Friday, July 22, 2016

Summer School: 'Star Trek Into Darkness' (2013)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.

If you look at Rotten Tomatoes, Star Trek Into Darkness appears to be a very well-reviewed Hollywood blockbuster that people thoroughly enjoyed, if not quite as much as its predecessor. But look around online message boards and fan sites and movie-geek outlets, and you'll find a level of hatred for this movie that matches anything by Michael Bay. With that in mind, I wondered if I'd be less impressed by Into Darkness a second time, but if anything I liked it more this time, and would even rank it above J.J. Abrams' 2009 Star Trek in my overall assessment of the series (see below). Yes, it has problems, most notably its awkward re-creation of classic Trek villain Khan Noonien Singh, but it also stands on its own more effectively than the previous movie did, with a more engrossing plot that makes an effort to take on sociopolitical issues in the classic Trek tradition.

It also features plenty of big action set pieces, which are clearly what the studio wants out of this franchise these days, and at times Abrams takes those a little too far. But there are many thrilling moments in this movie, starting with the fantastic opening sequence that has little to do with what comes after it, but provides a great showcase for the teamwork and camaraderie of the Enterprise crew, as well as some important moments of emotion and character development for Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana). It's the kind of combination of space adventure and wide-eyed exploration that makes Trek great, and I would have been happy for the movie to maintain that tone the entire time.

As the title implies, though, Into Darkness gets much darker with the introduction of villain John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), a rogue Starfleet officer who masterminds two deadly terrorist attacks and then flees to the Klingon home world. Halfway through the movie, Harrison is revealed as Khan, and screenwriters Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman subsequently rely too heavily on callbacks to The Wrath of Khan in place of building their own compelling story. The most frustrating thing is that, with a few minor adjustments, this could easily have been a story about a villain who has some resemblance to Khan but is a separate character, and it would have worked better without having to live up to the past movie. It works fairly well even so, especially as Kirk and Spock have to make moral decisions about what constitutes a proper response to a terrorist attack, and how to bring a terrorist to justice.

Cumberbatch is very good as Harrison, who is more deviously manipulative than Ricardo Montalban's Khan, and who lacks the same intense personal desire for revenge against Kirk (he does desire revenge, but it's mainly an abstract revenge against Starfleet, and to a lesser degree against Peter Weller's Admiral Marcus). Even though Nero in the previous movie was planning to destroy entire planets, he never felt all that threatening. Harrison is genuinely creepy, sitting in the Enterprise's brig making cold, calm predictions of mayhem like Hannibal Lecter. He's a more effective villain in those scenes than he is in the absurd final fight scene, with Harrison and Spock trading blows while atop flying garbage barges. That follows the large-scale destruction of San Francisco by a crashing starship, the kind of empty action-movie devastation that this series should be smart enough to avoid.

Even cheaper is the brief, fake-out death of Kirk, which mirrors Spock's death scene in The Wrath of Khan, but lacks the emotional power. Obviously Kirk isn't going to stay dead, and I doubt I would have wanted to see an entire movie about bringing him back to life (in the vein of The Search for Spock), but his supposed death is so meaningless that it might as well not even be included in the movie. Still, by the end there is a real sense of loss, showing that Abrams and the screenwriters understand the consequences of their big action sequences better than most blockbuster filmmakers. Maybe it was callous to wipe out Vulcan in the previous movie and a large portion of San Francisco in this one, but at least the characters aren't just brushing those things off and moving on. People focus on the idea that the current incarnation of Star Trek is all about mindless action, but the creators of these movies still know how to take things seriously.

My final Trek rankings (after seeing Star Trek Beyond):

The Wrath of Khan
The Undiscovered Country
First Contact
Into Darkness
Star Trek (2009)
The Voyage Home
The Search for Spock
The Motion Picture
The Final Frontier

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