Monday, May 20, 2013

Boldly Going Where Its Gone Before, J. J. Abrams' Second Trek Voyage Still Surprises

     Some people--most of whom stay loyal (to this day) to the original Trek universe with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy--weren't that happy when Star Trek, the sort-of reboot of the aging franchise, was released into theaters in 2009. J. J. Abrams, they thought, didn't understand what made the old Trek films so great: this new film was stylistic with shiny images but ultimately lacked any substance or social commentary. But I tend to disagree--2009's Trek ranked among my top five films of that year. Abrams--like he hopefully does with the Star Wars franchise now that he has taken the reins--shot a full dose of adrenaline into the tired franchise, bringing in new actors and an exciting eye for sci-fi action set pieces.
       After the events of the first film, which used an interesting time travel device to sort of form an alternate Trek universe where anything could happen, curiosity peaked: could Abrams' second Star Trek directing effort confirm his status as the savior to the long-running franchise that last landed dead on arrival in 2002's Star Trek: Nemesis. The short answer is yes: Star Trek into Darkness is an incredibly entertaining entry into the plethora of Trek films, a wonderful summer blockbuster that left me completely enthralled during most of its run time. It's packed full with exciting action and ideas that parallel Earth's problems in decently interesting fashion. It's also as good or better than the last Abrams journey with Kirk and Spock.
     Star Trek into Darkness is incredibly exciting from the opening musical theme to the end credits, and it's best to know as little as possible before entering the movie theater. So let's keep this simple: After breaking some Federation rules to save Spock (Zachary Quinto, who has never been better and provides the character with a wonderful amount of humor and depth), Kirk (Chris Pine, who is Shatner-like but still makes the character his cocky own) loses his job as the Captain of the Enterprise. So much of this film is about the relationship of these two characters, and they seem much more comfortable this time around: their scenes together are filled with intensity or humor, depending on the situation. Quinto especially takes a step forward. Brimming with confidence, his Spock is a character that uses his human and Vulcan roots to his advantage in any situation.
     It's not spoiling anything to say that--obviously--the crew gets back together when a force threatens to decimate the federation and potentially start a war with the powerful Klingons. Everyone's back and better than ever: playing Uhura, Zoe Saldana plays a more prominent role, bringing out the more human aspects of her lover Spock when he forgets to think about the other people who care deeply about him. The great Simon Pegg is back as Scotty, and (as always) he provides much of the humor in the film--and he also gets to run around and kick-ass much more on this go round. Anton Yelchin and John Cho (as Chekov and Sulu, respectively) take more of a backseat this time, but they still make the most out of their minimal roles. Karl Urban's Dr. Bones still provides some needed sarcasm and humor, especially his interactions with the new sexy crew member portrayed by Alice Eve.
     Sure, the Enterprise crew is great and they fit together nicely. But the real surprise of Star Trek into Darkness is a character by the name of John Harrison, played by the up-and-coming great character actor Benedict Cumberbatch. His role is a mystery for much of this Trek voyage. Is he a terrorist? Is he a traitor? Whether he's either or both, Cumberbatch forms a villain that is unique while also providing a wink of the eye to the lore of the Trek world. Part of his arc reminded me of Loki in The Avengers: this is a powerful being whose motives are unclear, yet trusting him is a decision that must be made no matter how insane that decision seems.
     There's real tension in this Trek. Forget about the action for a second, which is wonderful in its own right (the phaser battle in Klingon territory, the space jump from one ship to another, and an epic showdown between Spock and Harrison come to mind). Many of the personal vendettas and relationships jump to the forefront: Kirk spars with just about anyone, but especially people of ultimate authority. This time it's Starfleet Admiral Alexander Marcus (portrayed with zeal by Peter Weller, the titular character of the original Robocop films), who has motives of his own that pertain to the fate of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Kirk and Spark are always sparring, but this time their arguments hold meaning that extend beyond life and death situations. And Harrison holds a long back story that involves the history of the Federation and its unusual leanings toward military missions instead of space exploration.
       There is one major thing that Star Trek into Darkness does that extends beyond the strengths of this film: it shows that J. J. Abrams has the strength and fortitude to turn around the Star Wars universe, too. His ability to stage exciting sci-fi battles, his eye for creating humorous situations while avoiding corniness, and his willingness to acknowledge the happenings of previous incarnations in the franchise while still keeping his own entries fresh are things to be completely admired. Sure, some of Star Trek into Darkness feels familiar (a bit of it feels too similar to 2009's version). But the familiarity doesn't detract from the epic-ness of the scale, excitement, and wonder that Abrams provides with nearly every aim of the camera.     (A-)

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