Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Star Trek: Into Darkness Review

As we approach the opening of Star Trek Into Darkness in the States, I’m sure a lot of you are waiting with baited breath. Will this film be as good as the first? Will Spock and Kirk’s friendship grow stronger? Who is Benedict Cumberbatch playing?

Is this latest outing J. J. Abrams’ finest hour? No. But, having been a long time fan of J.J., especially of his television work, I can’t say this surprises me. A lot of people expected it to have a darker tone like Chris Nolan’s recent Batman trilogy. Was it The Dark Knight? Of course not, it’s Star Trek. The film has divided fans and critics alike, but I can’t say that I was expecting a dark epic, so I wasn’t disappointed. This film, while darker than the first, doesn’t do anything heavy handed to make any particular point. That’s not the beauty of Star Trek. Trek is about exploration, a rag-tag family and moral ill-ease. Our heroes aren’t typical, they second guess themselves and many feel far out of their depth. The nuances of the journey are the heart of the story. But don’t worry; there are ship battles, fisticuffs and some explosions as well! Into Darkness was everything I expected it would be. It delivered the same grins as the first film, the same lens flare and the same adventurous nature. I thoroughly enjoyed it, right down to the 3D effects, though make sure you take something beforehand if you get motion sick; J. J. sure does love to swing that camera and zoom! Did I walk away thinking it was anything other than an adventure blockbuster like Iron Man 3 was? Absolutely not. What would be the point of expecting too much depth from either of these films? The point was to go on a space adventure with these characters, to enjoy their story and to file them away for another day.

These are the voyages of the Star Ship Enterprise.

Have you seen the film yet? Follow up under the jump for spoilers and discussion!

You really should not be reading this review if you haven’t seen the film yet. There are massive spoilers living in these paragraphs so read ahead at your own risk!

The first thing I want to say is this: for me, Star Trek is something that has always happened around me. I have never sat down and watched the entire series, though the William Shatner series was always on at my Aunt’s place and I watched bits with my cousins. I have some friends who love it with all their hearts; one of them came with me to the movie and she loved it. I know enough to know what to expect and the movies give me a chance to fall in love with this franchise for myself. I love the idea that these journeys are primarily about exploration. I also love that it’s not quite as simple as that. Other motivations tear at the characters and lead to some poor decisions but also some heroic moments. It’s a human story at its heart.

Seeing the crew back together was a blast for me. All of the actors have grown into their roles in this film, but, as can be expected, they feature far less than we might like. This is because it is primarily a story about Kirk and Spock and this was a common problem for many actors in the classic series. Again, while I might want more of the other crew members, I expect I’ll get Spock and Kirk; this is only the second film after all.

Zachary Quinto shines as Spock delivering an even better performance than in the first film. I loved his turn as captain and the way he used what he had learned to ultimately deceive the enemy. Thing is, it’s clear in this universe that Spock is a far superior captain, and Kirk says as much. It is presumably Kirk’s passion and charisma that allow him to captain, as well as the loyalty and friendship of his crew, particularly Spock. Chris Pine does nothing new or better as Kirk and I am still not convinced about this casting choice at all. That said, he carries it enough for the story to continue with some authenticity.

The crew members all had different roles on this mission, which was really awesome to see. Zoe Saldana’s Uhura spent some time off ship negotiating in Klingon and shooting lasers and my main complaint is that the trailers and posters seemed to indicate a greater role for her than there was. I actually loved that John Cho’s Sulu had a turn at the helm and demonstrated the importance for him of sitting in the chair and acting as captain. It was a nice call back to George Takei’s belief that Sulu could have his own ship. I found Simon Pegg’s Scotty to be exactly the character that was set up in the first movie - comical, bumbling, brave and damn good at his job. Kicking him off the ship not only provided a good plot device for later but allowed us to see what Scotty stands for and what he would become without his crew. His life is that ship, his integrity is there and he was right about the missiles. Kirk has a lot to learn from all his crew and I feel he learned humility from Scotty. Putting Anton Yelchin’s Chekov in the engineering room was a lot of fun and allowed him to show off some of his other skills. Karl Urban’s Bones is just delightful. I love him! Using his surgeon skills to arm warheads was a nice change for him and I really hope the new girl, Carol Marcus, hooks up with him... but I doubt that will happen given the gooey eyes she made at Kirk. It’s a shame that Abrams made statements beforehand about having a stronger female presence and not pigeonholing the ladies, because it didn’t feel like he made a lot of headway, even though there was some progress.

The stand out performance by far was Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan. I’ve heard people describe it as overpowering, and why shouldn’t it be? He is better than everyone on the ship; smarter, more dangerous and more imposing. For me, the awesome thing about Cumberbatch’s performance was the calculation. Yes, Khan is ruthless, but he is also superior in every way, therefore why not speak eloquently? Why not move lithely? Why not display avid curiosity at times and at others sheer insanity? He’s assessing us, seeing if we are worthy. He allowed us to believe at least for a moment that Khan could leave us alone if he got his crew back. His love for his crew mirrored Kirk’s love of his own, and it is his love for this crew that makes him momentarily redeemable, but his deep-set prejudice against anything that is not superior means we can never be spared. Khan is a Hitler: intelligent, a master manipulator, but also a supremacist. It is his fundamental belief that lesser beings should be mercilessly destroyed. And he was built that way. The character represents Mary Shelley’s greatest lesson in Frankenstein; take responsibility for what you create. As illustrated in this story, humanity uses power it doesn’t necessarily understand as long as we believe it is to our advantage. Then we make our mistakes and we don’t take responsibility for our role in making them happen.

Marcus does exactly this in the film, wanting to use Khan’s knowledge despite the threat that he might unleash on humanity, believing that he knows better than the civilization that not only created these super-beings but exiled them.

There are layers to this film if you want to look for them and see them but thankfully it doesn’t bash you over the head with questions about who is responsible for the acts of terror that Khan unleashes and how a government or Starfleet can continue to explore the galaxy without facing the consequences of its victories and failures.

The main thing that didn’t work for me in the Khan story was Leonard Nimoy’s Spock. Having him be contacted and say, in no uncertain terms, that Khan was the greatest and most dangerous nemesis they had ever faced was way too much and certainly seemed only to be included so that Nimoy himself could be included. This time, it detracted from the story entirely.

Lastly on Khan, I heard a lot of chatter that this was an ethnic character in the original series and that people were upset that he was cast using a white actor. Why? I would consider that Khan’s casting in the original series could be conceived as racist, though that might not have been the intent. I think J. J. should be commended for not repeating that mistake. Why make one of the only ethnic characters in the film the ULTIMATE evil? That isn’t upholding equality at all. Let’s have an ethnic actor cast as a total kick arse good guy instead.

The motivations of characters in the film were many. It has been suggested that at their hearts these motivations were simply about revenge, but I don’t believe this was entirely the case. Khan wanted his crew back, but his ultimate goal is genocide, which is about a lot more than simple revenge. Marcus wanted to start a war, not for revenge but for ego, and for his personal belief that Starfleet is not best used as an exploration outfit, but as a military fleet. Kirk was motivated by revenge for his fallen father figure yes, but was pulled back from this motivation by his team to a broader one of justice and questioning the orders of an authority if it is morally and ethically bankrupt.

In the moments that Kirk learns this and dies in the process, I did feel genuine emotion and believed for a moment that J.J. might kill Kirk off. We’ve had Vulcan destroyed, Star Trek has other captains, J.J. has done some pretty harrowing things in his shows, it was possible... right until the moment Spock screamed “Khhhhaaaaaannnnnnn” and ruined it. And that’s the thing. This film had a little too much edging in of the old series into the new movie, and from what I can tell, not even fans were too impressed with that. It turned an otherwise moving moment into an unintended comic moment. I was actually really sad that Kirk was revived. I thought the whole movie would have been made fantastic if he had died there and in this universe and command had been passed to Spock. It would have made the new series fresh and exciting and made any future battle with the Klingons more intense and unpredictable. Not to mention the potential to show Khan escaping to fight another day.

Sure, there are some improbable things that happen towards the end. Why did they need Khan’s blood, specifically? Why not get the blood of one of the other sleeping crew members – they’re all superhumans, are they not? Kirk was already dead for a significant time before he was frozen by Bones, so surely he would already be brain damaged? But if we start picking at this, we’ll have to pick at the Iron Man 3 plot and that had a list of inconsistencies and impossibilities as long as my arm. We can’t read too much into what is ultimately a popcorn film, as good as this one may be.

Trek was both entertaining and a great follow up to the first film. The characters grew as much as can be expected in a movie, the bad guy was awesome, the stomach churning 3D space ship scenes and fights were great, the effects were really cool and I laughed at the jokes. This film had a darker side if you wanted it, but really, it was a movie about growing and making mistakes along the way... in space. I hope you enjoyed it!

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