'Darkness' boldly pushes 'Star Trek' franchise into thrilling frontiers

Donnerstag, Mai 16, 2013 | by: Brian Byrne and Greg Elwell

Greg: There are no rules.

Well, actually, there are lots of rules. And “Star Trek: Into Darkness” has a lot to say about when to follow rules and when to break them; and when the rules will save us and when they will damn us. But for the makers of this second film in the reboot of the venerable franchise, there are no rules.

And that is what makes this movie exciting, even more so than the first J.J. Abrams “Star Trek.” No rules mean that anything can happen. No rules mean that there’s real danger. And even if the rules aren’t broken, the threat is still there; and that is all it takes to make you catch your breath when the action heats up.

Let me get this out of the way early -- I don’t have strong feelings about lens flare one way or the other. Lens flare is only distracting if you let it distract you. It’s there. In fact, there might be more of it. And I get the feeling it’s a big middle finger from Abrams to his critics. “You think I care what you think? Here’s more lens flare. Deal with it.”

Seriously, if you walk out of this movie and all you can do is complain about lens flare, then why did you bother going?

Brian: I agree. If you can’t stand the flare, get out of the lens.

Greg: Sorry. Tangent. Let’s get back to why I really, really enjoyed this movie. The film begins in the perfect place, as noted Beastie Boys aficionado Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and his crew are on a mission on an alien world.

They were meant to survey it, but without the knowledge of the planet’s natives who are extremely primitive. This is where those rules come in. The Prime Directive is “Very Important”; but it is more important than saving the life of a crew member? Or saving an entire species?

But those questions become more relevant later. These opening moments are about re-establishing the film’s sense of fun and adventure. Much like other Abrams ventures, this film knows that quick jokes in tense situations are good fun for all involved. “Star Trek: Into Darkness” wants to ponder some big questions, but it doesn’t want to be ponderous.

Brian: “Into Darkness” mostly pulls this off well, and there’s certainly no shortage of Big Questions to deal with. The TV series (and speculative fiction in general) frequently dealt with topical themes transplanted into an entirely different context, so as to shed new light on them. It’s sometimes hard to relate to these themes when they’re taken so far out of context (halfway across the universe, for example) and this latest Trek film saves us the trouble by almost directly transplanting current themes from the headlines to the screen. Terrorism? You got it. Indefinite detention without trial? Plenty! Pre-emptive war? More, please!

That said, “Into Darkness” generally doesn’t lay it on too thick, and indeed, there’s no shortage of excellent tension-breaking humor, or of finely crafted tension.

Greg: When the film returns to Earth, we see the consequences of the opening adventure and the consequences of the terrorist act that sets the rest of the film in motion.

It’s no secret that Benedict Cumberbatch (of the BBC’s excellent “Sherlock”) is the villain. And while he does a little scenery chewing, it’s far less painful than Eric Bana’s baddie from the first film. No, Cumberbatch, playing John Harrison, is quite fun as a man who is more than he seems and probably more than a match for a vengeance-fueled Kirk.

Brian: Yeah, Cumberbiscuits is surprisingly badass here, and he definitely created an ongoing question in my mind about whether or not any of the Enterprise’s crew could actually keep him from doing whatever the hell he wanted.

Greg: The rest of the crew returns and each gets their own time in the spotlight, though none more than Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto, who is so good in the role, it’s a bit scary). Much like the TV show and its movie spinoffs, these “Star Trek” films rely on the chemistry of Spock and Kirk, with all others orbiting around them.

One newcomer is Alice Eve, playing a second science officer (highly illogical) with a hidden agenda. She’s not given all that much to do, but she performs admirably. It’s also good to see Robocop back in action, as Peter Weller plays the leader of Starfleet. If Madea was around, I didn’t see her.

Brian: The cast is steadily improving, though they were pretty great to begin with. Quinto absolutely takes Spock into places I’ve never seen him go emotionally, and we see our steadfast half-Vulcan develop in a way I daresay we never did in any of the earlier films or episodes. Chris Pine borders on problematic for me. He absolutely plays Kirk to the best of his ability, and he does a commendable job; but sometimes there’s a spark missing in his portrayal — though it’s possible I’m just looking for the bizarro, semi-maniacal warp core that powered William Shatner’s Kirk (powers William Shatner, technically). If so, that’s an unfair comparison, clearly.

But again, the entire cast is delightful. John Cho’s Sulu is carving a quietly badass niche for himself; Karl Urban’s McCoy is a fully developed 70-year-old in a 35-year-old’s body; Zoë Saldana’s Uhuru is very good, though at times it seems she’s mainly there to be Spock’s love interest which is frustrating; and Simon Pegg’s Scotty is fantastic, accompanied this time around by an impassive dwarf alien counterpart whose glittering black eyes and complete silence make him an oddly perfect comic counterpart to Scotty’s righteous indignation.

And yes, Greg: I, too, could not have been happier to see Peter Weller well cast as Admiral Marcus. After his “Robocop,” I’ll watch him in anything.

Greg: At 132 minutes, I wouldn’t say the film felt long, but it did have ample epilogues. Every time it seemed like you could breathe, the floor would drop out from under you (figuratively) or the crew of the Enterprise (literally) and you’d be back on the edge of your seat. 

Brian: I barely noticed the epilogues, to tell you the truth — the film’s pacing was such that I wasn’t convinced it was over until the credits rolled. I did notice you moving to and from the edge of your seat during the periods when you were sitting on my lap, but again, I was too caught up in things to pay much mind.

Greg: Maybe we should look into getting two seats next time. But whatever. We saw the film in 3D. If I’m being honest, it wasn’t terrible. I don’t usually like 3D, but this had some pretty useful, pretty beautiful moments. When I see it again in 2D, I hope it all seems as glorious. 

Brian: I very much dug the 3D, and it’s certainly worth discussing. The 3D designation is frequently shorthand for “That’ll be six more dollars per ticket” and not much else, but as the technology matures your better directors seem to be wising up to how it’s best used — see Martin Scorcese’s playful dive into the third dimension in “Hugo,” for example. It works particularly well for first-person flying scenes, as those in “How to Train Your Dragon,” and there’s one scene in “Into Darkness” that almost singlehandedly makes the 3D surcharge worth it.

Greg: In many ways, this is still the prequel. How do these characters become the beloved characters of the original series? But, because we’re in an alternate universe, they might not. Who knows what they’ll become or if they’ll survive? That’s what makes this reboot so refreshing. There really are no rules.

Brian: And that’s the beauty of it: We’re never sure entirely what to expect, and one enjoyable by-product of the rebooted films is watching how J.J. Abrams plays with our expectations. The last (first?) film’s alternate timeline twist remains a brilliant “out” for J.J. Abrams to let his Trek universe flourish on its own, and it’s incredibly entertaining to watch his vision unfold, lens flare and all.

Greg: I give it four of five disabled Enterprises.

Brian: I say 4.5 out of five impassive alien dwarf drinking buddies.

"Star Trek Into Darkness" is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence.