Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

Alternate Title:  The Wrath of Spock

One sentence synopsis:   Captain Kirk and his crew must save the Federation and Starfleet from a terrible adversary bent on destroying both.

WARNING: The following review contains spoilers. There is literally no way that I can discuss this movie at all without employing them. You have been warned.

Things Havoc liked:  J.J. Abrams' reboot of the original Star Trek back in 2009 was a goddamn revelation to me. Though the movie was hardly perfect (what was Eric Bana thinking?), it was miles beyond the sorts of remakes and reboots (Hulk, Transformers) that I had by then become accustomed to. Much of the reason for that was the casting. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto were James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock in the same sort of way that Robert Downey Jr. was Iron Man, encapsulating everything that made the characters who they were while simultaneously updating them for a new vision on the classic series. The result was one of the finest reboots I've ever seen, a hilarious action romp held back from classic status only by a lackluster villain, something the writers clearly decided they were going to look into this time round (more on him later). For the second installment, Zachary Quinto and Chris Pine reprise their roles with gusto, in both cases (particularly Quinto's) actually surpassing how on-point their performances were for these two iconic characters. Pine's Kirk is slightly more restrained, still cocksure and headstrong but less the brash, arrogant, kid he was when he took command back in the first film. The question of what lessons he has really learned and how suited he is to put them into practice forms a major element of the film's narrative, and are on full display here. Quinto's Spock meanwhile, has seemingly come full circle, mastering his human emotions to the point of being able to suppress them at will, he must now confront a situation wherein less-than-vulcan detachment may well be necessary in order for him to function. Whereas Kirk was my favorite character of the original movie, Spock actually wins my prize this time round, as Quinto embodies the character through a roller-coaster of states and circumstances, owning it to the point where I would gladly have watched a few hours more.

That said, Star Trek is an ensemble piece, and all the pieces must mesh to work. Everyone here remains as awesome as before, from Sulu getting his first taste of command, to Scotty's much-upsized role (still my favorite Simon Pegg performance) to Karl Urban's Bones' sardonic southern wit, to Uhura's moments of linguistic badassery. The standard cast is rounded out by a number of others, returning and new, including the ever-reliable Bruce Greenwood as Admiral Pike, Kirk's commander from the last film, and now a senior admiral at Starfleet whose task it is to beat sense into Kirk by any means necessary after another hijinx-laden stunt. Also playing an Admiral is Peter Weller (whose post-Robocop doctorate in renaissance art and architecture has served me well as a party anecdote over the years). Weller plays Admiral Marcus, a military-minded admiral in the vein of Star Trek VI's Admiral Cartwright, willing to bend the Federation's lofty standards of morality if necessary in order to safeguard it from clear and present dangers. I don't get to see enough of Peter Weller in general, and this movie makes me regret the lack all the more, as he doesn't play the standard thuggish military officer, but rather a man who could credibly come from the Federation, who simply sees it as his duty to protect the good thing that Earth and the rest of the UFP has.

But best of all among the non-returning stars is the ever-British Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays (a subject of much debate prior to the movie's appearance) Khan Noonien Singh, the great enemy of Captain Kirk from the original series and Star Trek II. Cumberbatch here is a presence of terrible dread, nothing like the vaguely-charming self-satisfied techno-barbarian that Ricardo Montalban portrayed so effectively before. In keeping with the new, sleeker vision of Stark Trek that these movies have embodied, this Khan is a cold, violent killer, pitiless and savage, while still retaining the brilliance and calculation of the Augments of old. Yet this Khan has motivations that are quite stark, and his explanations for the actions he takes have more than a ring of truth to them. The best villains are always those who never see themselves as villains, and Khan, for much of the film, rides that difficult line as to what his intentions actually are, and what the reactions of the rest of the cast should be relative to them. Though I've previously only ever seen Cumberbatch play such wonderfully British roles as Sherlock Holmes and MI6 agents (in 2011's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), here he shows no trace of English quaintness, presenting instead a terrible force, of direction unknown, fully capable of utterly destroying anything in his path.

Criticism was leveled at the first JJ Abrams Star Trek movie for its design, its "iPod chic" look and overuse of lens flares. The former there's not much to do about, if you don't like the look of the new Enterprise, then you will continue to not like it here. I do like it however, reflecting as it does a more recognizable future setting for the adventures of the Trek crew. It's not as though the various television Treks didn't change design, after all. As to the lens flare overload, this movie tones that element down considerably, releasing the full palate of visual colors (an opening sequence on a gorgeous planet of red jungle for instance) unfettered by the over-saturation that did, admittedly, mar the first film. Indeed Abrams seems to have replaced his lens flare obsession with a Firefly one, as the movie now makes full use of Firefly's famous effects focusing and spot-zoom shots, the ones that surprisingly few sci fi directors have picked up on since then. While I still did experience some of the "what the hell is going on here" problems I had in the first film (caused primarily by the sheer business of the ship-to-ship shots), everything here is considerably more cleaned up, and several of the sequences (particularly an early one involving the Enterprise under the ocean) are simply breathtaking, easily delivering the sense of awe and wonder that Star Trek is meant to embody.

Things Havoc disliked:  It was, of course, inevitable that a movie like this would be compared with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Arguably the best of the Trek movies (my personal favorite), and of course the only other one to star Khan himself, Star Trek II was always going to be a benchmark that this movie would have to aim for, whether they wanted it to or not. On the one hand, I do have to applaud the filmmakers for actually recognizing this fact in writing the movie, as opposed to pretending that Wrath of Khan never existed. On the other hand, however, it is a dangerous game to try and overtly compare yourself to the best film in a twelve-movie series. And when that comparison fails... oh boy...

I mentioned it before, but I'm serious this time. Spoilers. Those who have not seen the movie should skip ahead to the last paragraph before the final thoughts.

The decision to re-create the famous death sequences from Wrath of Khan was a bad one. Not that it's the actors' fault, for it isn't. Quinto, and particularly Pine do an incredible job in portraying a tremendously emotional moment. Kirk admitting his fear at the moment of death was an inspired idea, and Spock's visible pain as he watches his friend die helplessly beyond his grasp gives excellent context to the scenes to come. Yet in paralleling Wrath of Khan so carefully (especially with the famous line), the movie shattered my immersion in what was supposed to be the climactic scene, pulling me completely out of the film and punting me back into critic mode. And that's where the problems lie. Wrath of Khan was a sweeping epic tale of personal revenge, of hubris and failure, of humanity and friendship in the face of the inevitability of our own deaths. It was a slow, careful move, that resembled Das Boot more than Top Gun, a movie filled with literary and Shakespearean themes, that ultimately came down to a duel of wills between Khan and Kirk. This movie could never have matched the grand drama of Wrath of Khan, not with this runtime and cast and the responsibilities it had to all manner of other issues, and yet rather than standing out and trying to be its own film, it seeks to pretend it is the same as its predecessor.

There's also the question of pacing and foreshadowing. The movie is roughly two hours in length, but carries enough material to support another half hour if not more, and the result of compressing everything into this short of a runtime is that the entire movie feels like it's being played on fast forward. Dialogue is recited with great speed, action scenes are short and to the point, everyone seems to constantly be in a hurry to do six things at once. Granted, I prefer this method to the alternative option of cutting massive segments of the movie, but every blockbuster nowadays clocks in at 2:30 to 3:00. Was there really no way to squeeze another ten to fifteen minutes of runtime out of the producers? As to the foreshadowing, there's a difference between trying to respect the rules of establishment (Chekov's gun, etc...) and telegraphing everything that's going to happen in the movie, and sadly this movie does the latter in its last half hour or so. There was a discrete point about thirty minutes from the end where I knew exactly what was going to happen, in detail and in order, for the next twenty-five minutes, thanks to a series of clunky establishing scenes seeded throughout the movie up until that point. I was right on every single item, which left me sitting in the theater patiently waiting for the movie to catch up with me, not a situation you as a filmmaker ever want to find me in, especially when those twenty-five minutes include both your action crescendo and your tearjerking emotional climax.

Final thoughts:    All things considered though, the question with Star Trek Into Darkness (STID?) was really twofold: Is it a good movie? And is it good Trek? As a trekkie of some standing, I can safely report that the answer to both questions is 'yes'. Both thematically and through the performances of all of the actors involved, Into Darkness is a fine film, albeit not of the caliber that brought us the immortal Wrath of Khan. For all the missteps it makes in pacing, foreshadowing, and scene construction, the movie has the right heart and soul, the proper blend of madcap antics and human (and humanist) themes that make a good Star Trek movie (or hell, a good sci fi movie). Is it as good as the previous film? No. Is it going to convert people thrown off by the design choices (or whatever) of the previous film? Probably not. But is it a movie I enjoyed the hell out of, and would watch again? Hell yes.

A good heart and good performances can't always get you to greatness, but I'll be damned if they can't get me to smile.

Final Score:  7.5/10

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