Monday, September 12, 2016

Trekking, the modern way: Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) & Star Trek Beyond (2016)

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

Director: J.J. Abrams

I had only seen this one once before, when it was released in the theaters three years ago. My feelings are the same now as then - it's a fun, fairly engaging action ride that was bound to appeal to the masses more than the hard-core Star Trek or science-fiction fans.

Continuing J.J, Abrams reboot of the original TV series started with 2009's Star Trek, Into Darkness sees the further development of the young crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise. After briefly losing command of the starship, James Kirk (Chris Pine) is quickly thrust back into the command seat in order to hunt down a murderous fugitive - John Harrison. Harrison has bombed a Starfleet archive and personally launched an assault on Kirk and his commanding officers, only to flee into a Klingon-controlled part of the galaxy. Kirk is ordered by his commanding officer to not only track down but also kill Harrison, an order seemingly at odds with the passive mission statement of the Enterprise and its crew. Once Kirk finds Harrison, the tables are turned a bit, as Harrison actually saves Kirk and several of his crew, and allows himself to be taken prisoner. It is soon revealed that Harrison is actually Kahn Singh Noonian, a powerful character deeply entrenched in the mythos of Star Trek, dating back to the original TV series and the outstanding film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn. Kahn is on a mission to recover his fellow genetically-enhanced "superhumans", who were created centuries before during a rather dark period on Earth. The ruthless and powerful Kahn's goals lead him into direct confrontation with the crew of the Enterprise.

As an action adventure story, the movie is decent enough. The plot takes a few curious twists and turns, and there are some fun sequences and set pieces. It can certainly satisfy many an itch for an escapist, popcorn movie. Alas, I'm sure many a hardcore Star Trek fan had issues with the movie. Even as a person with a mere passing knowledge of the Trek mythology, I had to raise an eyebrow here and there, thanks to some of director and writer J.J. Abrams choices regarding the use of characters and storylines. As the excellent film and TV critic David Edelstein once referred to Abrams's Star Wars: The Force Awakens as "brilliantly unoriginal," I can't avoid similar feelings about Into Darkness. It's not that the story is a ripoff, but many of the details smack of some clumsy pandering to the fans. "Let's have Spock fall in love with Uhura!" "Let's reenact the famous scene from Star Trek II where Kirk dies saving everyone, only this time, it's Kirk who dies while Spock looks on!" "Let's have Spock get really angry and nearly beat Kahn to death!" These are ideas that I think were meant to get serious Trek fans excited, but I found them rather contrived and running a bit too counter to the spirit of some of the characters.

There is also an issue regarding the revelations and development of the characters. Not long ago, I went back and watched many of the original Star Trek TV series episodes, as well as the first three feature films. Because of this, I know the entire backstory of Kahn, which is one of the very best tales within the Trek mythology. If you know it, then Into Darkness can feel like it doesn't fully capitalize on who Kahn is and what he represents. If you don't know it, then you are likely to be rather lost as to the character's potential depth and power.

Of course, Abrams is a solid enough director to avoid any major "movie" mistakes. The performances are all strong (though I've never enjoyed the usually great Karl Urban's over-channeling of Deforest Kelley), the narrative clicks along at a nice pace, and the sequences are executed well. For these reasons, it's hard to be terribly critical of it. Several details might frustrate, but the movie is still decent fun.

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

Director: Justin Lin

It's a decent entry into the movie series, but one that realized some of my worries about handing the directing reins over to the man behind the recent Fast and Furious movies.

Beyond flashes forward three years from Into Darkness, with the crew of the Enterprise over halfway into their five-year mission of exploration. Captain Kirk is suffering from a crisis of purpose, losing his certainty as to whether he is meant to be an explorer. No sooner does he submit a request to transfer to work on a massive space station than a desperate scientist emerges from the far reaches of the galaxy, desperately asking for help in finding her abducted crew. Kirk and the Enterprise crew suit up and head out. Shortly after they arrive within a distant asteroid belt, they are aggressively taken when the the Enterprise is shot down over a nearby planet. The surviving crew members are scattered about, and they must work to find each other and the person responsible for their dire predicament.

I certainly appreciate what the story does, plot-wise. Seemingly drawing from its roots in the original TV series, we get the crew stuck on an unknown planet with a mysterious aggressor. We get to see some fun dynamics in pairings like McCoy and Spock, and we get some intriguing new characters for the mainstays to deal with. For much of the movie, I wasn't sure if the story was holding together very well, but things coalesce fairly well by the end. I felt that the entire tale captured many of the best aspects of the spirit of Star Trek, while not relying overly on the successful plotlines or character tropes of past entries. The latter is something that J.J. Abrams' movies, fun as they are, failed to avoid.

I also thought that the characters were handled a bit more deftly in Beyond than with the previous two movies. While the characteristics which make them distinct are still wholly intact, we aren't beaten over the head with not-too-subtle "twists" on their personalities, like Spock kissing Uhura or nearly killing a man. There is a rather organic struggle in both Kirk and Spock regarding their respective commitments to the mission of Star Fleet, which adds a touch more legitimate depth to their development. On a lighter note, I was also glad to see Karl Urban dial down his Deforest Kelly impersonation just a hair. He's still channeling the original, but not quite as heavily as before, which I was glad to see. The introduction of a strong and capable new character, Jaylah, was a welcome sight, as well.

I felt that there were too many scenes that looked like this -
tons of junk zipping around the screen, blowing other junk up
or being blown up by other junk. Not terribly interesting.
Were the movie comprised almost wholly of story and character, I probably would have loved it. Alas, it is a Justin Lin movie, and that means action. And explosions. Lots of them. And while I will give him credit for not going the John Woo/Michael Bay route of using slow motion, I have to say that I didn't particularly enjoy Lin's large-scale action scenes. In fact, I thought they were rather dull. Yes, the CGI is very well done, and there are some interesting visuals turns here and there. But I found too many of the action sequences overly long, to the point that I was zoning out while waiting for the next meaningful interaction between characters. Even action scenes when large objects weren't attacking each other or bursting into flames, such as the motorcycle rescue mission, didn't offer much sense of wonder, thanks to some convenient but flat out dumb oversight of basic questions (how, exactly, do hologram duplicates manage to affect their physical environment, pray tell?). If it's one thing I want my science fiction not to do, is not to ignore basic physics and science.

And oh by the way, can we stop having the Enterprise get shot down? This is no longer the shocking image that it once was, before it happened I don't know how many times in the various TV shows and films (including Into Darkness). Please go to something else if you want to give Trek fans a "devastating" turn of events.

I will say that the movie did surprise me a bit by the end, in terms of giving us a villain with some depth. And the reveal of his identity and nature was spun out at a nice pace. This did redeem it to the point that I would probably watch Beyond again. I do hope future entries in the series look to this one in terms of drawing from the very best spiritual roots of Star Trek, and they continue to capitalize more on them.