Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Review: Star Trek: Into Darkness

Non Spoiler Review:
After several years wait, Star Trek: Into Darkness returns to the universe of its successful reboot, bringing the crew of the Enterprise back to Earth after an egregious violation of the Prime Directive on the part of Kirk, and a shocking terrorist attack in London by a fugitive named John Harrison. Starfleet finds itself on the defensive against an immensely powerful enemy bent on spreading wanton destruction.

Star Trek reunites Chris Pine (Captain Kirk), Zachary Quinto (Spock), Zoe Saldana (Uhura) and Karl Urban (Bones), the four of which get the most screen time. Sulu (John Cho), Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and Scotty (Simon Pegg) round out the main cast, with Benedict Cumberbatch delivering a formidable villain. J. J. Abrams (Star Trek, Cloverfield, Lost) again directs, and writers include Damon Lindelof (Prometheus, Lost), Alec Kurtzman and Roberto Orci.

It's difficult to discuss a lot of the movie without spoiling critical plot points, particularly John Harrison's identity that has been the subject of years of speculation, so I'll save much of that for my spoilery rant at the end. Like its predecessor, Into Darkness moved at such a frenetic pace I was willingly dragged along in my enjoyment until the hangover the next day when I began considering the myriad plot holes.

First, the movie looks great—beginning with a beautiful rendition of the planet Nibiru, the vistas of 23rd Century Earth, and some fantastic effects sequences ending in a numbing climax. But that's no surprise given what we've come to expect from Abrams. The Enterprise bridge is as bright as ever (but not as many noticeable lens flares this time around). The flaws don't really come in the technical aspects, though I noted that the battle scenes moved a little too fast to really appreciate what was going on (and what was being blown up). .

We're told the crew has bonded since last we saw them. Key word being told, given we have experienced only four hours of these characters together. They gel pretty well, but I'm left wondering how much of our association with them is based on our assumption of how they should interact. It's a given that Kirk and Spock are tight, even to the most oblivious movie-goer. Just like Holmes and Watson. We go into any story already knowing that. In contrast, an ensemble like Harry, Hermione and Ron is a genuine relationship that evolved over the Harry Potter franchise and was not taken for granted.

That same factor applies to the villain. And I can't get into it in detail in the non-spoiler portion of the review, but would we appreciate Benedict Cumberbatch's role had we not been able to draw upon what has gone before in Star Trek lore? Something to consider.

Into Darkness was surprisingly heavy on Star Trek canon. Abrams wisely carries on the storyline he began in the first movie, particularly Nero's destruction of the old timeline (though the effects of that are way beyond reason) and the new consequences arising out of the destruction of Vulcan. For me as a fan, I quite enjoyed all the references, mentions of characters like Christine Chapel, and the easter eggs visible in the backgrounds of scenes. But for other moviegoers without the baggage of previous films in the saga, I would think the final act in particular would lack as much emotional punch when Into Darkness' pretty much becomes a homage to what's gone before.

Into Darkness attempts to deal with themes of terrorism and the importance of the rule of law over vengeance. It's relatively successful in achieving that. I almost wonder if Kirk's reckless demeanor (which has grown completely unbelievable given how he flouts the rules and regulations of Starfleet) could turn him into the same sort of villain he faces in the movie when he's older. One plot development that is well overdue is the level of threat the villain delivers. Usually it's a given that the heroes will always save the day before too much is lost, but there was a sense of real sacrifice here that added to the weight of the story immensely. Added to that, I loved that it became apparent that what was shown in the trailers was not entirely what we got (take a note, Prometheus). That left plenty of expectations thrown out by the final act and an equal number of surprises.

Unfortunately, Into Darkness is heavily flawed. There are so many ridiculous additions that can only be attributed to the reckless writing of Damon Lindelof. He tackles scripts without worrying about unimportant things, like how to end them in a satisfactory manner. Here (and this is not a spoiler given it's in the trailer) the Enterprise is hiding beneath the ocean of Nibiru in order to conceal itself from the primitive inhabitants. Never mind that this would fly in the face of every bit of rational engineering given the size of the ship, but no reason is offered, aside from the magnetic field of the planet. Nor does it even pay off later on in the movie. They just thought the Enterprise rising out of the ocean would look cool. This reliance on visual spectacle in lieu of an actual story to grab the audience's attention seriously damages the film.

I have the same critique for Into Darkness as I did with J. J. Abrams' first kick at the can—the complete disregard in making technology believable. On one hand there are very practical, tangible sets like the engine room, full of pipes, tanks, stairs and railings. Then we get extraordinary technological leaps that immediately took me out of the moment. We get near instantaneous transwarp travel from Earth to Kronos and back, equally instant communications technology where Kirk can call up Scotty in a San Francisco bar on his communicator with the Enterprise deep inside Klingon space, and characters that can teleport across light years. Did they once consider if a civilization can transport across vast distances, there's no need for starships and the threat of war hinted at is pretty much eliminated if you can beam a few weapons of mass destruction in the midst of your enemy.

Now swing the pendulum completely the other way to ridiculous lapses in technology—a shuttle craft can sneak into a top secret dry dock simply by sliding in with the rest of the convoy. Or characters can conceal their identities and get assigned to starships without any problem.

So I'm left struggling with how I feel about the movie. I enjoyed it immensely as I was watching it. It's certainly action-packed with a final act full of tension and consequences measuring up to the hype. But it wasn't a good movie by any means. Predecessors like Wrath of Khan and even The Motion Picture conveyed big ideas and emotions while Into Darkness misses its mark by relying on Star Trek canon to carry the story rather than an original plot. The writing is weak and lazy, without any attempt to tackle heavy science fiction themes. But this is where the Star Trek franchise is now. We'll not see writing equal to something like District 9 or even The Avengers come out of the current production team. But it remains entertaining as long as you leave your critical thinking in the parking lot.

Let the spoilers begin...

Spoilerific Rant:
This rant could have gone on for quite awhile, but I've edited myself. I blame Damon Lindelof for the mess of continuity and believability we get, after seeing some interviews where he makes such cavalier dismissals of his storytelling style. Logic just isn't a factor he cares to deal with.

A starship the size of Vengeance sits in Lunar orbit (where there must certainly be colonies and bases) and manages to fly straight on an impact course to Earth with no defences to stand in its way? Where are the starships in Earth orbit—there were enough of them docked at the space station at the beginning. And how does the Enterprise suddenly end up drifting into Earth orbit minutes after being at the Moon? The only saving grace was that the trailers didn't reveal it wasn't the Enterprise crashing into San Francisco Bay.

Nor does Benedict Cumberbatch's Khan stand on his own merit. He's a great actor, but why even cast him in this role. You can't get whiter than Cumberbatch. His effectiveness relies purely on the audience's previous knowledge of Wrath of Khan. Had he not been Khan, but just an everyday terrorist, would we have gotten enough insight into him to be a memorable villain? They also significantly powered him up to the point he can survive multiple phaser hits, starship crashes, and conveniently his blood can revive the dead.

I confess to being thrilled by some fitting uses of continuity—Section 31 (a Deep Space Nine reference), Carol Marcus' introduction, and plenty of others. Unfortunately there were a whole bunch of new aliens but not any familiar ones aside from Spock and the Klingons (who remain familiar enough in this incarnation). And as a fan I certainly enjoyed the reverse Wrath of Khan sacrifice with Kirk and the new take on all its aspects, but as soon as Bones trotted out the dead tribble to inject with Khan's blood it should just have started screaming plot device. I was under the impression the rebooted series was to have a broader appeal and not indulge Star Trek fans like me. Why not tell an original story rather than revisit the best of Trek?

I loved the addition of original Spock (and Leonard Nimoy must stop saying he's done his last appearance as Spock. It's about as genuine as a Cher farewell tour), but that opened another can of worms. Old Spock indulged young Spock's questions about Khan, but where will he draw the line? Might he not suggest Starfleet continue to search deep space for a few other interesting objects like V'ger and the Humpback Whale probe to avoid some problems for Earth in twenty years? And maybe the giant amoeba creature or the doomsday machine that are also crossing into the galaxy? They killed millions. Ah, yes, and then there's the Borg. In fact, the Guardian of Forever would make a great fix it for the Abrams reboot. Something for old Spock to consider, perhaps.

I could go on, but my disappointment is ultimately from what the movie could have been had it relied on its ideas to wow the audience rather than set pieces. I was entertained and left feeling quite excited by it. But it's mindless popcorn fun now, which is sad, given the science fiction lineage Star Trek has carried for decades. That said, there are always possibilities. Star Trek may get passed into other more capable hands now that Abrams has the whole Star Wars franchise to diminish further.

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