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Friday, May 24, 2013

Series Report Card: Star Trek (2013)

(I tried to keep this review relatively spoiler-free. I don't know if I succeeded. If you still haven't seen the movie, you might want to proceed with caution.)

12. Star Trek Into Darkness

In the three years since J. J. Abram’s reboot of “Star Trek” came out, my opinion has softened some since my initial rave review. I still like the movie. However, I realized how little it has to do with Gene Roddenberry’s original ideas. His conception of a utopian world has been more-or-less abandoned in favor of summer movie big budget explosions-a-plenty razz-ma-tazz. Which is fine. There’s room for explosions and action theatrics in the world of “Star Trek.”

“Star Trek Into Darkness” hits the ground running, almost literally. Kirk, McCoy, Spock and the crew find themselves in the sci-fi equivalent of the James Bond Cold Opening. Set on, of all planets, Nibiru, Kirk and McCoy are chased by savage locals while Spock faces death to stop a dangerous volcanic explosion. The dramatic separation this seems to impose on the primary cast is suddenly stopped when a mysterious villain blows up a building full of innocents. The same villain targets someone close to Kirk, the crew is sent off on a secret mission of retaliation, forcing the captain and his friend to choose between justice and revenge. Things get a little more complicated from there. That is the least spoiler-free plot description I can give you.

Having established that Nu-Flavor Trek is an explosion-filled action franchise, does “Star Trek Into Darkness” succeed in that regard? Indeed it does. The film is action packed, filled to the brim with exciting set-pieces. A meeting of Star Fleet Captains is interrupted by a bad guy with a gunner ship, which is disposed of in a creative, amusing fashion. An exciting spaceship chase with a fleet of Klingon ships rolls into an even better sequence where the villain decimates said Kingon fleet with ease. The starship battles are shot in exciting fashions. A gun down in warp space uses scale and confines nicely. A covert journey through an enemy ship is briskly edited.

However, one action scene stands above the rest. The movie quotes “Nemesis” but does it better. Two characters space-jump from ship to ship, zipping in and around dangerous debris. Tension is built fantastically in this scene, with a crack in a helmet slowly growing worse and more problems being heaped on the characters. Even better, the sequence is cut with Scotty dealing with his own problem on the other ship, doubly ramping up the tension. It’s the most exciting action sequence in a movie full of great ones.

The movie doesn’t exhaust either. “Into Darkness” in one of the better paced summer blockbuster in recent memories. The movie balances action and character moments very well. Suspense builds even without explosions, as a scene of two characters examining a torpedo is as exciting as anything else in the film. The run time is 135 minutes but never feels it, as the story rolls around at a brisk pace. (This also excuses some of the plot holes.) If the movie’s main attribute isn’t its fantastic action, it’s the equally good editing and pacing.

Something else I appreciate about the film is that, in some ways, it continues the Trek legacy of sneaking current social commentary in under a flashy, science-fiction shell. The story seems to parallel the War on Terror to a degree. An authority figure uses a terrorist attack as an excuse to launch a war with a foreign superpower. The war-mongering is strictly personally motivated and, as the film goes on, it’s revealed that the authority figure didn’t even plan it out very well. The movie condemns conflict for conflict’s sake. It’s not particularly subtle but then again neither was “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.” Moreover, the story justifies Kirk’s role, someone who questions authority, as vital to Star Fleet.

As with Abrams’ first trek into the stars, “Into Darkness” makes great use of the film’s ensemble cast. Chris Pine has evolved as Kirk, keeping the goofier elements he displayed the first time around in check. He even gets a solid dramatic moment or two. Simon Pegg, so underused in the first film, gets a lot of screen time here. Pegg slips into the role of Scotty so naturally, inhabiting all the humor and break-neck nerves that characterizes the engineer. Karl Urban continues to be pitch-perfect as McCoy, making dialogue that could have been corny coming out of anyone else’s mouth sound natural and hilarious. Zoe Saldana does better this time, getting a stand-out moment to herself, and her relationship with Spock forms one of the emotional backbones of the film. Quinto himself continues to be a natural choice even if the script seems to cripple Spock a bit, from a development angle. I even found myself enjoying Anton Yelchin’s Chekov, the only cast member from the last film that I didn’t like. The story puts the character in an uncomfortable place, which is mined mostly for humor and occasionally drama. John Cho is, sadly, underused even if Sulu does reveal his desire to be a captain someday. Aside from that, the film does a good job of showcasing each crew member, something that couldn’t always be said for the original film series.

I’ve made it known in the past that I’m not exactly a Cumberbatch fan. However, he does well in the part. His deep baritone voice is well-used as a villain and he proves a threatening presence. The character has an interesting arc, switching sides several times. When he is fully revealed as a ruthless villain, that’s when Cumberbatch really shines as an actor. Was he the right choice to play the iconic villain? That's more of a scripting problem. Cumberbatch's character resembles the classic version in name only. You could cut out the scene where he reveals his true identity and it wouldn't affect the movie much at all. The performance is fine, quite good even, but the movie might have been better had it just used an original creation. I personally think Abrams and his writing team went there just to say they could.

It’s probably just the “Buckaroo Bonzai / RoboCop” fan in me but I thought Peter Weller was awesome in this. He plays a man committed to his cause, corrupt as it might be. Weller’s naturally condescending tone makes him a great choice for a villain with a superiority complex. Alice Eve certainly looks very nice, especially in the gratuitous, much-contested underwear scene. Eve is a solid actress and delivers some exposition without getting bogged down in it. However, I do have to question just what her purpose in the film was. If she was meant to be Kirk’s love interest, the film doesn’t really develop that beyond some brief flirting.

The movie’s fast-paced, action-packed, well-cast, exciting, and funny. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t have problems. There are cute references to “Trek” history throughout the film. Brief call-outs to Harry Mudd, Nurse Chapel, the Gorn, Section 31, and an unexpected cameo are the right kind of call-backs. I appreciate the Klingons and the Tribbles being reintroducted. However, the last act of the movie blatantly models itself after maybe the most famous conclusion in “Trek” history. The movie does mine some decent emotional pathos from the scene. At that point, however, the audience can clearly see the solution to the problem. There’s a rather clumsy deus ex machina at work here that robs the scene of any legitimate emotional resonance it might have had. Quinto recreating Shatner’s signature moment was a very bad decision. It’s such a blatant call-back, clumsily inserted into the film, and more comedic then dramatic. Spock is forced into the action hero roll at the end, which seems a bit out of character. The sequence goes on too long anyway. The villain’s last-ditch shot at revenge doesn’t seem very well thought out. This is in addition to a few plot holes that are, sadly, par the course for Damon Lindelof. A character getting teleported off another ship despite the shields being up is the one that really stuck in my teeth, personally.

The problematic last act still isn’t enough to ruin “Star Trek Into Darkness.” This is a fast, funny, thoroughly entertaining summer movie. The cast is still great and Abrams keeps his more irritating qualities in check. (You can count the number of lens-flares on one hand.) If this is the fate of modern “Trek,” I can live with that. [Grade: B+]

1 comment:

Pastor Fussycat said...

11 ritymucWhat?!

You mention that 'action hero' was a little out of character (even tho he was constantly getting Kirk out of scrapes in TOS) but...

no mention of the fact that Uhura having a 'relationship' w/Spock totally shreds nearly everything that the most central character of Star Trek (not to mention his people) was?

turn in your wings, cadet. You know nothing of Roddenberry's work.