Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness (**)

Directed by J.J. Abrams


The Abrams reboot of the Star Trek franchise has been one of the biggest success stories out of Hollywood these last few years. It felt like something unlike the Marvel Iron Man/Avengers reboots that worked mainly because A) they were lead by a wildly charming, magnanimous movie star (Robert Downey Jr.); and B) we were introduced to characters that had never really had successful film or television platforms beforehand. Star Trek, on the other hand, has had decades of dedicatedly-watched television episodes. So, for Abrams to tackle a film version - and in doing so, totally re-imagining the television show's mythology - and it work, is quite an accomplishment in itself. Which makes Abrams' follow-up to his 2009 version of Star Trek that much more disappointing.

The 2009 film's greatest strength is Into Darkness' biggest weakness: it's screenplay. While Star Trek pulled off a brilliant balancing act of reinventing the whole storyline and characters, while simultaneously entertaining those that know nothing about the Star Trek universe (hey, that's me!) and also managing to keep the legion of Trekkies happy by staying faithful enough to the spirit of the franchise. Into Darkness gives itself the burden of upping the ante, which is fair enough when you consider the expectations for sequels in big Hollywood movie franchises, but the thrills and frills that Abrams loads into the film far outweigh the storyline which is held together with contrived ideas and pieced-together character choices that are only made because, well, if they weren't made there wouldn't be a movie.

Into Darkness picks up with Kirk (Chris Pine) still the captain of the Enterprise, and Spock (Zachary Quinto) his disciplined half-Vulcan, half-human first officer. They come across a red-feathered planet populated by indigenous, spike-heaving peoples that are about to be wiped out by an erupting volcano. When Spock is nearly left behind when they try to neutralize the eruption, Kirk violates the prime directive by rescuing him - and revealing himself and the ship to the indigenous people. Kirk sees what he's doing as heroic, Spock sees his rescue as against the rules. When they get back to Star Fleet, Kirk is punished by having the Enterprise taken from him, when Pike (Bruce Greenwood) reads Spock's detailed report of the events. Kirk can't believe that Spock tattled on him when he saved his life, and Spock can't even comprehend lying on his report.

Meanwhile, the organization is under attack by an apparent terrorist and former Star Fleet member John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), setting off explosions in important Star Fleet locations before beaming himself to an abandoned Klingon planet. After Harrison attacks the central San Francisco hub, Kirk ends up back as the captain of the Enterprise and is instructed by Star Fleet head Capt. Marcus (Peter Weller) to track him down and kill him with a tracking torpedo. The Enterprise gets ready with full crew in tow, including Kirk, Spock, crew chief Scotty (Simon Pegg), ship doctor Bones (Karl Urban), young mathematical prodigy Chekov (Anton Yelchin), Enterprise helmsman Sulu (John Cho), and lastly, communications officer and Spock's main squeeze Uhura (Zoe Saldana). The entire crew seems skittish about using hostile, military action to kill a single person on a foreign planet, but as the Enterprise approaches Harrison, they realize their mission is far different than expected.

I've been told that anyone who has even an elementary knowledge of Star Trek (hey, that's not me!) knows the eventual reveal in the character of John Harrison. As one would expect, he's much more than just a bomb-loving sadist and becomes vital to the Enterprise's mission. For reasons that present themselves later in the film, Harrison found himself at odds with Marcus who now wants him wiped out, no questions asked and without a grain of evidence. There's a large portion of the film that finds Kirk being tugged between Harrison and Marcus, which plays out in an almost humorous way as if it were some kind of high school dispute and Kirk is the one friend trying to get the other two to play nice. But we learn over and over that Harrison is anything but nice, and portrayed by Cumberbatch, he's slick and terrestrial-like, dropping the heavy base of his voice into the character's gravitas.

It's hard to explain my biggest issue here without the dreaded SPOILER so I guess I'll just warn you now. The script on the whole is a bit messy, but mostly its dealing with the character of Marcus, who's behavior and actions seemed so diametrically opposed to the morality of the Star Fleet that I'd been presented in these two films. I'll concede that my lack of knowledge of Star Trek's story may have had a hand in my confusion. I'll even concede that former Robocop star Peter Weller's wooden performance may have undermined an already marginally-written character. But his sinister actions throughout the film made me wonder how he ever became such a trusted, respected member of Star Fleet to begin with. You'd think someone would have caught on eventually. Marcus also has a daughter named Carol (Alice Eve), which the film struggles to find use for because the only real reason for her presence is to have another pretty face aboard the Enterprise.

The film's cast is admirable. Pine and Quinto continue to show that they are great choices to take over these iconic characters, where Quinto fully embodies the Spock of lore, while Pine instills Kirk with an extra snark that provides the films with moments of great comedy. Cumberbatch, a rising star whom I've loved watching for the last two years in whatever he's been in (with roles in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and TV's Sherlock being my favorites), felt a bit hammy as Harrison. He's revealed to be much more than expected, but its still filled with facial gesticulations that diminish his performance and is just generally over-the-top. The film's action sequences were thrilling enough and directed by Abrams with great alacrity. But the film's screenplay issues nagged at me throughout and even undermined the film's final crescendo, which felt hollow by the time we got there. It doesn't help that the film's attempts at taut suspense are neutered because we know certain characters are never in any danger of serious bodily harm. It's a serviceable blockbuster that will probably make its money back two-fold, but this is not the quality of film promised when I saw the first Star Trek Abrams presented us. Perhaps there's another franchise he might be focused on at the moment?

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