Monday, May 20, 2013

Jim's Movie Reviews: Star Trek Into Darkness

Star Trek:  Into Darkeness is the second Star Trek feature film offering helmed by J.J. Abrams, and is the twelfth to share the Trek moniker.  While previous entries in the franchise worked from the established canon of the 1966 television show and previous films, Abrams's 2009 offering, Star Trek, replaced the the much-beloved original cast in favor of a younger set of actors and re-imagined the mythos from the beginning.  The back story was not all that was changed, however, as there was a definite shift in tone from considered, high-minded sci-fi themes to a focus on action, adventure, and pageantry. 

The first of Abrams's films in the franchise sailed on to box-office success, and a certain level of critical acclaim as a sci-fi action/adventure film.  Fans of the 2009 Star Trek may want to see Into Darkness, as it maintains the cast, back story, director, and sensibilities of the first of Abrams's efforts.  But there are those detractors who say Abrams has missed the point of Star Trek, and his focus on the more visceral aspects has cost the franchise its soul.

My hope, in providing this review, is to give perspective on the film, both as the action/adventure vehicle it is, and how well it "fits" with established notions of character and plot from previous productions in the franchise.  This review will assume some familiarity with the Star Trek universe, and although it may describe certain scenes and settings, an attempt will be made at doing so without major spoilers.  I saw the film in 3D IMAX opening weekend, at a newer theater (in great seats, btw).

This time around, I'm going to lay things out in a question/answer format.

Does the movie live up to the hype?  Most assuredly.  Hype being, of course, linked to those visceral elements we talked about previously.  If you were thrilled with the visuals afforded you in the previews, you'll get an amped version of this in the theater, especially if you enjoy 3D and opt to see it that way.  Unlike Iron Man 3, for example, the 3D in Trek is seamless, and in my opinion enhances the film experience greatly.   Space looks endless, chasms look deep, ships are imposing, debris is hurled with exciting depth and bombast.  The camera work on this film is simply stunning, and what the film-makers do with real-world sets and digital environments is nothing short of brilliant.  So far as settings are concerned, the term "epic" comes to mind early and often, as we get a more fully-realized vision of the various parts and pieces of the worlds of Trek than the 2009 film. The Enterprise herself is tossed,  turned, torn open and slammed in ways that previous feature films in the franchise could only dream of.  We've come a long, long way from the original series cast throwing themselves around the bridge consoles in mock distress, and Abrams never shies from letting the audience know that the lethal vacuum of space is just a bulkhead away.   The movie is filled with harrowing chase sequences, destructible environments, gripping hand-to-hand combat, and other action-movie essentials, and it's all paced and shot expertly to deliver an edge-of-your seat experience.

Is the movie true to the original Star Trek?   In what I see as the most essential way one can be "true" to a franchise having hundreds, perhaps thousands of creators attached to it over the past 45 years, yes it is.  The characters are all very well cared for here, the central figures of which (Kirk and Spock) each have a definite, relateable character arc.  These are characters with soul, and their interactions evoke the spirit of the original.

But make no mistake, Into Darkness maintains its hold on the action/adventure model at the expense of certain ethereal elements of the original series and movies. Character traits are still exaggerated to the nth degree, much as in the 2009 film.  Those looking for a predictably stoic Spock are bound to be disappointed, as there is an undercurrent of emotion evident in his character throughout the film.  Rather than the audience guessing through the subtleties of a vulcan/human hybrid's emotional spectrum, we get to witness the character instead try to negotiate a storm of feelings via oft-misplaced rationality.  Although fully lovable and expertly performed, Scotty and McCoy remain more comic relief and mcguffin-providers than fully realized characters.

There are changes and revisions of technical canon as well, especially where set-pieces are concerned.  The Enterprise's engineering section, for example, is still a converted brewery with a few tacked-on sci-fi-ish apparatus to convince the audience they're looking at the guts of a starship.  For better or worse, Abrams always opts for that which is visually appealing and most advantageous to story over that which is most true to the set-piece measurements and fictional technical elements of the original.  There will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth among die-hard "Trek tech" experts with their Enterprise blue-prints and warp core diagrams.

Is there anything wrong with the movie?  Why yes, now that you ask, there are some things objectively wrong with the movie, in my opinion.  Although Abrams is a master at delivering an action sequence, for example, and creating engaging situations for characters, there is often some transparent McGuffin involved in moving the chess pieces into place.  A minuscule side-conflict or seemingly out-of-character moment will happen out of the blue, and one realizes later that it was only there to move character A to point B so they could do C.   A piece of technology is produced out of the blue, and one soon realizes that it is there only to perform some minor story function, whereupon it will be quickly laid aside. This is especially evident in ship-to-ship combat.  Although this is certainly not the first time we've seen this in Trek's long history (nearly all of the combat in Wrath Of Khan, for example, went against established original series "rules"), it happens so often and so overtly in this film that it detracted from my experience.  It wouldn't have been as bad, in my opinion, to simply break the rules sometimes, rather than point out the rule, point out the whiz-bang new device that allows one to break it, then break it.

The other problem, for me, is that so much homage is made to the original cast movies, that it borders on pantomime.  There is a scene in the movie (and a nearly unnecessary one, with a little wrangling) that is a complete re-make of a scene from a previous Trek film, with characters juxtaposed as if to say, "it's alike, and yet so different".  My take on this is that Abrams is trying to provide an homage to appease fans of the original crew, but it comes off as audience pandering that is just, well, hamfisted and totally unnecessary. I was moved to nostalgia during the scene, which may have been the intended purpose, but nostalgia just didn't fit with the tone, for me.

Is it a good movie?  An enthusiastic yes, from me, although there are some problems.  I don't mind at all Abrams's take on Trek; I think it stands as a worthy effort in almost every regard on its own, albeit not what others expect from the franchise.  Benedict Cumberbatch is a welcome addition as Kirk's main nemesis, and although the cast is spot-on in any of their given roles, he steals many a scene.  Although many of the features and takeaway of Abrams's films differ from things we've seen with the original cast and crew, I don't think this version can detract from what was already committed to film....if you're a fan of old Trek, and not a fan of new Trek, then rest assured no one's burning the old master reels or trying to censor you in any way...disregard these new entries as you see fit.  Laying aside comparisons for a moment, Into Darkness is a terrifically entertaining movie that uses familiar characters to tell a new and interesting story, while providing plenty of excitement.

Overall rating:  8.5 out of 10.

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