Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

Star Trek Into Darkness attempts to build on the collective joy that Trek fans felt at the reset of the film franchise in 2009. That first film provided a context for many things we’ve come to love about the Enterprise crew, including Spock’s (Zachary Quinto) Vulcan/human conflict and the sometimes roguish behavior of Captain Kirk (Chris Pine), At the same time, the time-travel plot involving the destruction of Vulcan allowed director J.J. Abrams (who returns for Into Darkness) to begin to write a new history for the franchise while also being able to draw upon mythology and incident familiar to a hypercritical fan base.

Into Darkness is working in the tradition of Trek as social commentary, or at least it attempts to. A bombing at a secret Starfleet facility puts Kirk and Spock on the radar of an Admiral (Peter Weller) hoping to militarize the fleet in anticipation of a war with the Klingons. The attack is blamed on a rogue officer named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), but Harrison is soon revealed to be a familiar and beloved villain from the Trek universe. The central question of Into Darkness is whether the Enterprise and the rest of Starfleet will abandon the values familiar to those who cherish the Trek world in the name of unbridled militarism. Sound familiar? It’s not surprising that the film chooses the side of order, but this theme provides Abrams an excuse for several well-staged action sequences. There’s a close fight with a Klingon patrol and an old-school brawl between Spock and Harrison on top of moving vehicles. If there was ever a film franchise that needed glossy action less than Star Trek then I’m not sure what it is, but the success of the new films cannot help but make each succeeding installment more of a product. Though the Enterprise may be outgunned when it goes up against the mega-starship of Weller’s Admiral, there’s little sense that Kirk and the crew won’t succeed at what they set out to do; even the obligatory scene of an engineer - Anton Yelchin’s Chekhov puts on the red shirt as most of Mr. Scott’s (Simon Pegg) scenes take place off ship - telling Kirk that something is wrong comes about as a result of sabotage. Yet at least the supporting crew members are better developed that in the older films. Zoe Saldana’s Uhura has a few good scenes before being pushed to the background, but a scene in which McCoy (Karl Urban) operates on a torpedo is a little too much to bear.

Action sequences aside, what are we left with? Chris Pine plays Kirk as a man discovering himself, and the biggest climax of the many to be had in Into Darkness involves the Captain learning that there are bigger things than Starfleet regulations or his desire to subvert them. Zachary Quinto as Spock gets to play with the logic/emotion duality that’s in the character’s blood but was rarely more than discussed in the older films or series. One of the best ideas of the Abrams-era Trek is the relationship between Spock and Uhura, and here the scenes between the two give us a chance to see a more well-rounded Spock than Leonard Nimoy ever got to play. Into Darkness ends with the Enterprise crew assembled for the 5-year mission that started it all. As the film continue I’ve no doubt that we’ll encounter familiar villains and planets again, but I hope we’ll also follow these characters as they grow in new directions.

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