Friday, May 17, 2013

Film Review: J.J. Abrams' Star Trek Into Darkness

"Space: the final frontier."  It has been nearly 47 years since those words were first uttered on prime time television.  Now being a spry youth of just 45, I was not yet around to hear these iconic words when they were first spoken, but I can sure as hell call myself a trekker from way back, as I grew up on reruns of the show in the 1970's, and am thrilled by the new places and old glories J.J. Abrams has taken good ole NCC 1701.

Only running a mere three seasons, or just 79 episodes, before being canceled by NBC for lack of ratings (a move that looks quite silly in retrospect), the iconic Star Trek spawned an animated series, four spin-offs, several web series, including a new one making its debut later this month, twelve movies (six original series, four Next Generation, and now two in J.J. Abrams' reboot run) and a veritable slew of toys, games and other sundry items.  When Abrams came out with his aforementioned reboot in 2009, many die-hard fans were skeptical (downright vicious even), but once seeing the film, at least this die-hard fan was amazed.  Somehow Abrams, a guy who has admitted to having never been much of a fan of the original series (blasphemy, I know), managed to put together a film that could satisfy both the fanboys and those without much Trek knowledge.  I believe I myself may have even called it the best of the, then eleven, Trek films (I know, blasphemy again), and even had the audacity to include it in my top ten for the year.  Now cut to four years later, and Abrams has managed to pull it off again.  Granted, perhaps not to the extent he did it in 2009, but the director has indeed made a most enjoyable film - even with what some might call (but not this critic) a rather dubious last act.

Like the eponymously titled 2009 film, Star Trek Into Darkness holds true to the Trek of old - Abrams keeps on Trekkin', if you will - while also giving us a taste of the bold and the new.  From Spock and Uhura's strange bedfellow coupling (hot and heavy as a Pon Farr Summer) and a climactic chase scene on and over the streets of San Francisco to Chris Pine's snarky Shatneresque smile and the return, however brief, of Leonard Nimoy's iconic pointy-eared logician, Abrams' film still plays at crossing from one beloved universe into a new one, boldly going where...well, you know the rest.  And yes, Abrams' wonderfully decisive lens flares are here as well.  Now if we could only get some Klingon action.  The screenplay, written by Abrams' 2009 screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, this time joined by Abrams' old Lost buddy, Damon Linelof, is at times quaint and adoring, while also managing a sort of edge, even with some rather cornbally - though Trek-appropriate cornbally - dialogue mixed in.

What is most important is that in between the space tragedy and f/x spectacle (and those effects are quite spectacular by the by), we get a humour that hearkens back to the original series.  Pine and Zachory Quinto, as the younger Kirk and Spock (32 and 35 respectively, both actors are about the same age as Shatner and Nimoy, both 35 at the time, when they first played the roles) have a great chemistry on screen - a chemistry that also hearkens back to the original series.  Karl Urban as Dr. McCoy, Zoe Saldana as Lt. Uhura, Simon Pegg as Lt. Commander Montgomery Scott (he is marvelous in the role actually), John Cho as Lt. Sulu and Anton Yelchin as Ensign Chekov, all returning from Abrams' opening reboot, are all form-fitting in their respective roles as well.  We even get a glimpse of the Klingons, but only a glimpse.  Seriously J.J., we want more Klingons.

And speaking of villains, this one has a doozy - even if it is not the Klingons.  This, by the way, is where you avert your eyes for fear of having things revealed that you may not wish revealed - though to be honest, none of it is really all that much of a surprise.  The doozy of a villain of whom I speak, is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, the English actor with the great name and the even greater voice, and his performance as old foe returneth, that old s.o.b., Khan Noonien Singh, is pitch perfect.  First seen in the 1967 original series episode, "Space Seed", and then encountered again in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (played by Ricardo Montalbán in both excursions), the character is a superstrong human with murder in his eyes and revenge on his tongue, and Cumberbatch brings the old villain back to glorious, menacing life here.  He may not be as flamboyant as Montalbán was, but then Ricardo was quite the drama queen, wasn't he?

Now there are a few of my fellow critical compatriots, who have complained about what Abrams does with the character and where he takes the film in its final act.  Some more critical than I have gone so far as to call this final act a cheat and a rip-off, and even plagiarism, which is just ridiculous, and I don't believe that for a second.  Not to give anything away, but Abrams, instead of creating something truly new (as he did in 2009), revisits many of the aspects of The Wrath of Khan, sometimes changing who does what and what happens to whom (in the whole character dynamic, what happens does make sense though), perhaps revisiting some aspects a bit too much and a bit too closely for this to be anything truly new and boldly refreshing for some, but I must admit, when a certain character does a certain thing which I was wondering if this certain character was going to do, it was quite a thrill - and I may actually have done an inadvertent fist pump to myself when this thing did happen.

Sure, Into Darkness may not have flipped my switch quite the same way the bold, new Abrams' first Trek did - an iconic thing in the making there - though it is only lesser by a minute amount, and it most certainly is still a damn entertaining piece of space adventure, and its final shot leads one to believe - to hope even - there is more to come, even if J.J. is heading off to the Star Wars universe soon, to deal with Wookiees and space pirates and Jedi Knights, and may not do the next Trek, if there is indeed a next Trek (no one has directed more than two Trek films btw).  I suppose, in the whole pantheon of Trek, I would place this nugget neatly in at fifth place amongst the twelve theatrical films.  Perhaps not up there with Abrams' first go-around, nor with Wrath of Khan, Voyage Home or the original, often overlooked, 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but good enough to be on par with Search for Spock and Generations, and surely above the rest.  But I am nerding out now, so I shall digress.

From a purely cinematic standpoint, much like the oft-mentioned here 2009 edition, Into Darkness is a boon for both the faithful and the virgins.  No, you need not know anything about the Prime Directive, or that Carol Marcus and Jim Kirk will eventually have a child together (at least in the so-called Prime Universe they do), or how a warp drive works or get the little references (Tribbles AND Harry Mudd) or feel a nostalgic pang for the lovable gruff of Bones McCoy or the cocksure flabbergasting of Scotty, or why it is such a nerdgasm to have that aforementioned certain character do that certain thing, to truly enjoy this film (nerding out again!).  Sure, it helps to know the mythos of this world, but it is not necessary - and that is how J.J. Abrams makes peace in the chaotic universe of Star Trek, and perhaps in his upcoming rebooting of that other Star-related franchise as well.  To steal and paraphrase a line from you-know-who (both Prime and New Universe versions), may this series truly live long and prosper.  Now really, let's bring on the Klingons.

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