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A Very Personal Enterprise

MOVIE REVIEW
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

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Zade Rosenthal/Paramount Pictures

With “Star Trek Into Darkness,” director J. J. Abrams and his cast and crew have crafted a follow-up film that feels like the second part of a two-part story. This new movie is not simply another voyage with the recast crew of the starship Enterprise; it also addresses and resolves some of the nagging concerns and problems some people may have had with the first “Star Trek” reboot film in 2009. The previous film, while funny and thrilling, was far from perfect, with the script feeling like a list of ideas cut and pasted together. A similar compilation approach has been taken with this sequel; but overall it feels far more cohesive than the previous entry, and it develops the main characters in important ways.

In this adventure, presumably set soon after events in the previous film, James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), captain of the Enterprise, violates a key piece of Starfleet protocol, the Prime Directive, to rescue his first officer, Spock (Zachary Quinto), from certain death on an alien planet. Although Captain Kirk saves Officer Spock’s life, the violation of the Prime Directive leads to Captain Kirk being stripped of his starship command. With this incident, “Star Trek Into Darkness” seems to acknowledge the improbability of the cocky, impulsive Captain Kirk becoming a starship captain so quickly at the end of the previous film. At the start of this film, Kirk has — according to his mentor, Capt. Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) — proved to be too arrogant and not yet ready to take on the responsibilities of commanding a starship.

Things quickly change when an explosion in London is revealed to be connected to a mysterious agent named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), who follows up this act of terror by attacking key Starfleet officers. This seemingly unprovoked assault on Starfleet compels Kirk to seek out Harrison, with an order from the hawkish Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) to eliminate the rogue agent. Kirk is put back in command of the Enterprise, but some of the ship’s crew seem doubtful about the ethics of this mission, which sets up the audience up to question Kirk’s actions. It’s suggested that Kirk may not be ready for this mission: that he’s too arrogant; and that he’s obsessed with taking revenge against Harrison rather than capturing him and bringing him to Earth to stand trial. This also feeds into a wider theme in the film, where Starfleet, represented by Admiral Marcus, seems to be changing from a peaceful body promoting space exploration to an organization preparing for war.

Like the previous film, “Star Trek Into Darkness feels like an old episodic cliff-hanger serial, with Mr. Abrams and the screenwriters concocting a series of outlandish situations every 10 or 20 minutes that the crew of the Enterprise needs to solve, only for Captain Kirk and company to extricate themselves at the last minute thanks to an improbable twist. Sometimes these moments can work (the Enterprise emerging from the sea early in the film gets the characters out of an apparent no-win situation, which has consequences later on), while at other times they feel more like screenwriters’ contrivances rather than the characters’ inventiveness (at one point, the younger Officer Spock contacts the older Officer Spock — seen in the previous film — to ask for advice, and while it’s always welcome to see Leonard Nimoy, his appearance seems less like a role essential to the story and more like a convenient plot device).

While “Star Trek Into Darkness” often riffs on moments from “Star Trek’s” classic past, particularly in its second half (including lifting some lines directly from a well-known scene in an earlier film, which feels clunky and unnecessary), it’s in the service of developing alternate versions of these iconic characters, particularly Captain Kirk and Officer Spock. Kirk learns that a logical, more sober approach is needed to make effective command decisions, while Officer Spock realizes that logic alone is not the only thing that can solve a problem. Their friendship — implied at the end of the previous film — is cemented here; and the use of a key situation from a previous films helps to achieve this.

For much of “Star Trek Into Darkness” (as in the last film), it feels like the utopian, egalitarian thrust of the pre-reboot, classic “Star Trek” is being discarded in favor of a more action-oriented approach to storytelling, with conflicts mainly resolved through brawn rather than brains. Thankfully “Star Trek Into Darkness” ultimately addresses this issue and shows that compassion is a vital quality, both for the characters and for the institution of Starfleet. The film shows Captain Kirk maturing as a leader, the half-Vulcan Officer Spock acknowledging more of his human side and Starfleet retaining its peacekeeping principals.

The relationship between Officer Spock and Lieutenant Uhura (Zoë Saldana) is also developed a little more here, Chief Engineer Scotty (Simon Pegg) gets more screen time to establish Starship expertise and his friendship with Captain Kirk, Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) circles the action and has a quip for every occasion, Lieutenant Sulu (John Cho) demonstrates his command skills and Ensign Chekov (Anton Yelchin) keeps the Enterprise functioning in engineering. Captain Pike and Admiral Marcus are also very effective, both as memorable characters and as contrasting father figures for Captain Kirk, representing the values that the young captain admires and challenges respectively. And then there is Harrison, a calm and calculating warrior, his impassive demeanor concealing a dangerous, ruthless side that poses a serious threat to the crew of the Enterprise and to Starfleet.

The film creates a dazzling futuristic look that feels epic, an effect increased by the Imax format, showing off a verdant alien planet, vertiginous cityscapes on Earth and the vast expanse of space, all accompanied by energetic camerawork and editing and a rousing score. The 3-D is occasionally immersive, being most effective when a shot is relatively still and held for longer than a few seconds (such as the warp effect, which thrusts viewers into the action as the Enterprise rockets through space), but as the dominant visual style is fast cutting and a shaky camera, with some whip pans and snap zooms, the added dimension is often barely noticeable. Also, while the action is undeniably thrilling, the numerous punch ups, shoot outs and space battles feel a little familiar. By contrast, some of the most memorable moments are when the pace slows for a few seconds, allowing the audience to appreciate the beauty of a shot, such as the Enterprise soaring through a planet’s sky at the start of the film.

Although the two “Star Trek” reboot films have been enjoyable adventures, they have gone over well-trodden ground — both in terms of the expectations of the modern action film (with the fast-paced chases and fights) and in terms of mining “Star Trek’s” past (by reusing iconic characters and situations). “Star Trek Into Darkness” is an emotional roller coaster of a film, but perhaps there are more intellectual aspects that could be incorporated into future adventures as well, with the filmmakers maybe using the established elements of “Star Trek” to create a bolder, riskier film. At the conclusion of this adventure, the scene is set for more voyages, which are no doubt guaranteed due to the goodwill generated by the cast and the filmmakers’ eagerness to entertain; and there’s lots of potential for this rebooted film series to go in new and exciting directions.

STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS

Opens on May 9 in Britain and on May 16 in the United States.

Directed by J. J. Abrams; written by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Damon Lindelof, based on “Star Trek” by Gene Roddenberry; director of photography, Dan Mindel; edited by Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey; music by Michael Giacchino; production design by Scott Chambliss; costumes by Michael Kaplan; produced by Mr. Abrams, Mr. Kurtzman, Mr. Orci, Mr. Lindelof and Bryan Burk; released by Paramount Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 12 minutes. This film is rated 12A by B.B.F.C. and PG-13 by M.P.A.A.

WITH: John Cho (Hikaru Sulu), Benedict Cumberbatch (John Harrison), Alice Eve (Carol), Bruce Greenwood (Captain Pike), Simon Pegg (Montgomery Scott), Chris Pine (Capt. James T. Kirk), Zoe Saldana (Nyota Uhura), Zachary Quinto (Spock), Karl Urban (Dr. Leonard McCoy), Peter Weller (Starfleet Admiral Marcus) and Anton Yelchin (Pavel Chekov).

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