Tuesday, May 28, 2013

"Star Trek Into Darkness": Boldly going where it's gone before


Directed by J.J. Abrams
Starring Chris Pine, Zach Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Peter Weller, Alice Eve

As summer entertainment, "Into Darkness" is a lot of fun. As a signpost for the future of “Star Trek,” however, it’s not clear where it’s pointing. Two installments in, J.J. Abrams’ series is starting to feel less like a reinvention and more like a remix. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it suggests less room to grow, which is what the series needs most in the long term.

When the first, rebooted “Star Trek” came out in 2009, it felt like an infusion of much-needed new life into a moribund franchise. True, Abrams, by his own admission more of a “Star Wars” man, cranked out a movie that seemed more like a "Star Wars" movie: heavy on the action, derring-do, and blowing up planets, light on the Trek-topian reflection and idealism. Still, he (mostly) managed to retain fan goodwill through wink-and-nod references to the original show and film series, a significant role for Trek icon Leonard Nimoy, and savvy casting of up-and-coming young actors who demonstrated a fresh, confident take on their beloved characters and an appealing chemistry with each other. I haven’t seen the movie since its initial release and have heard that it hasn’t aged well, but at the time it seemed to crack open a door to limitless possibilities for the crew of the Enterprise.

Four years later, those possibilities feel more circumscribed. Don’t get me wrong, just about everything that made the first movie worth watching is still around. The actors—Chris Pine as Kirk, Zach Quinto as Spock, Zoe Saldana as Uhura, Karl Urban as Bones, Simon Pegg as Scotty, John Cho as Sulu, Anton Yelchin as Chekhov—click, clack, jangle and make up as engagingly as ever; Nimoy pops up for another key, if brief and awkwardly inserted appearance; and the alterna-Trek universe still has more of a “Star Wars” vibe that’s tempered by a plethora of artfully embedded Trek references. In fact, at a broader level, the political overtones and ultimate moral messaging of “Into Darkness” comes closer to a Trekkian sensibility than anything from the first movie.

What’s missing is the sense of newness, and the attendant exhilaration, that animated the first movie. It doesn’t help that the plot of “Into Darkness” is fundamentally a reworking of a story that will be familiar to much of the audience. I can’t say much more without giving too much away, except that the movie starts off with Kirk once again breaking the rules and getting punished for it, only to be given a chance at redemption when a mysterious, ruthless, and frighteningly powerful adversary named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) commits a double act of terrorism and then goes to hide out at the fringes of Klingon (i.e., enemy) territory. Kirk and his crew are dispatched by the Federation - specifically, Robocop! (Peter Weller, here playing an admiral) - to hunt down Harrison, only to discover that neither he nor their mission is quite what they thought.

In the action, suspense, and visual effects departments, “Into Darkness” is perfectly competent, no more, no less. The plot is serviceable, with the usual manageable quota of silliness and suspension of disbelief. Like its predecessor, the film’s real strength lies in the interactions among its characters. The Kirk-Spock dynamic in particular never gets old, and Pine and Quinto continue to sparkle playing their respective differences off each other, as well as the mutual frustration that merely highlights their blooming bromance. The only downside is how pallid and uninteresting Spock’s romance with Uhura seems by comparison. In the supporting galley, Pegg and Urban add extra comic punch as the perpetually frazzled ship’s engineer and doctor, while Chekhov ups the ante by moonlighting for Scotty and donning a red shirt. (I won’t spoil whether the shirt proves to have any significance.) And as our heroes’ chief adversary, Cumberbatch cuts an impressive presence, projecting an icy hauteur and superhuman self-possession that keeps the audience continually guessing his motivations and his next move.

After a series of reversals—including one rather protracted emotional scene that would be a lot more moving if it weren’t so obviously going to be rendered immediately irrelevant—the movie builds to a pretty satisfying climax and resolution, once again leaving the door open to a vast range of possible future adventures for the Enterprise. Here’s hoping that in its next outing, Abrams et al. will take full advantage of that freedom. They don’t have to go where no man has gone before, but they should at least try to go where “Star Trek” hasn’t gone before. Because ultimately that's the best, and only, way for the franchise to live long and prosper.



Blogger losangelena said...

Just got back from watching and had to read your take. Generally agree...I thought the casting was very solid and in particular Benedict Cumberbatch did a great job as Khan, whom it was awesome to have back. Granted, those are huge shoes to fill (hello, Ricardo Montalban?), but he did a good job of fleshing the part out on his own terms. Through no fault of his but rather the script's, though, I found him very under-motivated. I have that problem with a lot of movie villians ("Why are you so evil?" "I just AM....mwah ha ha...") - I'm sure it's true that some people are just evil for no reason, but it's a less interesting story than if it's motivated somewhere, even if grossly warped or misguided. The Khan character seemed to have so much heft, and at the incremental steps of explanation we could see his drivers - wanting to get his crew back, etc - but when we got down to the more basic question - back to do *what*, exactly - all we got was a throwaway generic line about genocide of people he viewed as inferior. I know this character was heavily defined in past movies, but if this movie wants to be its own entity, it's gotta do better than that.

All of which is not to say this was a bad movie - hardly. A lot of the time, though, it felt to me more like a generic action movie than the reflective vehicle we've come to expect from the franchise. The basics were there to build a more meaningful story (violating the prime directive, Uhura and Spock's relationship, beyond canned romantic cliches, the deeper chords of vengeance locking together Khan and the Federation, etc etc) but it just didn't get as far with that as I'd have liked. It gestured at meaning, but didn't delve into it. The earlier movies were less afraid do that...this was good fun, as you note, but I miss that.

1:49 AM  
Blogger lylee2 said...

I agree with you, especially on Cumberbatch's character not being given enough, motivation-wise. I didn't want to say too much about him because I didn't want to give away that he was really Khan - but that's been one of the worst-kept secrets of any movie this year, so perhaps I shouldn't have bothered. I do remember thinking that I found the villain from the first Abrams Star Trek (Nero, played by Eric Bana) to be more compelling - not because Bana was better than Cumberbatch (I'm a fan of both actors, and thought they both did great with the material they were given) but because his character's motivations, once they were revealed, were clearer and easier to understand, even identify with - not unlike the original Khan, actually.

Here, as you point out, all we've got is the villain's sense of innate superiority and a suggestion of his loyalty to his crew. But we haven't seen any of his crew (in an unfrozen state, anyway) or any of their past interactions, so any attempt to draw a parallel with Kirk, Spock et al. just falls flat.

11:32 AM  

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