Saturday, May 18, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness / **** (PG-13)

James T. Kirk: Chris Pine
Spock: Zachary Quinto
Nyota Uhura: Zoë Saldana
Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy: Karl Urban
Scotty: Simon Pegg
Hikaru Sulu: John Cho
Pavel Chekov: Anton Yelchin
Khan: Benedict Cumberbatch
Dr. Carol Marcus: Alice Eve
Admiral Pike: Bruce Greenwood
Admiral Marcus: Peter Weller

Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by J.J. Abrams. Written by Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof. Based on the television series created by Gene Roddenberry. Running time: 132 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence).

When fighting against the oppressive force of evil, we run the risk of becoming that which we fight. This is the basic lesson at the heart of “Star Trek Into Darkness”, the latest in the Star Trek franchise. It also provides the full science fiction function that some felt was missing from 2009’s “Star Trek”, which was also responsible for wiping the slate clean from all that came before it. In this second film of a franchise that has already had a second film, we learn that the slate might not be as clean as it might’ve appeared from the last picture.

It is impossible for me to watch a new Star Trek movie without the intimate knowledge I already have of what has come before. As such, this movie works for me, and Star Trek fans across the world, twofold. For those who are not familiar with Star Trek mythology, I would guess the film is still pretty effective on as least two other levels—an intense space action flick and as a science fiction complete with lessons about the human experience. This is the “be all you can be” Star Trek flick.

The movie begins with a lesson about the Prime Directive, a hardened rule in the mission of the governing force of the Star Trek universe, the Federation of Planets. The Prime Directive states that no Starfleet mission should interfere with the natural progression or evolution of another species. In other words, if a discovered planetary society has not evolved past the point of making fire by rubbing two sticks together, they should not be made aware that aliens to their world fly around in giant spaceships and can destroy things with a laser gun. This, however, is exactly what Kirk and the crew of the U.S.S Enterprise are doing when they decide to extinguish a volcano to save the indigenous inhabitants of a planet with a humanoid society as this movie opens. Kirk reveals the presence of the Enterprise to these tribal people when he has to abandon their plans to remain hidden in order to save his first officer Spock from the erupting volcano.

For long time fans, this situation is a play on the fact that in all the adventures of the Enterprise, Kirk and company were constantly breaking the Prime Directive. For the uninitiated, it is a riveting action sequence that grabs the audience from their seats and transports them into the world of Star Trek. Rule breaking, however, is still frowned upon in the far future. For his actions, Kirk is relieved of his command, another frequent occurrence in the Star Trek universe. Never to be kept down long, Kirk soon finds himself reinstated to hunt down a terrorist who has destroyed a Starfleet facility and escaped to a planet within the territory of the Federation’s enemy, the Klingons. This marks the first look audiences have had of the Klingons in this new rebooted Star Trek universe. They are severe.

Despite the action-oriented treatment served up here and in the previous film by the creative team responsible for such event television shows as “Alias”, “Fringe” and “Lost”, director J.J. Abrams and his screenwriters are well aware that the heart of Star Trek is more about the human factor than technologically driven warfare. The characters are once again the foundation of this film’s success.

Kirk and Spock are the primary focus once again as they must learn that being friends is a little more complicated than holding a mutual respect for each other. Kirk gets tripped up by Spock’s insistence on following the rules and using logic in all situations. Spock cannot understand Kirk’s irrationality. The notion of following emotions despite the rules is a bafflement to him. However, they are two sides of the same coin. Neither ever thinks of themselves above those around them.

Other characters also get a chance to show more of their colors. The engineer Scotty learns the hard lesson of sticking to your ideals when Kirk actually accepts his resignation after a refusal to accept armaments that he cannot personally inspect. Kirk hasn’t quite deleted Scotty from his friends and family list, however. Uhura struggles with the same difficulties Kirk has with Spock. Chekov is promoted to chief engineer. Sulu gets his first shot in the captain’s chair, and McCoy becomes a doctor for a missile on top of his duties to the human crew of the Enterprise.

Two new characters also bring surprisingly human elements to their deceptive roles in the story. Dr. Carol Marcus doesn’t introduce herself as such when she announces her assignment to the Enterprise in a redundant science officer role to Spock. She may have some daddy issues to begin with, but she has no idea how bad they’ll get before this movie’s over.

Some might see it as a spoiler, but Benedict Cumberbatch is indeed playing the iconic role of Khan, made famous by Ricardo Montalban in one episode of the original series and in the second Star Trek movie “The Wrath of Khan”. Khan was one of those all too human villains in his two storylines. Genetically altered early in the scientific development of the human race before being put on ice, his superior intellect and strength drives him to the extremes of his human nature—the need to dominate those he sees as inferior being his primary human characteristic. This brings us back to that message the movie has to deliver.

Abrams and company don’t just put together another space adventure here, though. They actually address some of the problems people have found fault with the Star Trek universe in the past. First there’s the Prime Directive scenario that is so frequently ignored by Kirk and crew. They give good reasons for Kirk’s decision-making process. It also deals with a problem that these filmmakers in particular brought to the table—the fact that they have treated Starfleet as a military organization rather than the peaceful explorers Starfleet was originally intended to be in Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the series.

It’s important to remember that although this is film number twelve and year number 47 of the series’ existence, this story takes place right at the beginning of the concept that Roddenberry conceived. When you’re new at something it’s easy to fall back on what you know. That’s precisely what Starfleet does in this movie. They fall back to the typical military function that has dominated so much of Earth’s history up to their point in it. Khan shows them their folly while the same mentality also drives his revenge against them. It takes the new generation of Star Trek thinkers represented by Kirk and his crew to reshape the thinking of Starfleet as a whole. Finally, the Enterprise is assigned its five-year mission to explore space and learn from their observations.

The movie is also ripe with Star Trek mythology. A tribble, a creature from perhaps the most famous episode of the original series, plays a major role in the plot’s conclusion. Dr. Marcus tells Kirk about a former fling’s assignment—her name, Christine Chapel, Dr. McCoy’s nurse from the original series who was played by Roddenberry’s eventual wife and an omnipresent fixture in all the Star Trek incarnations, Majel Barrett.

Many of the story elements are taken directly from the second Star Trek movie “The Wrath of Khan”, although they are presented in a very different context in this one. Again, Kirk and Spock take most of the focus on this element.  Dr. Carol Marcus is the woman it was revealed in that film with whom Kirk had fathered a child. She also created the Genesis device, which could be a terrible weapon in the wrong hands. Here Khan provides the blue prints for highly weaponizable technology that falls in the wrong hands and then back into Khan’s, also the wrong hands. And, the emotional levels of “Khan” are matched here by mirror events between Spock and Kirk.

For those who aren’t fully initiated in the mythology of Star Trek, please don’t let all these references to previous material warn you away from this movie. Although the film is rich with mythology, it isn’t dependant on it. Like 2009’s “Star Trek”, this movie operates on an entirely accessible level for mainstream audiences. This is one of those summer event movies that define the summer as the best time to see movies. The excitement level is through the roof. The action is some of the best space opera action ever to be created. The multiple levels upon which the film operates only enhance an already amazing film going experience. “Star Trek Into Darkness” shines as one of the must see movies of the year.

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