Star Trek: Into Darkness (2012)

The famed science-fiction franchise is firmly on track to having a long life full of prosperity under the direction of J.J. Abrams.

star-trek-2012USA
4*

Director:
J.J. Abrams

Screenwriters:
Roberto Orci

Alex Kurtzman
Damon Lindelof
Director of Photography:
Dan Mindel

Running time: 130 minutes

Although the freshness of the Star Trek reboot may have worn off a little, its second instalment, titled Star Trek Into Darkness, is every bit as majestic and engaging as the first one that was released in 2009.

Only two films in, director J.J. Abrams has our complete confidence he has brought the franchise back from near-oblivion with films that invigorate the viewer and may even shape a new generation of fans seeking to travel to distant lands scattered among the galaxies. Abrams’s risky decision to include a few bouts of sentimentality is handled with extreme care and pays off in the end, proving this director is strong where it counts.

The major character arc involves the spontaneous, sometimes rebellious, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine), who showed his mettle in the first film, despite his rivalry with Spock (Zachary Quinto), the most intelligent officer on the ship and the one with whom he clashed with most often.

In the opening moments, Kirk and Spock are outrunning primitive beings on the planet Nibiru before Spock is catapulted into a volcano that threatens to destroy the entire civilisation before it has even had a chance to develop. Although their presence is mostly unexplained, except for a suggestion they had an urge to save the planet, even though there was no vested interested in taking such dangerous action, this sequence is important because it establishes Kirk’s nascent feelings of friendship for Spock. Flaunting Starfleet regulations and potentially altering the course of history, he reveals the ship to the spear-wielding populace in order to save Spock from certain death.

It is an act the pointy-eared Vulcan doesn’t quite grasp, but by the end of the film his half-human heart will have come round, and we will realise how much the two opposites have shaped each other’s behaviour. Abrams walks a very treacherous road by reminding us of Spock’s loss of his mother and his entire planet in the previous film and Kirk’s loss of his father. At times, it seems like the film is headed straight for primal territory where passionate reactions are only possible when the past is dug up, but luckily the characters are complex enough for us to assume these past incidents are part of their makeup and do not dominate their actions.

But Kirk’s proclivity for adventure leads him into a sticky situation at the heart of the film, which involves one of the series’s most notorious figures: the genetically enhanced Khan Singh, also known as John Harrison. That Khan is played by the pale Benedict Cumberbatch may come as a shock to Trekkies, but the actor’s depiction of the ominous character, whose intellect rivals that of Spock and whose cells have the ability to regenerate at warp speed, is effective because he is soft-spoken but firm, very persuasive and ultimately terrifyingly cold-blooded.

If you are a diehard Star Trek fan, you may relish the opportunity to practise your Klingon, as this is the first time the language of this warrior race appears in the new series. The relatively short scene features expert “xenolinguist” Uhura (a constantly weepy and emotional Zoe Saldana, whose character is the weakest in an otherwise very strong cast) producing the guttural language during negotiations with jittery fighters.

The storyline isn’t as clear as it was in the first film, and it does not generate the same kind of awe at the magnitude of space travel until the very last scene, but much of the interest lies in the development and exploration of personality, as even a relatively small character like Lieutenant Sulu (John Cho) is given room to grow in a visible, memorable and satisfying way.

Into Darkness is by no means a film that can only be appreciated by the Trekkies, but it ought to offer committed fans of the franchise a smooth viewing experience as well. It is popcorn science-fiction entertainment writ large that focuses on human stories (or human feelings, as in the case of Spock, who still pines for the planet he lost in the previous film) rather than grand ideas or scientific minutiae. Michael Giacchino’s sweeping pieces for orchestra, sometimes boosted by a choir, accompany large sections of the film in a rousing way.

We will have to wait until the next instalment to assess whether Abrams can break the curse of the “bad odd-numbered Star Trek film”, as he did with his 2009 motion picture, but for now, the voyages of the USS Enterprise and its crew will continue to enthrall even the sceptics of science fiction.

The Martian (2015)

Sentimental and sloppy, this depiction of Mars may well be more realistic than its predecessors but has a long way to go to catch up to the focused brilliance of Gravity.

the-martianUSA
2.5*

Director:
Ridley Scott

Screenwriter:
Drew Goddard

Director of Photography:
Dariusz Wolski

Running time: 140 minutes

On a planet more orange than red, a botanist is reduced to eating vegetables grown in his and his former crew members’ excrement. That sounds a little icky, but the premise is obviously fascinating. One man has to survive the elements, including a lack of the two most crucial elements for human existence — oxygen and water — and wait it out until a rescue team can locate him and bring him back.

Matt Damon stars as said botanist, Mark Watney, who is left behind for dead by his five fellow astronauts during an evacuation from Mars, where they had been stationed for close to three weeks as part of the Ares 3 mission. Thanks to a bit of luck, which in this film always arrives just at the right time, and with remarkable frequency, Watney survives, but has to combat extreme loneliness and a decreasing supply of food and water.

Fortunately, the botanist has an oxygenator and enough hydrogen (thanks to the copious amount of fuel) for him to make water, which he subsequently uses to irrigate his newly cultivated nursery inside the mission’s space habitat. He is mighty creative, and it seems like everything he puts his mind to turns out to be a complete success.

That is certainly one of the film’s major dramatic issues. Despite the fundamental fact that this is a man alone on an entire planet with very few resources and, at least initially, no contact with the (outside) world, his psyche does not seem particularly affected nor do we see him struggle to accomplish any tasks. Granted, astronauts do receive an extraordinary amount of training prior to lift-off, but the sheer effortlessness of Watney’s actions here makes it seem like this whole survival business is a cinch, which serves absolutely no dramatic purpose for the viewer.

The only major challenge for Watney comes in the second half, mere seconds after the director of NASA tells his colleagues their plan to rescue him will work only on the assumption that everything on Mars keeps going well. Without so much as a breather, the film cuts to a giant explosion on the Red Planet that all but eliminates Watney’s chances of survival in the long term.

This is one of two unbelievable low points in the film. The other comes during the rescue at the end, when multiple problems, including speed and altitude, make it appear there is no way for the team to extricate Watney from the planet’s atmosphere. But lo and behold, as if by the hand of God, Watney inexplicably manages to steer himself right up to the spacecraft with minimal effort.

Compare this scene with the opening of Alfonso Cuarón’s stunning Gravity, in which we get a real appreciation of the smallness of man and the near-futility of his actions in an environment as unfathomably extensive as outer space. In Gravity, things often go wrong, and when they do, the character responds with emotion-fuelled but not emotion-driven reactions while putting all her scientific knowledge to use. In The Martian, Watney is clearly intelligent, but his intelligence and creativity are a simplistic solution to the screenplay’s lack of desire to develop any of the obstacles he has to overcome.

This is not where the film’s problems end, however, as the cinematography is an absolute disaster, too. Consider the shot that re-introduces us to the Martian landscape following the calamitous wind storm that sent the crew members off into space and left Watney to fend for himself. Instead of calmly presenting us with the spectre of one man on the planet, Scott decides to fly over the landscape like a majestic eagle looking for prey. In the words, exactly at the moment when the director should be conveying the desolation of his main character, he opts for a point of view that suggests some being floating right above him.

At another point, there is an absurd camera movement when the camera, clearly hand-held, rushes towards Watney at a particular action-packed moment inside the habitat. Scott, who is known as a serious director because of films he made more than 20 — some would say more than 30 — years ago, should now throw in the towel. While one may admire his above-average devotion to creating a more-or-less realistic depiction of life on Mars, the screenplay also combines the sentimentality of an Independence Day with the mind-numbing verbosity of Cast Away.

In the latter film, which Robert Zemeckis directed in 2000, Tom Hanks spent most of the film on a deserted island and spent most of the time speaking out loud to a basketball, “Wilson”. In The Martian, even though we get many different points of view (a conventional but deeply alienating way of providing a God’s-eye panorama of events), Watney makes continuous video logs, which ensures that not a minute of silence intrudes on the film’s generally chaotic propulsion.  

Down on here, there is plain confusion among some of the most intelligent minds in the world. Teddy Sanders, the director of NASA, is played by an expressionless Jeff Daniels; Chiwetel Ejiofor channels a frustrated head of Mars missions whose every effort is stymied by Sanders; NASA’s director of media relations always discovers important information right as it is made public, and she never know what to do; and astrodynamicist Rich Purnell acts like a stoned college student rather than the genius behind the execution of the final act.

The film is divided into too many points of view, from Watney on Mars and his team on the Hermes spacecraft to astronomers at NASA in Houston, the scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, Purnell in what appears to be a dorm room rather than at office, and even the Chinese National Space Agency, which comes to the aid of its American counterparts out of sheer, unadulterated big-heartedness. Clearly, Scott was scared to bog us down with a two-hour close-up of his main character’s actions all alone on Mars, but if J.C. Chandor could tackle this problem head-on in All is Lost, with unrelenting success, why did Scott have to be such a coward?

The Martian is focused on box-office success like a laser as it tries to inject humour (mostly via the disco music that the mission commander, Melissa Lewis, left behind upon evacuation to Watney’s great dismay) into the goings-on. But we cannot take events very seriously when everything keeps going rights, every time. Sure, there is a missile misfire and an explosion on Mars, but these issues are resolved within a scene or two and without any major time spent on the development of these solutions. Scenes such as Apollo 13’s brainstorming sessions to “invent a way to put a square peg in a round hole” are sadly missing here, as we only get an abridged final presentation of the solution played for laughs, which detracts from the hours of overtime spent coming up with a plan that makes sure the person being saved doesn’t die in the process.

Although entertaining, the film loses focus and skips over important stages on Mars by padding itself with scenes of comedy played on Earth. Scott does very little to distinguish his film from similarly conventional fare, especially insofar as (the lack of) character development is concerned, and delivers a film far less intelligent and creative than its main character supposedly is.

Solaris (1972)

SolarisUSSR
4*

Director:
Andrei Tarkovsky

Screenwriters:
Fridrikh Gorenshtein
Andrei Tarkovsky
Director of Photography:
Vadim Yusov

Running time: 160 minutes

Original title: Солярис

The reality of the world in Tarkovsky’s Solaris seems to be as clear as daylight and yet as difficult to pin down as the reality of the three individuals on board the Solaris Space Station. Things seem to be straightforward (despite being a science-fiction film, there are no aliens here), but as characters’ memories start to physically materialise around them and we realise that no one can really trust the physical existence of anyone or anything around them, the world of the central character, Kris Kelvin, becomes very flimsy indeed, and many essential questions can never be answered.

Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, arguably one of his most accessible (together with Ivan’s Childhood and The Sacrifice), is based on the novel Solaris by Polish writer Stanisław Lem, which was published in 1961. People and their situations constantly shift in and out of focus, and while the central dilemma is quite easy to comprehend (Kelvin is confronted with the physical manifestation of his late wife), the questions resulting from this situation are profound and incredibly relevant today given mankind’s ability to (re)create images.

Kris Kelvin is a psychologist sent to the space station above the planet Solaris to investigate the situation there. Solaris itself is covered by a whirlpool of an ocean, and Kelvin soon discovers that the ocean is sentient. At the space station, a close friend, Gibarian, has committed suicide under strange circumstances, and the only crew members remaining are a Doctor Sartorius, who spends all day locked up in his laboratory, and Doctor Snout, who tries to warn Kelvin about the unexpected apparitions onboard.

These apparitions take the form of someone whose trace of a memory is found deep in the recesses of a crew member’s soul, and in the case of Kelvin, it is his late wife, Hari, who committed suicide 10 years ago. Kelvin is visibly affected by her appearance, even though he knows that she is not real. After he sends her out into space, a substitute appears. These substitutes are, of course, externally identical but always copies of the memory. As such (and this is an important point that is made much clearer in the 2002 remake by Steven Soderbergh), Hari can never know anything that Kelvin does not.

Even though Kelvin knows that Hari is merely a copy, he interacts with her in a way that causes him joy instead of sadness. She does not remind him of a loss as much as her presence makes him happy, and therefore, ultimately, Solaris fails to succeed in torturing Kelvin.

The film opens at Kelvin’s house next to a lake, where clouds or fog are always visible in the background. The environment seems pure, and a lone horse passes through the frame now and again while Tarkovsky takes care to show us water flowing over lush green water plants. It seems to be nature at its most innocent, but the film slowly and surely subverts our preconceived notions until we are left with the realisation that things in the world of the film are never quite what they seem.

Solaris is long and contains a number of scenes that would have benefited from a number of cuts, including, most importantly, an early scene during which we watch a film extensively detailing a mission to Solaris. Another scene, which takes place in a library on board the space station, has some interesting components, including references to Don Quixote, a work of literature that also investigates a world where reality is no longer virginal.

Bach’s organ choral prelude (“Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ”) is used in a striking way throughout the film, and the film’s final scene, when we are confronted with a frozen lake that brings to mind a painting by Bruegel (“The Hunters in the Snow”) shown in fragments earlier in the film, produces a moment of such beauty it nearly brought me to tears.

During a scene that immediately precedes Kelvin’s journey to the space station, viewers are obliged to immerse themselves in the flow of sound and image rather than story. It reminded me of sequences from Koyaanisqatsi and shows a car driving along the highways of Tokyo, at different speeds and in different colours, the sound changing as well to produce a sequence of indescribable energy that finally serves to propel the story itself forward, and Kelvin into space.

The film has a few scenes in black and white, but they are not entirely distinct from other scenes in colour, though sometimes they are flashbacks and sometimes they are not. However, our inability to easily distinguish flashback, dream and immediate reality from each other is of course part of the dilemma that the film poses to us and to Kelvin.

The examination of reality in a world where copies resemble the original to such a great extent is very pertinent and has recently been treated in many other films, from David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ to Christopher Nolan’s Inception. I found the plot more interesting and more accessible than Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, though they are both enigmatic in their own ways and lend themselves to hours of interpretation.