Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Star Trek: Into Darkness

The Force Majority

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Daisey Ridley in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Earlier this morning, when the embargo on reviews of Star Wars: The Force Awakens was finally lifted, it was as if millions of critics suddenly cried out and were silenced by fans shouting: “No spoilers! No spoilers!” I haven’t seen the movie, of course, but I’ve been cautiously skimming the dozens of reviews that appeared a few hours ago, and most are positive and encouraging. If there’s one common caveat, it’s that the new movie is, if anything, a little too reverent toward its predecessors: Andrew O’Hehir of Salon calls it “an adoring copy.” Which, you might think, is only to be expected: loving regard for the source material is one thing, among so much else, that the prequels sorely lacked, and the best way to recover what was lost might well be to take it out of the hands of the man who invented it in the first place and entrust it to an outsider. The new movie certainly seems eager to give people what they want. And this might all seem too obvious to even state out loud—except for the fact that its release also coincides with the trailer for Star Trek Beyond, which is largely the handiwork of the very same man, and which is anything but respectful toward what inspired it. In fact, it’s anxious to look like anything except for Star Trek, and while it’s too soon to pass judgment on either movie, it doesn’t seem premature to talk about their intentions. And the fact that J.J. Abrams has taken such different approaches with our two most iconic science fiction franchises raises fascinating questions about the position that each one holds in our culture.

I don’t intend to get into the whole Star Trek vs. Star Wars debate here. (It’s enough to say, perhaps, that I’m temperamentally more inclined toward Star Trek, but I like both about equally, and each strikes me as having one indisputable masterpiece—in both cases, the first sequel—surrounded by a lot that is uneven, dated, or disposable.) But the fact that their modern incarnations happen to depend largely on the personality and decisions of a single man sheds new light on an old subject. Elsewhere, I’ve written of Abrams: “With four movies as a feature director under his belt, he has yet to reveal himself as anything more than a highly skillful producer and packager of mainstream material, full of good taste and intentions, but fundamentally without personality.” And I have reasons for hoping that The Force Awakens will break that pattern. But if it does, it’s because Star Wars speaks to Abrams himself in a way that Star Trek never did. He’s always been candid about his efforts to turn the latter franchise into something more like the former, as if it were a problem that had to be fixed. If Star Trek Into Darkness inspired a backlash great enough to cast the considerable merits of the first of the rebooted movies into question, it’s because by repurposing The Wrath of Khan so blatantly, it emphasized how willing Abrams has been to pillage the franchise for material while remaining indifferent to what made it special. But none of this would be interesting if Abrams himself weren’t a kind of test case for viewers everywhere, a majority of whom, it’s fair to say, would rather spend two hours of their time in the Star Wars universe.

Star Trek Into Darkness

The real question is why. You could start by defining the difference between Star Trek and Star Wars as a tale of two Campbells. The first, John W. Campbell, was the most important editor science fiction ever had, and in his three decades at the helm of Astounding Science Fiction, later known as Analog, he perfected a kind of plot that was essentially about solving problems through logic and ingenuity. The second, Joseph Campbell, was a Jungian scholar whose conception of the hero’s journey was based more on suffering, rebirth, and transcendence, and if the hero triumphs in the end, it’s mostly as a reward for what he endures. Star Trek—which raided many of John W. Campbell’s core writers for scripts, outlines, and spinoff books—took its cues from the former, Star Wars from the latter. And while each approach has its merits, there’s a reason why one has remained the province of a close community of fans, while the other has expanded to fill all of Hollywood. One is basically a writer’s series; the other belongs to the producers, including George Lucas himself, who recognized early on that the real power didn’t lie in the director’s chair. Star Wars is less about any particular set of ideas than about a certain tone or feeling that has rightly thrilled a generation of viewers. What’s funny, though, is how rarely it gets at the sense of transcendence that Joseph Campbell evoked, and if it ever does, it’s thanks mostly to John Williams. At their best, these are fun, thrilling movies, and it’s precisely because they take the glories of outer space for granted in a way the original Star Trek never did, perhaps because it spent more time thinking about space as something more than a backdrop for chases and narrow escapes.

And this isn’t a bug in the Star Wars franchise, but a feature. After the premiere of The Force Awakens, Patton Oswalt tweeted that it “has the best final shot of any Star Wars film,” which only reminds us of how lame the final shots of those earlier movies really are: half are basically just wide shots of a party or celebration. When we contrast them with the last five minutes of Wrath of Khan, which are among the most spine-tingling I’ve ever seen, it shows how strangely cramped Star Wars can seem by comparison. Pauline Kael noted that there’s only one moment of organic beauty in A New Hope—the double sunset on Tatooine—and later complained of the lack of satisfying climaxes in Return of the Jedi: “When Leia finally frees Han Solo from his living death as sculpture, the scene has almost no emotional weight. It’s as if Han Solo had locked himself in the garage, tapped on the door, and been let out.” But this isn’t necessarily a flaw. There’s a place for what Kael called the “bam bam pow” of the Lucas approach, once we embrace its limits. If The Empire Strikes Back is the best movie in the original trilogy, it’s for the same reasons that some viewers were disappointed by it on its first release: it’s nothing but a second act. Star Wars has always been better at setting up situations than at paying them off. These days, that’s a strength. Abrams is notoriously more interested in creating mysteries than in resolving them, and it makes him a great fit for Star Wars, which, like most modern franchises, doesn’t have much of a stake in narrative resolution. Disney plans to release a new Star Wars movie every year for the rest of time, and if its approach to the Marvel universe is any indication, it’s the project for which Abrams was born—a franchise without any annoying third acts. But as much as I wish him well here, I hope he remembers that Star Trek deserves to go beyond it.

“What are you offering?”

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"What are you offering?"

Note: This post is the fifty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering the epilogue. You can read the earlier installments here

As I’ve noted before, writing a series of novels is a little like producing a television series: the published result, as Emily Nussbaum says, is the rough draft masquerading as the final product. You want a clear narrative arc that spans multiple installments, but you also don’t want to plan too far in advance, which can lead to boredom and inflexibility. With a television show, you’re juggling multiple factors that are outside any one showrunner’s control: budgets, the availability of cast members, the responses of the audience, the perpetual threat of cancellation. For the most part, a novelist is insulated from such concerns, but you’re also trying to manage your own engagement with the material. A writer who has lost the capacity to surprise himself is unlikely to surprise the reader, which means that any extended project has to strike a balance between the knowns and the unknowns. That’s challenging enough for a single book, but over the course of a series, it feels like a real high-wire act, as the story continues to evolve in unexpected ways while always maintaining that illusion of continuity.

One possible solution, which you see in works in every medium, is to incorporate elements at an early stage that could pay off in a number of ways, depending on the shape the larger narrative ends up taking. My favorite example is from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Leonard Nimoy wanted Spock to die, and his death—unlike its hollow pastiche in Star Trek Into Darkness—was meant to be a permanent one. Fortunately, writer and director Nicholas Meyer was shrewd enough to build in an escape hatch, especially once he noticed that Nimoy seemed to be having a pretty good time on the set. It consisted of a single insert shot of Spock laying his hand on the side of McCoy’s unconscious face, with the enigmatic word: “Remember.” As Meyer explains on his commentary track, at the time, he didn’t know what the moment meant, but he figured that it was ambiguous enough to support whatever interpretation they might need to give it later on. And whether or not you find the resolution satisfying in The Search for Spock, you’ve got to admit that it was a clever way out.

"It was a lock-picking kit..."

The more you’re aware of the serendipitous way in which extended narratives unfold, the more often you notice such touches. Breaking Bad, for instance, feels incredibly cohesive, but it was often written on the fly: big elements of foreshadowing—like the stuffed animal floating in the swimming pool, the tube of ricin concealed behind the electrical outlet, or the huge gun that Walter buys at the beginning of the last season—were introduced before the writers knew how they would pay off. Like Spock’s “Remember,” though, they’re all pieces that could fit a range of potential developments, and when their true meaning is finally revealed, it feels inevitable. (Looking at the list of discarded endings that Vince Gilligan shared with Entertainment Weekly is a reminder of how many different ways the story could have gone.) You see the same process at work even in the composition of a single novel: a writer will sometimes introduce a detail on a hunch that it will play a role later on. But the greater challenge of series fiction, or television, is that it’s impossible to go back and revise the draft to bring everything into line.

City of Exiles is a good case in point. In the epilogue, I wanted to set up the events of the next installment without locking myself down to any one storyline, in case my sense of the narrative evolved; at the time I was writing it, I didn’t really know what Eternal Empire would be about. (In fact, I wasn’t even sure there would be a third installment, although the fact that I left a few big storylines unresolved indicates that I at least had some hopes in that direction.) What I needed, then, were a few pieces of vague information that could function in some way in a sequel. Somewhat to my surprise, this included the return of a supporting character, the lawyer Owen Dancy, whom I’d originally intended to appear just once: it occurred to me later on that it might be useful to let him hang around. When he comes to visit Ilya in prison, I didn’t know what that might mean, but it seemed like a development worth exploring. The same is true of the lock-picking tools that Ilya examines on the very last page, which I knew would come in handy. As I said yesterday, a draft can feel like a message—or an inheritance—from the past to the future. And you try to leave as much useful material as possible for the next version of you who comes along…

“And each man recognized the other for what he was…”

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"Ilya looked more closely at the man's face..."

Note: This post is the twenty-first installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 20. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Every novel is the product of countess internal tensions, an attempt by the author to balance all the competing considerations that need to be taken into account, and the result is necessarily a compromise. The legendary biologist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, in his classic book On Growth and Form, argued that the shape of an organism’s body was a kind of living force diagram, the product of all the pressures and stresses exerted on it constantly by gravity, and much the same is true of a story. Ideally, it would evolve organically from a single perfect premise, but in practice, you find that the different pieces push against one another in unexpected ways. Let’s say you’re writing a thriller with a clearly defined protagonist and antagonist. Even if these two characters are separated for long stretches of the story, it’s sensible to think that there will eventually come a time when they’re in direct confrontation. Not only is this good narrative practice, but it’s a useful way of deciding which story, out of the many possible alternatives, you want to tell. All else being equal, a story that leads inexorably to a collision between two opposing players—whether it’s a hero or a villain or a husband and a wife—is likely to generate a lot of interesting material along the way.

Occasionally, however, you find the story changing before your eyes, until the big, obvious climax that you had in mind becomes logistically impossible. Nothing should be simpler than arranging events to give these characters the cathartic encounter that they deserve, but the narrative often has plans of its own. A nice example occurs in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, one of my ten favorite movies of all time, as well as a fascinating case study in how a fine story can emerge from the least promising of circumstances. Khan is one of the great movie villains, Kirk is at his heroic best, and each man is fundamentally defined by how he relates to the other—a point that Star Trek Into Darkness, in which Khan barely seems aware of Kirk at all, manages to miss completely. It’s startling to realize, then, that in the original film, Khan and Kirk are never in the same place at the same time, and the sum of all their interactions, conducted over viewscreen and communicator, are the matter of a few minutes, although those moments are unforgettable. (In retrospect, watching Khan and Kirk tussle in “Space Seed” seems actively strange, especially because one of the two combatants is clearly Shatner’s stunt double.)

"And each man recognized the other for what he was..."

It’s easy to understand why the story keeps its hero and villain apart: the entire narrative is predicated on two parallel lines of action, with Kirk and Khan attempting to outmaneuver and outsmart each other at a distance. Structure, in short, trumped a conventional line of action, and yet the writing and acting are pitched at such a high level that we don’t miss it at all. In writing City of Exiles, I was faced with a similar dilemma. I had created a formidable new character, Lasse Karvonen, specifically to serve as an antagonist to Ilya; looking back at my original notes for the story, one of the first things I jotted down was that the novel would be a kind of duel of assassins, with these two men hunting one another across Europe. It sounded like a pretty good premise, and it still does. When the time came to break the story down, however, another factor unexpectedly intervened. I found that I was constructing more or less the same kind of plot that I had already written in The Icon Thief, with Ilya, on the run from the law, continually remaining one step ahead of his pursuers. I didn’t feel like covering that ground again, so I ultimately cut the Gordian knot—spoilers ahead—by having Ilya captured by the police at the end of Part I.

This decision ended up opening up the entire novel, as well as its sequel, and it was absolutely the right choice. However, it also involved a radical reconception of the story I’d envisioned. Now Karvonen would be opposed to Wolfe instead of Ilya, and unbelievably, given my initial intentions, Ilya and Karvonen barely exchange a word. They run into one another briefly in Chapter 15, although neither man knows who the other one is, and it’s only in Chapter 20 that they’re given anything like a good look at each other. Even here, the structure of the scene prevented me from making this interaction any more than an exchange of glances. In that instant, though, each man sees his counterpart for what he really is, and it’s possible that I even gave the moment more emphasis than was strictly plausible because I knew it was the only one I would ever get. That glance is all that remains of the story I had once intended to tell, and part of me still wonders how the plot would have unfolded if I had allowed Ilya to retain his freedom. In any case, Wolfe ended up being a perfectly capable opponent for Karvonen, and Ilya’s role, in which he’s forced to outthink his adversary from within a prison cell, is considerably more interesting than what I’d formerly planned. These two men will never meet again. But the parts they will play in each other’s lives are far from over…

Star Trek into detachment

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Star Trek Into Darkness

Note: Spoilers follow for Star Trek Into Darkness.

On Friday, my wife and I went to the movies for the first time in six months, which is the longest I’ve gone without seeing a film in theaters since I was old enough to be watching movies at all. There wasn’t much suspense about what we’d be seeing: ever since my daughter was born in December, I knew that the first movie I’d see on the big screen would be Star Trek Into Darkness. And on balance, I think I made the right choice, even if the film itself ends up feeling like much less than the sum of its parts. It’s a slick, enjoyable blockbuster that does everything it can to give the audience its money’s worth, but it’s also a little hollow, especially because it constantly asks us to compare it to a film that ranks among my ten favorite movies of all time while falling short in every measure. I knew going in that Benedict Cumberbatch was Khan, but I wasn’t prepared for how little the movie would understand his character’s true nature: Khan is a great villain to the extent that he’s obsessed with Kirk, and the duel between these two men ought to be intensely personal. As valiantly as Cumberbatch works in the role, turning him into a terrorist with a vendetta against all of Starfleet robs him of much of his appeal.

And this is a minor problem compared to a larger issue that has me slightly concerned about the future of the franchise: its lack of character. I’m not talking about the members of the crew—who are all nicely drawn, even if the script spends most of its time putting them through manufactured conflicts, and often feels as if it’s checking items off a list—but about the filmmakers themselves. After two movies, the first of which I enjoyed tremendously, I still don’t know how J.J. Abrams and his collaborators feel about Star Trek, except as a delivery system for cool moments and action scenes. Part of this is due to Abrams himself: with four movies as a feature director under his belt, he has yet to reveal himself as anything more than a highly skillful producer and packager of mainstream material, full of good taste and intentions, but fundamentally without personality. There’s a reason why his fondness for lens flares has become a punchline, because it’s the only recognizable stylistic element in all of his work, aside from a tendency to spin an air of mystery around nonexistent surprises. And this is fundamentally out of tune with the spirit of the series itself, which has always been at its best as reflection of the idiosyncratic, prickly individuals who created it.

Nicholas Meyer, Leonard Nimoy, and William Shatner on the set of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

I’m aware that it might seem a little strange for me to wish for more of a personal take on the material, since I’ve frequently drawn a sharp contrast between such doomed passion projects as John Carter and the sleek, impersonal machinery of a movie like Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol. Detachment, I’ve often said, is the key to making good art, and I still believe this. What’s less obvious, and something I’m only starting to figure out now, is that detachment, paradoxically, is useful to the extent that it allows a personal statement to emerge. For evidence, we need only turn to the very film that the Abrams movies revisit so obsessively. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the story behind Wrath of Khan is one of my favorite Hollywood legends: Nicholas Meyer, a novelist and screenwriter with limited prior interest in Star Trek, cobbled together a story from six earlier drafts over the course of one long weekend, and the result was a beautiful, ingenious script with real emotional resonance. (To compare the ending of Wrath of Khan with its homage in Into Darkness is to be reminded of the difference between earned feeling and efficient, facile manipulation.)

And the really strange thing about Meyer’s detachment is that it resulted in a movie that was profoundly, even eccentrically personal. Meyer didn’t care much about Star Trek, so he filled the movie with a list of things he liked: the nautical mood and motifs, the sense of the Enterprise as Horatio Hornblower in space, the references to Moby-Dick and A Tale of Two Cities. In Meyer’s version of Starfleet, characters freely quote Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes, and they actually read physical books, which is perfectly in tune with the original series and its successors, which gain much of their charm from how they refract and reinterpret elements of our own culture. The current films, by contrast, seems to take place in a universe devoid of any cultural memory or artifacts of the past, aside from “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys. For all the obligatory nods that Abrams and crew make to the history of the franchise, it’s still a work of limited knowledge and curiosity about everything else that matters. And as far as the rest of the world is concerned, it might as well take place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Written by nevalalee

June 3, 2013 at 9:06 am

A fella smarter than myself

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Gene Hackman in Heist

I tried to imagine a fella smarter than myself. Then I tried to think, “What would he do?”

—David Mamet, Heist

Writers, by definition, are always trying to punch above their weight. When you sit down to write a novel for the first time, you’re almost comically inexperienced: however many books you’ve read or short stories you’ve written, you still don’t know the first thing about structuring—or even finishing—a long complicated narrative. Yet we all do it anyway. This is partly thanks to the irrational optimism that I’ve said elsewhere is a crucial element of any writer’s psychological makeup, in which we’re inclined to believe that we’re smarter and more prepared than we actually are. There’s nothing wrong with this; it’s the only way any of us will ever grow as writers, as we slowly evolve into the level of competence we’ve imagined for ourselves. Still, in any project, there always comes a time when a writer, however experienced, realizes that he’s taken on more than he can handle. The story is there, unwritten, and it’s beautiful in his head, but lost in the translation to the printed page. One day, he hopes, he’ll be good enough to realize it, but that doesn’t help him now. What he really needs is a way to temporarily become a better writer than he already is.

This may sound like witchcraft, but in reality, it’s something that writers do all the time. When we start out, we have no choice but to imitate the artists we admire, because when we set out to write that first page, we lack the experience of life and craft that only years of work can bring. Eventually, we move past imitation to find a voice and style of our own, but there are still times when we find ourselves compelled to channel the spirit of our betters. We do this when we start each day by reading a few pages from the work of a writer we like, or when we approach a tough moment in the plot by asking ourselves what Updike or Thomas Harris in his prime would do. Some of us go even further. In this week’s issue of The New Yorker, James Wood talks about a friend who became so obsessed by the work of the Norwegian writer Per Petterson that he copied out one of his novels word for word. This isn’t about stylistic plagiarism or slavish imitation, but a kind of sympathetic magic, a hope that we can conjure up the spirit of a more experienced writer just long enough to solve the problems in front of us.

Kevin Pollak in The Aristocrats

And the act of imitation itself can lead to surprising places. There’s a great deleted scene from the notorious documentary The Aristocrats in which Kevin Pollak delivers the titular joke in the style of Albert Brooks. After milking it for two delicious minutes, he takes a sip of coffee and says:

That’s the trippy thing about doing Brooks, though—I’m faster and funnier than I am as myself. It’s very, very sad. It’s a possession. I hate to do it because, literally, I’m listening to myself and thinking, “Why am I never this funny?”

I’m not a huge Kevin Pollak fan, but I love this clip, because it gets at something important and mysterious about the way artistic imitation works. Pollak is a skilled mimic who does a good, if not great, impression of Albert Brooks on all the superficial levels—his vocal tics, his tone, the way he holds his face and body. Somewhere along the line, though, these surface impressions work a deeper transformation, and he finds himself temporarily thinking like Brooks. This is why typing out the work of a writer we admire can be so helpful: there’s no better way of opening a window, even just for a crucial moment or two, into someone else’s brain.

The best kind of imitation, as Pollak says, is a possession, in which we will ourselves, almost unconsciously, into becoming better artists than we really are. Imitation can become dangerous, however, when we focus on the superficial without also channeling more fundamental habits of mind. This morning, while watching the new teaser trailer for Star Trek: Into Darkness, which clearly takes many of its cues from the recent films of Christopher Nolan, I was amused by the thought that while Nolan has done more than any contemporary director to push the envelope of visual and narrative complexity in mainstream movies, the big takeaway for other filmmakers—or at least those who assemble the trailers—has apparently been a “BWONG” sound effect. But big influences can arise from small beginnings. The qualities that most deserve imitation in the artists we admire have little to do with the obvious trademarks of their style, and if we imitate those aspects alone, we’re just being derivative. But sometimes it’s those little things that allow us to temporarily acquire the mindset of smarter artists than ourselves, until, finally, we’ve made it our own.

Written by nevalalee

December 6, 2012 at 10:12 am

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