Saturday, June 8, 2013

Movie Review: "Star Trek Into Darkness" by David Pretty

"Space: the final frontier.  These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise.  Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before."  

After subjecting viewers to one big, dumb action sequence after another, Into Darkness scribes Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof actually have the balls to evoke these rousing words as if apologizing for what's just transpired.  If J.J. Abrams and company have even a shred of integrity they'll pay more then just lip service to Gene Roddenberry's original series mission statement next time out.  Honestly, I was lot more interested in the last five minutes of this film verses the two hours of vicious, unrelenting violence that proceeded it.

I was willing to forgive the vapidity of its 2009 predecessor, which had the unenviable task of getting all of those iconic asses into their respective seats.  I can also understand why the writers would feel paranoid about audience attention spans when a film's function is so workmanlike.  But with all of those obligatory bits now firmly locked in place, I really thought that this movie would be a bold, original, thought-provoking adventure that embodied the spirit of the original Trek while blasting off into exciting new frontiers.

Yeah, I was wrong.

As soon as the film kick-starts with a brain dead Indiana Jones/James Bond-style grabber sequence I knew I was dead wrong.  Brash, headstrong James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) thumbs his nose at the Federation's Prime Directive of non-interference to save a primitive culture from a deadly volcanic eruption.  For some reason, this required the endangerment of his entire crew and his beloved ship.  Then, in what feels like an outtake from a Micheal Bay flick, we get a demo of the Enterprise's previously unseen submarine option, bringing to mind the Lotus Esprit from The Spy Who Loved Me.

When honest-to-a-fault Spock (Zachary Quinto) files a frank report on the incident, Kirk is immediately stripped of his command.  A grim reprieve arrives in the form of a rogue Starfleet operative named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) who manages to blow up a top-secret installation and murder most of the Federation's inner sanctum.  The oblique Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) promptly re-instates Kirk and orders him to locate and kill the rogue terrorist.

Kirk's willingness to carry out this clandestine hit immediately puts him at odds with his crew.  Scotty (Simon Pegg) resigns his commission after he's forbidden to inspect the seventy-two (!) experimental photon torpedoes which are destined for Harrison's face.  When Spock, Bones and Uhura all point out that anonymous, Black Ops-style assassinations are not really the Starfleet way, Kirk finally comes to his senses and agrees to capture the renegade instead of kill him.

But as soon as the fugitive is brought onboard and starts talking things start to get complicated.  To reveal any more would be skirting dangerously close to the Spoiler Zone so I'll edge away from that particular precipice at full impulse power.              

Although The Wrath of Khan is still my favorite Trek flick, it's times like this when I curse its existence. Why?  Because in a vain effort to replicate Nick Meyer's bottle lightning, we've gotten a slew of mediocre copycat films that aren't nearly as effective.  Into Darkness goes so far it could almost be classified as a friggin' remake.

This is baffling to me.  Abrams was given carte blanche to reboot Star Trek any way he wanted and instead of boldly going where no director has gone before, he decided to re-hash the same time travel plots and villains that we've already seen before.  To make matters worse, this was probably done for purely cynical reasons.  Cramming the film with things that worked once before improves the odds for a return on net assets.  Especially when all of those time-tested ingredients are cranked up to WARP SPEED in order to appeal to the average movie goer with the attention span of a marmoset.

But perhaps the most frustrating thing: just like the first film, Into Darkness is a well-honed, creatively-kinetic thrill ride that doesn't let up for a second.  The special effects are impeccable and the action set pieces are both varied and exhilarating.  The drone attack sequence is vicious, the raid on Kronos is intense, the zero-gee space leap is harrowing and the Enterprise gravity spiral evokes shades of Titanic.  Pity, then, that the connective tissue holding all of this together feels like an afterthought.

Indeed, the plot here makes the first film look like The Usual Suspects.  Large swaths of the script are lifted from previous Trek incarnations and what's new barely makes any sense.  For example, Scotty gets heaved off the ship to facilitate the same surprise sabotage job he did in Star Trek III.  Indicative of the reboot's cro-magnon leanings, Dr. Carol Marcus, a brilliant molecular biologist in Wrath of Khan, gets reincarnated as a sexy weapons expert with a penchant for dropping her miniskirt.

Want more examples of the script's idiocies?  I know that Harrison is supposed to be a super-genius, but that was three hundred years ago.  Given how quickly technology moves, his ability to create super-weapons would be like Daniel Bernoulli whipping up an iPad.  An obligatory appearance by Leonard Nimoy as Spock Prime is equally ham-fisted.  Just seconds after telling his alternate younger self that he can't interfere, he proceeds to drop more spoilers then the "Geek" tab on Pintrest.

I'm convinced that the multitude of torpedo-related fake outs is deliberately convoluted, ensuring that the audience doesn't think about it too much.  The debate about the weapon's unique payload and who put it there eventually begins to feel like an Abbot and Costello routine.  I also love how Kirk doesn't blink an eye when he's asked to take along seventy-two torpedoes to use against Harrison.  Wouldn't he think that was a tad overkillish?  Especially when fired at a planet that's on the verge of declaring war on the Federation?  Seriously, is anyone buying this shit? 

When the film isn't lifting from previous Star Trek cannon it's 'yoinking' ideas from every other movie ever made.  When are people going to learn that it's never a lucky break when a super-villain voluntarily surrenders?  Cripes, we've seen this countless times lately in films like The Avengers and Skyfall.  We've also seen the Enterprise burn up on re-entry about one hojillion times.  In a related point, how did both ships get pulled into Earth's atmosphere so quickly?  Where did they drop out of warp?  The friggin' thermoshere?  

But the film's most overtly stupid move is attributing cross-species, resurrectional powers to Harrison's hemoglobin.  Why Starfleet doesn't hook him and his cohorts up to twenty-four gallon blood bags is beyond me.  Mortality has always been an interesting aspect of the Star Trek universe.  Even though technology has given human beings the ability to jet all over the known galaxy, they remain inherently squishy and death is still a significant risk.  Although it wouldn't help someone killed by a warp core breech, just think how many red shirts from the original series would be right back on duty after a shot of this miraculous new script convenience?

Once again the cast can't be slighted.  Chris Pine isn't nearly as spastic and hyperkinetic this time out.  Having said that, Kirk experiences the exact same lessons concerning responsibility and self-sacrifice that he picked up in the first film.  The same goes for Zachary Quinto's Spock, who learns, once again, that it's okay to express emotions at appropriate times and act on instinct when needed.  Honestly, it's like building up a video game character only to have them stripped of all their skill points in the sequel.

But this is bound to happen when your main characters are pop culture icons.  After seventy-nine hour-long episodes and six motion pictures, we already know how Kirk, Spock and company will react in most situations.  Although I wasn't expecting any major character revelations, I was certainly hoping for more then just caricatures of their original personalities.  For example, Quinto's Spock is more angry, sour and emo then Nimoy's cool portrayal.  And, by rights, Chris Pine's Kirk should either be permanently banned from Starfleet or dead from Space Herpes.

Karl Urban's Leonard "Bones" McCoy continues to be one of the best things about the reboot, but his excellent showing is undermined by Abram's obsession with audience expectations.  This time out he's forced to utter not one but two "I'm a doctor not a ____" lines.  Every time there's a dilemma in the script, McCoy's sole function is to pop up and nay-say Kirk's current line of action.  Although this often happened in the original series as well, there's no time for debate here and their conflict comes off as obligatory.

I'm not sure who Simon Pegg had to fellate in order to score the Chekov / Wrath of Khan side-plot here, but I can't think of anyone more deserving.  Not only are Scotty's actions relevant to the story, he's the only character to voice the audience's concern over Kirk's mindless blood-lust.  Although he's essentially repeating Jimmy Doohan's sabotage job in Trek III, Pegg's boundless wit and irascibility helps to keep things fresh.  Even as he's sprinting the full length of a dreadnought's cargo hold, he manages to inject some badly-needed comic relief into an otherwise turgid script.  

Despite the fact that this is clearly an ensemble flick, Zoe Saladana manages to eke out some territory for herself.  In addition to exploring her understandably-rocky, Twilight Zone-like relationship with Spock, she also exhibits her xenolinguistics skills by negotiating, albeit unsucessfully, with the klingons.  Although her performance essentially boils down to either "pissed off" or "worried", she certainly fares better then some of her co-stars.

Speaking of John Cho and Anton Yelchin, since their characters aren't integral to the plot their roles are perfunctory at best.  All Cho gets to do as Sulu is pilot a shuttle at the start of the film and deliver a few badass lines of dialogue while sitting in the captain's chair.  In a desperate bid to give Chekov something to do, the young navigator inexplicably replaces Scotty in Engineering.  Unfortunately this just translates into Yelchin running around a steam-choked engine room while screaming utilitarian dialogue into a communicator.

Benedict Cumberbatch is great as the movie's heavy.  He's commanding, vicious and genuinely committed to Harrison's mission.  In fact, his performance almost elevates this sub-par material into something substantial.  Cumberbatch eschews a florid and theatrical take on the role for something more sinister, unhinged and Hannibal Lecter-esque.  Unfortunately he has precious little screen time to develop as an antagonist, so Harrison often comes off as nothing more then a violent terrorist with a penchant for Roy Batty-style finishing moves.

It's great to have Bruce Greenwood's Christopher Pike back even if the character has worse luck then Kenny from South Park.  Alice Eve, rockin' a delightfully-retro original series Star Trek look, is imminently watchable as Carol Marcus even if she's just there as a sexy plot device.  Finally, although it's great to see Peter Weller pick up a check, as soon as appears on screen as Admiral Marcus and grumbles a few hard-boiled lines the red alert klaxons started going off in my head.

In Abram's defense at least there's a modicum of wafer-thin subtext in this entry.  The villain's desire to militarize Starfleet and kick off a war with the Klingons using a false flag operation is a pretty heavy plot hook.  Unfortunately these interesting ideas are dispensed with as quickly as they're introduced, a victim of the film's juggernaut-like pacing.  Even the few and fleeting dialogue scenes are tainted by disco-like lens flares and a camera that spins around like a whirling dervish.

I was really hoping that Into Darkness would cast off the shackles of expectation and take this talented crew to the edge of the known galaxy and beyond.  Instead, the producers went in the exact opposite direction, giving us a patchwork compilation of successful and lucrative Star Trek-ian references.  My disappointment is palpable.

But Star Trek has always been about hope for the future, and my aspirations for this series are still undiminished.  In order to make good on their promise at the end of this film, all Abrams and his writing partners need to do is listen to Shatner's introductory voiceover a few hundred more times.  Maybe then the point will finally sink in. 

 Tilt: down. 


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