Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Star Trek: into darkness (aside from the lens flare)

This review is also online at Science Fiction World.

Last night I saw the new Star Trek: Into Darkness, directed by J.J. Abrams.

First up: like its predecessor Star Trek (2009), this is not an intellectual film. If you're expecting existential questions like Star Trek: The Next Generation's 'The Measure of a Man', or even in-your-face allegories like Star Trek's 'A Private Little War', you're out of your Vulcan mind.

(For more on Star Trek and philosophy, see my old ABC column.)

For the most part, Into Darkness is a science-fiction action flick, and a rollicking one at that. The plot holes, the wink-wink-nudge-nudge in-jokes, the ludicrously gratuitous shot of Alice Eve in her underwear -- these moments are swept aside by a relentless story. (Well, perhaps not the lingerie shot. That really was superfluous.)

Abrams makes beautiful films, and Into Darkness is certainly stunning. It uses gorgeous scenery and sets to ramp up the action's intensity. The opening scenes, featuring a volcano, underwater shenanigans and bright white natives, are a good example of this.

The dialogue crackles. This scene, between Cumberbatch's John Harrison and Chris Pine's Jim Kirk is representative:

There are also some outstanding quips and emotional catharses, particularly between Kirk, Jachary Quinto's Spock and Uhura, played by Zoe Saldana.

While Abrams packs a lot of WHOAH into this film, each of the actors gets their moment to... act. Conversation is neatly balanced with action. Not as well as the Avengers, but well enough.

Pine displays more range as Kirk, Quinto gets to show nuance and ham in equal measure, and Simon Pegg's Scotty is consistently better than his Scots accent. Bruce Greenwood's Christopher Pike is compelling, and Karl Urban does another fine job as Leonard 'Bones' McCoy. (More laughs than drama, sadly. Less of the original series' Spock-Kirk-Bones triangle.)

Cumberbatch deserves special mention: he is a thrilling villain. In fact, the English actor owns every scene, visceral and cerebral as the story demands.

Does Into Darkness have a message? Well, not a didactic one. But it does have a strong emotional and philosophical theme: friendship.

I have written previously about the importance of friendship in Star Trek, and Into Darkness is no exception. What I said earlier still stands:
Friendship is at the heart of this, particularly the Captain and his Vulcan First Officer. Kirk and Spock might be very different young men, but they grow to rely on each other. Eventually, they're as close as friends can ever be - it is more love than simple camaraderie. Nietzsche once observed that the best friendship can be harsh, conflicted – not because of petty quarrels, but because genuine friends challenge one another. ‘It is not in how one soul approaches another,’ wrote Nietzsche in the second volume of Human, All-Too-Human, ‘but in how it distances itself that I recognise their affinity and relatedness.’ This is a lesson in the potency of friendship: not to make us the same, but to get the best out of our differences.
In this sequel, other characters are drawn into this tension, including Montgomery Scott. I can't be more specific without spoilers, but one dramatic showdown between Kirk and his Chief Engineer sets up a lovely 'bromance' reconciliation.

All in all, Into Darkness is a film about relationships; about friendship, trust and sacrifice. Between the firefights, fistfights and miscellaneous explosions, it has a sweetness to it: the willingness of grown-ups to be vulnerable, while retaining their signature bravery.

Watch long, and prosper.

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