Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

2013, JJ Abrams - in theatre

Star Trek and its off-shoots both as television programs and films were largely centered around diplomacy and character, rather than action and adventure.  That's not to say they were boring, but they were differently engaging.  Science Fiction back before Star Wars made it spectacle, was largely concerned with the more cerebral ideas of what would happen in the future, or if certain technologies were invented, or if different species or civilizations were discovered.  Ruthless fighting and visceral chase sequences were an afterthought, if thought of at all.

JJ Abrams' Star Trek features have come under criticism, largely from Trek purists who see his films as a tainting of world Gene Roddenberry built.  The dichotomy is rather stark within the latest film itself as there is much discussion about what the Federation is all about and how the tactics and attitudes certain characters are presenting are well outside the code of conduct, particularly when they turn to violence as the solution.  And yet, when emotions run high, violence seems to be the agreed upon answer from nearly everyone involved, even the calm, cool, collected Spock.

It does ultimately make for an entertaining movie, particularly for those of us that don't care that much about the characters, even if it is one that feels slightly familiar.  The script from Abrams regulars Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindleof pays extensive homage to signature Trek moments of the past, only to play them out in a tweaked manner.  This leads to the most exciting and appealing moment as a noticeably angry Spock chases down the big bad in an extended foot chase through the streets of a futuristic Vancouv... sorry, San Francisco.  Leonard Nemoy's Spock was naturally the template for Zachary Quinto's iteration of the character but he's given much more opportunity to play into the human side of the character, and to truly show the conflict of a being from an emotionless society struggling with his emotions.  Quinto makes a badass Spock when the moment comes to it, he gets the best punchlines, and shines far more brightly as a character than Chris Pine's Kirk.  Kirk here is a little too hot-headed, a little too selfish, and he's prone to terrible decision making.  It's truly hard to believe he's Captain material (which I guess is why he gets demoted).

While a quasi-ensemble piece, the center of the film is Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan (which was for some reason supposed to be a surprise, but I seemed to know months ago this was the case), who gets to chew up the scenery like it was his first meal after fasting on a deserted island for a week.  He's as delightful to watch as a cunning, calculating, manipulative villain as he is as a cunning, calculating, manipulative super-sleuth on Sherlock.  He's a natural choice for the role.  As all the new Trek cast must play in the shadows of the iconic performers whose parts they're stepping into, Cumberbatch has the easiest time of removing Khan from Ricardo Montalban.  There are moments where he feels authentically the same man, but he's given a different background and a greater air of danger.

More than building characters, Star Trek Into Darkness builds rapport between the characters, establishing what they mean to each other, instead of who they are.  Simon Pegg's Scotty and Zoe Saldana get bigger parts, while, unfortunately Karl Urban's Bones and John Cho's Sulu get sidelined a bit too much (as they stood out a bit more in the first film as highlights), largely as a result of having to build the rivalry between Kirk and Khan (which then gleefully turns out to be more of a Spock/Khan rivalry).      

By paying even a modicum of attention the film telegraphs its plot twists rather brazenly, so little of what resulted was surprising, particularly the entirety of the third act.  But it's no less entertaining to watch.  Abrams is a maker of widescreen movies, and he knows how to populate that big picture with appealing images, and what's more I like how Abrams doesn't muddy up his imagery or try to hide it in shadows... he presents a clear, understandable sequence of events (which is a nice antidote to quick-cutting action movies) that hearkens back to Spielberg and Lucas.  Abrams reintroduces the Klingons, in a brief and very intimidating manner, as well he punishes the USS Enterprise like its never been punished before.  He toys with warp speed and gravity and it all adds up to an enticing ride.  There's an episodic nature to this series already, which I'm sure means we're in for much more Trek in the future, but even with Abrams' grandiosity, it still feels like it should be leading to television.