Wednesday, May 8, 2013

‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ (2013) directed by J. J. Abrams

I’ve always detected a faint whiff of fascism in Star Trek that makes me wary.  To some extent it’s the militaristic uniforms, but mainly it's the weird paternal, imperialist overtones of the whole thing.  Fair enough, Star Trek presents a scientific utopia that’s free of class, racial and sexual discrimination, but then so does Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers.  I always find  a disconnection between the  mission to "explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations" and the overtly militaristic, naval overtones of Star Trek.

2009’s Star Trek glossed over these elements by showing Starfleet through largely through the eyes of Chris Pine’s Kirk who began as an outsider with an antagonistic relationship with the establishment.  It’s notable that one of first interactions that Kirk has with Starfleet involves him getting the crap beaten out of him in a bar by over-muscled bullyboys.  But by the end of the film he’s firmly established as the bright young future of Starfleet. He’s young, blonde, blue-eyed, brave and intelligent. As the film ends and he assumes command of the USS Enterprise the galaxy is his oyster.

Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Kirk (Chris Pine)
The 2009 film is an outstanding piece of cinema, and on watching it properly in preparation for this sequel I was impressed at how many balls it manages to juggle, and just how fast and dynamic the film is.  But as far as I’m concerned, this relationship between science and the military state is the elephant in the room in Star Trek; are these bright young things soldiers or scientists?

Pleasingly, Star Trek Into Darkness tackles this head on.  The film cuts right to the heart of the issue, concentrating on the uneasy relationship between science and war and the corruption of those participating in a military-industrial complex.  Characters and iconic Star Trek elements are repeatedly transformed into weapons in this film, and the narrative develops into a symbolic conflict between the utopian, peaceful liberal heaven that Star Trek wants to be and the anal, war-ship torpedoes and laser beam fights reality of what Star Trek is.

Everything here revolves around John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch),a mysterious, powerful terrorist with shady motivations and a murky past.  At it’s basest level the narrative shows the crew of the Enterprise peeling back various layers of deception that both Harrison and Starfleet have constructed to pervert the scientific mission at the heart of the show.  All of the lies that Kirk and his crew have to fight against are intended to do one thing; to transform them into immoral, “just following orders” soldiers.

John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) 
This transformation is more overt in some characters than others.  Kirk’s rebellion and desire to do what’s right regardless of regulation is quickly harnessed by authority to turn him and the Enterprise into an extra-judicial assassination machine, Kirk suppresses his conscience to happily commit grossly immoral acts at the behest of his superiors.  The film actually literalises this transformation: at one point Kirk becomes a bullet in a gun and the Enterprise fires him at a target.  But it goes further than Kirk; throughout the film we see people being transformed against their will into various types of offensive weaponry, we even see a hellish black Enterprise entirely converted to a weapons platform, a blasphemous distortion of a scientific exploration vessel.

The most obvious manifestation of this is John Harrison himself, a man explicitly  engineered to be a weapon.  He and Kirk have much in common with each other, and it’s tempting to call Harrison Kirk’s dark mirror.  But Harrison isn’t so much a reflection as a logical extension of Kirk. As a eugenics experiment he parodies Kirk's patrilineage, as an imperial conqueror he highlights how easily the rebel Kirk squeezes into a uniform and as a violent egotist he's the monster bubbling somewhere under the surface of Pine's Kirk.  As a distorted personification of Kirk, Harrison becomes every icky thematic element present in Star Trek, what the show does not want to be.  So he's a Satanic figure, a fallen angel that represents not only temptation for Kirk, but an spectre that must be exorcised in order to for Star Trek to function correctly: as an optimistic, humanist and aspirational utopia.

Thematically these are knock-out blows, and the film left me more than satisfied in this regard.  Fortunately the film is also a stunning piece of cinema.  Carrying on in the spirit of the 2009 effort, Star Trek Into Darkness is dynamic, imaginative and utterly thrilling.  

One of my favourite things about the 2009 film was that everybody was always running around at breakneck speeds.  They’d peg it down the corridors of spaceships, the camera acting as a kind of active participant.  In the background you might see something amazing looking but there’s no time to linger because holy shit something else has just exploded!  Into Darkness only improves on the previous film, cold opening on someone sprinting in a panic through a brilliant crimson forest.  From there we get such treats as a chase sequence with brilliant tracking shots of Spock running, T1000-like, through crowded city streets and, my favourite, a hilariously zoomed out long shot of Scotty running through a huge cargo hangar.  This focus on running not only adds some much needed kineticism to Star Trek, but also allows us character insights.  You can tell a lot about a person by the way they run.

The way that Abrams piles on the peril is nothing short of magnificent.  He repeatedly pulls the rug away from us, causing the character’s environment, goals and motivations to seamlessly shift within every action sequence.  These shifting circumstances allow the characters to display their fluidity and ability to adapt, as well as being absolutely goddamn amazing.  There’s perhaps no better barometer of how well Abrams constructs these sequences than the reactions of the audience.  I heard little gasps and moans as things begin to go wrong in a scene, a tension that builds to such a degree that when we get a moment of triumph and respite there’s instinctive scattered applause.

Uhura (Zoe Saldana)
Aside from the epic set pieces, there’s close attention to detail throughout the film.  Abrams gets a lot of stick for over-using lens flare in these films, and particularly in the scenes set on the ship’s bridge there’s a lot of it.  Personally I adore the effect and find it hugely appropriate.  Especially in 3D the style gives light a solidity and allows us subconsciously associate beams of light with the Enterprise itself, lending the ship a sort of elemental divinity.  Addtionally the sound effects, excellent in Star Trek, continue to impress here, especially the whipcrack *BOOM* when the ship goes to light speed. 

But this isn’t a perfect film.  One of the consequences of Abrams being so eager to repeatedly pull the rug out from under us that you begin to sense a slight lack of consequences.  So when the big dramatic and emotional stuff happens, it’s slightly undermined by the fact that we know the status quo will reassert itself relatively quickly.   Another nitpick is that the film falls a bit flat when it references Star Trek’s past.  This is a such a forward-looking film that these nods feel useless and occasionally a reference detracts from the emotional connection.  Suddenly you're not engaged with a character, you're smirking as you recognise an internet meme.  There’s one cameo in particular that undercuts a lot of the drama and frankly, is entirely unnecessary.  Finally, the film was clearly not shot for 3D.  The framing is all wrong with objects and characters situated partially outside the frame, which tends to break the 3D effect.  There’s also repeated use of out of focus foreground objects that distract the eye to the point of discomfort.  Definitely see it in 2D.

Chris Pine sure does dangle from a lot of things in these films.
But these are minor nitpicks, and the film is so damn propulsive and energetic that it’s difficult to be too critical.  Every single actor here is working at the top of their game, and every character gets a little set piece to themselves.  Particular kudos goes to Benedict Cumberbatch’s John Harrison, Zachary Quinto’s Spock and Simon Pegg’s Scotty, all of whom light up the screen whenever they're on it.  I never, ever thought I would be a Star Trek fan, but both this and the 2009 film are outstanding cinematic treats.  I presume that J.J. Abrams will be busy directing Star Wars by the time the third sequel rolls into production, so I hope that whoever replaces him captures the astonishing verve and kineticity that he’s breathed into Star Trek.  


Star Trek Into Darkness is on general release from 10th May 

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2 Responses to “‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ (2013) directed by J. J. Abrams”

londoncitynights said...
May 9, 2013 at 5:35 PM

Something I just thought of.


Alright, so Starfleet creates and trains a powerful man they think they can control for short-sighted ends. Sometime in the future he comes back to haunt them. He commits acts of terrorism against foreign government buildings and caps it off by hijacking a spaceship and crashing it into a city.

So, Khan is basically space Bin Laden?

Too on the nose?

Unknown said...
May 11, 2013 at 3:58 AM

It would be if the character and his backstory weren't almost 50 years old. My biggest problem with this movie is how blatantly it keeps ripping of Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan during his two hour mark.

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