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Friday, May 17, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness



I have no idea what I'm supposed to do. I only know what I can do.

If there's one true and fantastic Prime Directive in J.J. Abrams' continuing Star Trek reboot, it's this: Anything goes. Star Trek has become Abrams' experimental toy box and Abrams plays with his toys with fiendish glee, making Star Trek do things we never would have imagined possible, while still staying true to the essence and spirit of Star Trek. Just like its predecessor, Star Trek Into Darkness takes the familiar characters, ships, and ideas of the venerable franchise and spins them into new directions while delivering a mega-budget, blockbuster escapade where the guiding idea is "What if we did this?"  For this second thrilling voyage of the new Starship Enterprise, Abrams and his crew up the ante and go balls out, playing the "What if we did this?" game with the most highly regarded and downright beloved story in all of Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. Star Trek Into Darkness is like a funhouse mirror of Wrath of Khan, as the audience gapes in awe at what's reflected back at them.

"KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN!!!" (Who bellows that in fury and anguish? Nope. Wrong.)

Star Trek Into Darkness, itself a rechristened Star Trek II, plays aggressively and with a showman's delight with the tropes of the previous Star Trek II. Familiarity with The Wrath of Khan is not required to enjoy the ride of Star Trek Into Darkness, but it is all sorts of beneficial to fully appreciate the details. Abrams and his writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof know Wrath of Khan in and out but play coy for half the movie about what's really up their sleeve. When the name "Khan" is finally uttered more than halfway through, Star Trek Into Darkness turns on a dime from a breakneck, action-packed space epic into a full-on fan treatise (fan fiction only applies if the fiction isn't canon, and Abrams' Star Trek is the new canon) re-writing the book on Khan.

It's been rather less than five years since the brilliantly reckless/recklessly brilliant Captain James Tiberius Kirk (Chris Pine) and the crew of his Starship Enterprise set off into space to explore strange new worlds. But they're soon back on Earth after a mission to save one of those strange new worlds goes sideways and Kirk violates the Prime Directive in order to rescue Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto) from certain death in a volcano. Spock, a cauldron of issues ranging from his Vulcan half unable to tell a lie or violate Starfleet regulations to his human half still reconciling watching the entire planet Vulcan destroyed in the previous film, throws Kirk under the bus in his report to Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood, sporting funky sideburns: the 70's are back in the future, man). Continuing the first Star Trek's game of musical captain's chair, Kirk is demoted to First Officer and Pike is given back command of the Enterprise by the head of Starfleet, Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller). The novelty of Kirk having to serve as Pike's Number One (something we've never seen depicted in the television series or movies) barely has time to sink in before Starfleet's top captains, including Pike, sadly, are assassinated by John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), a rogue Starfleet Officer responsible for a terrorist act that destroyed a Starfleet data facility in London.

What transpires is a relentless roller coaster ride of violence, betrayals, starship battles, fist fights, secrets, lies, chaos, catastrophe, and sacrifice as Admiral Marcus orders Kirk into Kronos, the Klingon homeworld, risking all out war to kill Harrison before Kirk can discover who this "John Harrison", possessed of superhuman intellect, fighting strength and endurance to pain, truly is. (He's Khan.) The Eugenics Wars that bred Khan are fleetingly touched upon, as is reference to the Botany Bay starship that housed Khan and his 72 genetically engineered supermen in cryo-sleep. In this new history, it was Admiral Marcus, not Jim Kirk, who discovered the Botany Bay and unleashed Khan upon the 23rd century, and for very different reasons.

Star Trek Into Darkness deftly lobs commentary about both the now-revised history of Star Trek and our world and culture in the present day. We're 300 years into a gorgeously realized, Apple Store-like future for Mankind, but there's still terrorism shattering peace on Earth. To kill Harrison, Admiral Marcus gives Kirk 72 experimental photon torpedoes armed with mysterious payload that can be launched from the edge of Klingon space, the controversial 23rd century equivalent of today's drones. Spock and Kirk hotly debate the morals and ethics of using those photon torpedoes. Multiple nerdy callbacks to the now null and voided Star Trek of our past include mentions of the Gorn, (Harry) Mudd, Section 31 from Deep Space Nine (yay!), Nurse Christine Chapel, and the all-important (no kidding) Tribbles, the answer to Kirk's trials and tribble-ations. While there is no Genesis device that can ignite a dead planet back to life, the beautiful Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) joins the crew of the Enterprise as a weapons specialist and the daughter of the treacherous Admiral Marcus. The issue of militarizing the exploratory Starfleet in order to deal with the imminent (Marcus-engineered) threat of all-out war with the Klingons echoes the late Gene Roddenberry's real life outrage at what he felt was a more militaristic direction Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan took under the stewardship of producer Harve Bennett.

Most of all, the inadequacies of James T. Kirk are on full display. Star Trek Into Darkness directly raises the fascinating question that in this rebooted universe, perhaps Kirk was not ready to assume command of the Enterprise after all. Every side plays Jim Kirk throughout Star Trek Into Darkness, pushing and prodding him to react and testing his resolve to do what he believes is right, regulations be damned. As Kirk, Chris Pine continues to invoke William Shatner's bravado and heroic derring do, which barely mask his deep rooted uncertainties as Captain of the Enterprise, especially when he's not sure who to trust. Pine has also mastered Shatner's trademark awed gaping mouth (but he never utters "Oh my!" in that one, pivotal moment a Trek nerd is looking for it). Lacking Shatner's time-tested experience, Pine's Kirk is even more hot-headed, regularly drawing wide-eyed looks of concern from his fellow crew members. Unlike in Wrath of Khan, this Kirk and Khan are not intellectual adversaries, nor are they anywhere close to physical equals. As Khan, Cumberbatch is a magnetic madman and adversary. While lacking the late Ricardo Montalban debonair flair (and shapely pecs), Cumberbatch compensates with steely intelligence and snarling fearsomeness. If anything, there should have even more of Cumberbatch on screen, as he's largely a ghost for the first half of the movie.

But like Wrath of Khan, the heart of Star Trek Into Darkness is the theme of family and friendship. Kirk and Spock's bromance is tested repeatedly but both answer the call to do whatever it takes to protect and save their spacefaring family, with able assistance from Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy (Karl Urban) and Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana). Saldana's relationship issues with Spock provide welcome and poignant romantic comedy, and it takes both Spock and Uhura to finally defeat Khan in physical combat. As McCoy, Urban continues his gloriously spot-on impersonation of the late DeForrest Kelley. Mr. Chekov (Anton Yelchin) bristles in his new role as Chief Engineer after Scotty (Simon Pegg) quits over ethical issues, but this younger, amusingly irascible Scotty gets to see more physical action than the late James Doohan ever did. Mr. Sulu (John Cho) enjoys his first taste of sitting in the captain's chair, while former Robocop Peter Weller makes for a malevolent villain in his own right. But it's Quinto who impresses the most, taking Spock to new emotional heights and turning him into a full-on action hero. Yet Quinto is not above "cheating" and asking the other Spock (Leonard Nimoy) for advice on Khan; one half expects Nimoy to say, "There's a movie you really should see..."

Watching Star Trek Into Darkness play the "What if we did this?" game and zig where Wrath of Khan zagged in its second half is terrific fun. The question of why the stronger Vulcan Spock never physically confronted Khan instead of Kirk in the original series and movie is addressed here as Spock chases Khan across San Francisco and fights him in a brutal brawl, using his Vulcan nerve holds against Khan's super strength and ferocity. Instead of a battle of equally blind starships in a nebula, we get the Enterprise up against a much bigger and more powerful Dreadnaught-class starship commanded by Marcus, with a go-for-broke gambit by Kirk and Khan to take control of Marcus' ship (which is run by a conveniently and nonsensically minimal crew). Most pivotal of all, Star Trek Into Darkness turns the most famous and touching death in Star Trek lore on its ear, reversing who makes the heroic sacrifice to save the Enterprise and her crew from certain death. If the farewell scene between role-reversed Kirk and Spock isn't quite as moving as Shatner and Nimoy's, consider that these young heroes are standing on the shoulders of giants.

As Shatner's Admiral Kirk told Bones in Wrath of Khan, "Gallivanting around the galaxy is a game for the young, Doctor." In the end, Star Trek Into Darkness rocks the universe, delivering another rollicking good time watching the young crew of the Starship Enterprise fly by the seat of their pants in the final frontier. The stakes are higher, the emotions run hotter, and the color-coded shirts and miniskirts on the lady Starfleet Officers are tight as ever. When a born again Captain Kirk fittingly takes over the famous mission coda as the Starship Enterprise prepares to launch into its five year mission once more, we're left reeling and begging for another romp into the Undiscovered Country. J.J. Abrams and crew can keep commanding Star Trek and boldly going where no one has gone before for as long as they damn well please. (Might one suggest: Captain, there be whales here?)