REVIEW: “Star Trek Into Darkness”

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One of the most talked about films of the 2013 summer movie season is undoubtedly the J.J. Abrams blockbuster-to-be “Star Trek Into Darkness”. It’s the sequel to the wildly popular 2009 semi-reboot of the beloved sci-fi franchise which won over casual movie fans and Star Trek faithfuls alike. It’s definitely no surprise that we get a sequel. The first film of this new series insured that by raking in just under $400 million. Paramount pictures is certainly expecting to exceed that with this new installment.

I’ve had a pretty rocky relationship with the first film from Abrams (you can find that review HERE). After seeing it for the first time, I left the theater with a lukewarm reaction. A second viewing confirmed some key problems I had with the movie and my overall opinion of it dropped. But in preparation for “Into Darkness” I gave the first film a third and fourth viewing. The issues I had were still there, but my overall experience was more enjoyable and I found myself more and more excited for the sequel. But that excitement came with caution. Would Abrams tone down on the popcorn movie modernizations and give us something that feels like a Star Trek movie? Also, could “Into Darkness” avoid the common sequel traps that we’ve seen over the years? Those were my biggest questions.

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One of the best things about the first movie was the amazing opening. It was pretty basic tablesetting but it was done so incredibly well and it instantly pulled the audience in. I can’t say the “Into Darkness” opening offers that same pizazz. The movie begins on an the Class M planet of Nibiru. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Bones (Karl Urban) are being pursued by indigenous undeveloped natives while Spock (Zachary Quinto) is lowered into an active volcano whose eruption threatens to destroy the planet. It’s a loud and bombastic sequence which comes across as a little clunky. It wasn’t terrible but it didn’t feel like a Star Trek scene and the visuals went from jaw-dropping to glaringly obvious CGI. I instantly began to worry.

Yet while I found the opening a little sluggish, as the movie progressed I noticed the important little nuggets nestled in those opening scenes which ended up playing big parts in the plot. It’s also here where we see that Kirk is still cocky and careless as evident by his numerous rule violations during the Nibiru mission. After breaking the Prime Directive and attempting to lie about it, Kirk loses his captain’s chair on the Enterprise. We also witness a series of violent terroristic events centered around a mysterious member of Starfleet known as John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). Kirk finds himself desperate to get in the fight as Starfleet Admiral Marcus ( Peter Weller) begins the hunt to bring Harrison to justice.

“Into Darkness” still has some of the same problems as the first film. The Spock and Uhuru (Zoe Saldana) romance still feels bland and tacked on. Some of the big fight sequences feel like anything but Star Trek. And Abrams again tries to modernize things with some gags that land with a thud and a smattering of pointless profanity. But here’s the big part I’ve been anxious to get to. While these issues are there, the movie really gets its legs after the first act and the story takes off in what I found to be a brilliant direction. Fears relieved, worries extinguished!

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Abrams gets back to what makes Star Trek such a beloved property. It’s the characters, their relationships, and their interactions. It’s the Enterprise, not just as a ship but as a vital character to the story. It’s the strategizing and trial-and-error planning. Abrams gives us doses of enthralling drama without the need of big action sequences, something Star Trek is famous for. But don’t worry, there’s still plenty of action and it’s truly spectacular especially during the last 20 minutes. There was a head-scratching question or two during the finale and it was a bit jarring to see one character act a certain way, but I was able to backburner that due to the tension-soaked high stakes and the stunning special effects. I was on the edge of my seat and the whole time I was thinking “This is the kind of Star Trek I can latch onto”.

It also helps when you have Cumberbatch playing such an interesting villain. Or is he a villain? He’s such an enigma and we’re trying to figure him out right along with Kirk and his crew. Cumberbatch is fantastic with his surprising physicality and deep, menacing voice. I have to admit, I wasn’t that familiar with his body of work but he certainly grabbed my attention here. I also think Chris Pine gives a better performance this time around. He seems to have a stronger grasp of his character and he’s spared some of the nonsense he had to do in the first film. Quinto is still the embodiment of Spock. Abrams knows the relationship between Kirk and Spock is principal and he gives them plenty of screen time together. It’s smart because the two provide us with some of the movie’s best scenes.

I also enjoyed seeing Karl Urban’s role expanded. He’s still there for comic relief but his character is actually treated with more respect this time. I also thought John Cho was given better material here and he nailed it. And I enjoyed seeing Bruce Greenwood return as Christopher Pike. Simon Pegg’s Scotty was also given a bigger role but for me it was a ‘take it or leave it’ performance. Alice Eve is another newcomer whose character is mainly there to serve a key plot point and to allow Abrams to show a woman in her underwear. Other than that she was pretty disposable.

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“Into Darkness” is an improvement over the first film and it sets a very interesting landscape for the films to come. There are clever and pleasing little tips of the hat to the old series scattered all through the movie. Whether it’s a specific sound only Trek fans would recognize or a particular fluffy little creature that we briefly see, I caught myself smiling at all the cool stuff I recognized. But there’s a lot more here than just nostalgia. Unlike so many sequels, this movie goes in a sharply original direction while at the same time tinkering with certain classic story arcs. This not only makes for a convincing alternate reality within the film, but it provides some top-notch science fiction entertainment.

“Into Darkness” is ‘Star Trek for the masses’ and it still hasn’t completely cured all its ailments, but it was a huge step forward in my book. I’ve talked about the solid performances, the amazing special effects, and the classic Star Trek flavor. But I could go further. I could talk about the strong score, the brilliant cinematography, the tighter script, and the near perfect editing. This film gets it right on so many levels. 15 minutes into this movie I was thinking I was in for a long, grinding ride. 15 minutes after the movie I was dying to see it again. I just love it when a movie catches me by surprise and then blows me away. Such was the case here.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Star Trek” (2009)

Star Trek PosterThe summer movie season is off and running and one of the year’s most talked about releases is due out in a few days. I’m talking about “Star Trek Into Darkness”, the J.J. Abrams sequel to his 2009 reboot of the franchise. With so much hype and anticipation swirling around the new movie I thought it would be a good time to go back and revisit the first installment, a much loved film that I had pretty mixed feelings about. Would a second viewing give me a better appreciation for what Abrams and company were able to accomplish or would it simply reaffirm my initial frustrations with the movie?

First off, attempting to relaunch or reboot the Star Trek franchise is a pretty hefty and gutsy task. Perhaps only Star Wars’ fan base eclipses the passion and devotion of the group affectionately known as “Trekkies”. Tinkering with and altering the beloved universe first created by the late great Gene Roddenberry would be the equivalent to playing with fire and one would assume this was high on the list of the filmmakers’ considerations. Well I’m no Trekkie and I’m not as well versed in Star Trek lore as many, but I have say I’m surprised that more diehard fans didn’t have issues with the liberties and modernizations we see here. More on that later.

“Star Trek” is constructed as a completely new franchise launcher. It creates its own world beginning with the origin stories of the popular Star Trek characters Captain Kirk and Spock and telling how they and the crew came together through Starfleet. The film actually begins with a bang. A flashback shows the federation starship USS Kelvin investigating a lightning storm anomaly when it encounters a huge Romulan mining vessel converted to a warship. A battle breaks out forcing the Kelvin’s first officer (Chris Hemsworth) to evacuate everyone from the ship including his pregnant wife. He then manually flies the Kelvin into the mammoth enemy vessel causing a distraction so the escape pods can get away. This hero’s name was George Samuel Kirk.

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The USS Enterprise

The movie then fast-forwards and puts the spotlight on his son James T. Kirk (Chris Pine). He’s grown up to be a rebellious and rambunctious sort who is challenged to enter Starfleet by Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), the Captain of the USS Enterprise who served with his father. While at the academy he befriends Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban), flirts with Uhuru (Zoe Saldana), and gets off on the wrong foot with Spock (Zachary Quinto). But in a familiar story turn that we’ve seen in everything from “Top Gun” to “Starship Troopers”, the cadets are forced into action when a distress call is made from Spock’s home planet of Vulcan. Through this we’re introduced to other familiar characters including Sulu (John Cho), Scotty (Simon Pegg), and Chekov (Anton Yelchin).

Eric Bana plays the rogue Romulan Nero who we see in the opening and who pops up later to serve as the main antagonist. He has a serious bone to pick with Spock and his revenge-fueled presence poses a major threat. Aside from the normal franchise origin stuff, this tiff between Nero and Spock is a big part of the story. There’s also the story of Jim’s evolution from an immature, self-centered hothead into a responsible, heroic member of Starfleet. All of these strands are woven together pretty nicely and the film moves through them with better pacing than I originally remembered. There are also some fantastic special effects and a cool new Enterprise with an impressive modernized bridge that I thought looked great.

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The USS Enterprise crew

But there were some issues I originally had with “Star Trek” that unfortunately didn’t go away with a fresh viewing. First, I know this is a relaunching of the Star Trek franchise and some of it is aimed at the action-starved audiences of today. But to me there were times where this didn’t feel anything like a Star Trek movie. There were certain scenes that felt so jarringly out of place yet perfectly in tune with the film industries affection for ‘Hollywoodizing’ their big movies. Again, I understand that Abrams and company are showing their new vision but I wish they would have trusted or cared more for the Star Trek formula. But honestly, while it’s still an issue, it didn’t seem to bother me as much during this viewing.

Another issue I still have is with the handling and redefining of some of the characters. I don’t know if it’s just an attempt to force in a fairly underwhelming romance or if it’s simply political correctness, but I wasn’t crazy about Uhuru as a bigger character while McCoy, an important character in the original series, is reserved for comic relief. Maybe it’s because the romance between Uhuru and a certain crew member feels shallow and tacked on. There’s nothing wrong with Saldana’s performance but her role is pretty flimsy. Karl Urban does some great work channelling his best DeForrest Kelley. Even though ‘Bones’ is written almost exclusively for humor, Urban is fantastic and it’s a shame he was given something meatier to work with.

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Eric Bana is Nero

My revisit also verified one thing and clarified another. Zachary Quinto as Spock is by far the best bit of casting in the movie while Chris Pine left a better impression this time around than before. Quinto nicely sells Spock through his tone, mannerisms, and pitch-perfect deliveries. Pine ends much better than he begins. In the first half of the film he’s pretty hard to digest but as his material gets better so does his performance. In fact, overall I found him to be better than I remembered. I can’t really say the same for Pegg’s Scotty or Yelchin’s Chekov, but both of their issues dealt more closely with how their characters were written.

So now the big question. Did my time away from “Star Trek” change my perception of the film? Did this fresh look at the movie provide a better experience? I would have to say yes but only slightly. “Star Trek” is still a film with a handful of flaws. At times it tries to be too hip, too cute, and too modern at the expense of those proven elements that make “Star Trek” great. On the flip side, I did find myself enjoying and embracing more of what Abrams and company were doing. This was a better experience and my anticipation for the next movie has grown. I just hope for a more focused script with less corn and a little better handling of its characters. If that happens “Star Trek Into Darkness” could be a real treat.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

“MEEK’S CUTOFF” – 3 1/2 STARS

To call “Meek’s Cutoff” a unique film would be an understatement. It’s a historical western of sorts from director Kelly Reichardt that follows three families and their guide as they travel on the Oregon Trail. Reichardt certainly doesn’t romanticize the American frontier life instead creating one of the most genuine portrayals of the hardships and struggles that faced the settlers in the new territory. But while the movie draws you in with it’s visual beauty, nice performances, and high stakes, it ultimately falls victim to one of the most unsatisfying endings you’ll see.

The film takes place in 1845 as the Tetherow, Gately, and White families follow the lead of Stephen Meek, a shaggy and rugged mountain man hired to guide them over the Cascade Mountains. He claims to know a shortcut but as the trip grows longer and the water starts running out, the families begin to question Meek. After running across an Indian and uncertain of his motives, they capture him much to the dismay of Meek who would rather just kill him. Eventually they are faced with a dilemma. Do they continue to follow Meek who by all indications seems lost or do the follow the Indian who they can’t communicate with but hopes can lead them to some much needed water?

“Meek’s Cutoff” is an incredibly slow developing picture that is sure to turn off some people. It does require a good deal of patience but it wasn’t long until I was thoroughly involved in the story. Reichardt does an incredible job giving the story an authentic look and feel and you really feel as if you are right there with them. The cinematography is wonderful and there some truly beautiful shots in the film. There are also some solid performances particularly from Michelle Williams, Will Patton, and Paul Greenwood who completely loses himself in the Meek character.

“Meek’s Cutoff” flirts with greatness but ends up falling short mainly due to an ending that left me feeling frustrated and shortchanged. Now I have no problem with ambiguity, leaving things open for interpretation, or allowing the audience to come up with their own conclusions. But this ending is terribly abrupt and features nothing that would cause me to come to my own conclusion about anything. To be honest, it felt unfinished and I couldn’t help but feel letdown.

It’s tough to watch a picture that does so many things right but fails to finish. It’s easy to talk about what all Reichardt accomplishes in her film. It’s a brilliant and arresting movie that had me sold right up to the very end. This one glaring black eye took so much away from my experience with the film. I understand this was a creative decision and many people have been satisfied with it. But for me, not only did “Meek’s Cutoff” not offer any real conclusion, but it gave me nothing to build mine upon. It felt a little cheap and lazy and ultimately made a potentially great film just a good film.