Respect the Chair: J.J. Abrams’ STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS

star-trek-into-darkness-benedict-cumberbatch-chris-pine

Review originally posted at Movie Knight, here.

Throughout J.J. Abrams’ latest foray into the world of science-fiction, a couple of phrases and ideas get repeated a noticeable number of times. Both of these remarks refer to the level of responsibility inherent to being the captain of a ship. They also happen to be at fundamental odds with our protagonist’s natural instincts.

Above all, respect the Captain’s Chair. But more importantly:

The choices you are making, if wrong, will get every single living person that you care about killed.

When we last left off with Abrams’ newly-rebooted take on the STAR TREK franchise, he had assembled himself a ragtag group of absurdly capable and entertaining explorers: Sulu (John Cho), the pilot and swashbuckler-extraordinaire, Chekov (Anton Yelchin), the accented navigator, Uhura (Zoe Saldana), the talented linguist, Bones (Karl Urban), the nervous doctor, Spock (Zachary Quinto), the logical but emotionally crippled half-human and, last-but-not-least, James Tiberius Kirk (Chris Pine), the overly-eager and arrogant captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise.

In a move born less out of reluctant necessity than seized through self-aggrandizing delusions of destiny, Kirk assembles his crew and saves the day, proving himself worthy all in one swift stroke. But a single victory does not make a man a leader, nor does a declaration of greatness necessarily make one great.

And so, Abrams has returned to the franchise he reinvigorated with STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, a bigger, bolder and ballsier crash-course in blockbuster filmmaking.

Picking up around a year after the first film, Abrams (along with screenwriters Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci) immediately thrusts us back into the waiting arms of the newly formulated super-team, already mid-mission. But when things go increasingly awry, Kirk is forced to improvise, violating the Prime Directive in the process – a rule under which no civilized species can intrude on the development of a less civilized, alien one.

It’s not the first rule we’ve seen the over-zealous captain break – and it certainly won’t be the last – but it’s an important reminder of Kirk’s true nature: that he thinks of himself as outside of and above the rules. Even when acting selflessly, he still believes his natural instincts and moral obligations take precedence over his other responsibilities. It’s a trait which his mentor, Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), believes he needs to have rubbed out of him. His lack of humility is not just a danger to himself and to his crew; it’s a sign that Kirk has no respect for the demands and responsibilities of a position he has barely earned. He’s not ready.

It’s an interesting twist on the standard “you’ve earned your stripes, now prove you can handle them” storyline which so many action heroes are faced with in their sophomore efforts. Kirk doesn’t fail because he broke the rules and risked the lives of his crew – he fails because he broke the rules while trying to save them from a mess he put them in in the first place. His respect and love for his crew is readily apparent, but it always comes second to his own arrogant ambitions. This isn’t a film about learning to love your family. This is a film about learning to be worthy of your family – especially when you’re the one seated in the chair at the head of the table.

All of this discussion naturally brings us to Benedict Cumberbatch’s villainous John Harrison. The less said about this character, the better, and I have no intention of spoiling him for you after all this time spent keeping him under wraps. He is, however, an infinitely more interesting character than Eric Bana’s Nero, and reflects the themes of the film well.

Harrison is one of those villains who mirror the hero in all of the right ways. He too is a captain, and he too would do anything for his family. His anti-authoritative (borderline terrorist-esque) tactics are aggressive and amoral, but his philosophies – and sometimes even his goals – line up pretty notably with Kirk’s. His plan seems to be fueled by passion rather than anything more insidious. He is a conflicted, relatable, ruthless monster, and his (reasonably) nuanced character makes him easy to root for and easy to misread – by both the audience and the other characters. The twisted and unexpected path down which his character travels is constantly surprising and a little bit incredible; if he wasn’t such an enigmatic force, it might seem contrived, but instead it feels honest and compelling.

And that may as well be true of the entire film, as it were. Lindelof, Kurtzman and Orci have cooked up a fairly detailed, politically-charged backdrop for INTO DARKNESS. That kind of storytelling requires a lot of turns and surprises, and some of it will certainly play better with some than for others. The final hour or so is a nonstop barrage of turns, reversals, shifted alliances, militaristic strategy and uncovered truths. It might seem easy to get lost in all of the shuffling around at breakneck speeds, but Abrams nails these plot developments like they’re going out of style.

Because what’s truly impressive about INTO DARKNESS (much like STAR TREK before it) is how unbelievably effortless the entire affair feels. It takes a rare sort of filmmaker to grind such a massive project down to something so polished, it literally shines (yes – there’s more lens flare to look forward to). There are cracks in the surface here which weren’t as readily apparent in the previous installment – wasn’t Kirk’s punishment in the opening of the film washed away a little too quickly? – but it’d take a heart of stone to let them diminish your enjoyment of the sheer wonder on display here.

But lest you believe that Abrams runs this franchise like nothing more than a well-oiled but soulless machine, you can rest assured that the same levels of heart and humor which were so prominent in the first film are on full display here. It’s as consistently funny throughout as the first film (maybe even more so), all while simultaneously embracing darker, edgier and more ambitious goals. The tone never needs to shift, as the film combines both the light and dark in perfect balance. This machine’s soul is fully intact.

And that’s great news, because the men who drew this blueprint are a marvel of the technological revolution. INTO DARKNESS is as tightly structured and as breathlessly paced as the first film in just about every way. As it moves from spectacular set-piece to spectacular set-piece, it’s hard not to be impressed by how the film never relents and yet also never becomes tiresome. It’s a true testament to everybody involved that this ship just keeps blasting through space without a single hiccup.

With that being said, the film is not perfect. Its first hour, exhilarating as it is, lacks the punch that the first film delivered so powerfully throughout.  In STAR TREK, you never felt as if you could see the machinery working behind the scenes; here, however, setup feels a bit like setup, rather than plot. It’s not a serious knock against the film, and it’s not dreadfully problematic, but it’s noteworthy. And after the jaw-dropping final act, the whole thing wraps up with a bit of a dull whimper after a bang: the ending is very abrupt, and could have probably used a little breathing room.

All those nitpicks aside, however, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS is another home run for Abrams and his Bad Robot team. Giacchino’s score is wonderfully bombastic as always, though maybe not as unexpectedly great as the first film. The cast all do a terrific job, as well; the main characters are forced to dig a little deeper into their characters, especially towards the end of the film. And the special effects are, as always, top-notch.

Summer blockbusters which operate on this level are a rare treat. Hopefully, once Abrams is done making a little film called STAR WARS: EPISODE VII, he comes back and finishes this trilogy off right. The franchise deserves its latest captain back in the chair, where he belongs.

8/10

d.a. garabedian

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