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Thursday, May 16, 2013

Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

In 2009, JJ Abrams had the unenviable task of relaunching the then moribund Star Trek franchise from what could have been an eternal slumber. Prior to being a house-hold name, Abrams was able to take Star Trek and return it to its very roots using a wonderful time-travel conceit that allowed him carte blanche but also didn't toss out the years of mythos that so many Trekkers hold dear. What he created in his "rebooted" Star Trek was a universe that was firmly rooted in Star Trek's "future 60's" while also the most beautifully sterile utopia that I've ever seen on screen. Abrams (along with screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman) were able to marry the idealism of Star Trek to the world-building and action of the Star Wars universe. To some, this was a dumbing down of what made Star Trek special to them in the first place and they firmly rejected it. As for myself, I found it to be the first Star Trek movie since "the one with the Whales" (The Voyage Home) that was able to get out of its bubble of fan inertia. Abrams opened up the club to everybody, which for a property as old as Star Trek, is something be admired. I loved his first foray into this arena. In his follow-up act, the fun is still there, but as the film goes deeper into its slightly twisty plot, problematic elements come to the fore. As such, the film is a step-down from previous excellence, but still an enjoyable time at the cinema.

Star Trek Into Darkness picks up at an indeterminate amount of time after the events of the first film, with Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) leading a mission to stop a volcano from destroying a primitive race. They're able to pull it off, but not without violating Starfleet's hallowed "Prime Directive" (which disavows interference with the natural order of more primitive races) when Kirk orders the ship to come within eyesight of the planet's inhabitants when trying to save the life of Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto). After Spock, ever the stickler for regulations, reports the incident to Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood), Kirk is relieved of his command of the Enterprise only to be reassigned as Pike's First Officer. Starfleet is then attacked by one of their own, Commander John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) who ignites an explosion at the Starfleet Archives and is responsible for the death of many high ranking officials. As a direct result and under the direct orders of Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller), Kirk reunites with his crew: Spock, Uhura (Zoe Saldana), McCoy (Karl Urban), Sulu (John Cho), Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and Scotty (Simon Pegg) to take down Harrison, who has fled into the Klingon Neutral Zone.

One of the benefits of Abrams' vision is his world-building and scope, which is unlike anything we've ever seen in the franchise before. Each of his worlds feel lived-in and perfectly crafted. A segment in London focusing on a father of an ailing child gives the viewer an opportunity to experience what Earth culture is like in the far future; while getting to see the Klingon homeworld Kronos with it's wonderfully reimagined inhabitants is a treat. At no point is the illusion ever broken visually, and Abrams directorial vision is so crisp and fast paced that the 2 hour running mark simply flies by. The Director's shooting style is also as attractive as its ever been, with his color palette and the larger than life cinematography creating the kind of feeling that can only be replicated in a movie theater. For his occasional flaws as a writer, JJ Abrams knows what he's doing behind the camera. The action beats are stellar, including a thrilling ship to ship dive that literally gave me a set-up that I don't think I've ever seen in a film before.  

Star Into Darkness is made up of two distinct story-beats, one being more successful than the other. For much of the first half of the film, we're treated to a fascinating look at the relationship between Spock and Kirk. Spock's unending devotion to duty creates a bit of a schism, not only between he and Kirk, but also his relationship with Uhura. While the latter is resolved in fairly due time, the former is treated in a beautifully realistic way. Despite the fact that we love our friends dearly, we still clash with them occasionally in our worst of times. Kirk is still trying to control his own recklessness and the impact that this has on the lives of his crew. Spock is still a man torn between his Human and Vulcan heritage and understanding the balance of logic and emotion. These two divergent paths are on a collision course; for example, when Kirk saves Spock's life, Spock's only concern is the violation of the Prime Directive. He cannot comprehend why Kirk would take such a risk, or what their friendship actually means to Kirk specifically. Spock's journey to this understanding is the most well-crafted part of the film, and is quite moving in places. Pine and Quinto's chemistry is still terrific, and both they and the rest of the main cast slip back into their roles with aplomb. It's as if the passage of time between the two films in real time never occurred.

Far more detrimental, is the villain John Harrison, who makes up much of the second-half of the film. Cumberbatch brings a menacing veneer to his performance, and some greatly unexpected action chops that teeter him into the realm of "bad-assery". The main issue being, when he becomes the focus of the Enterprise's crew, there's very little there to work with, despite Cumberbatch's best efforts. The part is terribly underwritten with unclear motivations. The best we get from the script is a throw-away line to explain his actions, which when he is the entire moving cog on which your climax rests, it's simply not good enough. I'm trying to tread very lightly on spoiler territory here, but it seems as though the writers were hoping viewers would be able to piece together the villain's backstory by way of our memories of previous Star Trek lore. Typically, I find that too much exposition in a film is to its detriment, as scriptwriters often treat their audiences like idiots whether warranted or not. But, in Star Trek Into Darkness, it feels like we're missing a piece essential to the plot. 

A secondary villain fares even worse. I'm not sure if Kurtzman, Orci and Lindelof were trying to say something about the Iraq War, and there's a wonderful history of metaphorical storytelling in Star Trek, but the plot twist borders on non-sensical and is the nadir of the film. Though, this is in competition with a questionable Deus Ex Machina of a conclusion that, while set-up decently enough throughout the preceding acts (far better the first time than its subsequent mention), cuts out the powerful emotional underpinnings of what came before. In a post Dark Knight Rises world, ballsy endings are far more welcome, even if it only lasts past the end of the film.
Said emotional underpinning may also be the most controversial element, as its a direct lift (if somewhat extended) of a scene from a previous Star Trek film. I don't see it as intellectual theft so much as a slightly lost opportunity. One of the exciting avenues of the previous film was its "anything goes" mentality with the diverted timeline. Re-treading past story-beats, even if altered and still dramatically effective, flies in the face of that intention. 

Star Trek Into Darkness is two-thirds of a good to great film, and one-third of a film that tries too hard to be reverent without the heavy-lifting to earn what worked in those previous stories. That doesn't mean it lacks merit; the performances are strong, the action very exciting, special effects first-rate, and the Kirk-Spock "bromance" continues to be the masterstroke in which this franchise continues to turn upon successfully. It was a fun ride, and sufficiently rousing, but it's more Quantum of Solace than The Dark Knight. Don't expect a genre-redefining masterpiece, but it's not a full on Iron Man 2 faceplant either. 

I hope to see more of those Klingons though, I never thought I'd say that.

I give it a B-

Sidenote: I saw the film both in IMAX 3D and 2D, there's literally no reason to pay the extra for the 3D as little is added visually by the post-conversion experience.


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