Thursday, 16 May 2013

Star Trek: Into Darkness Review

In 2009, JJ Abram's excellent soft-reboot of Star Trek spent much of its runtime explaining how and why its events didn't match up with the series' long-established continuity. The reason: alternating realities, or something similar. This went some way towards quelling the inevitable backlash from fans, who were now less upset about story-points being changed.
Abram's sequel, Star Trek: Into Darkness, seeks to explain and address the other source of fan outrage leveled at the first film - that it wasn't true to the "spirit" of creator Gene Roddenberry's original vision. Where the original series (and films) held an optimistic and hopeful view of the future (and of communism, if I'm reading them right), Abrams' films are more cynical - driven by conflict rather than cooperation.
The reason: terrorism.

The obvious example of this is Benedict Cumberbatch's intimidating villain John Harrison who, early on, blows up a facility in London, and kills many other people besides. But Harrison's actions - his very existence, in some ways - stem from the first film's destruction of the Vulcan homeworld; another act of terrorism. That act shook the Federation - the universe - to its core, and this film deals with the fallout.
When Chris Pine's Kirk willingly volunteers his crew to assassinate Harrison, it's clear that this is a Star Trek that has lost its innocence - a dark mirror of Roddenberry's vision, tainted by genocide, where violence begets violence. It's a wonder Spock doesn't have a beard.
The title, though, is a misnomer (and not just in its punctuation) - it is not a descent into the dark. This film is Star Trek escaping that darkness, rebelling against it, and embracing the original spirit of hope. Star Trek: Out of Darkness. By the end, things are seemingly back on track.

Despite how bleak and serious that potentially sounds, Abrams keeps things mostly light and buoyant, with a sense of fun and humour throughout. He works his usual magic - somehow making his crazy angles and crazier lens-flares feel entirely natural and very cinematic - and he rushes the film along at a dizzying pace. The action is spectacular and thrilling, and the movie is almost entirely relentless once it gets rolling. It's also very pretty, with excellent design work and some great little details (like lasers fired at warp-speed being overtaken by the ship that fires them).
Also keeping you on your toes are the usual Abrams twists and reveals - some of which don't land, but which are smartly used to distract you from the ones that do. These twists come, of course, courtesy of JJ's regular writers Kurtzman, Orci and Lindelof.
Their script for the first Star Trek is often criticised for the amount to which it relies on coincidence (Kirk, Spock and Scotty just happen to end up on the same planet), convenience (“Red Matter”) and random asides (that bit with the water pipes). The script for Into Darkness is much tighter and neater, with things slotting logically into place. Barring one incredibly stupid moment, where the crew desperately hunt for something despite already being sat on a pile of identical somethings, the story is solid, engaging and holds together better than the first.

Elevating that story to greater heights are the cast. By this point all seven of the lead actors have grown comfortably into their roles - no longer emulating the original performers, they can make the characters their own. It's a credit to the movie that you sometimes wish it would slow down so you could spend more time with the crew.
While they're all great, the focus is very much on Kirk and Zachary Quinto's Spock, as they learn about responsibility and friendship respectively. Both actors are excellent, and their bond feels genuine and affecting. Outside of that central relationship, with a cast this large, there are inevitably some characters that suffer; so while Zoe Saldana's Uhura and Simon Pegg's Scotty get bigger roles this time, the other three feel a little under-served. John Cho's Sulu does have maybe the film's coolest moment, though, and Anton Yelchin's Chekov gets its funniest (involving shirts); but I really wish we'd had more of Karl Urban's brilliant Dr. McCoy.
There's also newcomer Alice Eve, who does admirable work with a character who is little more than a plot-device in a bra.

Despite that large and very talented cast, every single scene of the movie is then stolen from them by Cumberbatch. There's been much speculation about whether John Harrison is actually classic Trek villain Khan - which is sort of beside the point because, either way, the guy has a lot of Wrath.
Harrison is charismatic and intelligent, seemingly controlled and collected, but you can always feel the rage bubbling beneath his calm surface. Cumberbatch is fantastic in the role - whether he's delivering chilling speeches or frothing at the mouth as he strangles people - and, incredibly, he even makes you feel for Harrison: he has been wronged and you can see that it's tearing him up.

And therein lies the true strength of both Star Trek films - their ability to make you care, even about the villains. The stories are interesting and enjoyable, but it's the characters that matter. They may not all stand out individually, but the interplay between the crew is the best part of the movie. Whether it's being silly or serious, the script is always imbued with real emotion - you care about these people, and you're happy just to be trekking with them.

The film's other great strength is its score. In the same week that I foolishly wrote about music for the first time, I have to say that Michael Giacchino's sweeping Star Trek theme (used in both movies) is easily one of my favourite film themes in quite a few years. It just fits this space opera so wonderfully.

The only real problem, negligible beside all the positives, is the film's reverence to the Star Trek movies that have come before. This is fine at the beginning, when it's just familiar details and individual plot-points appearing but, come the end, entire scenes are being replicated wholesale. Despite feeling both obvious and forced, these parts do still work because the actors sell them so well - but then Spock says one particular word and the whole thing collapses into parody.
The film recovers easily, but it's a shame that it needs to.

Star Trek: Into Darkness is an exhilarating film with a brilliant cast and a great villain. It has a few minor problems, but the strength of the performances and the skill of the director easily overcome them, and though it may flirt with the Darkness of the title, it always stays on the right side of fun. Abrams sweeps the audience up in a whirlwind of action and charms you with genuine heart.
Whatever Roddenberry's intention may have been, the original show was about the exploits of a group of great characters, and this new film series continues to capture that perfectly.