Sunday, May 19, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness Review

J.J. Abrams' Star Trek is without a doubt one of my all-time favorite films.  I'm not afraid to admit it.  Yes, Wrath of Khan may be a better film but I just have a special place in my heart for Star Trek.  To set the stage a little before I delve into this review, I am a life-long Trekkie.  I grew up watching re-runs of The Next Generation and watched most of Deep Space Nine, Voyage and Enterprise while they were on the air.  Of those, Deep Space Nine is bar none my favorite series.  I have never actually watched Star Trek: The Original Series the whole way through and when I recently attempted to do so I just couldn't bring myself to it; I just don't have the patience.  I fell in love with 2009's Trek because it freshened things up with a relatively dormant franchise (Enterprise went off the air in 2006) and brought it back into the public's awareness.  Abrams and co. took all of post-Enterprise Trek and threw it out the window, effectively creating a playground in which they could do whatever they wanted with the characters they had reinvented for us.  With Into Darkness I was hoping we'd see them play around a bit with the conventions we've come to know and love...but that's not quite the case.

I have quite a bit to say about this film, and as such, I'll relegate all spoilers to the latter half of the review.  So consider yourself warned!

Star Trek Into Darkness is one helluva action film.  Essentially a non-stop roller coaster of action set-piece after action set-piece, the film is a visual and auditory blitz that rarely pauses to catch its breath.  From the very opening moments - with Captain James Tiberius Kirk (Chris Pine) and Dr. Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban) running from a group of angry aliens - the dial is turned up to 11; we're dropped right into the middle of a mission (that was supposed to just entail surveying) with these aliens, a volcano erupting, the Enterprise hiding under water, and Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto) being stranded inside said volcano.  It's insane.  But what follows is utterly brilliant.

Immediately after this nail-biting opening we're transported to London, where we see the plight of two parents and their dying daughter.  There is no dialogue, save for one line spoken by the mysterious John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), just a beautiful piece of music by the talented Michael Giacchino.  In fact, when we return to this family there is still yet no dialogue; the story unfolds before us silently and quite beautifully.  The exclusion of any real dialogue in these sections was truly brilliant and daring, yet are quite lost amongst the whizz-banging visual effects and intense audio mixing in the rest of the film.

Rogue agent John Harrison attacks a Starfleet installation and jump-starts the plot: Jim and crew take off in the Enterprise to track him and down and bring him to justice.  What follows is an intense series of incredible set-pieces (a Millennium Falcon-esque chase, an insane fight on Kronos, and some ship-to-ship action that was just bonkers), fantastic character work, and twists galore.  If you like your Trek more actiony and less cerebraly then this will most certainly please you in every regard.  If you're a diehard fan you might be a smidge disappointed.

As I've said previously, the visual effects on display are simply jaw-dropping.  I couldn't fathom how 2009's Trek could be topped, but it was.  The Enterprise looks great as always, included now with a fancy blue, sparkly trail (of something) that's left in its wake upon going to warp.  Speaking of warp, some of the stuff they do in this movie regarding warp speed is insanely cool; yes, the sparkles are neat (but...why is this happening now when it never happened before?), but there are two sequences during which the Enterprise is forced out of warp and the effects are just awesome.  There is a space jump (reminiscent of the previous film's scene with the Narada's drill platform) between two ships that is harrowing and incredibly intense...and looks gorgeous to boot.  Part of me wishes that they had maintained the "no sound in space" concept that Firefly wholly embraced but it was incredible nonetheless.

While we haven't really spent that much time with this crew (actually AS a crew), I couldn't help but immediately feel their connectedness and strong sense of teamwork.  I got the feeling that the adventures this crew had between the two films brought them closer together and helped Kirk out a little as Captain.  I say "a little" because his actions during the opening scene don't go over too well with Starfleet brass...anyway, the performances, for the most part, are very solid throughout the cast.  I fall more in love with Chris Pine's Kirk with every scene he's in; in Darkness he wasn't emulating William Shatner's performance nearly as much as with the first film (there were a few moments, lines of dialogue, and looks that were clearly there to evoke Shatner) and starts to come more into his own with this iconic character.  The same goes for Quinto's portrayal of Spock; he's witty, logical, and incredibly emotional when he needs to be.  One scene in particular, near the end of the film, is a showcase for both of these men to show us their talent...and it worked incredibly well.  Karl Urban's McCoy is still fantastic, but still just on the outside of the three-way awesomeness that was the original Kirk/Spock/McCoy triumvirate.  His excessive metaphors were hilarious and incredibly apt; he handles McCoy's dry humor well and, again, starts to come into his own with the character.

Scotty (Simon Pegg) gets a beefed-up part in this film, with Pegg bringing a great comedic energy to the film.  More Scotty being awesome is never a bad thing!  Uhura (Zoe Saldana) gets into the action a little more (literally...right into two climactic fights) but ultimately doesn't contribute all that much.  Her relationship with Spock continues to be there; we never really get a sense of what the two of them are like together.  I know that's because we've only ever seen them together on the Enterprise or on a mission, but it would be nice to get some out-of-uniform stuff between them to develop this relationship a bit more.

The showcase role in this film, as is with a lot of blockbusters like this (The Dark Knight, Skyfall to name a few) goes to Benedict Cumberbatch and his John Harrison.  Much ado was made about this character over the months and years before the film released, and anything I have to say about the character specifically will be held till the spoiler section.  Until then, I can say that the 'Batch puts in one stellar performance; he is an amazing actor dealing with an amazing character and it shines through in spades.  He has one particular monologue that is just mesmerizing to watch, as is his interplay with these characters that we've come to love.  While I enjoyed Eric Bana's Nero from the previous film, Benedict throws everything he has into this role and character and it's just simply a joy to watch.

Several cast members get short-changed a bit.  While John Cho's Hikaru Sulu got one fantastic moment in this film, I can't help but feel like he's being under-utilized.  Same goes for Chekov (Anton Yelchin).  He gets a little more to do in this film (, more running around) but really doesn't have anything to do of substance.  At least in Star Trek he got to show off his intelligence by beaming Sulu and Kirk up by using Vulcan's gravitational pull...

My only non-spoiler gripe is that both this and its predecessor are incredibly small in scale.  Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with that, but I just expect big, Summer blockbusters to have a huge scale and scope, a la The Dark Knight Rises (which takes place over several months and spans the globe).  This film essentially takes place within a matter of a day...maybe two.  Yes, some will say "but Bullet, the first film covered over twenty-five years total!"  To them I'd say, "go away.  The intro doesn't count."  The main thrust of both films covers little territory (literally) and doesn't have that globe-hopping (or quadrant-hopping) feel to it.  And that doesn't by any means stop me from liking this film.  Star Trek: First Contact takes place in essentially one location (Earth/above Earth), over just a few days.  And I love the crap outta that movie!!

Just a quick note about the 3D in Into Darkness...I would say that it's good but not great.  While certainly better than the non-existent 3D in Iron Man 3, there were only a few moments where I felt like it was really warranted.  I'd say either check it out in 2D or pony up for 3D Imax just to have it on the big screen.

Alright, well I've talked long enough without spoilers.  Into Darkness is more than a worthy successor to the fantastic Star Trek, with intense action, great characters, a magnificent villain, and a story laden with twists, turns, and surprises.  Just go see it.

***Spoiler Warning for Star Trek Into Darkness***

Okay, so leading up to this film it was heavily rumored that the 'Batch was playing Khan, and that John Harrison was just to throw us all off.  Well that's exactly what happened.  Going into my screening, I was still hopeful that the writers (Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci, and Alex Kurtzman) would go with a new villain and not tread the dangerous Khan territory.  I even tried to talk myself out of believing he was Khan when he drew his blood to cure the man's daughter in the beginning.  But when he started mass-murdering a horde of Klingon warriors I knew the jig was up.  Then he just straight-up told us he was Khan.  And no one cared; both the crew in the film and the "how'd-he-do-dats" in the audience.  See, to us fans we know exactly who this guy is.  He was awoken in the ToS episode, "Space Seed."  He then wrought vengeance upon Kirk and his crew in The Wrath of Khan.  It is from this film that the writers borrow quite heavily...

See, I have no problem with them using Khan.  He was bound to show up eventually.  This altered timeline means that he could've been found much sooner...which is exactly the case.  Just by Starfleet itself and not Kirk and his crew.  My main issue is simply with the fact that he IS Khan.  See, Khan (who is of Indian decent) was played by the great Ricardo Montalbon (from Mexico).  A Mexican actor was playing and Indian character.  I know, this in and of itself isn't quite right, in that they could've cast an Indian actor to play an Indian character.  But just put that aside for right now.  Khan, in this film, should not have been played by a Caucasian, British actor.  Cumberbatch looks literally the complete opposite of Montalbon.  And this bothers me TO NO END.  And before you bring up the altered timeline, Khan was put into cryo-stasis way back in like, 1999 after the Eugenics War.  Therefore, he should be the same person in both Space Seed and this film.  They didn't even bother to cast an actor who at resembled Montalbon in the least (I know, Benecio del Toro was approached initially and he would've appeased me quite a bit in this case...).  It's almost a flippant "f you!" to fans who know all about Khan and what he actually looks like.  That said, Cumberbatch did wonders with the character and ultimately made him incredibly sympathetic yet insanely homicidal at the same time.

Getting back to the Wrath of Khan business, the writers didn't stop there with callbacks to that film (I know, technically it was a callback to Space Seed, but whatever).  Spock's famous "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" line makes it in, we get the "KHAAAAAAAN!" scream (this time from Spock), and we even get a main character death scene at the end of the film after they sacrifice them self to fix the warp core but ultimately die from radiation poisoning.  Phew.  We even got Khan taking over a more powerful ship and engaging in witty discourse.  Oh, and Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) is even in this film.  Why are all these callbacks and references present in this film?  I understand the want to insert things into the film that will give fans something to latch on to, but it was handled with a smidge more tact in the first film.  Simple things like Scotty's off-hand remark about "Admiral Archer's prized beagle," Spock's "I am, and always shall be, your friend," the tribble sitting in the background with Scotty, and the phase-cannons on the Kelvin (from Enterprise), just to name a few.  These were references to Trek in general, not one specific movie.  Yes, there are plenty of subtle nods to Trek lore in Darkness (Section 31, the model of the NX-01 on Adm. Marcus' desk, etc.), but these utterly blatant callbacks to Wrath were a bit much.  Actually it was a lot much.  Isn't Khan alone enough to pull at fan's heartstrings?  Why did all of these things have to happen like they did in this film specifically?  Were the writers lazy?  I'd like to think not.  I imagine the studio execs stepped in and were like, "hey, you guys need to include blatant references and callbacks to that movie that everyone liked.  Just do it!"  Like I said before, with this new timeline I was hoping for a bit more originality from the writers.  They can do almost literally anything they want; include species that they hadn't made first contact with, explore planets and situations that didn't happen before, etc.  But instead, we get a relatively original plot laden with characters and moments that we've seen before.

The writers weren't just referencing Khan, but were referencing themselves from their previous work.  Both films have a scene with Kirk and Pike at a bar (and the fact that this was called out by Pike almost doesn't make it count), both films have a space jump/dive sequence, both films have McCoy doing medical stuff to Kirk and pissing him off in the process, both feature a villain with a larger, more powerful ship that beats up the Enterprise (Star Trek: Insurrection and Nemesis both did this as well), both films have a scene with Kirk in bed with attractive aliens, both films have a moment of Kirk turning around to look at women at Starfleet HQ, both films have sequences where San Francisco is in peril, and both films end on a similar note - Kirk and crew are about to head out for adventures.  Now, some of that is a little nitpicky, but I can't help but see the parallels between the two films.  Again, laziness or simply being referential as a "wink, wink" type of deal?  Perhaps we'll never know..

Now, there was one tidbit of Trek lore that I'm insanely happy that made it into the film: the inclusion of Section 31.  For those who don't know, Section 31 was a secret clause built into the original Starfleet charter; it's an organization that doesn't officially exist and conducts covert operations across the galaxy for defensive and offensive purposes.  31 was featured in Enterprise, with Malcolm Reed working for them in secret, and again in Deep Space 9, with the group attempting to recruit Dr. Julian Bashir by dubious methods.  31 has only popped up on these few occasions, and its inclusion in this film makes me so happy.  The only problem I have, and it's a nitpick, is that the head of Starfleet (and of Section 31), is Admiral Marcus (played by Peter Weller).  The issue is that Weller played a character on Enterprise, John Frederick Paxton, during a two-parter in which his character is a terrorist who hijacks a lunar base and flies it to Mars.  This actor played two different characters who were alive within probably decades of one another.  For me, as a fan, its very jarring to see Weller play this role when he was so great as Paxton on Enterprise.  I mean, it's not like there's a plethora of older actors would could've been cast...

Despite all these gripes I liked a whole lot about this film.  I'm just gonna list a bunch of em:
  • I loved the design of the U.S.S. Vengeance
  • I lost my shit when the Vengeance overtook the Enterprise at warp; the sound effect it made was insane.  And those people being sucked out into space at warp...ouch!
  • The Inception-like running up the corridors as the Enterprise tumbled to Earth was rad.
  • Khan DESTROYING all those Klingons with his portable phase cannon was insane!
  • I loved Leonard Nimoy's cameo as Spock Prime; his reaction to hearing about Khan was priceless!
  • The twist of Khan's crew being in the torpedoes was fantastic!
  • Spock and Khan's fistfight over San Francisco was intense, and I enjoyed the nod to Spock beating up that kid way back in the beginning of the first film.
  • Uhura's line: "Go get him" to Spock about Khan was so badass.
  • Kirk's death brought me to tears, especially when he asked Spock to help him not be afraid.
I don't know if anyone caught this, but when the Klingons are chasing Kirk's pseudo-Millennium Falcon, their torpedoes looked and sounded almost identical to ones deployed by the Narada in the first film, which in turn looked and sounded like (and were) Borg torpedoes.  If this is intentional, it means that in the 25 years that the Narada was in Klingon custody (following the events of the destruction of the Kelvin), they reverse-engineered Borg technology from the Narada and applied it to their own vessels.  If this is true, it could have tremendous ramifications on the upcoming war that is bound to break out between them and Starfleet.

Boy, that's a lot of Trek talk.  I have more to say about the film but I'll just stop while I'm ahead.  When I first saw the film, my blind hatred of the idea that the 'Batch was Khan stopped me from truly appreciating what a fantastic film Darkness really is.  I'm not quite sure if I like it better than the original, but only time will tell.  Like I said before, just go see it.

Star Trek Into Darkness is a worthy follow-up to the first film, but will leave fans very divided.

The Bearded Bullet.

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