Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, Benedict Cumberbatch, Peter Weller, Zoe Saldana, Alice Eve

Directed by: J.J. Abrams

Written by: Roberto Orci

After complications on a routine mission, the crew of the Enterprise are recalled to Earth, but before long they are embroiled in a far more important issue: the terrorist campaign being waged by a former Starfleet officer, John Harrison. Their pursuit of him, and the truth, leads them into murky waters, and some things will change forever…

It’s a fine line to tread, with a new instalment in a popular series, particularly when it is rebooting said series. How closely do you cleave to the originals? It is most obvious in the endless different versions of, for instance, the works of Austen or Dickens. A more recent example, perhaps, is last year’s ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’, which while a perfectly fine film in its own right, was a largely unnecessary waltz through another version of Spidey’s origins, only ten years after they were last explained. Is it better to move away from the established beats and forge your own path? You do then run the risk of alienating fans.
In 2009, ‘Star Trek’ got it pretty spot on. Referential without being excessively reverential, and confident enough to jettison an awful lot of history via the alternate time-line device. In theory then, any successive films could boldly go where no Trek film has gone before.

In ‘Into Darkness’, this approach is not quite as successful, and it is far and away the biggest problem with the film. To be fair, for the vast majority of the film it works fairly well. There’s probably at least one call back or shout out in every scene, but it never feels too smug, and most of them are only going to be obvious to real Trekkies. There are, of course, the stock phrases – Karl Urban gets to use a couple of variations on “I’m a doctor, not a…” – and one gag that suggests the legendary red-shirts are infamous even within universe now, but for the most part they raise smiles more than anything else. By the end of the film though, the referencing has reached a critical mass, and seriously undermines at least one key scene (the same scene is also painfully neutered by the foreshadowing earlier in the film, which a friend of mine gleefully pointed out was a classic example of a Chekov’s Gun trope). It was, for me, a serious flaw. However, it is the sort of flaw that is a) extremely subjective and b) hard to talk about specifically without spoiling a large chunk of the film. Suffice it to say, you’ll know what I’m talking about when you get there, if you have more than a passing interest in the franchise, but you may not agree with me.

Aside from that, the plot is not exactly A-grade. It’s perfectly serviceable, and does everything you might want from a SF action film, but it is far from original. To be fair, it does delve into murkier territory than blockbusters traditionally manage, and succeeds in doing so in such a fashion that it serves the film rather than bogging it down. However, such ethical issues are very much background; a promising sign for Abrams upcoming take on the ‘Star Wars’ franchise, given the deadweight of the politics in the prequels.

Whatever the failings of the plot though, the script is actually rather good. Orci may not have constructed anything terribly original, but he’s just as good at crafting a snappy remark as Abrams is at shooting starships exploding. Karl Urban and Simon Pegg obviously benefit from this the most, but despite all the moral quandaries and death and destruction, ‘Into Darkness’ will frequently have you in stitches. Happily, even more than the spectacle, even more than the lens flare (less of it this time, but when it does happen, it’s ridiculous), the main focus in ‘Into Darkness’ is on the characters.

We saw just a couple of weeks ago, with ‘Iron Man 3’ how well this approach can pay off, and for an awful lot of the film Abrams and co have succeeded just as well as the Marvel squad. There’s a whole host of great actors in the franchise, and while it might be wrong to say that there is a great range of subtle emotion on display, they all spark off each other extremely well. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto get the most to do; more than anything, really, the film is about the friendship between Kirk and Spock, or at least Kirk’s attempts to make Spock realise what a friendship is. Quinto in particular captures Spock’s nature perfectly, and gets to show some very different nuances to the man, although his romance with Uhara is…less developed, beyond a couple of nice scenes. Again, it’s very much background to the Spock/Kirk bromance. Uhura herself though, in the form of Zoe Saldana, is actually given something interesting to do for a change, so well done on that. In fact, both women in the film actually get fleshed out if not necessarily ground-breaking roles, although Alice Eve’s Dr. Marcus is sadly more likely to be remembered for a lingerie shot so shameless that Michael Bay might have thought twice about it.

The performance everyone is interested in though is Benedict Cumberbatch, as the antagonistic John Harrison. It’s his first big screen role, leaving aside dragon duties in ‘The Hobbit’, and he acquits himself well. It is perhaps a touch too similar to his performance as Sherlock, but equally, Harrison is a somewhat similar character. Whatever your opinion on that score though, it cannot be denied that he dominates the screen in all his scenes, which is probably the most important thing in a villain.

All in all, it’s a perfectly good film. Spectacle in spades, anchored around a trio of fine performances and a sharp script. Perhaps, with a bit more confidence in his own ideas, Abrams could have delivered a truly excellent film; as it is, it stumbles at the last hurdle, and never quite recovers.

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