and some even said it helped with undertakings like space exploration – which of course rings us back to “Star Trek.” As school kids growing up in England in the 1970’s, we were still reading about the Kon-Tiki expedition and Heyerdahl’s other undertakings, as well as the various other groups that attempted the same trip.

He didn’t prove his theory, but he did prove the possibility of it – and researchers still debate the same origin question, albeit now through other means like DNA analysis, which suggests that people came from both directions at different times. Interestingly, for film lovers, as well as writing a book, Heyerdahl also directed a documentary about the trip (and the filming is a feature of the current narrative re-telling of the story), winning the Academy Award in 1951.

 

At Any Price
Directed by Ramin Bahrani

“At Any Price” is reminiscent of the recent “Promised Land,” in that it tries to tell a character-based story as a mask for teaching us about a politically charged practice. In “Promised Land” the topic was fracking and in “At Any Price” it’s the kind of GMO-based modern farming dominated by Monsanto. Here, Monsanto is replaced by “Liberty Seeds,” although it’s not hard to spot the real villain.

Dennis Quaid plays Henry Whipple, a third generation farmer who also sells for Liberty Seeds. His younger son Dean (Zac Efron) has little interest in the farm, hoping instead to become a racecar driver. And that’s the basic dynamic behind the father-son story that sits in front of the political message of the film.

In another interesting coincidence, I watched this film within a couple of days of reading a news story that focused on the same underlying issue depicted, namely that the folks at the fictional Liberty Seeds and the actual Monsanto prohibit farmers from engaging in the age-old practice of taking seeds from their own crop as the basis for next year’s planting. The companies have copyrighted the DNA in the seeds and, in order to maximize profits, require farmers to agree to always buy new seed stock. Henry explains this in the movie to Dean’s friend, who asks if it’s like the issue of “bootlegging DVD’s.” To which Henry replies “Except these guys didn’t just copyright movies, they copyrighted life.” Almost that same phrase was in the news story about millions of farmers suing Monsanto, with an official (from memory, I think it was an Indian Government official) referring to the ridiculousness of Monsanto “patenting life.”

Unfortunately, the movie is also similar to “promised Land” in that in trying to do two things at once, neither film is very good – although they certainly serve a purpose in terms of delivering a message that many will approve of (and other won’t) that some may not hear any other way.

The other interesting and useful aspect of the film is the way it shows, briefly, the nature of modern farming outside of the issue of GMO’s. Henry Whipple doesn’t farm the same way that his father did – although he reminisces about the days of hard work in the fields, and the simplicity of it as he realizes how complicated the business has become. But he’s a farmer who can sit back in his enclosed, air conditioned tractor cab, not touching the controls, as the tractor is driven by a computer that’s downloading information from a satellite feed that’s providing information about soil temperature, moisture, and other variables and adjusting the delivery of fertilizers, irrigations, etc. accordingly.

It would be a neat film to take kids to, to introduce to some of these topics except that the family story tacked on top both violent and sexual. All of which leaves the film without much of an audience.

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About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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