Sunday, June 2, 2013

Love: Star Trek: Into Darkness

[May contain spoilers] I grew up on Star Trek. TNG thru Voyager, we're talking like, serious, grade A, level one obsession from early childhood until about age 12.  I had piles of toys and books: plastic phasers, tricorders, comm badges, an army of action figures and ships, novelizations, official guides, parts of the series of YA books about Jake Sisko and Nog; and thankfully a couple friends who shared similar interests. Outside of our tight-knit backyard circle of Starfleet adventurers, the other kids just didn't get it. I learned early on not to throw around a Trek enthusiasm too much on the playground, and after all those years of reluctant fandom, the mass acceptance that came into vogue post J.J. Abrams still makes me feel weirdly justified. There's just something about watching a line of teen girls fresh from cheer practice file into the theater and giggle to each other about Captain Kirk's shenanigans that's kind of great. Some Trek fans (Trekkers, Trekkies, I can't keep the preferred term straight any longer) have been quick to deride the Abrams films as too-glossy exercises in 'trying too hard', but dammit, Jim, fuck nerd-cred and exclusion. Star Trek is the kind of series that should belong to the people, and Abrams proves again once more with Into Darkness that he's capable of delivering it to the masses, at a minimal price. 
The first entry in the rebooted series was a sparkling bit of summer adventure that mashed-up its 60's influences with 21st century effects.  While some of the concepts of the original series have been lost, much of the material was (and is) merely the result of clever recycling, the new Star Trek films are, somehow, just fun. At a point where 'darkness' seemed to be a buzzword for any self-respecting action flick, 2009's Star Trek was pop-art fresh to the point of making weary audiences giddy. When the buzz on Into Darkness (title included) seemed to suggest the primary colored quip would be replaced by Christopher Nolan-style menace, some worried the series would disappear into the bleak summer sci-fi landscape. The threat is definitely there. Abrams had already mucked things up a bit with die-hards when he made the film more about explosions than exploration, and the "sequel" seems to believe it has to break a few more Prime Directive rules to shape its new direction.

Of course, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) has always been a sort of maverick. The film opens on an action-packed sequence that finds Kirk battling between keeping his crew alive and upholding a basic first-contact regulation. When his decision finds him suspended and without the Enterprise, he's present for a series of Earthbound terrorist attacks on major Starfleet marks.  The perpetrator is John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), a shadow figure who flees to the edges of Klingon space where he believes no reasonable peacekeeper will travel.  That's what it takes to get Kirk back in the Captain's chair and reunited with the ever-logical Spock (Zachary Quinto), irritable Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Sulu (Jon Cho) and plucky Chekhov (Anton Yelchin).  The familiar faces resume their duties as effectively as before, and there's a chemistry between the actors that makes the real highlight of this film the bickering, bantering, and 'in' jokes between crewmates, lovers, and would-be enemies.    
Though the film's heart is invested entirely in the relationships between its recognizable characters, Benedict Cumberbatch pulls focus in a way that could find him easily typecast for years to come.  Cumberbatch has the look, talent, and voice to pull off a convincing sociopath, and the moment he detaches himself from anything that reads as 'human', he's compelling in that way only villains can be.  As the Enterprise's crew travels with plans to fire upon the terrorist with new, mysterious photon torpedoes, Harrison surrenders willingly and draws Kirk in with two revelations: that they may share an enemy far more dangerous than he and that John Harrison doesn't exist. His real name, of course, is Khan [Sidenote: I thought this was common knowledge going into the film, but apparently it's a major spoiler?].  Cumberbatch is a delightfully fierce villain, and as he combines power with intellect, he's the perfect excuse for Abrams to continue to push Spock into the role of unwitting action hero.  In 2013, we're not exactly hard up for another devil-may-care Kirk type, and so Spock's increasingly complicated turn is yet another way the franchise distinguishes itself from a redundancy of Marvel and DC wink-and-a-one liner juggernauts.  The film alternates between logic and brawn, rules and rebellion. And? Plainly put? I love watching the reluctant bromance (tired as that word may be) between Spock and Kirk. Abrams gets their relationship in ways the original series couldn't quite push, and their struggle to understand each other's logical reasoning seems somehow telling.
The film's end is the TV show's classic opener, and, in many ways, what Abrams has done here is build a film that plays out like a deluxe-sized episode. The resources are more plentiful, the sets bigger, the possibilities more abundant than ever; and though some of the kitsch that made the original has been lost, enough of the legacy remains. With Into Darkness Abrams polishes up that old school content, keeps up the lens flare on an already shining sequence of images, and boldly goes into the past where many may have gone before, but where we're happy to return.

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