Monday, September 9, 2013

Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Produced by: J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Robert Orci & Ben Rosenblatt
Written by: Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof & Robert Orci
Executive Producers: Jeffrey Chernov, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg & Paul Schwake
Cinematography by: Dan Mindel
Edited by: Maryann Brandon & Mary Jo Markey
Production Designed by: Scott Chambliss
Costumes by: Michael Kaplan
Music by: Michael Giacchino

Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Benedict Cumberbatch, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Peter Weller & Alice Eve

2013 / 133 minutes / Rated PG-13 (intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence)

A series of attacks against Starfleet send Captain Kirk and the crew of the Starship Enterprise on a manhunt to bring the man responsible to justice. But Kirk, Spock and crew uncover a conspiracy that challenges the very principles of the Federation, a man willing to go to any length to defend his way of life, and a nemesis unlike any other the crew will ever face.

With its opening scene, Star Trek Into Darkness takes off running and never lets up. With a chase that plays tribute to Raiders of the Lost Ark, we find Kirk (Chris Pine) and McCoy (Karl Urban) fleeing a tribe of primitive aliens after stealing a religious relic so they can lure them away from their village. Said village is in the destructive path of a volcano about ready to erupt unless Spock (Zachary Quinto) can stop it by dropping inside and detonating a "super ice cube". The entire sequence is top notch with colors that harken back to the original series and shows the crew working together to save an alien race.

The Enterprise rising from the ocean
Kirk is ultimately put in a position to choose between violating revealing the Enterprise to the primitive natives and thereby violating the Prime Directive, or allow Spock to die for "the needs of the many". Since we're only ten minutes into the movie, Kirk's choice is rather obvious yet the dilemma is classic Trek. The Enterprise rising from its hiding place underwater right in front of the natives, forever reshaping their society as they begin to worship the mysterious ship. Why is the Enterprise hiding underwater instead of orbiting safely in space? It doesn't make sense but the visual effects mixed with Michael Giacchino's rousing score is most thrilling!

Pike scolds Kirk and Spock for violating the Prime Directive
There's no time to take a breath before Abrams throws us into the plot of Benedict Cumberbatch's mysterious John Harrison. It's clear throughout the film that this villain's manipulations are constantly at play and one can't help but wonder what he has in store next. As Harrison unleashes his first attack on Starfleet, we find Kirk facing the consequences of his actions from the opening sequence. Kirk is swiftly demoted, though this turns out to be rather pointless as he returns to command barely five minutes later. However, it's still a delight to watch Bruce Greenwood's Admiral Pike chewing out Kirk and Spock, especially when Spock lands a couple of straight-man comic barbs during the exchange.

The plot hits full throttle as Harrison attacks Starfleet Headquarters, killing Pike in the process. Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) sends Kirk and the Enterprise into Klingon space armed with long-range warheads to kill Harrison in retaliation. Kirk, wanting revenge for Pike's death, is eager to comply without question. Yet Spock and Scotty (Simon Pegg) argue the moral implications of their mission; follow orders and kill Harrison or capture him and allow him to face a fair trial. What's intriguing about this question is the parallel that it draws (maybe a little too obviously) to the manhunt for Osama bin Laden. Star Trek has always been about making social commentary and it's nice to have such an issue raised here. The drawback, however, is that Into Darkness's brisk pace doesn't allow much time for the question to be debated; Kirk quickly decides to go against Marcus's orders and bring Harrison to justice.

Khan is back and this time he's here to help...or is he?
Following a rather lackluster action sequence on the Klingon homeworld, Harrison surrenders and his mind games begin as he calls upon Kirk to question the motives behind his orders. Cumberbatch is truly Trek fans very familiar with franchise history, newcomers with no prior knowledge will undoubtedly find the moment a little flat. The writers kind of assume that Khan's history is common knowledge, his backstory left rather vague; a little more detail would've been nice. Still, the team of writers bring a new interpretation of Khan and avoid retreading what was done with the character in TOS's Space Seed and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Throughout the movie, you're left questioning if Khan can be trusted as he cooperates with Kirk (even helping him) or if he's got some other hidden motive at work. I'd like to point out, however, that it's Kirk who eventually betrays Khan. Just saying...

Despite Khan's presence, he is not the primary villain. With Khan's guidance, Kirk and crew eventually uncover a conspiracy to start a war between the Federation and Klingon Empire. In a nice twist and a frightening reveal, the mastermind is revealed to be Admiral Marcus commanding a Starfleet warship he and Khan built in secret. Marcus's plan; use Khan's warrior ingenuity to use the secretive Section 31 (a nice nod to Deep Space 9) to build up Starfleet's weapons in order to engage the Klingons in open war. Marcus's motives are fueled by fear following the events of 2009's Star Trek that saw the destruction of Vulcan and the near-destruction of Earth. Marcus wants to ward off any further threats to the Federation head on, even if it means compromising the Federation's peaceful mission in order to protect their way of life. Peter Weller is excellent, strongly conveying Marcus's convictions and he stands out as one of Star Trek's better villains.
Peter Weller is excellent as Admiral Marcus
This presents an allegory to the dilemma presented in today's post-9/11 world. With all the debates surrounding secret surveillance, torture in interrogation and the preemptive war in Iraq, our world has been presented with the question of how far we should go in order to protect our way of life. Into Darkness presents us with two different reactions to the problem. With Kirk we find a character who, at first, is willing to compromise his values to avenge the death of Admiral Pike. Kirk, however, choses to hold true to his values. Marcus, on the other hand, has succumbed to his fear following the destruction of Vulcan and is willing to go into darkness (hence the title) to protect his way of life, regardless the cause. It's an intriguing debate raised by a film that proves itself to be more than your typical summer popcorn fare.

Unfortunately, it's also at this point as the conspiracy ultimately unfolds where the plot becomes a little too convoluted and credibility is strained in order for the pieces to fall into place. Khan's role is a bit of a stretch, something that even Kirk points out as he questions why a Starfleet admiral would seek out the help of a 20th century relic.

Having said that, the script from Alex Kurtzman, Robert Orci and Damon Lindelof is mostly solid. Like its 2009 predecessor, Into Darkness's dialogue is sharp and witty with plenty of jokes to go around. Abrams gives the same conviction and energy in his direction that he did in his previous outing, though there isn't the same sense of urgency as there was in Star Trek, probably because this isn't about assembling the crew. Still, the action is well-handled with most of the sequences quite thrilling. A couple, however, don't work as well as others. The aforementioned Klingon sequence, as well as the final chase between Spock and Khan through San Francisco, which drags out the runtime a few minutes too long. The space dive from one ship to another is thrilling yet derivative of the space jump done in Star Trek.

Acting-wise the cast is solid, though some of the characters do suffer from diminished roles. Pine continues to prove himself excellent as Kirk, though I must admit that I'm ready to see the smooth, confident Captain Kirk of the television series. Quinto and Pegg handle the comic aspects of their roles with aplomb, yet still manage to execute the serious moments as well. Pegg especially is given an expanded role and handles it well. McCoy, sadly, has a more diminished role though Urban makes the most of his time and John Cho as Sulu has a couple strong scenes. Zoe Saldana is given less to do as well, with the majority of her role now to serve as Spock's angry girlfriend. Chekov's role is greatly diminished, suffering the most of everybody. However, the cast is one again excellent, each member sliding easily back into their roles and showing more confidence.

Alice Eve is decent as Carol Marcus and I'm interested in seeing what more can be done with the character. Unfortunately so much time is spent on the plot that very little is done with her. The underwear scene from the promos? Just as pointless here as it was there.

As far as Leonard Nimoy's cameo is concerned, I'm honestly torn. On one hand, it's nice to see the original Spock back. On the other hand, it's rather unnecessary since Quinto's Spock could easily have looked upon Khan's past in the computer, just as the original Spock did in Space Seed. Nimoy's presence also represents the filmmakers' hesitance at completely cutting the umbilical cord to the original universe. It's as though they want to reassure fans that everything that happened from 1966 to 2005 still exist and hasn't been erased. For these new films to truly succeed, Abrams and company must dare to push forward without leaning on the past. You can respect the past without being beholden to it.

The film's most frightening sight: the U.S.S. Vengeance
chases down and attacks the Enterprise at warp
Visually Into Darkness is the best looking Star Trek film to date. The effects are top-notch, by far surpassing the work done four years ago. I wasn't as put-off by the use of lens flare this time around as I was last, though it would be nice if Abrams cut back a little more. One of the best sequences (and most chilling) was the sight of the Vengeance bearing down upon the Enterprise and attack it mid-warp, knocking the ship to a halt near Earth's moon. It's a fantastic sequence and even tops, in my opinion, the two starships falling to Earth at the end of the film. Though the crash of the Vengeance into San Francisco isn't as spectacular as the Enterprise-D crash in Star Trek: Generations (I still point to that as how to crash a starship), it's still quite incredible.

Michael Giacchino returns in his second outing as composer, bringing back some of his themes from his previous work. His theme for Khan is simple yet suspenseful. His score here is stronger than Star Trek because it brings a much more mature sound than before. Giacchino has grown as a composer over the last four years and it's great to hear the maturity come across here.

Powerless, the Enterprise falls to Earth
At the end of the day, however, the focus of Into Darkness is the growing relationship between Kirk and Spock. Pine and Quinto continue to display their excellent chemistry and their work is solid, bringing back fond memories of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. Because we can believe in their friendship and the two work so well together, it makes the film's ending work. I have intentionally saved this aspect of my review for last as I'm about to dive into what's easily the most controversial aspect of the entire movie. In order to save the Enterprise from its fall to Earth, Kirk must realign the warp core; to do so would mean a lethal dose of radiation.

Yes, this is The Wrath of Khan but with a twist. It's easy to see how many Star Trek fans would be upset with some lines directly lifted from the 1982 movie. Some will attribute this to laziness, however I find it to be a nice homage and it provides a different emotional value from The Wrath of Khan. In The Wrath of Khan, Spock's death was the culmination of years of friendship between Kirk and Spock. Kirk's Into Darkness death is the solidification of their friendship. It works so well because Pine and Quinto sell it. In the hands of less-capable actors, it would've fallen flat and been a travesty. Yet, they make it work. The only aspect of the scene that doesn't work (I even chuckled) is Quinto's scream of "Khaaaannn!" It was a little too over-the-top.
The Wrath of Khan with a twist; Kirk meets his end to save
the Enterprise and her crew
Kirk's death, however, is more than just the beginning of his friendship with Spock. It also marks him becoming the captain he's always been meant to be and follows through on the theme established in Star Trek, whether intentionally or not. When Kirk and Spock first met, Spock challenged Kirk to realize that a captain cannot cheat death. Here, Kirk is presented with the no-win scenario he cheated his way through in the Academy and realizes that in order to save his crew, he must die. It's nice to see Kirk come full circle and grow from being brash and arrogant to being humble and selfless.

Of course, we can't have the next film be Star Trek The Search for Kirk, so we're presented with Khan's superhuman blood that has magical healing properties. Kirk is thereby revived and is ready for his next adventure. Khan's super-blood is a little too contrived and a bit of a cheat, but it isn't enough to scuttle the movie.

Overall, Into Darkness is another fun, solid entry into the Star Trek film franchise. It's not as fresh as its predecessor, yet it's one of the better films. I'm ready for Abrams and company to cut the cord to the original universe and do their own thing with this new universe, but Into Darkness is a fine tribute to Star Trek's past. In an era where rebooted franchises (like Battlestar Galactica and Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy) are dark and serious, J.J. Abrams' Star Trek films are a welcome glimmer of light that make you feel hopeful for the future, something that Gene Roddenberry envisioned with the original series. There's plenty of heart and spirit and a good allegorical message to make us look at what's going on in our world today, something which holds true to the very spirit of Star Trek that Gene Roddenberry envisioned nearly fifty years ago.
The Enterprise boldly goes onto its next adventure
Bring on the fiftieth anniversary!

Writing: 1.25
Character: 1.25
Acting: 2.0
Entertainment: 2.0
Music: 1.0
Visuals: 1.0

TOTAL: 8.5 / 10

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