Saturday, May 18, 2013

Funny Odd Film Review - Star Trek Into Darkness

In 2009  director JJ Abrams confidently  strolled into a cultural  lions den, by re-imagining  one of the most iconic  franchises  in not just science fiction,  but  in popular culture as a whole, with his "reboot" of Star Trek.

The film worked,  and it worked  really really well.  Yes,  hard core fans (of which it can be said, I am one...)   had our  nit-picky issues  with  the film, but  overall most  "trekkers"  accepted  that  this was something  NEW,  and  as such would be  very different  from  everything that came before.   And it worked,  it showed us characters and  concepts we thought we  knew by heart,  in a brand new context and gave Star Trek, a totally new  story arc.

 It also gave  Abrams and his team the  ultimate come back to  the criticisms of  uber-nerds  who  were horrified  at the changes. "It's a whole new timeline,  everything you are complaining about never happened in this universe, so get over it!" 

Like most Star Trek fans, I embraced it, and was eager to see where JJ Abrams would take us next. SPOILER WARNING- The following review will contain key plot points from the new movie, so if you haven't seen it and don't want to know what happens, don't read any further. Otherwise read on....

Star Trek Into Darkness,  is a  really  good  sci-fi action movie.   It is (mostly) well acted,  well directed and  visually  stunning.    I know you are  hearing  the  "but...."  that  is about to come, so before  we go there,  let me tell you  what  I really liked about this movie.

The Cast.  Most of  the  core cast  have  grown  into their characters  and  turn in strong and  believable performances.   Chris Pine's  Jim Kirk is   heroic,  human and  believable.   Likewise  Zac Quinto's Spock wonderfully takes  the elements we know and love from Leonard Nimoy's Spock, and combines that with the journey this "new" Spock  has taken  since the  destruction of  his home and family in the last movie.    Zoe Saldona kicks ass,  in a major way   giving  Uhura  the gravitas  and  depth  that  must  be  making  Nichelle Nichols  very  proud.  

Simon Pegg turns in a much stronger  and less cliche'd performance  as Scotty this time out,   and takes great strides in making the character his own.   I know that for many fans,   plot element of having Scotty  resign and leave the Enterprise , (over the potential risks posed by the new  "photon torpedoes")   is  unbelievable,  and something "Scotty would never do",  but  that's the point.   It is something  Jimmy Doohan's  Scotty would never do.   This Montgomery Scott,  hasn't  lived  that life, or  at least  not yet.   So  Pegg's  reboot of Scotty  works better this time around.

Bruce Greenwood brings a fatherly  presence as  Admiral  Christopher Pike and as the bad guy, "John Harrison"   Benedict Cumberbatch delivers the right balance of fire, ice  and mayhem.   Where you never really  believed   Eric Bana's  Romulan villain in the last movie  was  a serious threat to Kirk & Co.  "Harrison" (yes I know.. I keep putting his name quotes,  we'll get to that in a minute...)  is at the outset, a believable baddie.

So again,  Star Trek Into Darkness is a fun, entertaining, well made  Science Fiction Action movie.  But...   and here comes  the  "but".   This movie  simply does not work as a Star Trek film, even as a JJ Abrams "universe"  Star Trek film .    Abrams himself  said  he didn't make a movie for Star Trek fans, but rather for movie fans, and in that goal he has been very successful, but  as a Star Trek story,  the movie falls flat.  The most generous praise I can muster in this regard is, Into Darkness is to Stark Trek what "Quantum of Solace" was to James Bond.  A well made action movie that when taken in the context of its own cannon, makes absolutely no sense.

The script suffers from  a number of flaws,   John Cho,  Anton Yelchin, and Karl Uban  as  Sulu, Checkov and "Bones" McCoy,  all  try to make the best of what they are given.  Yet they can't seem to  make it work in this film.    Urban particularly  struggles to make his McCoy more than just crotchety,  but never quite gets there.

Then there are the  "Easter eggs".  A Hollywood phrase meaning small plot points or references hidden in the film  to be discovered along the way.  Inside Jokes if you will,  planted there for  Star Trek fans to find, that the average non-trekker  wouldn't  get.   These, while  amusing  for the most part,   come across as more post-it notes stuck on the movie that say "Look!  See!  It's a Star Trek reference! "     The biggest egg of course,  is the fact that  "John Harrison" is in fact  Khan.  Yes, as in "Star Trek II,  The Wrath of Khan ". The problem with this,  (well,  one of the problems, there are several...)  is while Cumberbatch is entirely believable as an ex-star fleet  special ops type hell-bent on revenge, he just is not convincing as Khan.

Which brings us to the  core problem  with this movie.  If you are going to reboot something  like Star Trek,   you have two choices. You either do a complete  re-imagining ,  as was done  with  Battlestar Galactica where  all the characters and their context is completely  changed, while putting them in basic key elements of the original cannon.

 Or,  you do as was done with Doctor Who,  you  totally redesign the look,  the feel, the sound,  but  stay  completely true  to everything that came before.   The problem with Star Trek Into Darkness,  is JJ Abrams is trying to  have it both ways.

The Easter eggs don't work. They come across as a forced rehash of Star Trek II. You can't have all the key characters be entirely recognizable as their original namesakes, and then pull out a villain we all know very very well, and completely re-image him.

 You can't redo the story from the best of the original cast films and expect it to work for Trek fans in this new context.  It feels fake, like the production team sat down and tried to think of things they could  just throw in  that would keep the Trekkers happy, while making a big budget  sci-fi action movie that  would appeal to the average movie-goer. 

Reversing the plot point of having  Kirk "die" from radiation in the engine room instead of Spock was powerfully acted and an emotional moment in the movie.   But  in the context of the story, it  was rendered  silly  when it turns out  all they need to do bring Kirk back from the dead is inject some of Khan's blood into him.  In his cameo as "Spock Prime", (another easter egg that felt forced)  Leonard Nimoy's Spock  tells  his  younger self  that  defeating  Kahn  for him and his shipmates  came at  great  cost. But in this film, while a visual roller coaster,  it all felt  just  too... easy.   

The musical score for the film by Michael Giacchino, continues the themes from the previous movie and works very well and at the end, incorporates the famous  opening bars of  Alexander Courage's  original theme.   The costumes look great, aside from the  ridiculous  dress gray starfleet uniforms with the silly over-sized caps. The Enterprise still looks like the Enterprise,  and we get to see the Klingons in this movie, forehead ridges and all.

So what's my verdict?  I really enjoyed  the movie.  It's a fun scifi roller coaster ride and  certainly  worth  going to see in the theatre and in 3D.   Yet  what is clear  from  this movie, is  JJ Abrams  needs to make a choice on which direction  he wants to take  Star Trek, because trying to go both forwards and backwards at the same time  just leaves you stuck.

Star Wars fans should take note.  JJ Abrams is set to take on that reboot next.

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