May 26, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

I felt compelled to go back and re-familiarize myself with the plot of Star Trek (2009) in order to be fresh enough to see the sequel, although I must say it wasn't necessary. Star Trek Into Darkness is a lucid follow-up, both visually and structurally, and for that I was extremely grateful to the filmmakers. Why other movies of this variety aren't following suit is baffling to me, but generally when you go see a big, eye-popping fantasy movie like this, ten to one you'll have no idea what's going on, particularly during scenes of large-scale conflict. It's usually a combination of unfocused editing and camera work--which is a foolish attempt to tell a story through chaos--and sloppy, user's manual style writing.

I'm far more compliant with big movies that operate the way Star Trek did: they tell a vivid story visually, and are bent on having fun. Of course, the studios are bent on wowing the viewer with marvelous special effects (especially now that everyone wants 3-D, even from The Great Gatsby!). The studios, who churn out these expensive adventure flicks quicker than second-tier public universities churn out Bachelor's degrees, somehow manage to let someone like director J.J. Abrams inject enough good in with the bad, neutralizing it or when he's really on fire, transcending it. Abrams doesn't spend a lot of time trying to create new problems: he's more interested in letting these characters interact inside the old ones, and that is what gives the two latest Star Trek films their pull, their ability to make people like me--who generally despise giant epic fantasy movies--go see them.

Admittedly, Into Darkness began to wear on me toward the finale: there were about three too many false endings, and I was apparently invested enough in the story and the characters to be annoyed when something happened that I didn't like, but it was still an enjoyable two hours. There's always a delicate balancing act for what I must assume is the middle film of a trilogy: the middle entry has to move things along to a resolution while simultaneously not resolving them ultimately, so that Part Three can manage the finishing touches.

The plot picks up with Captain Kirk (the magnetic Chris Pine once again filling William Shatner's shoes) and Doctor Spock (Zachary Quinto) fleeing an angry, primitive tribe on an unknown planet that is enveloped in red foliage. These plants look something like potpourri if it grew naturally. The crew of the Enterprise is trying to neutralize a volcanic eruption that would unquestionably wipe out the entire race of the indigenous people living on the planet, but these people don't know that. There's some argument over the momentous act of allowing them to see the ship emerge from the sea and into the air (since they won't have any clue what it is), and we're left with this tribe tracing an image of the vessel in the sand. Surely this is a little bit of foreshadowing. Abrams leaves it behind for another movie.

There are plenty of other complications that hound the crew of the Enterprise once the story gets back to Earth, where we find that the Starfleet is under attack from an unknown human assailant (played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who's equal parts rogue and British mastermind and plays both of these to the hilt). As is to be expected, there are various twists and turns and clashes of character that occur here, most of which are either believable or at the very least intriguing and therefore worthwhile. Captain Kirk leads his crew in a retaliatory mission after Cumberbatch bombs their archives building in London, and soon we discover that he's got a lot more on his mind than destroying public records.

The design of the film tries to merge old with new: London-set two hundred or so years in the future--has that "space station" look mingled with remnants of the Victorian and Georgian eras: an old Tudor hospital that has a futuristic expansion melded onto it like an artificial limb where the real magic happens. The trick of designing a realistic looking future world has always been somewhat of a fools' errand: the technology of 2001: A Space Odyssey doesn't look anything like reality, but perhaps this is the advantage of setting a movie in the 2200s: who in 2013 will be around to notice that they did or didn't get it right?

The movie has a lot more energy than it knows what to do with, which might explain why it clocks in at two hours and ten minutes or so, but feels half-an-hour longer: every time one problem gets resolved, another one is compounded, and the solutions grow increasingly less convincing. But by the time you get to the end, you're so emotionally invested, you can't do much but hang on and let whatever comes come. I suppose this is one of the signs of an effective movie, or perhaps of an affective one. I was certainly riveted, but at some point it started to feel like overkill.

What saves Star Trek Into Darkness--and this is true of just about any movie, really--are the characters, who have a ridiculous banter and a bond between them which is genuinely disarming and fun to watch. And I suppose there's a bit more weight to this sequel, even though I think I enjoyed the previous one more. Abrams seems bent on not treating this like an unsatisfying middle film: it has its own beginning and end, even if the story threads are meant to connect both backwards and forwards. Abrams, and his scriptwriters--Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof--do a good job of keeping this balance and making it work--most of the time. And yes, the visuals were stunning, even if some of them seemed unconvincing. (One example: the photos taken of the after effects of the London bomb: the people and buildings in the pictures look too XBox 360.) Still, cinematographer Dan Mindel manages some nice little touches. For example, he juxtaposes two scenes with something being dropped into a glass: in the first one, a ring (filled with some kind of explosive material) sets off the explosion of the archives building in London. Then we cut to a round ice cube falling into Captain Kirk's drink at a bar in San Francisco.

If I have any hopes for this genre, they are rooted in the fact that these two Star Trek movies managed to show a non-fanboy a good time. With Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Peter Weller, Alice Eve, Noel Clarke, and Leonard Nimoy. ½

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