Friday, 28 March 2014

Star Trek: Into Darkness (Abrams, 2013)

For the first review of this revived blog, I’m going to talk about the film I watched tonight, “Star Trek: Into Darkness”.

The first two thirds of the review will be spoiler free and there will be a dividing line before I go into more detail, so as long as you exercise a bit of caution you’ll be fine to read this review even if you’ve not yet seen the film

It’s a film that benefits from the Blu-Ray treatment I granted it, just as it justified the IMAX spectacle I first saw it in. It is undoubtedly spectacular and J.J Abrams is undoubtedly a successor to Spielberg’s skill with large scale, imaginative set pieces. Whether he can rival the master’s ability to combine spectacle with character is less evident.

“Into Darkness” suffers from classic sequel syndrome. It wants to be bigger and more ambitious, while maintaining the sense of character and fun that made the first film a success. The end result is a film that certainly ramps the scale of the plot up yet relies on a number of set pieces that it’s hard not to compare to disappointingly similar moments in the first one. One is even preceded by a line from Kirk which is oddly self-aware for a film repeating one of its predecessor’s highlights.

That’s not to say that the film is anything less than enjoyable. It widens the Trek universe (Trekiverse???? I don’t know) and introduces one of the most intriguing races. It engages with moral dilemmas like all good sci-fi should.  The cast of the Enterprise are clearly developing a good relationship, selling the interactions of a group stuck in close proximity but dealing with life-threatening scenarios.

Star Trek, in all its iterations, has always relied on the relationship between its crew and what developments there are in characters feel earned after the first films exploits. However what progress there is is limited to a small number of central characters and several important roles get disappointingly little screen time. As someone who was never a huge Trek fan, certainly not of the original series, many of the characters are hamstrung by the limits of fan expectations and the fact that this film is in many ways a prequel to what fans already know and love. The first film may have deliberately given the franchise some wiggle room with talk of alternate timelines, but there are still limits on what can happen and where they can go before hardcore fans are alienated (more of that in the spoiler heavy section a few paragraphs below).

There are stunning visual moments, with the opening sequence showing what is now possible with vibrant colours and spectacular landscapes. The action is well directed if a little underwhelming given the context.
It deals with an iconic villain well and gives Benedict Cumberpatch enough to work with that he feels well cast. Little of the scenery comes away un-chewed, but there is enough justification in the plot to get away with it.

Pine and Quinto are both growing into their roles and, well cast initially they now threaten to eclipse their inspirations (higher praise for Quinto than Pine it must be said). Simon Pegg get’s some added moral depth as Scotty and Zoe Saldana’s Uhura portrays her relationship with Spock well, but it has to be said she is doing her best with a limited romantic sub plot when the actress is capable of so much more. Outside of her the named cast are never elevated beyond their most basic identifiers, a bit of a waste considering the strong cast.

It is a film that comfortably exceeds the minimum expectations from a summer blockbuster. The action is exciting, the back and forth between key characters witty and the stakes high. However it never truly eclipses the first film. Visually there is no particular moment that rivals the Romulan attack on Vulcan in the 2009 effort and the character development isn’t complex enough to pass that off as a move towards a more mature, subtle approach. Perhaps that is simply being damned by past successes, but it still ends up counting against the film.

The film is great fun and if you enjoyed the first film I have no doubt you will enjoy this, as I did, but I’d be hard pressed to argue it offered anything hugely new and in fact wastes a lot of potential in both characters and plot, something I will look at in more detail  below.

Overall I did genuinely enjoy this film, it was above average for summer blockbusters, but only slightly, and as long as you don’t go in with artificially raised expectations I reckon you will enjoy it too.

Beware – Spoilers Below

No Really – It’s all spoilers down here

I am faced with a bit of a dilemma when reviewing this film. My main issue with the film is one which it is perhaps unreasonable to attack Abrams over.

He is limited by the fact he is working with one of the most familiar sets of characters in modern fiction. You can’t kill off anyone important without risking the wrath of huge swathes of the internet and you don’t get the chance to reboot the Star Wars franchise if you’ve made yourself persona non grata online.

However he sets up a storyline in the final act which has a lot of dramatic and emotional potential, with Kirk learning the value of selflessness at the ultimate price and Spock being driven by a very human desire for vengeance. You could create a very interesting alternate Star Trek universe, where Kirk dies to save the Enterprise and creates a much more conflicted Spock.

The whole sequence is well delivered, with Kirk making the decision to sacrifice himself without any hand-wringing or grand speeches. He does what is needed in the moment to save his crew and I would have committed so much more to that moment if I wasn’t absolutely certain that his plot armour would guarantee a work around for a fatal dose of radiation.

Many would argue that it’s simply a reality of the action-fantasy genre that key characters survive impossible circumstances. You can’t kill Captain Kirk. To argue you should is to say Luke should die in “The Empire Strikes Back” and Frodo should fall in “The Fellowship of the Ring”. Without these characters the franchise is gutted.

Perhaps this is true, but I can’t pretend that I wouldn’t find the Star Trek franchise infinitely more exciting if you introduced the idea that characters who survived the entire of the TV show might die at any moment.

I’m reminded of a joke I saw on Reddit, I’m not sure of the original source but I know it’s been shared widely;

Joss Whedon, Steven Moffat and George R. R. Martin walk into a bar and everyone you’ve ever loved dies.

I’ve cursed every one of them for killing a beloved character at some point, but it is that same willingness to dispense of beloved characters that makes their work so interesting. Action sequences have so much more drama if you can’t guarantee any of the key character’s survival.
I acknowledge that what I’m arguing is probably unrealistic and unfair in the reality of studio budgets and expectations, but it doesn’t change my frustration with this film. It’s the frustration that stems from a film that tempts me with real drama, then chickens out at the end. The having your cake and eating it nature of “Into Darkness” annoys me and takes away from what is otherwise a strong effort.


Please let me know whether this two tiered approach to film reviews works? I don’t want to post a separate spoiler review because people stumbling across my blog might find themselves staring straight away at a whole host of spoilers for a film they’re about to see. I think this is best, giving the reader a genuine choice. However if you have any suggestions on how to maintain a blog which offers spoiler –free and spoiler-heavy reviews at the same time I welcome them.

No comments:

Post a Comment