Tuesday, May 28, 2013

In Theaters: Star Trek Into Darkness

Star Trek poster via IMPAwards.com

I'm always up for a good spaceship movie, so it's been a long wait for the sequel to J. J. Abrams' Star Trek. I went into Star Trek Into Darkness with some misgivings, some about rumored callbacks to the franchise's past (and more on that later), some about how early trailers made it seem as though most of the film took place on Earth in large piles of rubble. The film's obtuse marketing campaign has done it no favors, but not only have Abrams and company managed to craft an enjoyable space saga which delivers most of the things one expects from the genre, they've also managed to touch on the long-neglected "big ideas" of the Trek franchise, marrying some pointed social commentary with an affirmation of what Trek's core values ought to be. It's not really deep, but it is smart enough to be fun.

There will be spoilers below.

No sooner has Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) embarked on a modest survey mission than he has saved an entire alien race from extinction and broken Starfleet's sacred Prime Directive in the process. His command is taken away from him and he's back serving under Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) just as a mysterious terrorist named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) launches an attack on the Federation. Pike is killed in an assault on Starfleet Headquarters, and Admiral Marcus (Peter goddamn Weller) sends Kirk, Spock (Zachary Quinto), and the rest of the gang on a mission to the edge of Klingon space, where Harrison appears to be holed up. Their orders are to strike his hideout from a distance, but the Enterprise crew doesn't approve of executing someone without trial, so instead they undertake a dangerous mission to capture Harrison alive and uncover the motive behind his devastating attack.

The film admittedly starts off on my good side with its opening of wild adventures on a weird alien planet- it's relatively short, but it establishes that just because this is going to be a "darker" story doesn't mean it'll all be grit and debris. Indeed it gets closer to what I consider to be the feel of "classic" Trek than the first movie did, without sacrificing a renewed emphasis on action and adventure. We have a mission into deep space and to the hostile world of the Klingons, we have intrigues on Earth that help show off the society of the far future, and in a true rarity, we actually confront one of Trek's fundamental contradictions- the fact that Starfleet, while not a military organization, looks and acts a lot like one. Kirk's major quest, alongside learning some personal responsibility, is to prevent it from sliding into the kind of fearful pre-emptive remote-striking overwhelming-force-deploying military industrial complex that, well, we have now. It's a canny evocation of current issues and also an insistence that we can have a better society.

Between the weighty thematic elements, the personal journeys, and of course the elaborate action sequences, the film's literal plot suffers a little- it's not incomprehensible or as objectively hole-ridden as the first film (where the writer's strike literally prevented anyone from doing further rewrites) but it is loopy as hell. The film moves so fast that there's not always room to develop its ideas, and it ends up throwing out a lot of things in a short period of time. On the upside it never lets up, on the downside it's a little hard to keep up with. Of course there is action and humor and a shot of Alice Eve in her underwear and other distractions, so it's easy to get swept along.

The characters are as strong as in the first film, and again just about everyone gets a moment to shine- there's a real commitment to keeping this an ensemble piece despite Kirk and Spock taking the lead. Cumberbatch is an amazing presence, almost enough to make you overlook the fact that he's a pasty white guy in a role originally played by a Latino. More on that later. Eve, as Dr. Carol Marcus, gets to be more than eye candy and has a few memorable scenes. The film's action sequences are well-polished and matched with a strong visual design sense; things rarely blur together.

And now spoilers. John Harrison is actually Khan, and the film is a twist on both Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and the original series episode "Space Seed", with Khan's revival being integral to Starfleet's black ops projects. I was skeptical about this for a while (especially given the whitewashing inherent in the casting, Khan being Indian), though for the most part the film puts these familiar elements in a new and more interesting context. Then, unfortunately, the picture decides to recreate a few key scenes from Wrath of Khan in a way that, while thematically fitting, still feels too close a copy. It probably plays better for people who have never seen the earlier film, but I wish they had stretched a little further.

Star Trek Into Darkness still comes close to greatness, if nothing else for its handling of some rather complex ideas. Star Trek portrays a society that advocates equality and progressive values through gunboat diplomacy, a Starfleet that is explicitly not a military organization but sends heavily armed vessels out to colonize and to fight evil aliens and to not do a very good job of staying away from primitive cultures. It's always been a weird kind of aspiration, that we can still explore and expand and assert vaguely liberal values without running into the nasty icky questions of cultural relativism, unintentional exploitation, or unintended consequences. And despite its title, Into Darkness honestly believes in the dream. Kirk and company come to stand explicitly for the ideals of Gene Roddenberry's creation, rejecting the inhumanity we are told is necessary for safety. It believes we can explore without becoming imperialists, that we can stand up for our values without forcing them on others, and that we can at long last move past the darkness in our own culture.

Of course, Star Trek Into Darkness is still mostly a fun action movie, full of color and energy and good humor, as Abrams has pulled off before. But even if the filmmakers are a bit too literal with their callbacks to the past, they manage to take the best of what Trek was and package it into something modern audiences will be willing to swallow. It offers a lot of hope for the series moving forward, even if it is closely wed to its past.

Based on "Star Trek" created by Gene Roddenberry
Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, & Damon Lindelof
Directed by J. J. Abrams

Grade: A-

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