Star Trek into Darkness: Solid Sequel

Opens May 16

“Star Trek into Darkness,” J.J. Abrams’ sequel to his critically acclaimed “Star Trek,” which rebooted the popular franchise, walks a fine line between continuity and change, maintaining the good core elements of the 2009 entry, while introducing new characters (including a super-villain) and inventive action set pieces, not to mention the 3D technology.

Trailer: www.emanuellevy.com/?attachment_id=63975

Our review of the 2009 film: www.emanuellevy.com/review/star-trek-6/

It’s hard to think of another director, whose movie would be scrutinized and dissected by the fans and industryites alike as Abrams, due to the fact that he is assigned to helm the upcoming (seventh) chapter of George Lucas’s legendary “Star Wars.” Should there be another “Star Trek”—and likely there will be—Abrams would probably function as its executive producer.

The relaunch of the “Star Trek” series, after the stale entry of “Star Trek Nemesis” in 2002, was lauded by most critics and amassed over $385 in global box-office grosses. Judging by the pre-release hype and Paramount’s shrewd marketing campaign, “Into Darkness” should surpass those figures. (Most blockbuster tentpoles are doing better these days)

Like “Iron Man 3” “Into Darkness” is opening overseas (U.K. and elsewhere) on May 9, a full week ahead of its U.S. release (May 16). It should be noted that, unlike most American blockbusters, a larger proportion of the 2009 grosses have relied on the domestic market, and it remains to be seen whether this ratio (or imbalance) would persist with the new chapter. Most comic strip spectacles generate bigger profits internationally that stateside.

For readers anxious to find out right away the novelty of “Into Darkness,” let’s just say that it’s a solid, but not extraordinary, sequel in every respect. Most of the protagonists of the previous segment, well played Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, and Zoe Saldana, are back, while new characters are introduced, such as a super-villain named John Harrison (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and a sexy blonde scientist (Alice Eve), who may become a star based on her hot looks.

Too much cautiousness might have been exercised in the construction of the narrative, credited to the returning writers Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman, plus a fresh contributor, Damon Lindelof, known as co-creator of TV’s well-regarded “Lost” and as producer here.

The visual style of this film also combines old-fashioned values with new technology and state of the art CGI, ranging from ferocious but undistinguished battles between machines to more emotionally effective mano-a-mano fights.

What is decidedly different is the tone of “Into Darkness,” which, living up to its title, is less cheerful than that of the 2009 installment. Most of the characters are more battered and world-weary, a function of their maturation as well as of the zeitgeist. “Star Trek” came out in April 2009, several months after the election of President Obama, when the mood of the country was more upbeat, not yet absorbing the economic meltdown and the recession.

The earlier film’s basic elements are manifest in the plot, which picks up shortly after its predecessor left off. James Kirk (Chris Pines, as handsome as ever) is firmly installed as head of the USS Enterprise, with the logician Spock (Quinto) as his first officer. Still haunted by the destruction of Vulcan, Spock tries hard to prevent the planet’s incineration by a giant volcano. But Kirk flouts the Starfleet prime directive by allowing the primitive residents to clap eyes on the Enterprise as it rises from the sea.

Spock sends an official report that exposes Kirk’s decision, and the rift between the two men grows. While Kirk is furious for losing his command, Spock is transferred and reassigned. There is an excellent scene in which Kirk’s superior (the always reliable Bruce Greenwood) is reprimanded for his lack of subordination and lying about his mission.

But they can’t stay separate for too long, and the filmmakers come up with a credible idea of how to reunite the duo. The relationship between Kirk and Spock, a prototypical bromance that was an entertaining element of the previous film, now gets further elaboration.

As noted, the baddie of the piece is John Harrison (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), the latest of British heavies in American pictures, who first appears, out of nowhere. Harrison demolishes a Starfleet base in a futuristic London (in the 23rd century, to be exact), and then ruthlessly devastates a military conference in San Francisco. Reinstalled on the Enterprise bridge, Kirk and Spock vow to take Harrison down by all means available to them.

Trying to distinguish this super-villain from other terrorists who dominate American screen right now, the writers give him some idiosyncratic attributes. Slippery to a fault, Harrison claims not to be the villain, just a pawn in a grander and deadlier scheme. And for a while, we keep guessing as to the true identity of the mysterious outsider/insider (no more can be revealed here).
Deep-voiced, with sturdy body and glacial eyes, Cumberback (of “Sherlock” fame) gives a commanding performance. The actor’s exotic look and assertive manner separate him from other standard-issue villains. (Note that Sir Ben Kingsley, another distinguished British actor, plays the Bin Laden-like villain in “Iron Man 3”)

Ultimately, though, the saga’s true grit resides in the narrative and emotional, not sexual, texture. Thematically, the conflict between military discipline and its rigid regulation and personal loyalty that’s more instinctive and spontaneous runs through the story in several variations. The conduct of most of the characters is driven by relatable crises of conscience, tensions that arise from moral ambiguities and uncertainties, and at least two major characters prove to be fallible.

The bond between Spock and the adoring Uhuru (Zoe Saldana), established in the first film, is here more complex and elaborate . For his part, Kirk aims his sight at the newbie science officer Alice Eve, but the romance is understated and underdeveloped. Clearly, despite his good looks and boyish charisma, women are not the center of his attention. (Kirk is seen briefly in bed with two women).

Abrams’ last directorial feature, “Super 8,” demonstrated too much awe for Spielberg (its executive producer), paying homage to the maestro’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977) and “Ë.T.”(1982), but lacking Spielberg’s trademarks. The two helmers may like the same kind of films, but they are decidedly different directors, products of their respective generations. In “Into Darkness,” Abrams seems liberated form this “anxiety of influence” (to use an academic jargon) and the results are better and fresher. For example, there are touches of quirky, offbeat humor, which are inserted in between the requisite fight scenes and chase sequences.

A second viewing is required in order to determine the precision with which the action set-pieces have been inserted into the story, but judging by initial impression, some of them feel too mechanically engineered and too calculatingly placed in the narrative, resulting in action sequences that sometimes punctuate, other times puncture, and still other times disrupt our attention from the main story line.

Opinion would differ as to the relative merits of “Into Darkness” vis-a-vis the 2009 entry (I think the predecessor is superior in several respects). The contexts (and Abrams) have changed since 2009, and so “Into Darkness” lacks the cockiness, grit and bounce of the first film, but it’s still a sturdy, smart, well-crafted, and most enjoyable sequel.

Officially, “Into the Darkness” is the 12th feature in the uneven “Star Trek” series, which strangely enough has followed a discernible pattern: Most of the good entries are even numbered.

Cast
Chris Pine
Zachary Quinto
Zoe Saldana
John Cho
Benedict Cumberbatch
Alice Eve
Bruce Greenwood
Simon Pegg
Karl Urban
Peter Weller
Anton Yelchin
Leonard Nimoy.

Credits

MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 132 Minutes.

A Paramount release presented with Skydance Productions.
Produced by J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci.
Executive producers, Jeffrey Chernov, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Paul Schwake.
Co-producers, Tommy Gormley, Tommy Harper, Ben Rosenblatt, Michelle Rejwan.
Directed by J.J. Abrams.
Screenplay, Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, based on “Star Trek” created by Gene Roddenberry.
Camera, Dan Mindel.
Editors, Maryann Brandon, Mary Jo Markey.
Music, Michael Giacchino.
Production designer, Scott Chambliss; supervising art director, Ramsey Avery; art directors, Kasra Farahani, Michael E. Goldman, Andrew E.W. Murdock, Harry E. Otto, Lauren Polizzi.
Set decorator, Karen Manthey.
Costume designer, Michael Kaplan.
Sound, Peter J. Devlin; sound designer, Ben Burtt; supervising sound editors, Burtt, Matthew Wood; re-recording mixers, Will Files, James Bolt.
Visual effects supervisor, Roger Guyett; ILM visual effects co-supervisor, Patrick Tubach; ILM visual effects producer, Luke O’Byrne; visual effects, Industrial Light & Magic, Pixomondo, Kelvin Optical, Atomic Fiction