FILM REVIEW: Star Trek Into Darkness
*WARNING: Big and small spoilers ahead*
I really liked J.J. Abrams' first Star Trek film.
It had just the right amount of reverence for Gene Roddenberry's franchise and yet also found a way to put the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise on a fresh path. That, and it was gorgeous, funny and had a dramatic heft all its own.
Now here we are four years later, back on board. In the interim, director Abrams has become the master of dual geek domains, after the announcement he'll be bringing his trademark lens flare to the Star Wars universe. Before we see what he does with Han Solo's golden years, however, we return to young Captain Kirk and his crew.
With 2009's Star Trek, we watched to see how or if Abrams would reboot the series. With Trek #2, the new car smell is fading and, wisely, he and his trio of writers raise the stakes by introducing a nigh unbeatable foe.
When we first meet the crew, Kirk (Chris Pine) and first science officer Spock (Zachary Quinto) are learning some tough lessons. A reckless act to save a culture has broken the prime directive. Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) puts the hotshot Kirk in his place with a withering rant and announces he's not ready for the captain's chair.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Star Trek's villain with Sherlock-like zeal. (Paramount)
Then Abrams shifts the focus to a minor minute of grief: a husband and wife, a daughter, an illness and an offer. The result: the gleaming towers of London in 2255 left smoking.
Enter Benedict Cumberbatch as the real Super Man. At first, he is a terrorist who goes by the name John Harrison. But as we learn more about this bio-engineered killing machine, Trek fans will know him better by his other (SEMI-OBVIOUS SPOILER) name.
Like his lead role in the BBC series Sherlock, here Cumberbatch plays another version of a fully optimized human. He represents the strongest and smartest of us, wrapped in a snarling, high-brow package. It would be too similar to Sherlock, if not for the extra note of skull-crunching savagery he brings to the Trek role. Still, there is a precision to this performance in the micro moments, for instance Harrison's eyes welling up as he remembers his former crewmates.
Simon Pegg returns as Scotty in Star Trek Into Darkness. (Paramount)
Strangely enough, Star Trek Into Darkness left me thinking of commedia dell'arte, a form of comedic improvisation from Italy where performers used stock characters and masks. Much of the pleasure and tension found in Star Trek: the Newer Generation comes from watching the characters play into our expectations and then exceed them. Kirk, Bones, Spock: we know them. Not just because many of us grew up with these characters, but also because they are archetypes: the rebellious leader, the cool logician, the country doctor.
In the hands of a lesser director and writers, glibness could creep into the roles and their relationships. But instead what cuts through the shiny lens flare is the warmth these actors share.
Last week I had a chance to speak with John Cho, who plays Sulu. The actor, who originally planned on teaching English, said what he learned from Abrams was the concept of family. These type of summer blockbusters are only as strong as the relationships that bind them. What sets Trek apart is the emotional bonds between the players.
The unlikely friendship of Kirk and Spock is central to Star Trek into Darkness. (Paramount)
Beyond the film's darkness, the sequel rests on the unlikely friendship of Kirk and Spock. Pine portrays the over-confident commander running on a mixture of ego, guts and fear. Quinto steals the spotlight once again as the Vulcan whose humanity is never far from the surface.
If anything hurts Abram's second outing in the Trek universe, it's his decision to stick so close to the path already taken. While there's pleasure in rediscovering or reframing those classic moments, there's something to be said for blazing your own trail. How far are we are going to go remixing and mashing up our memories? It's hard to look to the future when so much of Hollywood seems content to relive the past.
That said, Star Trek Into Darkness is the big-picture space cowboy adventure we've been waiting for. Here's hoping Abrams or his successors find the courage to explore more boldly the next time around.
RATING: 4 out of 5
Bruce Greenwood as Capt. Pike chews out the hotshot Kirk, played by Chris Pine. (Paramount)
For eager fans, here's a little spoiler's salad of memorable moments from Star Trek Into Darkness:
- Spock's slack-jawed speechlessness at an outpouring of affection from Kirk, followed by the latter's exasperated "Argh!"
- Simon Pegg's Scotty, the Scottish burr in his voice as thick as a bowl of haggis. The character really is the true heart of the Enterprise, the most human of all and, not coincidentally, the most hilarious. (Did you see what he was wearing at the nightclub?)
- I kind of expected more from the Klingons. Or maybe I just miss Worf.
- How good is Bruce Greenwood as Captain Pike? Soooooooooo good. That voice: like God's rumble with some added grit. Move over Don Lafontaine.
- The crisply enunciated way John Cho announces Hikaru Sulu's name while hailing Harrison.
- The chunky, retro-styling of the consoles, manual switches and more. But do we really believe Kirk still plays records in 2252?
- Speaking of records, Beastie Boys are in the hizzouse!
- Spock's wonderful, exacting wordplay. "Are you giving me attitude, son?" "I'm giving you multiple attitudes. To which one are you referring?"
- "You should have let me sleep!"
- Fans of Anton Yelchin will feel In Darkness needs more Chekov. They're right.
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