Friday, September 19, 2014

"Star Trek Into Darkness" review

When director J.J. Abrams and his collaborators Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, and Roberto Orci decided to set 2009's Star Trek in an alternate timeline apart from The Original Series and its spinoffs, they did it to achieve creative freedom.

Abrams and his creative team knew that simply inserting a young cast into the established Trek universe would not work. Star Trek's lore is nearly a half-century old, and the franchise's loyal fans wouldn't have accepted a reboot that attempted to inject the new cast into the 1966-69 William Shatner-Leonard Nimoy-DeForest Kelley troika's adventures. The effect, I think, would have been too jarring.

Star Trek's time travel-created alternate timeline thus gave Abrams & Co. the necessary flexibility to reinvigorate Gene Roddenberry's old series. As Abrams pointed out in an interview:

 "The idea, now that we are in an independent timeline, allows us to use any of the ingredients from the past - or come up with brand-new ones - to make potential stories."

This, of course, is the logic behind the writers' decision to reimagine the franchise's most formidable villain for Star Trek Into Darkness.

James T. Kirk: Why is there a man in that torpedo?
John Harrison: There are men and women in all those torpedoes, Captain. I put them there.
James T. Kirk: Who the hell are you?
John Harrison: A remnant of a time long past. Genetically engineered to be superior so as to lead others to peace in a world at war. But we were condemned as criminals, forced into exile. For centuries we slept, hoping when we awoke things would be different. But as a result of the destruction of Vulcan your Starfleet begun to aggressively search distant quadrants of space. My ship was found adrift. I alone was revived.
James T. Kirk: I looked up John Harrison. Until a year ago he didn't exist.
Khan: John Harrison was a fiction created the moment I was awoken by your Admiral Marcus to help him advance his cause, a smokescreen to conceal my true identity. My name is... KHAN.

Star Trek II Redux
Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, and Anton Yelchin as younger counterparts of the Original Series' iconic "Enterprise Seven, " Star Trek Into Darkness takes elements from the 1960s show and 1982's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and twists them to fit into the new alternate timeline.

Star Trek Into Darkness begins, James Bond-style, at the tail end of a survey mission on Nibiru. Capt. James Tiberius Kirk (Pine) and the crew of the USS Enterprise have been assigned to observe the primitive culture on this remote Class-M planet.

It should be an uneventful mission, but when Kirk discovers that a volcanic eruption threatens to kill the sentient beings on Nibiiru, he leads an away team - including First Officer Spock (Quinto) and Dr. McCoy (Urban) -  to stop the eruption.

Kirk, of course, knows that this would break the Prime Directive, Starfleet's prohibition of starship crews' interference in the natural development of a primitive culture. Nevertheless, his disregard for the rules and an innate need to make a difference push the Prime Directive aside. Kirk then conceives a daring plan that he hopes will save the Nibiran natives without affecting their cultural evolution.

The mission to prevent the eruption succeeds, but Kirk's decision nearly results in Spock's death. Worse, the primitive Nibirans catch a glimpse of the Enterprise as it rises from its hiding place in the ocean and flies into space.

When the Enterprise returns to Earth, Kirk and Spock report to Adm. Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood). Spock has filed a complete report on the Nibiru mission, while Kirk has turned in a sketchy account that fails to mention the violation of the Prime Directive.

Pike, the man who had recruited Kirk into Starfleet because he saw the young man's potential, is furious. After lecturing Kirk about his recklessness and poor judgment, Pike informs Kirk that he's no longer captain of the Enterprise and has been demoted to the rank of commander.

"You think the rules don't apply to you, because you disagree with them." - Pike to Kirk

Meanwhile, in London, a mysterious figure (Benedict Cumberbatch) makes a Faustian deal with Thomas Harewood (Noel Clarke) a Starfleet officer whose daughter is terminally ill. If Harewood smuggles an explosive device into Starfleet's Archives Building and sets it off, his daughter's life will be saved. Harewood is desperate to save his daughter's life, so he agrees.

The mysterious man then extracts a vial of his own blood, which he gives to Harewood along with a ring-like device. Harewood visits his daughter at the Royal Children's Hospital and mixes the blood into her IV drip. When Harewood sees that her vital signs go from red to green, he then proceeds to "pay back" the mysterious man and blows up Starfleet's Archives building.

Back at Starfleet HQ in San Francisco, Kirk, Spock, and Pike are summoned to a conference of Starfleet Command's top brass, including Adm. Alexander Marcus (Peter Weller). Kirk has been reassigned to theEnterprise as Pike's First Officer, and the meeting has been convened by Marcus as a result of the London bombing.

Marcus reveals that the mysterious mastermind of the attack is a Starfleet operative named John Harrison, and that the Archives building was really a facility operated by Starfleet's CIA-like Section 31.

Kirk suspects that Harrison won't stop attacking Starfleet after destroying the London facility and surmises that the operative has bigger fish to fry.

Sure enough, almost as soon as Kirk figures this out, Harrison mounts a one-man attack on Starfleet HQ. Several of Starfleet's senior officers, including Pike, are killed. Kirk thwarts Harrison's plan to kill Adm. Marcus by forcing his jumpship to crash, but Harrison escapes via transporter.

Determined to terminate Harrison, the militaristic Marcus gives Kirk command of the Enterprise and orders him to follow Harrison, who is now on Kronos, the Klingon Homeworld. Even though Marcus knows war with the Klingons might ensue, he orders the young captain to load 72 new photon torpedoes, head to the Neutral Zone, and kill Harrison, consequences be damned.

Fueled by desire to avenge his dead mentor, Kirk accepts the mission. Now, he must convince a skeptical Spock that what they're about to do is the right thing to do....

My Take:

By now, many of you know that in Star Trek Into Darkness not everything is quite what it seems to be on the surface. The movie, which premiered on May 16 and recently made its home video release in the U.S. and elsewhere, is essentially a tweaked version of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

You see, Harrison is actually Khan Noonien Singh, a genetically-engineered "superman" who ruled one fourth of the Earth in the early 1990s, according to Trek lore. (In The Original Series and Star Trek II, Khan was played by Ricardo Montalban). In both timelines, Khan and his followers are sent into exile aboard the sleeper ship SS Botany Bay, which drifts through space for 300 years.

In the Shatner-Kirk universe, it is the Enterprise that finds the Botany Bay and thaws out Khan and his crew from suspended animation, setting off the Kirk-Khan cycle of conflict and revenge that culminates in Star Trek II.

In the J.J. Abrams universe, it's the George S. Patton-like Adm. Marcus who discovers Khan and revives him for his own purposes. Marcus believes that war with the Klingons is inevitable and wants Starfleet to be more of a military organization than a science-and-exploration armada. A warrior like Khan would be useful in such an endeavor.

For those of you who haven't yet seen Star Trek Into Darkness, I won't divulge any more plot points. Suffice it to say that director Abrams and writers Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci manage to pull off the near-impossible task of reviving Khan's iconic revenge-seeking character in a way that honors the original Montalban incarnation, yet is original and riveting to watch.

On the whole, Star Trek Into Darkness works well in every level. As Khan, Cumberbatch doesn't try to imitate the late Ricardo Montalban, the actor who played the Sikh superman in 1967's "Space Seed" and 1982's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The alternate Star Trek timeline's Khan shares many traits with his Original Series counterpart - superhuman physical strength, Machiavellian duplicity, iron will, superior intellect, and a menacing charm.

But Abrams' decision to cast Cumberbatch pays off because this new version of Khan somehow seems redeemable. In some ways, Khan is the Star Trek equivalent of Darth Vader, a proto-heroic figure who is victimized by the story's true villain.

As in the 2009 Star Trek reboot, Abrams proves himself a master storyteller who knows the nuts and bolts of a sci-fi/action adventure. His ability to find a human story behind all the techno-wizardry of a Star Trek feature is rivaled only by that of Nicholas Meyer, who directed two of the Original Series-cast features and co-wrote a third. Abrams gets excellent performances from the main cast and the various guest stars, including Alice Eve as Dr. Carol Wallace, Peter Weller as Adm. Marcus, and even a brief but important appearance by Leonard Nimoy as "Spock Prime."

The special effects by Lucasfilm's Industrial Light & Magic are excellent. ILM doesn't use old-school models anymore, but the CGI visuals look super cool, even on a modest-sized home TV. The sound design by veteran sound designer Ben Burtt and his heir apparent Matthew Wood clearly deserve an Academy Award nomnation, as does Michael Giacchino's stunning musical score.

My only quibble about Paramount's 2013 Blu-ray and DVD set is that its special features are not available in all the various home video releases.

For instance, my Blu-ray/DVD edition doesn't have an audio commentary track. Instead of including the commentary track on the Blu-ray or DVD, Paramount offers it in the iTunes-compatible downloadable copy. This is all well and good for folks who like to stream or download movies on their mobile devices or computers, but not for me. Call me a download Luddite, but I don't want to be even more Internet-dependent than I am already.

For me, the lack of an audio commentary track makes the short selection of available extras somewhat unexciting. The one featurette that I like is "The Enemy of My Enemy,"  and that deals with the creative choice of bringing back Khan and the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch.

Recommend this product? Yes

Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Good for Groups
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older