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Sunday, June 9, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

Finally showing up on these shores, Star Trek Into Darkness has been received with everything from gushing praise to no less gushing hatred with many, many people falling somewhere in the middle. Well, I ain't sitting on a fence this time around...

My own personal history with Star Trek has always been a bit complicated, a bit contradictory and utterly inconsistent. My first steps into the franchise were watching the animated series when I was a kid but I only really got hooked when I started watching Star Trek: The Next Generation when I was in my very early teens. For those few years before The X-Files stole my interest and Buffy the Vampire Slayer stole my heart, I was quite the Trekkie and, obviously, caught up on the movies and started watching the later - and increasingly worsening - series. And, oh yes, I read loads of Star Trek novels as well. As time went on though, I lost almost all interest in Star Trek as I came to the stunning realizations that the Next Generation was bland, Voyager was terrible and Deep Space Nine was never anywhere near as good as Babylon 5. And, seriously, Enterprise who?     

Still, I could never quite shake the Original Series and the older I got, the more I came to appreciate the brilliance of the original adventures of the Enterprise - and that was before I even started to watch the 60's TV show itself. The thing about original Trek is that, no matter how good the stories themselves were, its real brilliance always lay in the characters that make up the crew of the USS Enterprise, but most especially the ego-driven Captain James T Kirk, the emotional Dr Leonard "Bones" McCoy and the coolly intellectual Mr Spock. They are both brilliantly realised characters and immortal archetypes and the interplay between the three was always the driving force behind the first and best incarnation of Star Trek.

Lapsed Trekkie as I was though, when I heard that they would be rebooting the original series for a new franchise of films starting in 2009 with new actors playing these iconic roles, I was, to say the least, incredibly skeptical. The film, though, simply and wisely called Star Trek not only surpassed all of my expectations and put my fears to rest but ended up as one of the best movies of that year. Director JJ Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman captured all the humour, adventure, welcome cheesiness and unbridled optimism of the original series and, with a lot of help from a terrific cast, more than did justice to these classic series. That they did all this with a new CGI sheen, a much increased pace and plenty of action   doesn't change the fact that Star Trek truly lived up to its name.

Now, four years later, we once again join Abrams, Kurtzman, Orci and new co-writer Damon Lindelof (Lost, Prometheus) and the slightly expanded crew of the USS Enterprise but would they be able to catch lightning in a bottle twice, especially with that ominous and not very Roddenberry-esque title?

To cut straight to the chase, not only yes, but HELL YES! To be clear, Star Trek Into Darkness is not a tremendously deep science fiction film (though it is both compassionate and smart) and it's certainly not without its niggling flaws but it's so mercilessly entertaining that I genuinely don't care. I simply can't think of any film this year that comes close to matching the "Aw Yeah!" entertainment of Abrams' latest foray into the Trek universe.

The film itself cuts right to the chase as it starts with a cold open of Kirk and McCoy being chased by hordes of primitive aliens, while Spock risks his life to render inert a volcano that threatens those very primitives. What follows are some daring rescues, plenty of squabbling and Kirk doing his thing by violating the Prime Directive (Starfleet's numero uno law of non-interference) at the drop of a hat. It's classic Trek - albeit classic Trek on steroids - and what follows is equally familiar: an arrogant Kirk getting a dressing down by his superiors before getting a chance to once again save the day.

And, boy, does the day need saving. John Harrison, an ex-Starfleet Officer turned terrorist, declares war on Starfleet and it's up to Kirk and his crew to kill him or bring him to justice. Revealing any more of the plot would spoil the fun but expect drama, tragedy, action, philosophical arguments, plenty of laughs and a pace that doesn't let up for a minute. There are also plenty of references, in-jokes and nods to long time fans - who will probably be a step or two ahead of non-fans when it comes to the plot - but Abrams always ensures that it will work just as well for new viewers.

Indeed, it is actually the references to classic Star Trek that seems to be the biggest contention with die hard fans - again, I won't say any more in fear of spoilers - but I actually got a kick out of them and more than a laugh or two. I see where these fans are coming from and the references are occasionally just a bit too on the nose but my only real, non-nitpicky problem with the film is that I wanted more of Dr McCoy. These new films have been faultless when it comes to the Spock/ Kirk relationship but the Spock/ Kirk/ McCoy dynamic feels rather underdeveloped, which is especially a shame as Karl Urban is incredible in the role.

But then, the entire cast are excellent once again with both Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto once again proving to be more than up to the task of taking on the franchise's most beloved and well known roles, Kirk and Spock respectively, by acknowledging the amazing work done by their predecessors without ever being slave to them. Meanwhile, further expanding Uhura's role far beyond what Nichelle Nichols was ever called on to do, Zoe Saldana is once again responsible for providing a strong female voice to the proceedings but is aided this time by a very solid turn by new addition, Alice Eve. As for the, ostensibly, "supporting" players, while Anton Yelchin as Chekov draws the short straw in terms of having much to do, John Cho gets some great scenes as occasionally acting captain Sulu and Simon Pegg brings some of the best laughs as Montgomery Scott (complete with perfectly crappy Scottish-by-way-of-Canadian-via-England accent) but there's quite a bit more dramatic weight to him this time round.  

Matching the heroes in every sense every step of the way, the film's great ace in the hole is Benedict Cumberbatch as the film's chief bad guy, John Harrison. Again, I wouldn't dare give away anything about the character for fear of spoiling one of the film's many pleasures but Cumberbatch is simply a brilliant villain as he plays Harrison as being ruthlessly smart, incredibly dangerous and fanatical in the relentless pursuit of what he wants but also unquestionably sympathetic and complex in his motives.

Of course, "complex" might seem a strange choice of words considering how much Star Trek Into Darkness presents itself as nothing but a silly action adventure but just because it is silly and it is mostly a thrill ride doesn't mean that it ignores Star Trek's socio-political conscience. Along with being tremendous fun, the film does at least touch on questions of terrorism, technological responsibility, personal sacrifice and the very soul of humanity's future as a race. It's not deep and it's not that subtle but there is intelligence in the new Star Trek and just because it comes out of a popcorn sensibility rather than ponderous earnestness, doesn't mean it's not there.

Some have been really quite harsh about Star Trek Into Darkness so your mileage may vary but I for one cannot recommend the film enough - it's terrifically entertaining and not without some well placed smarts and heart and, crucially. it may be a Star Trek that aims for an audience far wider than a hardcore fanbase but it's Star Trek through and through. And considering that the whole franchise was completely dead in the water a few short years ago, that really isn't an inconsiderable achievement.

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