Monday, May 20, 2013

Star Trek: Into Darkness (Movie Review)

J.J. Abrams took the fan world (and the general public) by storm with his re-imagining of Gene Roddenberry's "Star Trek" in 2009. Abrams admitted he had never been much of a Star Trek fan, preferring the more action oriented Star Wars series of films. In fact, his goal was to bring the action sensibilities of Star Wars into his new vision for Star Trek. Needless to say it made for a hugely successful movie.

Abrams brings those same sensibilities and adds a moderate helping of edgy darkness to the sequel, appropriately titled, "Star Trek: Into Darkness".

The Federation has become the victim of terrorist attacks originating from one of their own. And when the damage hits close to home, Kirk is out for revenge. Soon he and the crew of the Enterprise are hunting down the man responsible for these attacks, determined to bring him in for trial, or execute him on the spot. Two outcomes Kirk struggles to choose between.

Tensions run high among the crew, as many of them are uncomfortable undertaking a covert military mission with what was intended to be an exploration vessel. And feelings only become more clouded as new information is revealed about their enemy that changes the way the crew views both him and the Federation.

The story has a few interesting turns you may not see coming, including some pretty sweet fan service. But on the whole it isn't very creative. It is the characters that drive this story forward. Something I'm in big support of.

The best thing Abrams did for this franchise was kill Gene Roddenberry's dream of a Utopian future. (Frankly, creative types tend to be lousy at giving us a utopia that isn't as boring as dirt.) Disease and conflict still abound on earth and corruption is just as commonplace as ever. This allows for dramatic storytelling opportunities that were just never possible in the long-running original series of films and TV shows. Even more so in this film it continues to be  a welcome change that makes for a riveting experience.

Once again the performances by the entire cast are fantastic. Abrams takes characters we know and love and puts them through the wringer, providing opportunity for their personalities to shine even more. The script is also pretty funny, so even amidst the darkness of the surrounding events there is room for more than a few laughs.

I have to wonder, though, if "Star Trek" is really the best name for this franchise now. Sure, they'd be crazy to rename it for marketing reasons, but neither of the J.J. Abrams movies have been about "trekking through the stars". Even Scotty objects to the mission of the Enterprise in this movie, arguing that he signed up to serve on an exploration vessel, when instead they are on a military mission. The wonder of exploration has been pushed to the edge of the plate, while action and conflict have become the main course.

Don't get me wrong. I have no interest in this franchise returning to the classic Star Trek mold, may it rest (or atheistically "cease to exist") in peace. But this is an inconsistency that won't go unnoticed for long, if fans haven't picked up on it already. Then again, we may all be having so much fun that we couldn't possibly care less that the title doesn't make much sense. That's pretty much the case for me.

Abrams hasn't abandoned all the tropes of Trek. The opening sequence of the film is very intense and ultimately revolves around whether or not Captain Kirk will adhere to The Prime Directive, a Starfleet rule which prohibits interfering with civilizations that haven't developed warp technology. (And which seemed to be the plot device of waaaaay too many Trek TV episodes.)

There is a slight naturalistic leaning in the movie, as religious characters are once again pigeon-holed as naive and primitive. Although this was very subtle and the related sequence seemed more a nod to classic Trek than a philosophical statement by the current creative team.

Issues of morality come up more than once. Kirk violates Starfleet protocol in the interest of saving lives. Spock argues, on moral grounds, that the terrorist they pursue should be tried for his crimes.
This second instance of moralizing is interesting because later in the film Spock makes the claim that there are no such things as miracles, indicating his belief that the universe is a closed system, with no potential for a higher, supernatural power. If this is the case, he has no grounds for making any argument based in objective morality. (In a purely naturalistic worldview, morality is subjective and based on the opinion of the majority.) Spock, being the ultimate logician, should have seen this inconsistency in his own logic and instead argued on the grounds of maintaining an ordered society, rather than on the grounds of "morality", the wording he actually used.

There are also some interesting subtle themes about the role of emotions and logic. Spock is clearly in a constant battle between the two and actually models a healthy "self-governing" of emotions for much of the movie. On the other hand, he has clearly closed himself off to fully experiencing emotions and their role in relationships, making him a very socially damaged character, from a human perspective.

On the drive home I began to think about all the geeks I've met or encountered in one way or another who seem intent to model their personalities after Spock, or similarly intelligent yet non-emotional characters. I can only speculate as to why some geeks seem drawn to molding themselves this way. Maybe they see how intelligent characters are respected, and want to be respected that way themselves after some difficult years of being overlooked or cast out. Maybe they've been hurt enough in the past that they just don't want to feel anymore, and so cut themselves off from the full human experience because they don't know how else to recover from their wounds.

An off-hand joke is made by Kirk about the idea of Spock and Uhura having a fight, remarking that he can't even picture what that looks like. The line gets, and deserves, a great laugh, but also points out a problem with Spock. He either isn't able, or doesn't allow himself to enter into the full human experience, and therefore his relationships will always be broken. Spock has the excuse of being half-Vulcan. Those of us who pattern ourselves after him don't. It was a small, subtle reminder to me that as geeks we can't afford to lose ourselves in our passions (be they entertainment or intellectual pursuits) and neglect investing in, and making ourselves emotionally vulnerable to, relationships with others.

Despite my more lengthy than usual focus on these moral and philosophical elements, I doubt many will fixate on them. Both my wife and the buddy I saw the movie with were barely aware of them, and the movie certainly isn't trying hard to teach anything. It's just a really great ride with some really great characters that every geek should put on their "must-see" list.

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence

Quality: 9.5/10

Relevance: 7.0/10

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