Star Trek Into Darkness

Star Trek Into Darkness movie poster

J.J. Abrams has done it again; he’s made another incredibly entertaining “Star Trek” movie. “Star Trek Into Darkness” proves to be just as much fun as the reboot he helmed in 2009, and I found myself with a big grin on my face as the end credits came up on the silver screen. In a summer season that has gotten off to a somewhat tepid start, Abrams manages to thrill us with a combination of spectacular action pieces and characters we come to care deeply about. He also takes this movie to where no “Star Trek” movie has ever gone before: a place where roman numerals and colons are not needed in the title.

One year has passed since the events of the last movie, and this one starts off with the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise accidentally catching the attention of a primitive civilization that is not yet ready to discover the existence of things like starships. This leads the crew, and James T. Kirk in particular, to violate the Prime Directive which dictates that there will be no interference in the development of an alien civilization, to attempt to save one of their fellow crew members from certain death. Back on Earth, none of this sits well with Admiral Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) who berates Kirk (Chris Pine) for acting as if the rules don’t apply to him.

But things change quickly when a vicious domestic terrorist named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) lays waste to certain parts of Earth, and Kirk becomes consumed with vengeance and determined to bring him down at any cost. But in their pursuit of Harrison, the crew of the Enterprise find themselves in conflict as to what course of action is the best one to pursue. While Kirk feels justified in killing Harrison, this action could lead to an all-out war that the Federation of Planets cannot afford.

Now some complain that ever since Abrams became part of the “Star Trek” franchise that the movies have become more about action than ideas, but that’s pretty much been the case since “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” What Abrams gets right though is his attention to the characters, and in the end this franchise is really more about the characters than special effects. While we love the action with all those starships firing their torpedoes at one another, it’s the characters and what they go through which keeps us endlessly riveted.

I love the complicated relationships these people have with one another. Admiral Pike continues to be the father figure Kirk needs in his life, and Greenwood is perfect in the role as he dishes out some hard love to the strong but arrogant captain of the Enterprise. You never really catch Greenwood acting in the role, and his moments opposite Pine are filled with a lot of genuine emotion that never feels faked.

But the key relationship in this particular “Star Trek” movie is the one between Kirk and Spock which remains as complicated as ever. While Kirk is willing to fudge the facts in order to justify his course of action, Spock has no choice to be 100% honest about everything because he’s a Vulcan, and Vulcans don’t lie (but they do exaggerate). You wonder how these two can stand to be on a starship together for even a brief period of time, but the fact is that these two need one another in order to survive from one galaxy to the next. This becomes all the more apparent as “Star Trek Into Darkness” reaches its relentless conclusion.

Pine gives another excellent performance here as the iconic character James T. Kirk, and it’s fun to watch him take Kirk from being a cocky individual to one who ends up making selfless decisions in order to save the only family he has left: his crew. Quinto remains riveting as ever as Spock as we watch his half-human and half-Vulcan sides battling with one another for supremacy. Spock has always been a very complex character, and there are many reasons why he was the only one to survive the pilot episode of the original “Star Trek” television series.

Zoe Saldana really gets to kick ass as Uhura, and there’s something thrilling about her not just being relegated to her communications station on the bridge. Simon Pegg remains a delight as Scotty who finds out more about starships than he’s supposed to in this one. John Cho really does get his moment in the sun as Sulu when he is required to take the Captain’s chair and makes it clear he is not to be messed with. And then there’s Karl Urban who remain as pitch perfect as ever as Dr. McCoy, and he delivers some of the character’s most iconic lines with a freshness which reminds us how much we loved this character in the first place.

As for Anton Yelchin, his character of Pavel Chekov is kind of underused in this “Star Trek” movie. Yelchin gives a good performance, but Chekov is relegated to engineering a little too much this time around, and he comes off looking like he’s not a necessary part of the Enterprise crew.

There are also some new additions to “Star Trek” family in this sequel that prove to be very welcome. Peter Weller, the original “Robocop,” co-stars as Starfleet Admiral Marcus, and he brings to his role the same relentless hard ass intensity he brought to the fifth season of “24.” Alice Eve portrays the very alluring Science Officer Carol Wallace who knows more about weapons than anyone is comfortable with, and she hides secrets which may jeopardize her relationship with the crew.

But the one actor everyone will be paying the most attention to is Benedict Cumberbatch. Long before this sequel was released, it was believed that he would give us one of the most unforgettable villains of the summer 2013 movie season, and he doesn’t disappoint. John Harrison is not your typical one-dimensional bad guy, and that makes Cumberbatch’s portrayal of him all the more mesmerizing to watch. He also gives the role a strong depth you don’t expect it to have as we discover his true nature and why he is wreaking all this havoc.

To say anything more would risk spoiling the movie for you, and I am not about to do that. Abrams makes a very welcome return to the director’s chair for this “Star Trek” adventure, and his success here bodes well for that “Star Wars” movie we are waiting for him to make. While some directors get caught up in visuals, battles and explosions, Abrams is one of the few who gives an equal amount of attention to the actors and the characters they play. That makes his films all the more thrilling and emotionally involving to witness.

 

It’s hard to say where “Star Trek Into Darkness” ranks among the other movies in this franchise that continues to live long and prosper, but it’s safe to say that it won’t be sharing company with “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” anytime soon. This film entertained me from beginning to end and it never sacrificed character for the sake of action. It has me looking forward to the next film which should have the Enterprise crew finally starting their five-year mission to explore strange new worlds. Whether or not Abrams will be in the director’s chair, it’s bound to be a very entertaining journey.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2013.

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Star Trek (2009)

Star Trek 2009 movie poster

I have been into “Star Trek” since I started watching the original series when I was five years old. I reveled in Kirk, Spock and the rest of the Enterprise crew hurtling through space and exploring new worlds. I still remember watching the episode “The Return of the Archons” where the Enterprise crew was being held prisoner, and there was this overwhelmingly loud noise which rendered them unconscious. As they fell to the floor, I mimicked what I saw on that ancient Zenith television my parents bought, pretending I was part of this great crew. Back then, I envisioned myself as a character on that show and “Star Trek: The Next Generation” as its adventures made up for the dullness of reality.

As “Star Trek” expanded from its original incarnation later became a never ending movie franchise, I stayed with it as much as I could. My dad had to carry me out of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” after I burst into tears at the end. The fact that I kept saying he would come back to life was truly an utter coincidence when “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock” came out, and I was in tears after that one as well. I later became determined to be the first person in Thousand Oaks, California to own a copy of “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” on VHS. When my family moved from Thousand Oaks to the Bay Area, I found myself wanting those transporters to be real so that I could beam down south to hang out with the friends I was forced to leave behind.

But somewhere along the line, I found myself losing interest in all things Trek as I started to miss out on the last couple of seasons of “Star Trek: TNG.” Then there were other spinoffs like “Deep Space Nine” and “Voyager” among others, and I became increasingly less excited about the franchise as it came to resemble “Law & Order” and its various other incarnations. You knew what you were going to get, so the level of excitement I had for the franchise kept fading away year after year. Still, I believed that the franchise could be resurrected because, as Spock would say, there are always possibilities.

That resurrection has now arrived, seven years after “Star Trek: Nemesis,” thanks to J.J. Abrams. His “Star Trek” movie is the most exciting film this series has seen since “First Contact,” and I fucking loved it! This origin story of the Starship Enterprise and its cast gives the franchise a much needed kick in the ass. By taking the series in new directions, Abrams has succeeded in opening up the world of Trek to an audience that never fully embraced it before.

We get to see a young James Tiberius Kirk driving a hot rod while blasting the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” on the car’s stereo, and this is the first sign that this “Star Trek” is not going to be the same old shit. We see a young Spock getting taunted by his classmates which makes him use methods other than that famous Vulcan nerve pinch to subdue his enemies. Seeing Spock beat the crap out of others might have been hilarious in any other movie, but Abrams takes the character in fresh new directions we have not seen him go to before. This plays much more intensely on the fact that Spock has always been half-human and half-Vulcan.

The plot of “Star Trek” revolves around the device of time travel which has played a part in the most entertaining and successful films in the series (“The Voyage Home” and “First Contact”). It involves a large mining ship of Romulans commanded by Nero (Eric Bana) who is as thirsty for revenge as Khan was in “Star Trek II.” It doesn’t matter how much you know about Gene Roddenberry’s sci-fi universe because anything and everything you remembered about it previously will seem very different, and that makes this movie all the more entertaining and unpredictable.

One of the key successes Abrams has with “Star Trek” is the actors he has chosen as none of them try to do imitate what the actors who originated these roles did before them. Among the most impressive is Chris Pine who plays Kirk as a hotshot who gets himself in trouble constantly and lacks a father figure in his life. Pine really succeeds in capturing the same cockiness and over confidence that William Shatner brought to the role before him.

But even better is Zachary Quinto who plays Spock at his most emotionally unhinged. Of all the actors here, he has the biggest obstacle to overcome since the original Spock (Leonard Nimoy) is in this film as well. I admired how Quinto strongly displayed Spock’s inner turmoil and of the fact that he is a child of two worlds. One of his best moments comes when he essentially flips off the Vulcan High Command after he is accepted into their prestigious science academy. By describing Spock as having done well despite the “disadvantage” of having a human mother (played by Winona Ryder of all people), we get a huge thrill out Quinto making “live long and prosper” sound like he’s saying fuck you to the.

Another inspired casting choice in “Star Trek” is Simon Pegg as Engineer Montgomery Scott. As the movie heads to its exciting climax, it is frightening to see just how much Pegg resembles Scotty from the original series, and that’s even more so when we hear him say, “I’m giving her all she’s got Captain!” Pegg gives us a Scotty that is a perfect comic foil, and it will be great fun to see where he will take Scotty in future installments.

As Nero, Eric Bana gives us the strongest and most lethal villain this series has had since Khan. Whereas the previous antagonists seemed more refined in how they acted among their prey, Nero’s fury is so personal and uncontainable, and the fact that he is named after the Roman Emperor whose rule was marked by tyranny, and that he ordered the execution of his mother and adopted brother, should give you an idea of how screwed up he is.

The rest of the cast includes Bruce Greenwood who is perfectly cast as Christopher Pike, and it reminded me a lot of his underrated portrayal of John F. Kennedy in “Thirteen Days.” John Cho of “Harold & Kumar” fame plays Sulu, and he has a great moment where he gets to put his fencing skills to the test. Zoe Saldana plays Uhura with a calm sexiness and an intelligence that is foolishly underestimated by others until she makes you see the big picture. Karl Urban gives us a pitch perfect Dr. Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy and captures the character’s infinite crankiness we all know him to have. Anton Yelchin plays Pavel Chekov, and while the character feels underused here, he is still well cast and has a flawless Russian accent. And of course, we have Winona Ryder playing Spock’s mother, and her performance is all the more impressive when you take into account that she is only two years older than Quinto.

What impressed me even more about this particular “Star Trek” is that it was given a budget of over $100 million. There is no doubt that the money is there on the screen, and the effects are remarkable. This is an especially good point to make as special effects have never really been the strong point of the “Star Trek” series, but here they are the best they have ever been. The Enterprise bridge looks so much different than it ever before, and it has a sleek style to it that makes being there all the more inviting.

I’ll be very interested to hear what die hard Trekkers think of this latest adventure of the Enterprise crew. This one does not dwell on big ideas the way “Star Trek” has done for the most part throughout its various incarnations. The main power of Roddenberry’s series was how it dealt with social issues of the day in the realm of science fiction. This one is meant to be more like “Star Wars,” and it allows Abrams to give this aging franchise an invigorated feeling that it desperately needed. While it may not be a “Trek” rooted in philosophy, I think this one leaves the door open for writers to explore present day themes in a future installment.

But I cannot go on without mentioning the welcome return of Leonard Nimoy as Spock (. This could have been a gimmicky cameo that lasted just a few seconds, but Nimoy’s Spock does play a very pivotal role in this movie. Furthermore, he also helps give it a sense of legitimacy that it would not have had without his appearance. Keep in mind, his character was the only one who survived the rejected first pilot of the original series.

Seeing this “Star Trek” brought a lot of happiness to me. My mood seems to get inadvertently sidetracked depending on the health of the franchise. I can honestly say that I am not all surprised at its longevity or constant rebirth. Roddenberry’s message of hope always finds a way to win out, and it is fitting that the movie is getting released around the beginning of the President Barrack Obama’s first term. Granted, this is really a coincidence since the movie was being developed before he made his decision to run for President, but it’s a wonderful coincidence all the same.

All those kids who gave me crap about liking this great series can suck it now, because “Star Trek” is here to stay. Even those who picked on me for being a Trekker, and ironically did much better in science classes than me, won’t be able to pass this one up. “Star Trek” can be seen as the first truly great odd-numbered movie in the long running series, and it is proof that this series will never die.

Live long and prosper? OH HELL YES!!!

* * * * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2009.