Review: 'Star Trek: Into Darkness' is better than you think

Photo: Paramount

WASHINGTON, June 8, 2013 – So many summer films have been hitting theaters so quickly that it’s hard to keep up with them. While we’re behind the curve a bit on our review of the latest installment in the rebooted Star Trek franchise, it’s actually interesting to take a look at where this movie is perched as it approaches the one-month mark (next weekend) in its U.S. release. After a great but not quite spectacular mid-May first weekend, “Star Trek: Into Darkness” still resides comfortably in the No. 4 position in Box Office Mojo’s current money chart.

Paramount promo poster for Star Trek: Into Darkness.

Spoiler alert: not. Now that the film has been out for a while and everyone who’s seen it has no doubt shared the heretofore-secret plot with their friends, it’s no longer a surprise that the second chapter of the current Star Trek continuity is a reboot on top of a reboot. Yes, Trek fans, it’s “The Wrath of Khan” reborn for the millennial generation with much cooler 21st century CGI magical tricks.

Keeping with current action movie tradition, we begin our current trip on the Enterprise in medias res, with the youthful, impetuous Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and the ever-complaining Bones (Karl Urban) in full flight from the fury of a tribe of bizarre primitives, gussied up in some sort of flaking white face paint. It makes them look a little bit like prototypes of the Johnny Depp flavor of Tonto we’re soon to be seeing in Disney Studios’ upcoming “Lone Ranger” reboot.

But back to the Enterprise. We quickly discover that the natives’ planet Niburu is about to volcanically self-destruct. But not to worry. Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto) has traveled to the heart of the volcanic activity with a device meant to seal it off.

In short order, Kirk and Bones make it back to the Enterprise—cleverly hidden underwater this time—via a Butch Cassidy-Sundance Kid swan dive into the alien planet’s ocean; surface the Enterprise for a little distracting shock and awe show; and rescue Spock from the Caldera in the nick of time.


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Of course, showing the actual Enterprise to the freaked out natives violates a Federation rule that the honest Spock duly reports—the ingrate! —and Kirk is demoted to First Officer, at least temporarily losing command of his ship to his old mentor, Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood).

Spock (Zachary Quinto) is in a most uncomfortable and illogical position here. (Paramount)

But this isn’t really the plot of this film, just the setup. Things change, and rather quickly. Almost immediately, we discover that a secret facility at London’s Federation HQ is under attack from a mysterious force and San Francisco’s Starfleet Central might be next. Which it soon is, as a meeting of Starfleet’s high command, which includes Pike and Kirk, is violently assaulted by air, resulting in the death of Pike. Kirk and Spock, of course, bury the hatchet and save the day, or what’s left of it. They also catch a glimpse of the mysterious attacker who transports himself somewhere unknown as our dynamic duo brings his ship down.

We eventually learn that this very bad guy is a fellow known as John Harrison (Brit actor Benedict Cumberbatch, currently famous in the UK for his own bizarre but on target modern reboot of Sherlock Holmes on the telly). Top Starfleet boss Admiral Marcus (an aging Peter Weller), fully aware that the unpredictable Kirk is once again in the Captain’s chair of the Enterprise due to Pike’s demise, dispatches the Enterprise and its crew off to Klingon space to kill Harrison, whom they’ve discovered hiding there.


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Super villain Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) is not who he really seems to be. (Universal)

This drastic new mission, weirdly uncharacteristic of the usual Starfleet playbook’s approach, quickly gets more complicated. After all, remember that we’re dealing with those original, non-Federation Klingons in this continuity, those outer space ur-barbarians who don’t take lightly to Federation encroachments on their turf.

Making matters more tangled still, Admiral Marcus loads a bunch of newfangled, never-before-used photon torpedoes aboard the Enterprise, allegedly for use in battle. This leads to the resignation of an outraged Scottie (Simon Pegg), who’s afraid that the unknown power signature of the torpedoes might wreak havoc with the power in his precious engine room. He’s right in a way, but we’ll have to wait to find out why.

Kirk (Chris Pine) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) sense that Klingons are uncomfortably close. (Paramount)

Without getting enmeshed in the rest of the plot summary, suffice it to say that Harrison is eventually taken into custody rather than killed. That sets the real story into motion, for we quickly discover that “Harrison” is really—drum roll—Khan, a genetically re-engineered Superman with evil and conquest on his mind, albeit for a seemingly valid reason. The remainder of the film deals with the laws of unintended consequences, which include surprise twists that turn the plot of the original “Wrath of Khan” on its head.

As an action movie, “Into Darkness” meets or exceeds “Wrath of Khan” on nearly every level. Benedict Cumberbatch is a colder, less fiery Khan, which makes both his intellect and his psychopathy richer and more complex than Ricardo Montalban’s original 1980s super villain. Some reviewers, though, still seem to prefer Montalban’s portrayal, even after all these years.

Indeed, Montalban’s fire-breathing, almost medieval sense of vengeance made his TV and later film portrayal of Khan letter perfect in its time. Yet Cumberbatch conjures up a perfect Khan for a new century in which coldness, determinism and amorality have become a way of life for governments and citizens alike while Western democratic ideals are purged and fall into decay. We seem these days to have lost that sense of “family” and kinship in what seems like an endless search for power and dominance, all of which would be familiar sensations for Cumberbatch’s driven Khan.

In the concurrently running action flick “Fast 6,” this week’s reigning box office hit (reviewed in this column yesterday), we endure one mini-sermon after another embracing the primacy of “family” over everything else in life, leading us to wonder if Hollywood might unexpectedly be starting to embrace the tenets of the old Moral Majority.

But the Star Trek franchise has long endorsed the idealistic, generally liberal concept of mankind-as-extended family far longer yet often less obviously. This notion lies at the core of the Prime Directive, “Starfleet’s General Order number 1, is the most prominent guiding principle of the United Federation of Planets. The Prime Directive dictates that there can be no interference with the internal development of alien civilizations.”

Star Trek: Into Darkness director and cast. L-R: Karl Urban (Bones), Zachary Quinto (Spock), Director J.J. Abrams, and Chris Pine who portrays Kirk. (Paramount)

The current cast instinctively embraces the spirit of the Prime Directive in this film even as they question its ramifications and ultimate implementation. Philosophically, this sustains the continuity of the Star Trek franchise amazingly well into 2013 and likely beyond. As an added bonus, the young actors in this film are absolutely astonishing at replicating the nervous tics, endearing personalities and occasional hokiness of the original Enterprise crew while making these characters their own. Better yet, this holistic approach doesn’t talk down to its audience as so many films are guilty of doing today.

With regard to individual performances, Zachary Quinto captures the essence of Leonard Nimoy’s earlier Spock. But Quinto actually does the older actor one better in his clever handling of the nearly Jekyll and Hyde differences that cause a constant battle between his pointy ears between his Vulcan and human natures.

Chris Pine’s Kirk is the same as William Shatner’s only different. Pine radiates the swashbuckling, impetuousness of youth that’s the essence of Captain Kirk’s character. But he wisely eschews Shatner’s almost instinctive hamminess and overacting to create a Kirk who still has considerable potential for growth and sophistication.

As the ship’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Leonard McCoy, aka “Bones,” Karl Urban is uncanny in the way he’s able to shape-shift into a nearly exact duplicate of DeForest Kelley’s endearing but loyal crank, hypochondriac, and interlocutor between Kirk and Spock. In particular, Urban effortlessly contributes some much-needed levity to a film that at times can take itself a little too seriously.

Characters that played lesser roles both in the original “Star Trek” TV series and the first theatrical releases of the revived franchise get a more to do in the current episode as they did in the first reboot, a welcome change from the former Kirk-Spock-Bones triumvirate in this series’ earliest iterations.

Scottie (Simon Pegg) finds himself in a very strange engineering situation. (Paramount)

Having self-exiled himself early on, Simon Pegg’s Scotty gets plenty to do in this episode. He plays a key part in the film’s final half hour, helping pull Kirk’s, the Enterprise’s, and the Federation’s fat out of the fire in a surprising bit of solo derring-do.

John Cho’s Sulu also gets to strut his stuff briefly but effectively, serving as temporary commanding officer on the bridge and facing down some of the worst impending disasters imaginable with stoicism, bravery, and honor. This guy’s ready for his own ship, and he shows as much if not more intestinal fortitude than “Next Generation’s” Worf.

The always-hapless Ensign Chekhov, portrayed here by Anton Yelchin, is as funny and stressed out in the current rebooted Star Trek universe as he was in the original. Here he’s forced by fate and by Scottie’s unscheduled leave to take temporary command of a collapsing engine room scenario. He does his best and at least holds things together with a virtual rubber band until help arrives without sustaining a complete nervous breakdown.

And finally, there’s Communications Officer Uhura, portrayed by an extraordinarily sexy Zoe Saldana. Nichelle Nichols’ pioneering TV and film Uhura was an intriguing creation but was also a creature of her limited times. She wasn’t given much to do in either the TV or film versions of “Star Trek,” usually playing a distinct second fiddle to the rest of the primary cast in terms of authority and face time in spite of originator Gene Roddenberry’s liberal intentions. Yet Nichols was one of the pioneers who broke the TV race barrier, arguably paving the way for Saldana’s bolder, more assured portrayal of her character in the new film series.

In this edition of the franchise, Saldana’s Uhura has more than an affinity for Spock, much to Kirk’s consternation. He thinks she’s hot, too, a carryover from the initial reboot film. But this Uhura is no passive sex object. She’s also her own woman in a post-feminist future. Better yet, in a great plot twist, she provides a key, decisive assist as Spock is forced to confront Khan in a final, uneven battle. Nichelle Nichols would surely approve.

Zoe Saldana’s Uhura prefers to be right in the middle of the action. (Universal)

Fans of the original “Wrath of Khan” will appreciate this film’s parallels to that 1980s breakthrough film; or despise them depending on how pure they want a remake like this to be.

In some cases, as we’ve indicated, the plot of this film tracks the original “Khan” with surprising fidelity. Yet on the other hand, there are enough new plot twists in this film, particularly with regard to some death-defying heroism in the engine room, that take this series in welcome new directions. Taken together, such surprises still retain the essence of “Star Trek’s” beloved first crew while liberating the overarching story line to boldly go where no story line has gone before.

To keep the current continuity on track, unfortunately, we do get another appearance of the original Spock, Leonard Nimoy. He appears here as he did in the initial reboot film, to violate more Federation rules, providing helpful hints to alter the course of history, which he really shouldn’t be doing. Suggestion: if we are to be graced with a third “Star Trek” film in this series (which we think is likely), it might be a good idea to let this continuity run on its own henceforth without any more deus ex machine moments to explain things. Why not let this crew run on its own power?

With a surprisingly great ensemble cast, terrific special effects, and generally sure-handed direction by J. J. Abrams, “Star Trek: Into Darkness” will make plenty of money for its creators, actors, and producers, just like the first reboot did, even though its box office pace seems to be running slightly slower. That might be due, at least in part, to having to compete with both current money champ “Fast and Furious 6” and with monster box office gorilla “Iron Man 3,” both of which continue near the top of the box office scale.

Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) makes a brief wardrobe change on the Enterprise, which is duly noted by Kirk. This is the closest thing we get to a sex scene in this film. Feminists and some critics were outraged at the scene, regarding it as needless and gratuitous. We agree. That said, we enjoyed this brief, beatific vision anyway. (Paramount)

Whatever the case, the current Star Trek chapter is lively, engaging, and loaded with fun, making it, like “Iron Man 3” and “Fast 6” another magnet for the young male demographic. However, with its feistier Uhura, as well as with the introduction of a very sexy and very smart Dr. Carol Marcus (Alice Eve), there’s already some evidence that “Into Darkness” has attracted more of the female demographic as well which should help the box office draw for further installments.

That’s assuming, of course, that they don’t allow the current film’s buzz to decay entirely before they get around to making a new “Star Trek 3.”

At any rate, we liked the film.

Further, as aging Boomers ourselves and thus aficionados of the original TV series, we think the current “Trek’s” young cast is doing a magnificent job restoring the wit, the excitement, and the sense of adventure to a long-running storytelling tradition that had grown a little long of tooth. May they all live long and prosper.

For at least one more film, anyway.

Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.

Follow Terry on Twitter @terryp17

 


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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, movies and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was formerly the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2009) before moving online with Communities in 2010.  

 

 

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