Saturday 7 September 2013

Where's Runnicles goes to the movies - Rush and Star Trek Into Darkness

It's been a while since I wrote a film review, so why not two for the price of one. As a fan of Formula 1 racing and, normally, of Ron Howard's films, I've been very much looking forward to Rush, which chronicles the 1976 title fight between James Hunt for McLaren and Niki Lauda for Ferrari. In the end, while it is good fun (particularly for this McLaren fan to see them winning races after the season they've been having), it does not rank among Howard's best films nor even among the best Formula 1 films: the Senna documentary is both more powerful and better made.

The film's biggest problem is that it feels slightly disjointed. The first half is very entertaining and light hearted, then, following the dramatic events at the Nurburgring the tone changes dramatically. This section of the film is probably the best, and certainly the most compelling, though there are a number of moments that are not for the squeamish.

The two leads, Chris Hemsworth as Hunt and Daniel Brühl as Lauda, are both solid. Indeed Brühl's Lauda is a pretty uncanny impression. It helps, no doubt, that Lauda is still alive and cooperated, but that said, impression still seems the best word for it. Neither performance shows much depth beyond that, though in fairness this is down to Peter Morgan's script which isn't in the same league as his previous sporting endeavour The Damned United, nor his previous Howard collaboration Frost/Nixon. The supporting cast is even more thinly drawn and the likes of Steven Mangan and Julian Rhind-Tutt seem a little wasted.

As with any real life story, one problem is that the outcome is known (at least to the F1 fans in the audience). This makes Ron Howard a good directorial choice: no matter how many times I watch Apollo 13 I'm always on the edge of my seat thinking they won't make it. And yet, the suspense here is not nearly so great. Maybe they've gone to less effort since the story won't be quite so widely familiar. That said, there are some nice touches, particularly the way racing shots are intercut with other things. The actual racing scenes tend to be quite brief and seem a slightly pale shadow of the real thing. Howard also seems to have been a little too bound in recreation. For example, an overtake which was missed by the less omnipresent TV cameras of an earlier era is missed again in a perfect recreation: I recognised the shot which made it a little dull.

Still, despite these flaws there is plenty to enjoy, and plenty of wit in the script. And, in the final race in the shadow of Mount Fuji, there is a nice reminder for present day fans that drivers had to nurse their tyres in the good old days too.

I missed Star Trek Into Darkness in the cinema, so its appearance on video this week seemed welcome. I enjoyed the first instalment. True, there were holes in the plot, but it was good fun and at his best JJ Abrams is a master of good fun, though in my view he is better at TV than film (Alias ranks among my favourite TV shows). It is therefore disappointing to report that the film is pretty awful.

The cast is solid enough, but for the most part their talents are wasted by script that allows for little range or development and hasn't the courage to do anything vaguely interesting. Karl Urban's McCoy seems particularly poorly used. This is doubly frustrating as every now and then it looks like they have had an interesting idea but then after taking a step or two in that direction they chicken out. These flaws probably explain why I found the dodgy accents of Simon Pegg's Scotty and Anton Yelchin's Checkov grated far more than was the case last time round.

The closest thing the film has to a redeeming feature is Benedict Cumberbatch's performance as the villain. This is especially true in the middle of the film when, after a rather obvious and overly telegraphed plot twist, the writers suggest that perhaps they are daring to do something interesting and different with the character, a suggestion Cumberbatch sells well, making you question who the villain really is. But this is short lived.

It is bad enough that the script draws its characters poorly and allows little development. Worse, almost nothing that happens actually makes the slightest bit of sense. Pause to examine more or less any aspect of the plot and it is likely to crumble. The various plans which Kirk et al are called upon to thwart are particularly true of this, so much so that one has some trouble believing the villain is as intelligent as the script claims, and the less said about the mysterious torpedoes the better.

The film is peppered with references to other portions of the canon, but most seem to be there not because they add anything but almost just to say hey, look, we have watched the original. This is especially true of Section 31 which in the latter seasons of Deep Space 9 added an interesting darkness to the Federation. Here, not so much, since they've failed to make me care about the Federation (or, for that matter, anything else) in the first place. The brief cameo by a tribble possibly provides a fun explanation for all the chaos they will go on to cause, but the writers don't actually commit to that fully and even if they had it would only have raised further questions.

Perhaps the most frustrating of these references is the character played by Alice Eve, whose appearance on the Enterprise is yet another of those many plot holes. She represents about the closest thing Kirk has to a love interest, or at least that's what you think when you hear her name but the closest the script comes to doing anything in that direction is when Kirk sneaks a glance at her as she gets changed. This is immensely frustrating as here is an interesting opportunity to see the basis for fallout that has been chronicled in the original films. But obviously doing nothing was more interesting.

By the end they're basically just recreating scenes from earlier in the franchise, but in a manner that suggests the writers sat round a table asking how they might totally rob them of their dramatic punch. It is a good question whether all this appears to be more or less of a confusing mess to people who don't have an extensive knowledge of the series.

True, there are some reasonable special effects. The Enterprise emerging from a bank of clouds is nice, as indeed when it emerges from the ocean. Though quite why Starfleet has designed it to operate in such conditions is quite another matter (and another one of many questions in the script which defy logic). One climactic scene has me wondering if Abrams read my review of the previous film where I suggested that the recent Battlestar Galactica had more dramatic effects and mentioned one in particular which finds an analogue here. Whether or not there was any direct influence, the one in Battlestar Galactica is infinitely more exciting. In some places the effects look a little too much like they were designed with an eye on a potential video game.

To summarise: if you haven't seen this, don't bother. Watch one of the earlier films instead, say The Undiscovered Country or The Wrath of Kahn. True, you won't get Cumberbatch acting well but if that's what you're looking for there's always Sherlock. If you have seen this, you should probably check out one of those suggestions anyway, as I'll be doing, in the hopes of washing out the memory.


The Wagnerian said...

I too mean to great around to writing a review of Star Trek: Into Darkness - although elsewhere than over at TW. But agree with everything you say - bloody terrible film. God knows what he will do with Star Wars - although it would take a lot to do worse than what Lucas managed to do with the I, II and III

The Wagnerian said...

Um..I think that should have read "get" rather than "great". Blame my age

Tam Pollard said...

Yes, I'm increasingly concerned that he's going to make a hash of that. But as you say, it would take some doing to be worse that Lucas's prequel. I still haven't plucked up the courage to actually watch III yet!

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