Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Star Trek 2: A Successful Blending of Philosophy, Special Effects, and Politics

Movie Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

Director: J.J. Abrams

Reviewed: 8 June 2013

jamesintexas rating--***

Political relevance is not something one expects to find in the summer's biggest, boldest action films. Yet, here it is in J.J. Abrams's sequel "Star Trek Into Darkness," a big budget science fiction romp in which characters debate the efficacy of drone attacks, preemptive strikes, and seeking revenge. Dark stuff indeed, as the title appropriately promises. Echoes of the Gulf of Tonkin and the War on Terror reverberate through this film which features many twists and turns. I am not sure I have put it all together correctly, but the film is one hell of a ride and a worthy summer moviegoing experience.

Starting in media res, Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and First Officer Spock (Zachary Quinto) engage in a daring rescue of an imperiled planet with a volcano about to burst. Abrams effectively and efficiently introduces Bones (Karl Urban), Lt. Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Lt. Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and Mr. Sulu (John Cho). Unfortunately, the by-product of assembling such a strong cast of supporting characters is the feeling that many are underused and merely background. In the foreground, Kirk and Spock debate following rules and breaking them, and meanwhile, a daring terrorist attack destroys a Star Fleet Archive, forcing emergency procedures. After an even more daring attack upon the leadership, Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) commands Kirk to take the Enterprise to the edge of Klingon territory to pursue the terrorist responsible, supplying Kirk with horrifying new weapons to do so. The Enterprise flies into darkness, naturally, trying to figure out its true mission and the greater good. As Spock puts it early in the film, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one."

The opening scene has promise in its Indiana Jones-type of energy, and I liked how Abrams just jumped into the story, having laid the groundwork in the first film. We know who these characters are; we know how they would act. His storytelling takes the time to develop the conflicts in philosophy between Kirk and Spock, and the film is the rare blockbuster with something to say about our own post-9-11 world. My critique of "Star Trek Into Darkness" revolves around Abrams's reliance upon swirling, twisting camera work and the illogical shots of multiple characters running and jumping down hallways in a spiraling ship. Many of the director's instincts are strong, and the twisting scene parallels the more memorable one in "Inception," but in terms of originality, I am not sure that any of the imagery from "Star Trek Into Darkness" will stick with me beyond this summer. The special effects are superbly done, and is there anything more terrifying than being blown out into space during warp drive?  RIP, unnamed Enterprise crew members around its edges. It is difficult not to compare this film to "Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan" which evoked fear in me at a young age with its hissing Ricardo Montalban, and upon a recent viewing, that film still scares and packs an emotional power. In this film, a scene where two characters fly from one ship to another resembles a video game (and maybe is better seen in 3D), but the stakes seemed low to me; there was never doubt that the characters would make it. Late in the film, there is a chance to aim for greatness, but Abrams does not take it.

Everyone in the "Star Trek" universe is extremely smart, and I have always liked that, as well as the formality of names and ranks, the sense that these ships are living organisms constructed of hundreds of tiny roles that must function properly. Benedict Cumberbatch is memorable, and the best scene in the film is a classic Star Trek face-off with Cumberbatch's character outwitting Spock. Watching these two fine actors think is pretty amazing because they are both incredibly smart. A large portion of the film involves smart people out-thinking each other. Zachary Pine's work here is fine, and I think he is at his best when being punched in the face or bleeding or jumping in some daring stunt. His James T. Kirk does not don reading glasses and peruse "A Tale of Two Cities." The elements are assembled well here, and Abrams has proved an expert at rallying together a relevant, emotional, and technical achievement in filmmaking. I wish that he had shown more courage in the ending of "Star Trek Into Darkness," but perhaps franchise management superseded artistic concerns. The final speech feels clunky and inauthentic for all that has gone before.

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