Friday, May 17, 2013

In Theaters: STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS (2013)

(US - 2013)

Directed by J.J. Abrams. Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof.  Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Benedict Cumberbatch, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Peter Weller, Alice Eve, Leonard Nimoy, Noel Clarke, Nazneen Contractor, Aisha Hinds, Deep Roy. (PG-13, 132 mins)

I'm not a Trekkie by any stretch of the imagination.  I've enjoyed the 1966-69 TV series but never felt a real devotion to it.  I've always been a much bigger fan of the movies, particularly that incredible three-film run of STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN (1982), STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK (1984), and STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME (1986).  I really liked J.J. Abrams' terrific 2009 reboot STAR TREK and thought it did an excellent job of going back to the younger days of these iconic characters and updating the story and the visuals for a modern audience.  Abrams and that film's two screenwriters (Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman) are back for STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS, joined by Abrams' LOST co-creator Damon Lindelof, and the results are much less successful.  Abrams and the writers seem to forget that the key to STAR TREK has always been the characters, and instead go for a "bigger is better" mentality more akin to Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer.  Everything about ST:ID is bigger and louder.  Characterization and creativity are sacrified and despite some positive elements, in the end it's just a lot of noise.

After ignoring protocol on a mission and continuing his arrogant, hot-dogging ways, young Capt. Kirk (Chris Pine) is relieved of his command of the Enterprise and sent back to the Academy.  The demotion doesn't last long, as a bombing in London staged by renegade Starfleet Commander John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) leads to another attack at Starfleet command that kills Kirk's mentor Adm. Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood).  Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) reinstates Kirk's command of the Enterprise and sends him and his crew--Spock (Zachary Quinto), Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Sulu (John Cho), Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and Dr. Carol Marcus (Alice Eve), a last minute replacement for an irate Scotty (Simon Pegg), who disagrees with the mission and refuses to go along but returns in a heroic capacity much later--to Kronos, the home of the Klingons, where Harrison is reportedly in hiding.

(MAJOR SPOILERS in the unlikely event you don't already know)

This is where I'd normally stop and say something like "to say anything more would involve spoilers," but considering the biggest spoiler is already the worst-kept secret of the summer and IMDb's page for ST:ID has Cumberbatch's character named as his true identity, there seems to be little point in carrying on with the charade:  yes, Harrison is really genetically-engineered superhuman and future Kirk arch-nemesis Khan, and he's playing everyone--the Klingons, Starfleet, Marcus, and Kirk--against each other in order to rescue 72 cryogenically-frozen friends and colleagues being held in stasis by Marcus in exchange for Khan's scientific and biological expertise in helping him wage war on the Klingons.

After a pretty good first hour, ST:ID becomes one big action sequence after another.  Some of these are nicely done, particularly one where Kirk and Khan (who briefly become, yes, allies) have to dodge space debris and then fit into a small airlock to board another ship, but each one seems to ramp up the sense of overkill.  With the revelation that Harrison is Khan, easily the greatest of all villains in the STAR TREK universe, the film becomes more concerned with restaging vital moments of STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, frequently to its own detriment.  Yes, we get a "needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" invocation, a sacrifice for those needs, and the expected bellowing of "KHAAAAAN!"  The filmmakers' idea of shaking things up is to have these moments involve different characters and it just feels gimmicky.  There's no heart to it and it doesn't have the same effect because we aren't as invested in these characters.  That's not a knock on the actors--Quinto is an excellent Spock, and while he's a dastardly Khan, even the Cult of Cumberbatch must concede that Ricardo Montalban simply raised the bar too high for anyone else to meet, let alone top--but it's the weakness of the writing.  There's a reason STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN was a huge hit with Trekkies and non-Trekkies alike and has endured and become a timeless cinematic classic over the last 31 years, and it's not because of how big and flashy and over-the-top the action sequences were.  It's the characters.  It's the writing.  And yes, the actors, but without all of those elements working in tandem, it's inevitably going to fall short even if the new ensemble does a decent job, and if the filmmakers insist on using so much of KHAN in ST:ID's plot, then they can't be surprised that fans resort to comparing the two.

Also not helping at all is the lens-flaring, jerky shaky-cam directing style that Abrams utilizes, making this feel like STAR TREK for the TRANSFORMERS crowd.  There's really no reason for a climactic Spock/Khan fist fight, especially one that looks like the actors were CGI'd into outtakes from THE FIFTH ELEMENT.  ST:ID is the kind of formulaic product that thinks it can be Taken Seriously by throwing in thinly-veiled references to topical events.  Christopher Nolan's THE DARK KNIGHT and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES handled this effectively, but the inclusion of a suicide bombing, a Dick Cheney-esque warmongering military figure, and some 9/11-inspired imagery with a Starfleet ship commandeered by Khan crashing into a bustling metropolis seems contrived and offensive not for its inclusion but for the transparent obviousness of it.  This is a junk movie conceived by a committee (even resorting to the now-standard "nefarious villain detained or standing in a cell while glaring at and/or taunting the hero" scene; see also Heath Ledger in THE DARK KNIGHT and Javier Bardem in SKYFALL).  It's not an artistic vision or a serious statement. It's just loud and disorienting (and I didn't even see it in 3D) and at the risk of sounding like an old man telling J.J. Abrams to get off my lawn, I generally find it hard to enjoy a movie when it's giving me a pounding headache.  Coming after such a successful reboot four years ago, STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS has its moments, but overall, it's a mostly empty and disappointing experience.

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