Monday, May 20, 2013

Never trust a Vulcan.

Is Star Trek Into Darkness the first franchise movie where an iconic character's identity is treated like a spoiler? While I've never been one to seek out spoilers, I knew the real identity of "John Harrison" (Benedict Cumberbatch) last week thanks to the IMDb, and I think I preferred it that way. When "Harrison" properly introduces himself to Captain Kirk, about half of my audience gasped, so I guess it works as a surprise (though he pretty much gives it away a few lines earlier). As effective as the scene is, though - and Cumberbatch does make a terrific "John Harrison" - it highlights a big problem I had with Star Trek Into Darkness. In exchange for a momentary surprise, the film trades the opportunity to further develop the movie's central villain and his motivations, which are awkwardly related to us after the fact; Cumberbatch is good enough that the character makes a strong impression anyway, but the script doesn't do him any favors. While Star Trek Into Darkness is consistently entertaining, it sometimes falters due to its emphasis on momentary effect over a coherent story and character logic and, more damagingly, fan service over originality.

Let me clarify, should this come off as too negative, that there's a lot to like about the film, particularly the returning cast. The movie's great opening sequence opens with a chase in progress, as Kirk (Chris Pine) and Bones (Karl Urban) are being chased by the primitive inhabitants of a planet covered with brilliant red foliage while Spock (Zachary Quinto) finds himself stranded in an erupting volcano. Within a few minutes, we've been reintroduced to all of the principal cast, and it feels like no time has been lost at all. With the excellent first movie having gotten the task of establishing these new actors in their familiar roles, the cast is able to have more fun this time around - there's an obvious ease in Bones' griping or Spock and Uhura's (Zoe Saldana) bickering that make these characters feel fully lived-in, and it's a pleasure to watch them play off each other. J.J. Abrams' direction is assured, and while his lens flares have become an easy target, I like them and his aesthetic sensibility - he strikes a balance between fantasy and verisimilitude that's a great fit for Star Trek. And the movie is a delight to look at, thanks to the wonderfully detailed Enterprise sets and excellent visual effects; the ribbons of blue light the Enterprise leaves in its wake have never looked better. I highly recommend seeing it in IMAX or, if you don't live near an IMAX theater, on the biggest screen possible.

Unfortunately, the script by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Damon Lindelof can't quite support the story's huge canvas; worse, it often doesn't really feel like Star Trek. I don't say that as a Trekkie or because I think there's only one right way to approach Star Trek. But the film's attempt to continue the series' traditions of plotlines with contemporary resonance stumbles here; echoes of drone warfare are interesting but quickly discarded in favor of nonstop action, which has the effect of making the movie's frequent allusions to 9/11 disturbingly shallow. The plot's incorporation of a corrupt Starfleet admiral (Peter Weller) who is responsible for creating the villain is a clear attempt to mirror our ethically murky political climate, but it comes at the expense of a future that, as usually depicted in Star Trek, represents the fulfillment of our highest ideals. There are several moments when Kirk and his crew kill villainous or even mildly adversarial characters when other obvious solutions were available; it's a huge contradiction of the characters as we've come to know and love them. While I don't expect Star Trek Into Darkness to go full Next Generation and have characters engage in lengthy philosophical debates, I have to admit that when Scotty (Simon Pegg) complained that the Enterprise's mission is exploration, not combat, I couldn't have agreed with him more.

It's true that the previous Star Trek also emphasized action over ideas, but that one worked better for me because of moments like the moving opening sequence and the scenes exploring Spock's human side. It had a genuine sense of wonder, and the time-travel plot left the series open to exploring fresh new stories and opportunities to get to know these characters better. On this basis, I was ready, for most of its runtime, to forgive Star Trek Into Darkness for not quite being the Trek I know and love. Then the movie reaches its climax, an explicit reworking of the iconic, devastating ending of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The movie spends 90% of its running time asserting itself as a more action-packed, Star Wars-flavored version of Star Trek, then shamelessly mines the series' previous high point in an attempt at borrowed emotions. Pine and Quinto are good enough that the moment is kind of moving, but reusing specific images and lines of dialogue in a slightly different context only serves to remind us what a superior job the earlier film did of building their relationship. In Star Trek II, the ending feels like the tragically logical place the movie had been headed all along, both in terms of story logic and thematically. Here, the ending is about nothing except exploiting our affection for the earlier, better movie. Worse, any possible emotional impact is immediately dulled by a lame plot device that undoes in five minutes what the original series took an entire other film to resolve. It's a dumbed-down, chickenshit move - Abrams is often referred to as "the next Spielberg," and as far as lame cop-out endings go, he's already far surpassed Spielberg's entire filmography.

Star Trek Into Darkness is still worth seeing for the many things it does right, but its missteps are surprising and very disappointing. Maybe they shouldn't be, given the fact that Abrams has repeatedly said he never liked Star Trek and wanted to make a movie for people like him. I don't want to minimize what Abrams achieved, breathing new life into a series that had grown stale and making a new Star Trek movie something worth getting excited about again. I just hope the next chapter really takes advantage of the freedom the first film established to tell new stories and take the Star Trek mythos into uncharted territory. Congrats, J.J., for succeeding in your stated goal of making Star Trek more like Star Wars. Now go make your goddamn Star Wars and, while you're at it, why not find a filmmaker who loves Star Trek to replace you?

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