Sunday, June 2, 2013

Why Star Trek Into Darkness Was Terrible.

My friend was shocked that Star Trek Into Darkness had been out for however long and I hadn't seen it. She had expected me, in my infinite nerdiness, to have been there on the day it was out dressed up as my favourite character and ready to go. Her obvious misguided ideas of just how nerdy I am aside, I was actually expecting myself to have seen it sooner too. Star Trek, although not my favourite sci-fi franchise is still enjoyable. I was eager to see it as I remember having enjoyed the first of J.J. Abrams' Star Trek movies.

Alas, I was very disappointed.

It starts off pretty well, with action, intrigue, and some wonderful foreshadowy tones with a near deadly scenario involving Spock in a volcano which leads to some interesting exposition on Spock's character as a half-human later on. This scene though turns Uhura into an emotional love-sick wreck and makes her not only a useless fop, but her whingy feminine bickering and completely stereotypical womanly inability to control her emotions leads to endangering Spock and Kirk later on while she's distracting them from their surroundings. This is where the issues with Star Trek begin. I was hoping, wishing, throughout the film that Uhura would overcome her uselessness and become a character in her own right with depth and emotions outside of "whingey" and "irritated". She is a translator, that is her special gift that allows her to stand proud against all the men whose basic skills guarantee them importance, and does she get to show this off? You bet she does!

Yaaaay! Not really. Her moment to shine by saying a few random things in Klingon is basically a chance to stall before the white male (meant to be a not-white male but whatever. For once whitewashing a character makes the vaguest sense - after all, the alternative would be to make the only dark skinned main character besides Uhura a villain. The brave whites vs the evil dark skinned guy is too common an unfortunate trope these days so what is clearly not an intentional attempt to avoid racism inadvertently is mildly redeeming enough to simply conflicting, instead of outright offensive to me) comes in to save the day. Uhura's only worth is as a distraction, not as an individual with agency over the situation.

Let's take a pause from this feminist reading of Star Trek to point out that yes, it has other flaws outside of race and gender. For starters, a lot of the shots were ever so slightly out of focus. It annoyed me so much because it went from crisp and sharp... to slightly blurry. I'd punch that focus puller in the face if only I had hands and also was a violent individual.

As a film based off a series that was meant to be progressive, especially for it's time (but still can be seen as progressive now considering it is always seen as special when non-whites are cast as main characters), it is sad to see something so utterly terribly misogynistic and devoid of substance. It had been glossed over into a very straightforward Hollywood action romp set in space which is not what it is meant to be. Even worse is J.J. Abrams is stuck in this delusional bubble where nerdy things are inherently masculine and therefore cannot imagine a woman being part of his audience. You know who is a big fan of Star Trek? My mother. I went to see it with a female friend, who had already seen it, first person to talk to me about it when I arrived home was a woman, former girlfriends have loved Star Trek so much, I know a woman with a Spock tattoo. I actually honestly think I know more nerdy women into Star Trek than I do guys. Whenever I've been in a comic book store it has been with women. First time I walked in there was a female staff member. Whenever I go to comic conventions the people I bump into are my female friends and only very rarely a guy I know. Being a nerd is not an idea reserved for socially inept men whose interaction with women is predominantly fantasies that get played out on screens.

That kind of thinking is stereotypical and insulting. To the writers and director of Star Trek: Women don't exist for the sake of the male gaze. Women do not exist for the sake of the male gaze. 

There is of course more women than Uhura. In order I believe there are some sexy cat ladies who have slept with the dashing young Captain Kirk and have no depth outside of being sexual, then there's the woman in the bar that Kirk desires to hit on but is interrupted, then there's the blonde Carol Marcus who is an intelligent doctor, science officer, and weapons specialist. Sounds like the recipe for a strong female character who is a role model and inspiration to the large amount of women watching this film right? Wrong. Granted, she has more depth than the cardboard cut out resembling Uhura that somehow manages to speak out of its paper lips, she isn't just regarded as barely useful to the plot but her usefulness is overshadow by her overt sexualisation for the sake of encouraging the audience to objectify and fantasise about her. She isn't using her sexuality to manipulate those around her and utilise this misogyny for her own gains like a proper empowered woman would, she is simply trying to do her job and cannot escape her degradation let alone object to it. Her singular moment of worth in the plot is when she tells Kirk that she thinks the missiles - which Scotty has already stated - are dodgy and she wants to open one. Huzzah! She is smart! She is actively progressing the plot! But what? For some reason this entire conversation involves her leading Kirk into a shuttle where she proceeds to strip off her clothes, presumably to change into something more appropriate for going to a planet. She tells Kirk to look away, of course, but when he disregards her wishes and privacy she poses sexily and dismissively tells him to turn around again. This gratuitous stripping is simply forced in making that particular plot point bizarre, but also provides the trailer with sufficient sexual allure to yep, you guessed it, appeal to all the horny nerdy fan boys. See what I mean about assuming the audience is strictly male? We would've fantasised about her anyway, being the sexy blonde, but now our male gaze gets catered to directly. Her worth in that scene is belittled by the unnecessary transformation of her into a sex object.

Moments later, on the planet with Bones, she is doing SCIENCE (something that Bones doesn't really know about, which I will explain later). Very important of course to the plot, but Bones cannot help but treat this chance to be near a woman as a reason to flirt incessantly. The audience is encouraged to continuously think of her as a sex object instead of noticing how influential and intelligent she is currently being. Her lack of interest in Bones's advances are irrelevant because her interest is not the point, the tantalising dangling of her in front of us is. She is never seen as useful without being directly juxtaposed with being a sexual being whose presence is directly or indirectly for the aesthetic enjoyment for the audience of the male cast. Once she has led a man towards discovering the horrifying secret of the photon torpedoes she goes back to being of little importance to the plot. Meanwhile Uhura is off being emotional? I dunno. Does anyone really care at this point? What exactly encourages us to engage with Uhura or care about her as a character besides a sentimental attachment to her original construction in previous Star Trek media? Her utter lack of characterisation or motivation outside of "I'm an emotional woman and I'm incapable of being heroic outside of being lovesick, whereas men are heroic because it is masculine" is boring.

Apparently the writer apologised via and will be mindful in the future. I hope he is, but he is a grown man and should've had the forethought and critical thinking skills to begin with to realise that it wasn't just terribly objectifying, but also really didn't make sense plotwise for her to lead Kirk to a private area where she could have told him to easily leave before stripping. It wasn't some accidental mishap it was obnoxiously intentional. Abrams addressed this on Conan (video can be found here) by debuting a deleted scene of Benedict Cumberbatch having a shower. Abrams justified it by saying it demonstrates how Kirk is a womaniser and this is just giving an opportunity to show off this as well as bring "balance" because he wasn't dressed earlier. Well earlier on in the film, as I've already stated, we see that Kirk has had a one-night stand with not just one, but two sexy women and then later wishes to pick up a woman at a bar. It has already been established that he is the kind of person who does this. Abrams' comment of "editing the scene poorly" to explain why it was so negatively received is irrelevant as the scene, regardless of how it was edited, is unnecessary. Another note on balance: Kirk's sexual prowess is seen as an addition to his character, whereas hers is a defining feature. Kirk is exercising his sexual desires because he wants to and when he isn't intending to be sexual no one treats him or his body as sexual, whereas she has an aura of sexuality imposed upon her constantly, she is never ever seen as a worthy individual or instrumental to the plot without this constant sexual overtone. Even when she is trying to work. She is not defined outside of that whereas Kirk is therefore there is no balance, there is a constant blaring inequality in how characters are being approached and addressed due to their gender. Furthermore, the deleted scene with Benedict Cumberbatch having a shower does nothing to negate this as, for starters, it is deleted, and the top half of a man is not nearly as sexualised as a woman's body. Sure, many women would enjoy it, but it still is merely a few seconds of a man simply standing there, not overtly trying to be sexual. The issue is not that a woman hasn't got clothes on, it is that her clotheslessness is for the sake of arousing the male audience, not adding to the depth of her character. The movie screams "I am constructed around the male gaze and have no recognition of anything I, the director, do not find inherently appealing to my masculinity!"

Fast forward and it is revealed that SPOILERS: Admiral Marcus is evil and plans on killing everyone on board the Enterprise. Carol the rescue! She is his daughter and thus if he knows she's here he won't fire. Well that's why the beaming technology exists... She's captured by her father and her brief attempt to be important simply places her in the position of damsel in distress for Kirk to save. Just like Uhura, when she actually needs to take an active part in the story she serves as a temporary distraction for a man to do something infinitely more useful. In this instance the firing on the Enterprise stops so momentarily for Scotty to mess around in engineering.

Explosions ensue. At this point in the story if you have been watching you should be able to predict everything that happens next, or if not, be able to predict 5 minutes before it happens as the plot progresses. See, the first 2 acts where reasonably solid as far as story goes (though seriously, why put people in a torpedo? You're trying to save them so you put them in something designed to blow up) but now it starts falling apart. By now Bones has randomly injected all of his sample of Khan's blood into a random dead Tribble because... why the hell not? Damn it Jim! Bones is a doctor not a scientist! As seen in the very start, and later explicitly said, Khan's blood has remarkable regenerative properties. It's a wonder drug! So lets put every last drop of it in a dead ball of fur. What Bones hopes to achieve is never explained but it is pretty clear thanks to the opening scene and the conversation between Spock and Spock that there is such intense foreshadowing that someone is going to die and that Khan's blood is the golden elixir that saves the day. It was so utterly predictable that all emotion from the scene was erased. I sat there, as the obvious homage to Wrath of Khan with the hands against the glass (look closely you'll see a continuity error between close ups and mid shots) played out, and quietly laughed to myself. I didn't think "oh, that's sad" I thought "well duh... come on then Spock, how long until you figure out what the solution is? Because we all know it." The most important death scene was funny to me. Let that sink in as a reflection of the quality of that plot device.

So blatantly obvious is this plot progression from here that all suspense is gone, tension is merely boiled down to how long it takes for the next thing to happen, and I could start ticking off narrative elements as listed in any of my screenwriting textbooks. See, I know the basic structure that hollywood plots follow, we all do, me especially considering I've studied them, but normally when watching things they don't blatantly consciously remind me that they're ticking off a checklist of archetypes and plot points laid out by Christopher Vogler in The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.

Well, this predictable shambles of a third act is actually enjoyable despite the obvious resolutions to every conflict. Not all of it is bad. The issue that arises is that Uhura, in her only time to actively do anything of worth, is not an instrument of resolution in any heroic sense as she could be. Using the somewhat nonsensical plot device that you can't beam a person up from a moving surface but you beam them on to one (didn't they beam up Kirk and Spock while they were in freefall in the other Star Trek film? A far faster movement than the non-descript flying metal bricks that Spock and Khan have their final showdown on. Though my father points out that he thought it was interference causing the issue there which a) I don't remember anything about and neither do the people I ask b) even if it were true it still poses a similar issue of being nonsensical that something that affects the beaming technology one way doesn't the other) Uhura interrupts the fight between Spock and Khan, a fight that could potentially have gone Spock's way eventually as all fights between evil and good go, with some last minute bit of ingenuity on Spock's part, and distracts Khan long enough for Spock to get the upper hand. Once again, her use is basically serving as an emotional distraction for men to swoop in and save her after she has deliberately and recklessly endangered herself.

Now some might defend this by pointing out that this is the normal thing in sci-fi because it is inherently seen as a masculine genre, thus this is just a staple of that genre. Well telling me it is ubiquitous doesn't disregard my problems with the misogyny, it merely demonstrates just widespread of a problem it is. See, in recent comic book movies (comic books are a genre considered as pulp fictiony and lower class corny sci-fi as you can get) they have still managed to combine over the top sci-fi action with strong female characters who go outside of their roles as the emotional love interests. The Black Widow and Pepper Pots being two examples of different female characters who play active roles in their plots. Pepper, despite her tendency to be emotional, her shock and alarm at her dangerous surroundings, and inevitable role as the damsel in distress as her position as the superheroes girlfriend, manages to still influence the plot and be instrumental to the resolution of the conflict by overcoming her own damsel status. She is only ever partially reliant on men around her and only at her weakest. Her personality is capable of coming up against Tony Stark's demanding and troublesome ego and walking away smug and superior. Comic books themselves are currently being heavily criticised for their sexism and blatant overtly objectified poses of female characters and yet their film counterparts manage to ascend past this into the realms of respectability and worthwhile well constructed entertainment. There is no restriction of genre that prevents women from being properly, let alone adequately, represented as people. Why then has a franchise, which in its original form, that was so progressive managed to go backwards with age?

It's the kind of movie where all the men involved rush to defend it with "we don't hate women! They're our favourite thing to have sex with!" and it is disappointing. Really, in the end my favourite female character was the overweight black woman with a shaved head who never spoke. Why? Because she is the only female in the entire movie (besides extras in the street) who breaks free of the conventional (read: outdated) idea of what a woman should act and look like. She's not emotional, she's not a love interest, she isn't unnecessarily sexualised, and she sits and does her job, whatever it is (I assume it is important because she is on the bridge). She is a non-skinny black woman with no hair. She is the most progressive representation of a woman in a mainstream movie I've seen in a very long time...

And she is so unimportant she might as well not have been there and there wouldn't have been a difference... because only conventionally attractive people matter to plots in Hollywood. Oh, actually I just remembered there was another girl present who had white hair who also didn't say anything... Women exist. They just don't really matter very much.

Outside of the technical issues, the predictable plot, the lack of resemblance to the original Star Trek, and the incredibly poor representation of women to the point where I got angry enough to write a blog post this long... it is actually a decent movie. Though really, those things annoyed me enough that I don't feel like watching it any time again soon. I would be fine not watching it again ever.

The franchise will survive J.J. Abrams. It will be remade. It will be fixed. One day it will return to its progressive roots. Once again women will be properly represented in sci-fi... have hope Trekkies, this franchise will not end here. Not like this. The uncountable hordes of female fans won't disown this franchise just because of this because they will wish so long and hard for it to return to a state where it does not offend them that they will continue to poor money into it, because that's what a lot nerd culture is made out of... women. Hopefully the Executives and J.J. Abrams will realise this and alter their approach so that the series can improve because right now it is awful.

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