Sunday, June 16, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

In J.J. Abrams' hands, the Star Trek films no longer really resemble the Star Trek television series (any of them). Much has been written about this in the weeks since the release of Star Trek Into Darkness, the long-awaited sequel to 2009's absolute blast of a reboot. What it boils down to is this: Abrams revived Star Trek by turning it into the Star Wars prequels we actually wanted George Lucas to make (therefore, it makes sense Abrams would get the Star Wars Episode VII gig). This is true, but also an unfair comparison: though the new films have certainly lacked Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry's philosophical quandaries and optimistic futurism, they have gained a sense of adventure that suits the film as a separate franchise.

This is most evident in the new film: a mostly standalone adventure, the film follows the crew of the USS Enterprise, led by Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto), as they hunt down a terrorist named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), who may not be entirely what he seems (spoiler alerts can be found just by looking at the film's IMDb page). The chase leads them into Klingon territory, and matters soon become even further complicated.

What helps the film succeed - and what all summer blockbusters could stand to learn - is it's zippy running time and plotting. Without having to worry about introducing the characters to the audience or establish the universe of the film, the film focuses solely on laying out this story and quickly moving from epic set piece to epic set piece (and make no doubt about it, those set pieces - especially one high-speed chase through warp speed - are epic in scale and adrenaline). Only the opening scene is not narratively pertinent to the main plot, though it does set up the emotional through-line of the film (which actually has a sweet payoff). From there it's a non-stop thrill ride that doesn't slow down for a minute, which greatly benefits the film. No doubt this is a result of the creative team: Abrams (Alias) directing from a script by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (Fringe) and Damon Lindelof (Lost) all have backgrounds in television, and if their first Star Trek film was the "pilot" for the new franchise, this kind of "episodic" narrative storytelling is what to (hopefully) expect in the future.

The film's not without it's faults, though. Cumberbatch's John Harrison (and his admittedly disappointing revelation) proves to be a better villain than Eric Bana's Nero in the first film, but he never feels as intimidating as he should. It also relies on the "villain-planned-the-whole-thing" angle of his capture, a trope that's been done a lot lately - most effectively in The Dark Knight. Also, the snappy running time means that Zoe Saldana's Uhura gets less to do, mostly contained to bickering with Spock, though she gets a nice moment where she speaks Klingon in a high-stakes confrontation.

But the heart of this film - and the franchise so far - has been Kirk and Spock's relationship, and it wisely assumes the emotional core of the film. Despite their myriad differences, these are two men who respect each other, with their strengths making up for the other's weaknesses. It may not provoke much deep thought, but it's a theme that I'm sure a hopeful optimist like Roddenberry would appreciate. B+

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