Friday, May 17, 2013



- No, this isn't the old Star Trek. This isn't the philosophical original Star Trek, nor is it the intellectual Next Generation. This is the new-school Trek, and what it is is the pop iconography of Star Trek distilled down into a two hour popcorn blockbuster. If that idea inherently annoys you, then hey, you may be predisposed to dislike Into Darkness. It's even more Star Wars-ish than the first film - huge battles and set-piece action scenes, plenty of comedy and lighthearted quips, and a pulp-pop sci-fi energy that is made more for the masses and less so for the diehard Trekkie that refuses to think that Trek can be every bit as action-packed and fast-paced as its sci-fi brethren.

Look, I'm not a hardcore Trekkie, but I have a huge soft spot for select moments of the Original Series, and even more so for The Next Generation (and I'm still brainstorming roundabout ways for Patrick Stewart to cameo in the new movies). And hey, I agree that Star Trek in its absolute ideal form is about being smarter than other sci-fi franchises. Trek should ideally explore moral and philosophical concepts with depth and reverence, treat its futuristic science seriously, and make you think as much (if not more so) as it makes you feel.

The problem is ... it's near-impossible to put all of that into a two-hour movie, especially when the franchise only produces a new movie once every four or so years. And ironically enough, the most highly-regarded Trek movies - Wrath of Khan, First Contact - are the ones that go the big blockbuster route, and that take the show's iconic characters and put them in epic, huge-stakes conflicts worthy of the big-screen.

And so that's why I'm pretty pleased with INTO DARKNESS. Yes, the script is imperfect. Yes, some of the movie is, as Spock would say, illogical. And yes, the movie goes for brawn over brains. But man, this is one of the most fun, entertaining, and rip-roaring blockbusters in quite some time. The movie's energy and action is second to none, and it propels forward at a dizzying and dazzling pace. Most importantly though, the excellent cast really shines. JJ Abrams and Damon Lindeloff have always been "character first, plot second" guys - and while I haven't always agreed with that approach (final season of Lost, anyone?), it really is appreciated here. Because despite the odds and the legacy that they have to live up to, Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, and the rest of this new cast have become damn near definitive. Blasphemy? I don't know - and the transition is eased by having the great Leonard Nimoy aboard to lend an extra dose of gravitas as Spock Prime. But the cast is universally fantastic here. This movie franchise doesn't have dozens of episodes to establish relationships, so it's got to move quickly. But amidst the chaos and frenzy, there are some wonderful dynamics at play here. We've only known these versions of the characters for a short time - plus, it's been a while since the last film - but Abrams and co place the spotlight firmly on the core cast and their relationships, and very quickly we're invested and rooting for 'em.

So yes, this is different. Some fans are going to roll their eyes and wonder if they're watching The CW's new take on Trek. But again, it's the quality of the actors that elevates the material and makes you genuinely invested in them. Chris Pine shines as Kirk. I think as the franchise proceeds, he needs to start to bring a little more maturity and weight to the role ... but for now, he is charismatic and capable as the still-headstrong captain of the Enterprise. The real star of the movie, however, is Zachary Quinto's Spock. Quinto has now perfected Spock's stoicism, with an undercurrent of wry humor and the capability for genuine pathos as well (credit his half-human side). Plus, he's super badass when it's his turn to save the day. Ultimately, the theme of the movie is about Spock learning how to be not just a slave to logic, but a good friend, companion, and teammate. Maybe that sounds cheesy on paper, and maybe it is slightly cheesy in practice in the film. But again, this is a much more heart-driven Star Trek than we've seen before, and it works quite well in this context.

Aside from Pine and Quinto, the supporting cast is just so darn lovable, it hurts. In terms of returning players, Simon Pegg's Scotty is the real scene-stealer in this one. He's got a pivotal role as compared to the first film, and he's both funny and, in a way, Kirk's conscious. Karl Urban as Bones has less screentime, but man, he's good - delivering the good doctor's lines with a sardonic deadpan that cracked me up. And Zoe Saldana really holds it down as Uhura. While part of her role in the movie is defined by her relationship with Spock, she proves quite capable as a multitalented crew-member and also gets to kick some serious ass. Anton Yelchin's Chekov and John Cho's Sulu get fairly minimal screentime here, but both have a couple of nice moments. And I'll also give a shout-out to Bruce Greenwood as Kirk's predecessor Pike. He has some excellent moments with Kirk in the film, and Greenwood's presence lends a lot to the proceedings and plays a key role in the overall plot.

As for newcomers ... let's talk Benedict Cumberbatch. I know, the guy has a legion of fans already, but I went into Trek mostly unfamiliar with his work. As the villainous terrorist John Harrison (or is he?!), Cumberbatch is basically pretty awesome - as menacing and steely as you could want in a villain. I will say though, the big surprise for me was how big a role Peter Weller (Robocop!) ended up having in the film, playing the head honcho of Starfleet. Weller is one of my all-time favorites, so to see him get to play a major role in a big movie like this was a lot of fun. How is he not in more action and sci-fi films? Also enjoyed Alice Eve as new crew member Carol. It was high time that the modern version of the Enterprise had more than one major female crew member, and Eve quickly asserts herself as a capable-though-possibly-drama-starting member of the team. And man, she does "horrified blood-curdling scream" as good as anyone.

Now, about the plot. I liked it, though I do think the script leaves a lot of room to be picked apart. I will say this: some of the plot nitpicks I've already read online are pretty lame, in my opinion. The movie doesn't have time to address every little nagging question of the "why would he do X when he could have easily just done Y" variety, but most of these kinds of questions can be explained with a little something called imagination. To me, there were not really moments where I thought "glaring plothole!" Mostly, I thought things like, "hmm, okay, I guess Bones couldn't have just done X because, well, if you think about it ...". Point being, I really don't think there are plotholes big or important enough to in any way ruin the movie. Mostly, I think these kinds of complaints are people looking for any excuse to pick apart the movie.

And hey, sidenote: the worst complaints to me are the ones having to do with the rebooted timeline of these films not exactly paralleling the timeline of the original Trek universe. It's a rebooted universe! Anything is possible! But more importantly, I think fans just need to accept that that was basically a plot device / contrivance to allow JJ Abrams and co. to tip the hat to the old franchise, and to allow for a passing of the torch via Nimoy's version of Spock. It clearly was not intended as something to be analysed in the fashion of "so if everything was the same up until Point X, then clearly these elements of the new universe should be completely unchanged from the old one!" It was just a way to have old Spock in the new movies. Chill out. Basically, yes it's fun to think about (nerd-alert!), but not an essential part of these new movies.

That being said, there are some shortcuts taken in the script that I found hard to swallow. Not enough to justify unbridled nerd-rage towards Abrams, Kurtzman, Orci, and Lindeloff - but there nonetheless. One general problem is that the movie hurdles forward so quickly that it necessitates that the characters change their stance on issues on a dime. "Let's go for Plan A!" "No, Plan B!" "No, I was wrong, and I now see the error of my ways from five minutes ago! Plan A was right all along!" Occasionally frustrating, but sort of forgivable given how much the movie is cramming into a few hours. But to me, the biggest weakness of the film is the way in which Cumberbatch's character is handled. Like I said, Cumberbatch himself is awesome in terms of his performance. But the character's arc and backstory feels incredibly rushed and not necessarily presented in an organic-seeming way. Too much of this character's potential awesome-factor is reliant on people having a big "aha!" moment when his true backstory is revealed. And having that moment is fine, but we need more. I needed Cumberbatch himself to make us understand exactly why he is one evil dude not to be messed with, and to make us understand what his plans are and why he needed to be stopped. The movie takes some major shortcuts in this area, and it feels off. I like the call-backs to earlier Trek lore, but if this rebooted franchise wants to stand on its own, it can't rely on us having prior knowledge or recognition of key moments from the old movies. Shout-outs are fun (and this new Trek has a lot of fun ones that I won't spoil here), but skipping over the main villain's origins and motivation and plans, just because we're meant to assume them based on old stories? That is problematic.

But ... it's problematic more so if you look at Cumberbatch as being the movie's uber Big Bad. In a way, he's not, and that makes his somewhat thin character a little more acceptable. Why do I say that? Because ultimately, the film is less about him and more about Starfleet. I'm not going to spoil, except to say that this is a movie about modern warfare on an intergalactic level. Earth is America, the volatile and warlike Klingons are like the outer space version of Muslim extremists, and Starfleet is the force that has to decide if its mission is exploratory or militaristic. Cumberbatch? He's sort of the unfortunate guy who got caught in the middle of all this, got used, abused, and exploited in the name of military advancement, and is now pretty pissed off about it. The parallels with modern politics are not exact, but the thematic connection is 100% there and not exactly subtle (in fact, it may be a bit too on-the-nose). But again, even though I felt the movie took shortcuts with Cumberbatch, it is less important when you accept that he's actually more of a pawn in the movie's uber-plot than the one truly pulling the strings.

There's a lot going on in this film, but JJ Abrams juggles it pretty well, and compensates for some of the script's looseness with a nonstop barrage of incredible set piece action scenes. Star Trek Into Darkness looks amazing, and I don't doubt that Abrams can now go ahead and direct a Star Wars film every bit as epic and iconic as fans could hope for. Abrams continues to sort of pay homage to Spielberg in the way he creates huge-scale visuals matched with choreography that has real rhythm - mixing character, humor, and action to create swashbuckling scenes of epic scale and scope. And man, in IMAX 3D, the film looks stunning - a majority of the film appears to have been shot in IMAX, and there's an immersive, you-are-there feeling that rivals most rides at Disneyland.

Ultimately, Into Darkness succeeds because it is, quite simply, jam-packed with awesome moments. The "oh $#%&" factor is high. Even if the script has some problems, the overall pacing of the film makes for a fairly intoxicating experience - the energy never lets up, and the movie is never dull. Each major sequence of the film feels expertly crafted and staged, and I constantly felt wowed by what I was seeing onscreen - from the opening's breathtaking primordial, volcanic jungle to a later scene in which Pine and Cumberbatch rocket through space with only the help of perilously-close-to-malfunctioning space suits. Abrams wisely does something that I don't think any incarnation of Star Trek has previously done very well - and that is ground all of the interstellar stuff with a sense of what life is like on earth during this era. Into Darkness' juxtaposition of a sleek future-earth (London and San Francisco specifically), teeming with alien life and exotic tech - with the uncharted wilderness of space, and its Klingon homeworlds and floating fortresses - is unique in the Star Trek franchise. Abrams attacks the world of Trek with a Spielbergian sense of awe and wonder and infinite possibility that, honestly, the franchise has rarely ever possessed in years prior.

To reiterate, I can't say enough about the staging and pacing of the film - it moves with a breathless and almost musical energy that is reminiscent of the great action/adventure classics. Haters like to compare these new Trek films to the likes of dreck like Michael Bay's Transformers (and yes, I realize the two franchises share some writers). But visually, from a directorial standpoint, let's give JJ his due. He's doing things here that are in another league than anything Bay could hope to accomplish with his chaotic and ugly visual style. This is Grade-A stuff. And by the way, speaking of music, the movie's score is fantastic, mixing the newer theme with the old-school theme song in a way that is incredibly cool.

Yes, there are logic gaps in Into Darkness that would give Spock some serious pause. But the movie is so fun, so exciting, so visually explosive, and so filled with great characters and moments that it's hard - for me at least - to get too hung up. The movie is flawed, sure, but it also felt like the kind of epic popcorn flick that is the perfect way to kick off the Summer movie season. Save the primal screams of anger for Kirk and Spock - this Trek, while paying homage to the past, nonetheless goes boldly where no Trek has gone before.

My Grade: A-

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