Arts / Entertainment May 20, 2013

Film Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

With burlesque fan dances, a karaoke rendition of Gilbert and Sullivan, and amorous lizards, there are some places where Star Trek should boldly avoid going in the first place.

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May 20, 2013
DR
Let’s face it: after 716 episodes of television, 11 theatrical movies, and books and comics that number into the thousands, is there anybody left who still expects Star Trek to “boldly go where no one has gone before”? I didn't think so. Really, about all those of us who grew up with the franchise (the original series debuted two months after my birth) can hope for after all these decades is a well told story featuring familiar characters in familiar places doing familiar things. Oh, and not having the characters embarrass themselves too much along the way is also nice.
 
Fortunately, Star Trek Into Darkness provides only one really noticeable instance of that sort (Spock comes embarrassingly close to having a Darth Vader from Episode III moment), and plenty more in the way of good storytelling. That’s to say we get plenty of familiar stuff such as Kirk, Spock, and McCoy bantering and taking verbal jabs at one another, Scotty expressing his woes over being asked to accomplish the impossible (while actually accomplishing the impossible, of course), Chekov speaking in that Russian accent that even other Russians don’t understand, Sulu smoothly slipping into all business mode (as well as the Captain’s chair for the first time), and Uhura actually using the skills she was trained for (communicating through words, not dance).
 
In fact, it’s tempting to say Director J. J. Abrams (also born the same year the original Star Trek series debuted) and his team of writers (all born the same year the animated show first aired) come perilously close to going too far in playing up to the expectations of their fellow fans. They spend so much time being clever with the Star Trek trivia and references to past events that they seemed to have forgotten to proofread their own script. There are enough tiny gaps in logic throughout the movie that a viewer might begin to wonder if the mission of the starship Enterprise was to seek out and explore strange new plot holes. Regardless, Into Darkness is fun enough that most people will be willing to overlook such things.
 
A little more egregious is the film’s over-reliance on the franchise’s history. After taking great pains in the 2009 reboot of Star Trek to establish an alternate timeline (and therefore an uncertain future) for the crew of the USS Enterprise, the writers of Into Darkness appear to have decided some of the previous canon is too sacred to be messed with after all. As a result, things written with the intention of being shocking twists really aren’t, the ending is telegraphed midway through the film, and some plot points make little sense outside of the fact that they have to occur in order to set up future events which didn’t necessarily even have to happen anymore (or so Abrams’ first Star Trek movie would have suggested).
 
All of that is why I’ve yet to discuss much of the actual plot of Into Darkness. That’s because to tell a little would be to give away a lot, at least to those who walk into the movie with a passing knowledge of Star Trek lore. Suffice to say that Into Darkness is a Star Trek movie, so the Earth is in danger and only James T. Kirk and his capable crew can save it. Along the way they meet some Klingons, say goodbye to more than a few “redshirts,” and get tossed around the bridge while somebody shoots the Enterprise full of holes. During the film’s quieter moments, they make fun of Spock’s ears, show us a tribble, and even offer the first appearance of a Caitian in the live action Trek universe (surely, I’m not the only pathetic geek who mentally yelled out in excitement “Lieutenant M'ress!” when the cat-girls showed up). So even though the material is overly familiar, even the hardest of hardcore Trekkers (or Trekkies – take your pick) should still be able to find something to like about Into Darkness.
 
This is not to say that Into Darkness is nothing but scene after scene of fan service. Those uninitiated in the Star Trek universe should also find plenty of entertainment, especially if they enjoy action. If Abrams brings anything new at all to the franchise (besides the lens flares, that is), it’s his growing ability as a director to stage large scale set pieces. Everything in Abrams’ vision of the future is big, from the red jungles of alien planets to the shining cityscapes of London and San Francisco. Even the rooms inside the spaceships are large and cavernous, presenting plenty of opportunities for people to find themselves dangling precariously over certain doom. Oddly enough, the only thing not over-sized in Abrams’ Star Trek are the battles in outer space themselves. For some reason, despite all that elbow room out amongst the stars, Abrams has his ships close in on each other like pirate galleons with cannons ablaze. But even with that odd choice, the destruction caused by the battles is still pretty impressive, giving plenty of opportunities for the people inside the ships to fall through their inexplicably huge rooms. All in all, Into Darkness is probably the most adrenalin packed film in the Star Trek franchise, with enough phaser battles, fisticuffs, and falling starships to keep the most avid action fan happy. 
 
Of course, while all the action is nice, it just wouldn’t be Star Trek without the “big idea.” As long time fans are aware, Star Trek has always functioned as something of a soapbox from which  various writers could espouse their heartfelt philosophies. In the very beginning, the viewpoint expressed most often mirrored the virulent secular humanism of the show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, but as time went on, other ideologies – even religious ones – began to creep into the stories. For this particular outing into the final frontier, the “big idea” revolves around the timely concerns of how far we as a people are willing to go in order to ensure the public safety of our citizens. Do we accept the risks involved in adhering to our stated principles, or do we step “into darkness” and embrace the tactics of our enemies in the name of the greater good?
 
It’s never an easy question, and it wouldn’t be surprising to find some folks leaving the theater feeling a bit sympathetic towards the arguments of those in the movie who accept that some boundaries can be ignored during times of warfare. It’s not quite that simple for Christians, however; even though we understand that there is “a time to kill, and a time to heal,” that doesn’t mean we get to jettison our principles whenever the bullets (or nadion particle beams, as the case may be) start flying. Catholics in particular must always consider the tenets of just war doctrine as formulated over the centuries before committing to certain courses of action in wartime. As the Catechism reminds us, “The mere fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties. ... Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.”
 
As happens more often than not, this is one of the areas where Star Trek’s secular humanistic leanings and Christianity end up agreeing, a fact perfectly demonstrated by Kirk’s speech near the end of the film (hey, it wouldn’t be Star Trek if Kirk didn't give a speech at some point). So don’t worry about having to sit through any lame anti-religious sentiments this time around (I’m looking at you, Star Trek V) – the “big idea” on display here is just fine. As long as you’re willing to check some of your logic at the door (sorry, Spock), Star Trek Into Darkness should provide plenty of fun for fans and action aficionados alike.

Let’s face it: after 716 episodes of television, 11 theatrical movies, and books and comics that number into the thousands, is there anybody left who still expects Star Trek to “boldly go where no one has gone before”? I didn't think so. Really, about all those of us who grew up with the franchise (the original series debuted two months after my birth) can hope for after all these decades is a well told story featuring familiar characters in familiar places doing familiar things. Oh, and not having the characters embarrass themselves too much along the way is also nice.
 
Fortunately, Star Trek Into Darkness provides only one really noticeable instance of that sort (Spock comes embarrassingly close to having a Darth Vader from Episode III moment), and plenty more in the way of good storytelling. That’s to say we get plenty of familiar stuff such as Kirk, Spock, and McCoy bantering and taking verbal jabs at one another, Scotty expressing his woes over being asked to accomplish the impossible (while actually accomplishing the impossible, of course), Chekov speaking in that Russian accent that even other Russians don’t understand, Sulu smoothly slipping into all business mode (as well as the Captain’s chair for the first time), and Uhura actually using the skills she was trained for (communicating through words, not dance).
 
In fact, it’s tempting to say Director J. J. Abrams (also born the same year the original Star Trek series debuted) and his team of writers (all born the same year the animated show first aired) come perilously close to going too far in playing up to the expectations of their fellow fans. They spend so much time being clever with the Star Trek trivia and references to past events that they seemed to have forgotten to proofread their own script. There are enough tiny gaps in logic throughout the movie that a viewer might begin to wonder if the mission of the starship Enterprise was to seek out and explore strange new plot holes. Regardless, Into Darkness is fun enough that most people will be willing to overlook such things.
 
A little more egregious is the film’s over-reliance on the franchise’s history. After taking great pains in the 2009 reboot of Star Trek to establish an alternate timeline (and therefore an uncertain future) for the crew of the USS Enterprise, the writers of Into Darkness appear to have decided some of the previous canon is too sacred to be messed with after all. As a result, things written with the intention of being shocking twists really aren’t, the ending is telegraphed midway through the film, and some plot points make little sense outside of the fact that they have to occur in order to set up future events which didn’t necessarily even have to happen anymore (or so Abrams’ first Star Trek movie would have suggested).
 
All of that is why I’ve yet to discuss much of the actual plot of Into Darkness. That’s because to tell a little would be to give away a lot, at least to those who walk into the movie with a passing knowledge of Star Trek lore. Suffice to say that Into Darkness is a Star Trek movie, so the Earth is in danger and only James T. Kirk and his capable crew can save it. Along the way they meet some Klingons, say goodbye to more than a few “redshirts,” and get tossed around the bridge while somebody shoots the Enterprise full of holes. During the film’s quieter moments, they make fun of Spock’s ears, show us a tribble, and even offer the first appearance of a Caitian in the live action Trek universe (surely, I’m not the only pathetic geek who mentally yelled out in excitement “Lieutenant M'ress!” when the cat-girls showed up). So even though the material is overly familiar, even the hardest of hardcore Trekkers (or Trekkies – take your pick) should still be able to find something to like about Into Darkness.
 
This is not to say that Into Darkness is nothing but scene after scene of fan service. Those uninitiated in the Star Trek universe should also find plenty of entertainment, especially if they enjoy action. If Abrams brings anything new at all to the franchise (besides the lens flares, that is), it’s his growing ability as a director to stage large scale set pieces. Everything in Abrams’ vision of the future is big, from the red jungles of alien planets to the shining cityscapes of London and San Francisco. Even the rooms inside the spaceships are large and cavernous, presenting plenty of opportunities for people to find themselves dangling precariously over certain doom. Oddly enough, the only thing not over-sized in Abrams’ Star Trek are the battles in outer space themselves. For some reason, despite all that elbow room out amongst the stars, Abrams has his ships close in on each other like pirate galleons with cannons ablaze. But even with that odd choice, the destruction caused by the battles is still pretty impressive, giving plenty of opportunities for the people inside the ships to fall through their inexplicably huge rooms. All in all, Into Darkness is probably the most adrenalin packed film in the Star Trek franchise, with enough phaser battles, fisticuffs, and falling starships to keep the most avid action fan happy. 
 
Of course, while all the action is nice, it just wouldn’t be Star Trek without the “big idea.” As long time fans are aware, Star Trek has always functioned as something of a soapbox from which  various writers could espouse their heartfelt philosophies. In the very beginning, the viewpoint expressed most often mirrored the virulent secular humanism of the show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, but as time went on, other ideologies – even religious ones – began to creep into the stories. For this particular outing into the final frontier, the “big idea” revolves around the timely concerns of how far we as a people are willing to go in order to ensure the public safety of our citizens. Do we accept the risks involved in adhering to our stated principles, or do we step “into darkness” and embrace the tactics of our enemies in the name of the greater good?
 
It’s never an easy question, and it wouldn’t be surprising to find some folks leaving the theater feeling a bit sympathetic towards the arguments of those in the movie who accept that some boundaries can be ignored during times of warfare. It’s not quite that simple for Christians, however; even though we understand that there is “a time to kill, and a time to heal,” that doesn’t mean we get to jettison our principles whenever the bullets (or nadion particle beams, as the case may be) start flying. Catholics in particular must always consider the tenets of just war doctrine as formulated over the centuries before committing to certain courses of action in wartime. As the Catechism reminds us, “The mere fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties. ... Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.”
 
As happens more often than not, this is one of the areas where Star Trek’s secular humanistic leanings and Christianity end up agreeing, a fact perfectly demonstrated by Kirk’s speech near the end of the film (hey, it wouldn’t be Star Trek if Kirk didn't give a speech at some point). So don’t worry about having to sit through any lame anti-religious sentiments this time around (I’m looking at you, Star Trek V) – the “big idea” on display here is just fine. As long as you’re willing to check some of your logic at the door (sorry, Spock), Star Trek Into Darkness should provide plenty of fun for fans and action aficionados alike.

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