Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013)
One of the more successful recent Hollywood plundering of stale franchises was J.J. Abrams 2009 resurrection of the Star Trek directive, his cosmic concoction of new fangled SFX and iconic SF expeditions successfully navigating that most treacherous of spaceflights, keeping the fanboys happy whilst appealing to a wider summer attuned blockbuster audience. The wise decision to weld dual origin stories of the series most popular characters James Tiberius Kirk and
Mr. Commander Spock paid the appropriate reverence to both the numerous TV series and fleet of big screen outings, whilst toying with the mechanics enough to craft something new and exciting for hardcore and passing fans of new and older generations. Regular readers will recall that I set out my relation to Star Trek back during my original 2009 review, but to paraphrase I’m not the biggest fan but do quite like some of the original films (well, the first two) and some of the TV series (well, ST:TNG), but as context they are not artifacts that I own on DVD or rewatch on any sort of regular basis, although I do have a genuine interest to revisit Wrath Of Khan which I haven’t seen for ages. As such I wasn’t galactically excited at the new film Star Trek: Into Darkness but was intrigued by the trailers, its SF of course which always tunes my tricorder and Abrams is a highly proficient purveyor of big screen entertainment, even if his films are a little hollow beyond the prestidigitation of appropriating previous genre mainstays – Mission Impossible, James Bond with a female twist, Seventies era Spielberg, or The X-Files in a post 9/11 parralel dimension. It is a pleasure therefore to report that 2013’s blockbuster season has finally warped in its first triumph, after the mildly diverting likes of Oblivion and Iron Man 3 the gauntlet has well and truly been thrown down with Into Darkness, and very mild, general, non-specific spoilers follow, so consider your hailing frequencies well and truly warned.
Opening with what upon reflection is a rather clever context setting scenario which ignites the themes and conflicts of the rest of the movie the full crew contingent is back, as Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and growling medical officer Dr. ‘Bones’ McCoy (Karl Urban) flee a primitive race on a scarlet hued jungle, a chase sequence with more than a hint of an aroma of Indiana Jones raiding lost arks – haven’t you got your tractor beams set on enough franchises Mr. Abrams? After making a crucial choice to violate the prime directive to save a colleague the impetuous Kirk is demoted to first officer, spiraling him into an emotional chasm which is soon obliterated by a terror campaign orchestrated by rogue Star Fleet assassin John Harrison (a predatory, Übermenschian Benedict Cumberbatch) who has a burning grievance of vehement vengeance against the United Federation Of Planets. Fleeing to a distant moon where he assumes that Star Fleet will be unable to chase him due to plot points I won’t spoil Kirk is reinstated and ordered on a clandestine mission to hunt down and apprehend the marauder, accompanied by his loyal crew of Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto), communications officer Lieutenant Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Lt. Commander Scotty (Simon Pegg with much more to do, after MI:III his star is certainly rising) and the international duo of Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu (John Cho) and Ensign Pavel Chekov (Anton Yelchin).
Mentally dissembling its constituent parts during the walk home yielded plot faults which materialise with the snarling ferocity of a Klingon assault team, but it powers through its mission at such hyperspeed that these malfunctions quickly recede to the event horizon, as a constellation of exploding volcanos, EVA antics, ferocious fisticuffs and nautical mêlées are beamed into the cerebellum. Once the film gets up to full-speed at around the halfway point it warps the pyrotechnics up to eleven, and I was grinning like a lunatic for the rest of its breathless, relentless blockbuster ride, it has a genuine sense of sleek swashbuckling adventure, and pinpricks of universes in-jokes and references sprinkle the canvass like distant stars upon a cloud free, diamond studded night sky. Pine and Qunito reprise their roles with the deft lightness of the previous installment, and all the supporting players get their requisite character action beats and moments, its something of a masterclass in blockbuster assembly and juggling an ensemble cast, as it ejects the usual set-piece / character development binary chain of repetition and plays more as first half set-up, second half supernova detonating action sequence. The film stays closer to terra firma by obeying the first golden rule of blockbuster screenwriting, namely that your antagonist villain needs to be as interesting, nuanced and genuinely threatening as the heroes overcome increasingly insurmountable odds, Cumberbatch gives a controlled performance as a shark-eyed nemesis whose origin springs from a celebrated episode of the original series, I’ll say no more as I don’t wish to be confined to quarters. One thing I do admire with Abrams is that he understands that mystery and reveals are extremely important to the success of genre films and the cinema experience, he’s a master poker player when it comes to marketing his movies, keeping his twists and turns secret and surreptitious and unlike the recent entry to the Bond franchise his collaborators feel confident enough to operate in a post Nolan world, and don’t resort to sacrificing thrills and threats to ludicrous master plans or implausibly conceived and contrived plot mechanics.
The original Sixties TV series and its brethren has been re-evaluated and praised for its humanist scope, camouflaging sociological commentary of the era with its vision of a progressively attuned post racial society, as it was transmitted to American homes against the backdrop of civil rights struggles and slain students across the cultural battlegrounds of that revolutionary decade. Like any memorable SF the genre can function as microscope of its contemporary construction, and it you want your sensors to detect elements of drone bombings, interference with other cultures and the all-pervasive phantasm of domestic terrorism then you may find some small morsels of commentary here, not to mention the still haunting spectre of aerial vehicles devastating urban metropoli can’t help but invoke memories of that fateful September morning. These observations however feel more of a general cultural percolation into the screenwriters unconscious rather than any specific moralising or political soapboxing, these semiotics arising more through association than specific design, as I think Freud once said sometimes ‘a photon torpedo is just a photon torpedo‘.
I found the special effects dazzling, immersive and spectacular, with a phenomenal blending of wide CGI galaxyscapes dollying into live action elements, and yes the streaking lens flare aesthetics are embraced as never before, the cinematography has become something of incandescent strip to beat Abrams with, but I honestly don’t see the problem as it gives the films an appropriately sleek horizontal intangibility, a perfect visual metaphor for his strikingly made, scintillatingly swift, alveolated entertainments. Star Trek: Into Darkness also falls squarely into the positive use of 3D camp, with barreling vessels and gravity malfunctions resulting in some vertiginous derring-do, the usual complaint of etiolated images is fully disintegrated as the frame is brightly and clearly delineated, shorn of the visual clutter which plagues many of these SF motherships. I also particularly loved the ship designs of a certain species with whom we experience a first contact of sorts, and it was quite an ambitious move to reconstruct perhaps the most iconic, memorable and successful sequence of the original movie series which I for one thought they pulled off superbly, although I wouldn’t be surprised if that didn’t incur the wrath of certain sanctified strains of the committed Trek community….
It has its molecular problems, one ‘prime’ predictable appearance is rather shoehorned in for fan service which really wasn’t necessary, the faux seriousness of the alleged ‘darkness’ incorporated into the title never really finds purchase and alas the film doesn’t really have any killer lines other than a smile inducing inversion of a previous escapades ‘classic’ line, but the skill with which writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof navigate the requirements of a wide blockbuster appeal while servicing the trekheads is really rather welcome considering some of their previous assignments (Prometheus, Transformers, Cowboys & Aliens), although perhaps a few breathers in the second half to play around with and deepen this iteration of the characters wouldn’t have been entirely unwelcome. As the credits rolled to the confident restoration of the original series iconic soundtrack a weary old soul such as myself may have even felt a neutrino sized spark ignite in his withered husk of a heart, as I may actually be warming to the new iteration of a certain other intergalactic franchise that Abrams will be teleporting into next – the flares is strong with this one;