Thursday, May 16, 2013

Review: "Star Trek: Into Darkness"

Director: JJ Abrams
Runtime: 132 minutes

The fun of a sequel (at least on paper) is that the groundwork for the characters has already been established. This allows future installments to hit the ground running, and build up bigger, more epic plots that can produce thrills on a grander scale. The most obvious recent example of this trend is Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, which took the foundation of Batman Begins and introduced a darker, larger narrative, along with a more potent villain and higher stakes.

 JJ Abrams, on the other hand, has opted for an oddity of a sequel in his reboot of the Star Trek film franchise. Like its predecessor, Star Trek: Into Darkness has slick visuals, a good sense of humor, and fun set pieces. It also boasts a more enjoyable and menacing villain. On the other hand, Abrams' film feels strangely limited in scope, due to the script's initially choppy plotting. Overall, Into Darkness is a solid follow-up to Abrams' 09 film, yet it can't help but feel like a step in the wrong direction when it comes to narrative ambition.

Thankfully, the lighthearted opening sequence quickly re-establishes the best traits of the last film. The thrills are there, and, more importantly, so are the laughs. Though certain returning characters get little to work with (including Zoe Saldana's Uhura), the dynamics across the ensemble are still handled with a swift effortlessness. As the film's co-leads, Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto continue to delight. Their chemistry has remained firmly intact, and it's capable of infusing even the darkest moments with flashes of wit. Yet where Quinto was quite easily the MVP in the previous film, it's Pine who's the real surprise this time around. Kirk's existential conflicts aren't as inherently as interesting as Spock's, yet the way the script pushes the character (and the actor playing him) to his emotional limits is a tremendous boon. Of the returning supporting players, Karl Urban and Simon Pegg continue to have a ball as Bones and Scotty. John Cho's Sulu, refreshingly, also gets a few brief moments to steal the spotlight.

However, much like The Dark Knight, the real draw of Into Darkness is the villain. And while Benedict Cumberbatch's John Harrison (a rogue Star Fleet agent) may lack any nasty scars or colorful clown make-up, he's still a memorable force to be reckoned with. Cumberbatch is no stranger to playing slightly detached, hyper-intelligent characters. Yet unlike his excellent work on BBC's Sherlock, Harrison allows the actor to take that intelligence (along with his commanding deep voice) and slather on a nice thick layer of menace. Cumberbatch rarely raises his voice throughout the film, and his expression is often a mask. The actor largely allows his intonations to carry the character, and it works. From the beginning, Harrison is a mystery. As such, it's fitting that he becomes more expressive as his identity emerges. He's a blank canvas because that's what he needs to be for his own purposes (and possibly others').

Unfortunately, to get to the real meat of Into Darkness' plot and characterization, one has to endure a surprisingly clunky opening act. After the fun opening, the script then jumps around between drama at Star Fleet (Kirk loses command of the Enterprise), and Harrison's first attack on London. Then there's the matter of Harrison's possible connections to the bellicose Klingons, who threaten Earth's peaceful galatic explorations. Once everything comes together, there are a nice number of a-ha moments. By contrast, the first half's material is more obligatory than fully engaging. Abrams seems to agree. Barring the opening, the action sequences in the first half or so feel like they're being directed on autopilot. Given the immense charm of the cast, the film is never in danger of dragging. At the same time, there are moments where Into Darkness seems to coast along like a perfectly engineered machine that's also completely devoid of any true verve or personality. Rather than bring something new to the table, the first half of the film feels like more of the same, only without the fresh energy that Abrams brought to the table four years ago. 

Without that same energy, many of the early set-pieces lack true tension. There are a few too many times when characters are on the brink of death's door, yet the tone is too light for the stakes to feel real. However, once the various plot threads come together, Into Darkness stops being merely competent, and starts rising to the occasion. A trio of extended action sequences help drive the film to a smashing conclusion, albeit one that ends on a surprisingly small scale. Abrams finally seems fully alert in the director's chair, and drives the film home with equal amounts of glossy thrills and genuine (yet never sentimental) emotion. The whole film is a marvel of sights and sounds (visual effects and scoring are dynamite), yet it's in the second half of the film where they start to really pop. Above all else, the film is worth sticking with just to watch the stunningly put together sequence where the Enterprise plummets down from space and through the Earth's atmosphere. It's the sort of stuff that big budget extravaganzas were made for, and Into Darkness more than delivers.

Yet once the adrenaline of the finale wears off, it's hard not to view the film as mildly underwhelming. When the film works, it works spectacularly. And even when it isn't flowing together smoothly, it has engaging characters and a sense of humor that prevents the film from drowning in self-seriousness. But even as the film reaches some wonderful highs, it still comes off as a bit of a missed opportunity. Into Darkness should have been Abrams' chance to go bigger and bolder. Instead, he's opted for more of same, on roughly the same scale (possibly smaller). That doesn't make Into Darkness a bad film, or a bad movie-going experience. It just makes it a slight step backwards for a franchised that seemed primed for a great leap forward.

Grade: B

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