Friday, May 17, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness: Still voyaging boldly

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for intense sci-fi action and violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.17.13

Director J.J. Abrams’ audacious 2009 re-boot of Star Trek was clever and wildly entertaining, a delight for both hard-core fans and newcomers. (Do the latter actually exist?)

This follow-up is just as successful ... and perhaps even more fun. While also being deadly serious.

Trapped on a hostile planet at the fringes of the Klingon empire, Kirk (Chris Pine, left),
Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) try to figure out whether a cloaked
and impressively powerful assassin is helping them ... or merely eliminating distractions
in order to kill them himself.
Which is an impressive balancing act.

Considerable credit goes to returning scripters Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman, this time joined by Damon Lindelof, who understand that it’s all right to mess with Gene Roddenberry’s original template — here and there — if such adjustments are made respectfully. And if they make sense, both dramatically and in the greater context of established Trek lore.

Thus, Spock’s home planet Vulcan was destroyed in the 2009 film, signaling that the future of these fresh-faced “Young Trek” characters wouldn’t necessarily unfold according to the Holy Writ as laid down by Roddenberry and the various show-runners who augmented the mythos during the subsequent TV shows and films.

On the other hand, blue-eyed Chris Pine’s James T. Kirk remains an unapologetic babe-hound. Some things can't change.

Star Trek Into Darkness opens on the run — literally — as Kirk and Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) flee from the enraged inhabitants of Nibiru, a Class M planet (i.e. one that’s Earth-like). Kirk has “liberated” a sacred object as a diversion, while Spock (Zachary Quinto), Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Sulu (John Cho) take a shuttle into a massive volcano, hoping to prevent a cataclysmic eruption that could wipe out the entire civilization.

Despite their efforts to accomplish this clandestinely, Kirk and his crew clearly are violating Starfleet’s sacred Prime Directive, which prohibits any “interference” with a developing culture. (Needless to say, William Shatner’s Kirk violated that directive almost every week, back in the day.)

Regardless of this mission’s outcome — and things definitely don’t go quite as Kirk planned — the brash young Enterprise captain gets a serious dressing-down from mentor Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), once back at Starfleet Command’s San Francisco headquarters. The unhappy result: a demotion and loss of his ship, with Spock assigned elsewhere and the rest of the Enterprise crew left to wonder who they’ll salute next.

The punishment is apt, because — as Pike angrily tells Kirk — everything has come too easily to the young officer. And it’s true: Kirk wound up commanding the Enterprise far too quickly in 2009’s Star Trek, and that success merely encouraged his already reckless tendencies. Although strongly bonded to Spock by friendship, Kirk rarely seeks advice from his more pragmatic and (dare I say it?) logical science officer.

He’s not yet the best Kirk he could be, and it’s only a matter of time before his luck runs out. And Pike knows this.


A distraught Starfleet officer — Noel Clarke, as Harewood — and his wife watch, helplessly, as their hospitalized daughter sinks deeper into the unspecified malady that is poised to claim her life. “I can save her,” promises a mysterious visitor, and a devil’s bargain is sealed. The girl’s vital signs bounce back; Harewood, in return, betrays his Starfleet oath in the worst possible way.

The act itself is shocking enough: that it should be orchestrated by a Starfleet officer feels even worse. But, then, Star Trek lore is laden with examples of corrupt officers who’ve gone off the rails for reasons ranging from power lust to outright insanity. Not so unusual, then, that this one succumbs to a father’s desperate love for his daughter.

Family ties, in fact, are the driving force behind this rapidly unfolding storyline. Orci, Kurtzman and Lindelof quite ingeniously explore the bonds of various deeply personal relationships, and the lengths to which people — good and bad — will go, to preserve them.

Kirk very soon encounters the same mysterious individual, identified as John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch, best known as the BBC’s re-booted Sherlock Holmes), who seems hell-bent on a one-man mission of revenge against Starfleet. Harrison is an unexpectedly powerful adversary, as strong, fast and nimble as he is cunning and smart. He doesn’t seem to care if people see his face, because he knows that nobody can stop him.

And, it would seem, he’s right.

Events eventually lead to deep space and the planet Kronos, perched at the outer fringes of the rapidly expanding Klingon empire. (Recall that we’re a long ways from the Klingon/Federation truce that put Worf on Jean-Luc Picard’s Enterprise.) For reasons that remain vague, Harrison has gone to ground on this planet; Starfleet’s Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller), uncharacteristically vengeful for one holding his rank, orders this terrorist tracked down. And killed.

The latter part of that command deeply troubles both Spock and McCoy, uncomfortable over the lack of due process that has transformed them from explorers into executioners.

Any real-world parallels to the way Western countries — particularly the United States — have been pursuing and treating captured Islamic terrorists are, of course, absolutely intentional. And this, too, is classic Trek; Roddenberry, like Rod Serling before him, tackled all manner of hot-potato political topics under the thin guise of science-fiction and fantasy.

Although this new film owes its energetic juice to the adroit script and Abrams’ slick pacing, the cast deserves considerable credit for the way in which they inhabit these younger versions of beloved characters. The Kirk/Spock dynamic is particularly droll, with Pine and Quinto exchanging rat-a-tat dialogue that demonstrates exasperation on both sides, as each tries to bridge the awkward emotional divide that separates humans from Vulcans.

Pine’s Kirk is cocky, impulsive and impatient, forever frustrated by Spock’s apparent inability to recognize — let alone practice — human traits such as loyalty. Quinto’s always bluntly truthful Spock, in return, is eternally puzzled by the ill-advised hunches and “gut feelings” that prompt human behavior.

This becomes even more of an issue for Spock, when it comes to his relationship with Uhura, who also is reaching the end of her tether, when it comes to her pointy-eared lover’s maddening refusal to show his feelings. If he actually possesses any. Saldana is deliciously flinty, her Uhura capable of a depth of cold fury that surprises even Kirk.

At the same time, this Uhura is by no means limited to opening hailing frequencies, in her Starfleet capacity. For one thing, she speaks Klingon like a native. Which, as you might expect, comes in handy.

Cho’s Sulu gets his first stint in the captain’s chair, rising to the occasion quite splendidly; Urban’s McCoy is ever the humanist, insisting that Kirk step back and count to 10. The good doctor also is adept at growling irritated quips, and of course he remains a technophobe who dislikes “scattering his atoms across the universe” when traveling by transporter beam.

Simon Pegg once again is a hoot ’n’ a holler as Scotty, who, yes, gets to complain about his poor Enterprise engines; we, in turn, get to see far more of Scotty’s massive engineering section than ever before. Thanks to the special-effects wizards, we finally have a better sense of this starship’s impressive size.

Deep Roy returns as Keenser, Scotty’s mute, diminutive but absolutely devoted companion.

Anton Yelchin is under-utilized as Chekov, and Yelchin needlessly hammers this character’s Russian accent: not this ensign’s finest hour. Alice Eve is similarly under-developed as Carol, a science officer who gets herself assigned to the Enterprise for secret reasons of her own, apparently having to do with the 72 experimental “photon torpedoes” that the ship has been assigned to carry ... much to Scotty’s displeasure.

Cumberbatch makes an awesome villain; we absolutely believe his character’s arrogance, ruthlessness and utter disregard for collateral casualties. Cumberbatch looks scary even when Harrison is motionless: his dark eyes blazing malevolence, his grim expression a precursor to fresh atrocities being hatched in his coldly analytical mind.

Longtime Trek fans will pick up on the several hints to Harrison’s actual identity, although that plot twist undoubtedly will be headline news by Monday. More’s the pity.

Editors Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey keep the pace lively, often intercutting between divergent plotlines; Abrams shrewdly manipulates tension by lacing grim events with lighter moments, as when Spock and Uhura have a lovers’ spat en route to Kronos. Cinematographer Daniel Mindel brings impressive scope to every scene, from Starfleet’s expansive San Francisco headquarters, to the labyrinthine guts of the Enterprise’s warp-core engines.

And, rest assured, you’ll want to experience the marvelous special-effects work — the planets, the Enterprise, the space battles — on a giant IMAX screen.

But don’t bother shelling out for 3-D glasses on a regular screen. This is post-production 3-D — in other words, fake — and it brings nothing to the experience.

Michael Giacchino delivers another rousing orchestral score, laden with character themes and action motifs. And, just as the iconic “James Bond Theme” was held back until the very end of Daniel Craig’s debut 007 adventure, in Casino Royale, Giacchino saves Alexander Courage’s familiar Star Trek fanfare until a similarly climactic moment. Wednesday evening’s packed-to-the-gills preview audience erupted with well-deserved applause as the first notes trilled from the screen.

Along with the equally iconic signature phrase that we’ve not heard for awhile.

Star Trek Into Darkness is a grand ride that certainly does not suffer from the “sophomore curse” that infects so many sequels. We can only hope that Abrams, his writers and this tightly bonded ensemble cast return for another round.

Make it so.

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