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Wednesday, 8 May 2013

AFICIONADO REVIEW: 'STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS'


Earth's darkest hour. John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) takes STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS. Images: PARAMOUNT.

STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS

Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Benedict Cumberbatch

Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof

Directed by J.J. Abrams

A PARAMOUNT PICTURES release, showing in UK cinemas in 2D, 3D and IMAX from May 9th 2013


Reviewed by Scott Weller

NOTE: If you haven't seen the first three trailers for the film, this review contains mild but potential SPOILERS.


“At the end of the universe lies the beginning of vengeance.”


Okay, so it’s the legendary tag line for the original, mighty STAR TREK movie series blood and guts adventures that was 1982’s iconic THE WRATH OF KHAN, but that films words of drama and exciting promise also prove relevant and prescient to the plot and characters in the intense but fun thrill ride that is J.J. Abrams latest warp speed exploration- nay, re-imagining- into Gene Roddenberry’s world audience popular universe, grabbing us by the lapels and thrusting into the unstable wormhole that is INTO DARKNESS!

Starting off on the kind of fun note that was prevalent in their debut film of 2009, the heroic and determined crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise begin their second digital spectacle with an Indiana Jones-esque race against time to save an alien populace from the fiery destructive core of an exploding volcano. But Kirk soon finds himself in deep trouble with his superiors at Star Fleet Command after making a critical decision gone bad, basically overriding the galaxy-spanning law that is the Prime Directive (a rule we all know Kirk often liked to bend or break to his own viewpoint in the original series). But when a devastating attack threatens the well-being of the Federation, from a mysterious, highly-placed terrorist known as John Harrison, our heroes are soon engaged in a deadly, high-stakes cat and mouse pursuit against a foe that seemingly knows their every move…

Federation's finest! Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Kirk (Chris Pine) are back.

Trying to keep some of the Roddenberry-esque influences that made the original series and films so notable, fan boy writers Orci, Kurtzman and Lindelof carve out a story relevant to humanity and the times we live in. With a plot that could genuinely have been pulled from todays headlines with regards to the war on terror in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, the feel of INTO DARKNESS definitely corresponds to the often dangerous and unsettled life and times we’ve been thrust into, especially linked to the American superpower of the Barack Obama administration and its inherited war on terror (in the 23rd Century we see techno-warfare equivalents to drone weapons, whilst the films middle act has the techno baddie Harrison sheltering in hard to reach territory-definitely shades of the US’s determined hunt for Bin Laden in the films middle act). The original sixties show ultimately echoed the bold, intelligent, inquisitive hopes and dreams of the Kennedy era. Some of that positive idealism can still be found in Abrams imagining, but less so than that was seen in his first breakout TREK adventure.

Changing time-lines. John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a villain by any other name.

Taking place a year or so after the events of the Romulan Nero’s time travelling havoc, the writers enjoy their crafting of the new TREK universe, and all of them know its history, celebrating it. There are some nice references to previous STAR TREK TV series (most notably DEEP SPACE NINE- linked to the kind of conspiracy plot that should have been seen on a big scale in one of the previous TREK movies: Insurrection), and a surprise from a familiar face that will most definitely warm the cockles of your heart. Watch out too for another iconic TREK alien whose usefulness proves all-important to the plot and one of our heroes.

The continuity and timelines of the original series, now evaporated into a separate parallel era, are further played about with, and positively stretched in and out, by the trio. Their deconstruction and inversion of THE WRATH OF KHAN, still the unbeaten TREK movie in my opinion, is clever, but perhaps too clever for its own good, notably in the final act, with so much going on that the film starts to suffer in its pacing structure as its breathlessly moves towards that big finish-perhaps hampering the overall emotional impact of the story and characters on our mindset. Such is the curse of all modern blockbusters.

As darker storytelling times unfold at the cinemas, we need our shining STAR TREK heroes more than ever to light the way-this movie continuing to explore the diversely fascinating group “family” exploring the galaxy, and protecting us, from their glistening bridge on the Enterprise. They’re not quite the effective team that was seen in the classic series, but this new film series is gradually working towards it, building and keeping character interest at the same time.

Chris Pine shines brighter than ever as James Tiberius Kirk, cementing himself as a worthy successor to the iconic William Shatner. He’s still the bed-hopping ladies man of the last film, charmingly brash and impulsive, with that twinkle in his eye that Shatner often brought to his character in the original series. But Pine isn’t a caricature of The Shat or Kirk-bringing his own edge and style to the role. There’s some nice character moments here where his ego has to be reined in and tempered by the return of his mentor, Captain Christopher Pike- another fine supporting turn from Bruce Greenwood.

Captain Kirk is up to his neck in danger- again!

This time out, Kirk’s confidence and belief in himself is tested to the limit during his event packed first year commanding the Enterprise, some of his decision making and risk-taking getting him into trouble as he is forced into questioning and re-evaluating his capabilities and instincts. The winds of destructive change, however, soon sees him undertake his deadliest mission yet when the horrific attack on Star Fleet’s top brass is initiated by Harrison, sending send him out on a perilous, personal vendetta quest to capture the self-outcast, laying in wait in the ruins of a wrecked city on the hostile planet of the Klingons: Kronos.

On that journey, INTO DARKNESS is clearly Kirk’s true courage under fire test. In this dangerous game, has he overreached himself? The Kobayashi Maru test that Kirk never liked to lose, and which he always treated as a game, becomes very real for our hero in the spectacular final act.

Spock has a cool-down moment.

The yang to Kirk’s yin, Zachary Quinto once again plays Vulcan First Officer Spock with integrity and respect to Leonard Nimoy, whilst adding his own unique flourishes, and aggression, to the character. His head may be based in logic but his heart remains humanly fragile - just as rash and impulsive as Kirk in many scenarios, but using the veil of his intelligent reasoning to justify his actions against his Captain, unable to stretch to his rules, and the sometimes unorthodox but clever command decisions he reaches. They’re not thumping each other’s brains in like the last film, but the bond between Kirk and Spock, so important in the original series, hasn’t yet happened as the film starts. Though the turn of events witnessed by them during its exhilarating end will surely change things for the better. Spock’s idealism, loyalty and courage will be just as supremely tested as Kirk’s when they encounter John Harrison for the first time.

A ship needs its Captain, but a Captain also needs his crew. And Kirk’s got the best in Star Fleet. All of our iconic supporting cast have moments in the sun, but they’re sadly all too brief. Karl Urban’s Dr. McCoy continues to be a fun tribute to the talents of the late, much-missed DeForest Kelly, but, against expectations, he’s yet to form his part of the all-important troika with Kirk and Spock that became so standout in the original series. Perhaps they’ll be a better chance of that with the next film.

A danger-ready Uhura (Zoe Saldana) takes on a mighty foe.

John Cho as Hikaru Sulu and Anton Yelchin as whizz-kid Pavel Chekov get little screen time, whilst Zoe Saldana is mostly wasted as Uhura after such a good entrance and early character development in the first movie. INTO DARKNESS shows her in an on/off moody state over her relationship with Spock. Though its good to see her out and about on away team missions, as Nichelle Nichols interpretation should have been back in the sixties, this talented and beautiful actress deserves better. I don’t want these guys ending up the way the original supporting cast were- basically neglected- in the later eighties TREK films.

And though he has a reasonably good side-plot here, I’m sorry to say that I’m still not a fan of Simon Pegg’s playing of Scotty, making it even more of a stereotype than the stalwart Jimmy Doohan ever did in the series (or even the later movies). And can we please make Scotty a little less of a whinge bag next time, and a bit braver- Jimmy Doohan’s portrayal wasn’t afraid to get stuck into the action when he had to!

With equal and opposite reaction, there has to be a dastardly villain, and the idea of resurrecting and reimagining a classic baddie from the original and legendary film and TV series must surely have proved too irresistible to let go by both PARAMOUNT and the writers. But it also proves a poison chalice in some respects, as their choice of antagonist has a lot to live up to-not only in his villainous interplay with Kirk, but also in having to sustain himself on-screen without coming across as a rehash of the past.

His US fame launched by Spielberg, Brit star made good Benedict Cumberbatch may at first have seemed an unusual choice of villain, but his casting proves wise the moment you see him on screen. Hollywood loves our British thesps too much to not have them play to the dark side, and Cumberbatch’s confident presence as the nexus for INTO DARKNESS is better than I expected- at his finest in the film’s first half when he’s “John Harrison”, as it all builds towards his confrontation with Kirk and co. Cumberbatch spars particularly well with Chris Pine. But who has “the superior intellect”?

A one-man army. The hunted Harrison fights back!

Possessing the impressive, haunting and menacing voice required for the role, Cumberbatch also has a top notch physical frame to back his character up- the terrorist leader with a dangerous secret showing his martial arts training to the fullest during an effective fight sequence against the Klingons (seen in the teaser trailers)- finally getting their brief but memorable time in the sun after their prior deleted participation from Abrams first TREK.

Harrison’s physical strength also shows in an exciting fight between him and Spock, the two opponents possessing similar abilities, in a crowd-pleasing hand to hand sequence whose original green screen filming had previously been leaked out to the world and annoyed JJ Abrams.

Lovers-to-be? Carol Marcus (Aliced Eve) and Kirk.

Rounding out a fine guest cast, Ex-Robocop hero/legend Peter Weller has a bigger part in the film than I anticipated as Admiral Marcus - which is great, whilst British actress Alice Eve plays his daughter, scientist Carol (another deliberate link to THE WRATH OF KHAN), giving a solid and cute performance, though the anticipated romance between her and Kirk fails to materialize – perhaps being saved for another film. Oh, and she’s got a great figure, too.

Keeping the British end up, watch out for a brief but important cameo from DOCTOR WHO’s Noel Clarke as a family man whose worries for his wife and sick child lead to devastating consequences. Finally, in nice continuity to the previous adventure, it’s fun to have Deep Roy back for the ride as Scotty’s little alien helper in engineering, Keenser.

Deliberately keeping a lot of the film Earthbound so as not to alienate general audiences (who, watching a sci-fi film, can’t seem to take in sci-fi environments-explain that to me?!), we get to see a lot more drama and action within the Star Fleet confines of San Francisco, as well as London, which doesn’t have a good time of things after a section of it is blown up in John Harrison’s opening terrorist salvo.

Harrison is having a smashing time in San Francisco.

Meanwhile, on the good ship Enterprise, we notice the familiar ships bridge and a few other places getting some mild set design upgrades, and there’s some new, more expansive corridors making the Federation flagship look like a plush set of modern office corridors than a starship (or is it is vice versa, what with STAR TREK having affected and influenced so many peoples designs lives?). There’s a return to the immense metallic beer factory in Los Angeles for the ships engineering section, and the use of a real-life neutron generator as the ships warp engines, which looks intriguing, though I’d be wary of getting too close to it in real-life in case I actually was transwarped somewhere!

Lively opener aside, the film's main planetary visit beyond the confines of our solar system is the aforementioned Kronos - a dark, ash storm battered world- for the middle of the film. Interestingly, the Klingons seen here aren’t too different from what’s gone before, but at this point in TREK history they are more nomadic and have yet to become a dominant enemy force against the universe, though their first steps are causing problems for the Federation (a scenario that will likely powder keg detonate with the next film!).

Kirk, Uhura and Spock witness a change in fortunes...

A worthy continuance to all the good set-up work which the BAD ROBOT people brought to the table with their 2009 re-imagining, INTO DARKNESS is capably staged by J.J. Abrams, who brings some worthy wow moments to the table that will surely capture your attention. Early criticisms of the films have cited it as being too mechanically driven, but I disagree. It takes a person with an incredible amount of ingenuity and flair to pull off a movie as big as this, and get so much of it right.

There are shocks and surprises in store, too, that perhaps not all die-hard STAR TREK fans will like, and would most likely have made the late Roddenberry a little uncomfortable, but, in this modern movie-making entertainment climate, the series has to take risks to keep earning the box office and win over the demanding general audiences. The 3D is pleasingly achieved (looking greater in IMAX) but ultimately, the plot and characters are rightly considered the all-important reality here.

The STAR WARS-esque adrenaline flavor of the original 1977 to 83 movie series, and a touch of some of the Prequels (an air chase in and out of buildings not dissimilar to ATTACK OF THE CLONES), also feels more prevalent here than Abrams first TREK outing, especially on the action side (I was expecting some lightsabers rather than phasers to light up!)-I’m looking forward to seeing what he’ll be bringing to the George Lucas created universe in 2015 in its directing seat.

It's Enterprise's David versus the Vengeance dreadnought's Goliath in a thrilling space battle.

Spectacular second unit work from Roger Guyett adds to the palette, alongside ILM’s supreme computer generated imagery. The shots of the crippled Enterprise crashing through the Earth’s atmosphere, and the WRATH OF KHAN-esque homage to the Enterprise and Reliant space dogfight fight, the latter a prototype Vengeance-class destroyer (used so evocatively in the newly released teaser poster for the film) are impressively staged. Kudos also to the return of sound veteran Ben Burtt, his ears and microphones attuned anew, along with Matthew Wood, giving their all for the project. And we like that!

Composer Michael Giacchino reprises his majestic score/main title from the first film in several key scenes, alongside the classic TREK theme composed by Alexander Courage, but a lot of his new music ultimately gets lost amongst the visual eye candy and explosions.

So, a success on so many levels, but with a few flaws in its story structure, INTO DARKNESS nonetheless has what it takes to be a box office champ. Abrams and his sterling teams work will keep the TREK flame alive for a few more live long and prosper years to come…

The lovely individual character posters for INTO DARKNESS.

AFICIONADO RATING: Firing its phaser banks to the full, INTO DARKNESS isn’t quite THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK of the new TREK franchise that we were all hoping for, nor does it bring as much creative freshness as we expected. Pretty much an equal-perhaps slightly better- to Abrams first re-imagined adventure, it has a lot of heart and holds itself up high as a spirited summer holiday blockbuster that’s well worth spending two hours plus on. 4 out of 5.

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