Friday, May 17, 2013

Star Trek: Into Darkness

Review by Pete Roche

Captain’s Log, Stardate 2259:

Damn it, Jim, it’s a dicey thing discussing STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS without revealing major spoilers, referencing past films, or alluding to episodes of the original 1966-69 CBS television series (TOS in Trekkie vernacular), like “Space Seed” and “The Trouble With Tribbles.”    

Hell, it’s still hard for some of us old dudes to concede that Gen-Y doppelgangers of the Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock played so memorably (and for so long) by William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy even exist. 

But exist they do.  J.J. Abrams (CLOVERFIELD, SUPER 8) rebooted Gene Roddenberry’s space franchise in 2009’s STAR TREK, recasting the entire crew of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701 with fresh young faces and providing “alternate universe” origins for their iconic characters.  Chris Pine became the impetuous Kirk and Zachary Quinto his stoic Vulcan foil / science officer, Spock.  Karl Urban supplanted Deforest Kelley as moody Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy.  John Cho was the updated helmsman Hikaru Sulu and Zoe Saldana the sexy communications officer, Nyota Uhura.  Anton Yelchin played Ensign Pavel Chekov and Simon Pegg reinterpreted James Doohan’s perpetually flummoxed Chief Engineer, Montgomery “Scotty” Scott.

Abrams’ entire ensemble returns for the second installment of the revamped saga.  The twelfth STAR TREK feature film overall, DARKNESS daringly plunges into previously uncharted territory while playing homage to characters and events we’ve already seen (and, hypothetically, may “see” again, given that this bunch are the younger incarnations of the heroes we enjoyed as kids).  But what will divide Trekkies and even some casual fans about the latest entry is how far (and deep) Abrams and his writers go to cling on (pun intended, naturally) to the past:  Several key minutes of DARKNESS consist of what are essentially reshoots of scenes immortalized by Shatner, Nimoy, and Kelley eons ago.  Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, at least not until one realizes these pivotal emotional moments prey upon viewers’ nostalgia for the classic Enterprise crew rather than the one running Abrams’ ship. 

Heck, it’s a fair guess many of these kids weren’t even alive when the first true STAR TREK movie sequel, THE WRATH OF KHAN, was released. 

But screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman conjure enough original sequences to endear us to the newbie astronauts revisited by Pine, Quinto, and company.  Wisely, they root DARKNESS’ drama on the precarious dynamic between hotheaded Kirk and ever-logical Spock, testing the friendship and challenging each man to see things from the other’s point of view.  Accustomed to breaking rules and acting on gut instinct, Pine’s rookie captain must learn to make tough decisions in no-win situations and acknowledge the pragmatism of common sense and reason, while Quinto’s pointy-eared philosopher must not only learn to respect the passion that drives his non-Vulcan friends, but to embrace his own human half and feel things out for a change.

In an opening gambit recalling Harrison Ford’s flee-the-natives gag at the beginning of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (except with red foliage of green), Kirk and the gang alter the destiny of a primitive, pre-warp civilization by neutralizing an active volcano instead of merely surveying it.  When Kirk further violates Starfleet’s sacred Prime Directive by exposing the Enterprise to the locals while rescuing a pal, he’s demoted and ordered to surrender the ship to his mentor, Rear Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood).

An attack on what appears to be a Starfleet archive in London leads to an emergency committee meeting of assorted higher-ups, who are then targeted by terrorist John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), who’s been masquerading as one of their line officers.  Kirk defuses the situation with a page from the John McClane action playbook and—before you can say “beam me up”—he’s back on the bridge of Enterprise, tasked with tracking Harrison to the forbidden Klingon world of Kronos.

Harrison is one of three DARKNESS newcomers who aren’t what they seem.  The disgruntled arsonist has a score to settle with Starfleet Admiral Alex Marcus (ROBOCOP’s Peter Weller) and isn’t about to let cavalier Kirk or statute-citing Spock spoil his well-laid plans for revenge.  But Kirk has his own problems; someone at Starfleet is duping him as a pawn in a deadly chess game against the Klingon Empire.

Relations on the Enterprise become strained when the ship is effectively militarized by a cache of 72 high-tech torpedoes, whose custody is overseen by a beautiful but duplicitous new science officer (Alice Eve).  An incensed Scotty submits his resignation, quitting for his own adventures with a pint-sized, cabbage-headed pal.  Chekov is reassigned to engineering, and both Sulu and Spock have turns in the captain’s chair while Kirk attempts to set things right—even if doing so means forging an alliance with a dangerous adversary. 

The two-plus hour film establishes a brisk tempo early on and Abrams doesn’t linger too long between noisy, eye-popping action sets.  There’s a nifty light-speed pursuit involving Enterprise and its super-sized, combat-fitted successor, a shootout and fistfight on Kronos, a fiery freefall to Earth by an incapacitated ship, a devastating crash in San Francisco, and a nerve-wracking space flight through a field of cosmic debris.  Abrams also provides a few nudge-wink nods to the past amid his trademark lens flares:  Kirk gains an appreciation for tribbles, Bones recalls delivering a litter of newborns for a temperamental Gorn, Spock performs the obligatory mind-meld, and a crewmember cringes when told to swap his orange shirt for a red one (a uniform frequently associated with death on the TV show, and thus donned most often by extras who could be written off without repercussion).  There’s also a cameo by an old-school character, and touching mention of a vessel called USS Bradbury—likely named for the sci-fi author, who died last year.

Pine and Quinto gel nicely this time out.  Their chemistry is the picture’s circulatory system, their rapport imbuing the adventure with a fair balance of levity and tension.  But Cumberbatch’s cold, imperialist vigilante nearly steals the show.  With his ice-blue eyes, Napoleonic demeanor, and deftly controlled phrasing, the SHERLOCK thespian wickedly exploits the hero’s weaknesses, alternately flattering and upturning Kirk’s recklessness (and love of crew) and Spock’s blind adherence to protocol.  He’ll remind viewers of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki (THOR, THE AVENGERS)—a connection not so lightly underscored by his interrogation in a Plexiglass prison cell similar to the “Hulk tank” on Nick Fury’s Helicarrier—but it’s a gas watching Cumberbatch have fun with the part.

Still, for all the mayhem and CGI spectacle, it’s the humanism in DARKNESS that’ll resonate with general audiences.  Woven through the cat-and-mouse caper are poignant life lessons on fatherhood, friendship, loyalty and love that ripple through the brain long after the credits roll:  What does it mean to be right?  How far should one go to protect one’s family?  It is moral to break laws to safeguard others?  Do the needs of the many really outweigh the needs of the few…or the one?   Younger people may be confused by in all the double-crossings, betrayals, ulterior motives, and…er, con-artists, but they’ll latch onto the bromance between Kirk and Spock, understand why Marcus’ daughter resents him, and will get Uhura’s feelings for her beau. 

It’s one thing to rivet a moviegoer’s eyes to the screen, but quite another to make them care about what’s unfolding upon it.  With DARKNESS, Abrams does both effectively, earning fan-boy trust for his next outing, in a galaxy far, far away….    

Full impulse power, Mr. Sulu.

3 out of 4 stars.

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