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Film Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013; Directed by J.J. Abrams)

Star Trek Into Darkness is an exhilirating space epic on a tremendous scale, as thrilling and entertaining from moment to moment as its spectacular popcorn-movie predecessor and invested with far more political portent. But is it Star Trek? I was fully prepared to come away from this film armed with ample evidence for an answer of “No”, especially after the Star Wars borrowings of Abrams’ first effort in this long-lived and distinctly-pitched franchise practically begged for a subtitle of Episode XI: A New Hope. But I found myself being repeatedly pleasantly surprised at how Abrams delivers the expected contemporary blockbuster goods while also realigning the sights of his vision of Trek to be more in line with certain elements of the established canon at least.

Or perhaps what Abrams is really doing is realigning the extensive but historically rigid Trek canon to jive with modern blockbuster convention and contemporary political realities. The central character tension in Into Darkness is between Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto); Kirk cannot stop himself from breaking the rules, and Spock cannot bring himself to bend those rules even a bit. This tension can be extrapolated onto the creative tension that faces Abrams as the core challenge of adapting Star Trek into post-millenial tentpole movies. The current dominant mode of big Hollywood productions is the imaginative and the speculative, the ambitious CGI-conjured spectacles that adapt and repurpose classic influences into fresh entertainments, and Abrams is one of the geek-culture-savvy filmmakers who has very much mastered these frame-expanding projects. Though Star Trek was conceived by its creator Gene Roddenberry as imagining such new possibilities in at least the sphere of ideas (all that “boldly going” stuff), it was consistently limited in its ability to visualize those possibilities not only by technical and budget constraints but also, increasingly, by the restrictive boundaries of its own legacy and the tenets of its fictional universe. Abrams (and the current geek-centric Hollywood milieu he represents) is Kirk, scornful of rules and conventions and trusting in his creative gut feelings, and the Star Trek franchise as it stood before he got his hands on it is Spock, unwilling or simply unable to transgress those rules and conventions.

Into Darkness makes it clearer than ever why Abrams and his writers Robert Orci and Alex Kurzman (with an assist this time around from Lost mastermind Damon Lindelof) chose to shatter these canonical shackles by altering the fictional timeline in 2009’s Star Trek. It was the only way they could get a fresh start on the material, the best method to give them room to create, to reinvent, to play in this well-established universe. The classical moniker of Eric Bana’s Romulan villain from that film now makes more sense; if the franchise could be said to be a majestic, intricately-ordered Rome, it took a Nero to burn it down so it could begin anew.

If Star Trek told a story of that act of temporal arson as a new origin tale, then Into Darkness is largely concerned with rebuilding science fiction’s great fictional capitol in less hopeful terms for a less hopeful time. The film opens on a strikingly-rendered, culturally-primitive world in the Nibiru system (a blazing palette of crimson vegetation contrasted with grey tree-trunks and white-painted indigenes) with a stark moral conundrum packed inside another one, in the mode of Christopher Nolan. Will Kirk and his crew let a developing people perish from a volcanic cataclysm or will they save the fledgling civilization from this fate and thus detour their destiny? Then, having chosen the latter option in the classic liberal uplift tradition of the series, does Kirk choose to let a key member of his crew perish in the effort or does he save him while knowingly violating Starfleet’s Prime Directive interdicting interference in the development of pre-space-technology alien species?

Kirk makes the only choice that Kirk can make, and is duly reprimanded for his transgression of Starfleet regulation. But his chastening punishment is short-lived, as a Starfleet agent named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) goes destructively rogue, precipitating a crisis by bombing a subterranean archive complex in London and then targetting a meeting of Starfleet brass convened in response (and set in a war room whose design is straight out of Dr. Strangelove). Among those killed is Kirk’s mentor and father figure Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood), and it is with the impulsive stirrings of vengeance that our id-driven hero volunteers himself, his crew, and the Enterprise to lead a mission to the Klingon homeworld, to which Harrison has escaped with the aid of a trans-warp device invented by Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott (Simon Pegg) and confiscated by Starfleet.

Kirk is ordered by the imperious Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) to take out Harrison with long-range photon torpedoes fired with extreme prejudice, thus accomplishing the mission of terminating the enemy of the intergalactic state without antagonizing the Klingons, who seem much more intent on antagonism in this alternate timeline than they were in their role as Cold War-era Russian proxies in the original series and films. Kirk rethinks this blatant assassination mission on the basis of his trusted crew’s moral objections, but the Enterprise still winds up as a chess piece in a deadly game between Marcus and Harrison, both of whom are up to much more than they seem to be.

Who let that shlub on the bridge? Security, escort this bum to the brig!

The contemporary political commentary here is evident enough to qualify as a near-allegory. Harrison’s London attack is a 9/11 of the future, and Marcus’ extra-legal cutthroat response echoes the security-state overreach and betrayal of founding principles that has characterized the United States’ decade-long War on Terror in retaliation. Harrison is a 23rd-century Osama bin Laden, whose willingness to disregard the strictures of civility is employed by Starfleet’s secretive intelligence agency Section 31 (a stand-in for the CIA introduced in the midst of the morally-ambiguous Trek series Deep Space 9 and a perfect canonical reference to use in addressing contemporary political realities). Spock objects to the drone-warfare-like use of distant photon torpedoes to kill a suspect without a proper trial, and Scotty objects to authorizing the loading of those torpedoes onto the ship without knowing their full import.

These details flit by quite quickly, small aspects of the relentless cinematic tapestry woven by Abrams and his team, but they remain impossible to miss. Indeed, they constitute fairly brazen criticisms of the ambiguous (at best) policies carried out by the Obama Administration’s national security arm in the midst of what is otherwise an engaging silver-screen potboiler. Most importantly, though, Into Darkness is not bogged down by these political features in terms of either pacing or ideology. It preserves not only its expert momentum (one exciting sequence flows into the next for the second half of the film like one overwhelming extended action climax) but also its very Roddenberrian core of moral rectitude. It does not argue, like a sci-fi Zero Dark Thirty, that ruthless brutality can only be repaid in kind, but rather that its takes not only tremendous determination but also collaborative openness and keen intelligence to do the right thing in the face of so much pitiless wrong.

On a geekier level, Abrams absolutely releases the hounds on this universe. The so-familiar Klingons, set up as formidable future antagonists, sound, feel, and above all look absolutely amazing. The Enterprise is more fully mapped, and this new shipboard geography is employed to great effect as Kirk and Scotty rush headlong towards Engineering as the damaged ship plummets from orbit and its latitude changes on a dime. Abrams expands the Federation’s culture and society, especially on Earth, which so often consists of little else outside of good old square Stafleet HQ in San Francisco (though we do see a dockside club and some cutting-edge fashion in this film that suggest the freaky alternative culture of that great Western gate of progressivism is not diminished 300 years hence). Both London and a country hospital on its outskirts mix sleek futuristic towers and hover-vehicles with traditional British tokens: St. Paul’s dome is still a skyline feature, the old manor house hospital retains a brick facade, and a Gainsborough landscape painting hangs over a hearth in a convalescent room. Furthermore, familiar features of the Trek mythology, especially from The Wrath of Khan, are referenced, utilized, and repurposed with cleverness and nuance (and, in one or two instances, with a fantastic lack of nuance).

At the centre of the film is a cast very comfortable with the crew’s mix of personalities. Sulu (John Cho), Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and Bones McCoy (Karl Urban, wonderful again) have smaller roles this time, and Pegg’s comic timing and stolid bravery push the oft-absent Scotty just a little above them. The position of Zoe Saldana’s active Uhura is elevated by her relationship with Quinto’s Spock, who really comes into his own here as a mixture of biting, near-sardonic Vulcan logical assertions and bursts of potent human emotion. Pine has more dramatic heavy lifting to do as Kirk this time, and cannot approximate William Shatner’s considered gravitas, flecked lightly as it was with cornpone overacting. His cad act is much more enjoyable, but his character is supposed to be outgrowing that and moving into more mature territory that does not suit the actor quite as well.

Some men just want to watch the world burn.

And then we have our larger-than-life villain, played by Cumberbatch as a figure so superior that he transcends mere smugness and achieves demigod status. Cumberbatch delivers his lines in righteous pronouncements; his formidable intelligence vibrates in every syllable, even when those syllables vibrate also with deeply-felt emotion. He’s given a chuckle-inducing dramatic reveal, several other iconic framings, and is often dressed in flattering if seemingly impractical long coats (he even stops amid the carnage he has caused at one point to steal one for no other conceivable reason than to look cool for the final confrontation). He’s also a formidable action hero, wiping out a whole squad of Klingons practically on his own. With a pre-emptive apology for both the spoiler and the awful pun, Cumberbatch opens a Khan of whoop-ass here, and it’s great stuff.

More than anything, though, Star Trek Into Darkness should balance out the perceived discrepancy between how Abrams’ entries into the film series are greeted by devoted Trekkies and by mass audiences, if only a bit. It could be easily missed beneath the wave of success of the 2009 Star Trek in the popular blockbuster marketplace, but there was an undercurrent of distrust and even frustration among Trek die-hards with Abrams’ slick reboot. The dearth of classic sci-fi Big Ideas was noted, and some derision was reserved for Abrams’ deployment of furious action, sexual suggestion, and other elements of pulpy sensationalism (Star Trek has frequently deployed these same pulp elements, of course, but Abrams does it much better). But Abrams’ own statements about not being much of a Star Trek fan and slighting the nerdier features of the franchise irked further; his Star Wars preference was obvious, and it seemed clear that Trek was a mere stepping stone to the space mega-franchise whose reboot he would have rather helmed (and now is). He wasn’t a believer, in other words. He wasn’t one of them.

Abrams may never be a Trekkie in the purest definition of the term, but the opening and closing sequences of Star Trek Into Darkness suggest that he has gained an understanding of what makes this property so enduring and appealing. The Nibiru away mission that begins the film and the embarcation on the famous five-year mission of the original series that ends it both invoke the overall tone of trail-blazing exploration and imaginative adventure that has been the hallmark of the small-screen Treks (as opposed to the deadly male rivalries and starship battles that dominate the silver-screen iterations). If even a small hint of that sense of astral-frontier wonder is imported into the Star Trek films to come, whether or not Abrams remains on board to oversee them, the stunningly successful relaunch of a once-moribund franchise should continue to enrapture and entertain as it has done for two impressive films thus far. And it will do it as Star Trek properand not as a pastiche of other influences.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
  1. May 29, 2013 at 7:56 am

    Cool review, glad to see you liked the film as much as me 🙂 Check my review out if you get the time! http://conordcfc.wordpress.com/2013/05/29/film-review-star-trek-into-darkness-2013/

  2. May 29, 2013 at 12:05 pm

    Nice review Ross. I honestly liked this movie more than the first movie and that says a lot, since Star Trek still ranks as one of my favorite sci-fi movies of the past decade or so.

  1. August 13, 2013 at 8:20 am
  2. February 27, 2015 at 6:31 pm
  3. December 17, 2015 at 6:08 pm

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