Friday, May 17, 2013

Top Warp Speed: STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS

Undoubtedly the most breathless of all Star Trek pictures, Star Trek Into Darkness is a nonstop barrage of spectacle, movement, and noise. It’s manipulative, relentless and a fun time at the movies. It gets the job done. With 2009’s Star Trek, director J.J. Abrams got a great deal of entertainment value out of dropping a wormhole into Trek continuity, scattering the familiar pieces every which way and providing a shock of delight as the pieces snapped back into place. It’s about as clever as a combination sequel, prequel, reboot, and remake of a nearly 50-year-old franchise could be. While Into Darkness can’t have the same pleasurable jolts of fresh perspective, what it lacks in discovery it makes up for in chemistry. The cast crackles through energetic banter and terse exposition as they’re forever running up and down the gleaming corridors of the starship Enterprise, desperate to solve the latest crisis in which they’ve found themselves.

With a plot that’s in some ways an extended riff on a classic bit of Trek – to even say whether it’s a movie or a TV episode would probably be enough for Trekkers to spring the film’s secrets sight unseen – the screenplay by longtime Abrams collaborators Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof is packed with dramatic incidents and fan-friendly winking. It’s an expertly calibrated event picture that hurtles from one bit of action or humor into the next without any room to slow down. We start urgently in the middle of a high-energy action sequence with Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) fleeing an angry alien tribe while Spock (Zachary Quinto) proceeds logically into a volcano to shut it down and save this foreign world. As the sequence plays out, all of the returning cast – Zoe Saldana’s Uhura, Simon Pegg’s Scotty, John Cho’s Sulu, and Anton Yelchin’s Chekov – get their little moments to shine. It’s like stumbling into the last few exciting minutes at the end of an episode and then sticking around for the next couple in the marathon. There’s recognizability and comfortability the cast has in the roles and with each other that provides an instant anchor and funny rapport amidst the chaos around them.

Chaos quickly comes in the form of a terrorist attack on Earth that blows up a Starfleet base in London. The man responsible is John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), one of their own who clearly has his secret motives for turning against them. The scheming scenes leading up to and including these surprise attacks have a scary edge. As the film progresses and Cumberbatch gets to put his sonorous voice into full intimidating villainy, the relationships his character develops take a few interesting twists and turns. Meanwhile, back at Starfleet, the good admiral (Bruce Greenwood) and crusty admiral (Peter Weller) agree to let Kirk take the Enterprise after the attacker in a rare show of force from this research and peacekeeping group that finds a new science officer (Alice Eve) escorting top secret missiles on board. They’re not out boldly going where no man has gone before. They’re on a manhunt.

This streamlined feature slams through its sequences of energetic intensity with sensational special effects and top-notch sound design expected from a Hollywood blockbuster in this budget range. Abrams, not particularly invested in the more cerebral, allegorical aspects of Trek lore, sees fit to deliver a slam-bang spectacle with phaser battles, whooshing warp drives, and brusque threats around every corner. This leaves plenty of time for the film’s politics to be a little muddled, if benign, with the exception of a weirdly misjudged bit of disaster overkill in the final stretch. It’s one thing for a movie like this to destroy a chunk of a metropolis, sending skyscrapers crumbling to the ground. It’s another thing entirely to do so almost off-handedly, skip the aftermath, and then put a strange title card in the end credits proclaiming tribute to post-9/11 workers. (Seriously, what’s going on there?) It’s a film that summons up War on Terror paranoia (potential drone strikes, brief pointed debates about killing terrorists without trial) and twisty conspiracy theories, but uses it only as set dressing for a plot that’s all present tense forward movement. Gone is the Cold War-era utopian optimism of Roddenberry’s original concept. This time it’s all about fear, dread, and explosions.

But it’s amazing how far momentum alone can take you. Abrams has made a film that’s a crackling roller coaster that’s all dips, dives, drops, and top-speed loops with an excellent, blaring score from the ever-reliable Michael Giacchino. The intensity never slows, even when the movie self-consciously incorporates a debate with itself about what kind of mission this Trek is following. “This is clearly a military operation,” Scotty disappointedly tells Kirk. “Is that what we are now? I thought we were explorers.” The fact of the matter is that Trek on TV had room to be as eggheaded as it wanted (at best, thrilling so), whereas the movies have always largely been about elaborate revenge schemes and potentially world-ending super-calamities. This just happens to be a particularly single-minded action adventure that’s constantly chasing the next thrill. And that works.

It works not just because Abrams and crew are skilled technicians, but because of the people on screen as well, with characters filled wonderfully by the talented cast working from borrowed cultural awareness without much original characterization in this particular script. (There’s an assumption, rightly or wrongly, that the audience will know who these characters are and what they mean to each other, so that all emotional development can be left to shorthand.) These characters have lived long and prospered in the cultural imagination for a good reason. The core of the film is the crew, the group of professionals thrown together by duty, bound together by the friendships that developed. Even at their prickliest, when Kirk and Spock speak sharply to each other, engaging in their expected debate between reason and emotion, there’s a core of respect and love that’s a comfort and a constant, even when everything is constantly blowing up around them.

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