MOVIE REVIEW: Star Trek Into Darkness

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STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS-- 5 STARS

Where many try, few succeed when it comes to commendable movie sequels.  It doesn't take a movie genius to recall that the list of failed sequels largely outnumbers the list of superior efforts.  Good sequels have certain fulfilled traits.  A good sequel should improve upon the first chapter, not bring it down with been-there-done-that repetition.  With The Godfather Part II, the lore and importance of the first film was amplified and made greater.  One cannot say the same about The Hangover Part II or Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen which dialed up more of the same shtick from their first efforts with little gain.

A good sequel should raise the technical and creative bar from the first film.  Take Terminator 2: Judgment Day or Aliens.  Those second movies following successful first hits had banked enough credibility, anticipation, and money for filmmakers to step up their efforts and bring a little more panache and wow factor.  A sequel should step up a movie's class, but that's just the aesthetics.  More is needed than that.

The final and most daunting challenge of a good sequel is to extend the story and bolster the core that you started.  The establishing origin story is out of the way and there is a wide open range for a continuing the journey.  We've seen plenty of sequels improve the looks on the outside, but not the engine on the inside.  Just look at the two frenetic carnivals director Joel Schumacher brought to Batman that blew up the dark vibe that Tim Burton started.  It was so damaged it took a Christopher Nolan reboot trilogy to save it.  To be even more specific, a good sequel has the challenge and duty to raise the stakes and increase the peril.

The tried and true formula for success among the greatest movie sequels, including Toy Story 3, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Dark Knight, is to take your shiny new heroes and characters and bring them to their lowest state after they experienced their first successes.  When your sworn enemy either arranges your seemingly imminent death, turns out to be your father, or kills your hometown soul mate, the proper challenge has been brought forth for your hero or heroes to overcome the worst of the worst.

Pull that all off and you've got a good sequel.  One level higher, is the rare good sequel that ends up becoming superior to even the original.  That said, go ahead and add Star Trek Into Darkness to that extremely short list of rare and superior sequels.  To throw additional gasoline on all of that rhetoric on sequels, remember that we are talking about a Star Trek sequel to a rebooted Star Trek franchise that replaced a beloved and iconic cast of characters with virtual unknowns and drastically rewrote canonical history with the 2009 blockbuster entry from director J.J. Abrams.  

What were the odds of that progression creating a superior sequel? Much like gauging last year's brilliant Skyfall, itself part of a modernization reboot started by Casino Royale, against all of the older James Bond interpretations, the strengthened and wholly perfect impression given after watching Star Trek Into Darkness is remarkable.  After years of nostalgic Trekkies living in the past, tugging on the sleeves of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and later Patrick Stewart, and hanging on to a parade of semi-weak/semi-strong television spin-offs, this new franchise film reboot started four years ago has catapulted itself to become the new standard bearer for the franchise after just two films.  As much as it probably already upsets the die-hard fans, this J.J. Abrams path and universe has now superseded all previous Star Trek incarnations.  Star Trek Into Darkness is that damn good, folks, and that big of a game-changer.  

Unlike the internet, this review will do its absolute best to remain spoiler-free.  Stay off of Wikipedia and IMDB, folks.  There's too much fun to be had when you don't know what's coming.  For those of you lucky enough to see the first nine minutes of Star Trek Into Darkness during an extended IMAX-only prologue presented before The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey last December, we jump right into action with the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise attempting to neutralize a volcano on a foreign planet that threatens to wipe out a local indigenous race of primitive humanoids.  Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and his pal Dr. "Bones" McCoy (Karl Urban) draw the people to safety while Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto), guided by Lieutenant Sulu (John Cho) and communications officer Uhura (Zoe Saldana), perilously saves the day from inside the volcano.

In breaking a few rules, most especially the Prime Directive, to ensure that mission's success, Kirk is demoted from the captain's chair of the Enterprise by Admiral Christopher Pike (cool customer Bruce Greenwood), the ship's former captain, and Spock is transferred to another ship.  Those demotions and plans are put on hold when a deadly terrorist from within the ranks of Starfleet, a man by the name of John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), orchestrates seemingly dastardly attacks against key defenseless targets.  Harrison knew right where to hit Starfleet and it has the powers-that-be, lead by head Admiral Alexander Marcus (Peter Weller, yes, that Peter Weller from Robocop), in a scramble to stop him.

From evidence uncovered by Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott (Simon Pegg), Admiral Marcus finds out that Harrison has escaped across the Neutral Zone to the Klingon home planet of Kronos.  With Starfleet steeply at odds with the Klingons, pursuing Harrison directly would likely provoke an all-out war between the two powerhouses, something that wouldn't bode well for anyone.  Admiral Marcus deems Harrison the greater immediate threat who must answer for his barbaric crimes and sends the Enterprise led by the newly-reinstated Kirk after him with mission to kill rather than apprehend him, using experimental long-range photon torpedoes maintained by a newly appointed science officer (Alice Eve).  These are the dominoes and chess pieces that get the roller coaster of Star Trek Into Darkness really going.

This stellar returning cast has firmly affixed their hearts and souls to these roles.  They own them now.  While plenty of people still love the old 1960's originals (and you're completely allowed to do so), these exceptionally talented men and women have taken over where icons left off with gusto and reckless abandon for playing it safe or by the numbers.  Each core member gets their moments, sometimes multiple, to flesh out and reinforce the new trail they are blazing.  Not that it's hard to sort or rank really, but Star Trek Into Darkness  is easily Chris Pine's best film to date.  His charm and poise fit the brash leader role perfectly.  Pine is the movie's balls while Zachary Quinto, with all of the restrained Vulcan emotions, emerges as its heart.  Their aggressive and decidedly different take on the friendship/bromance/competition between the great Kirk and Spock characters is arguably better than any lightning Shatner and Nimoy ever caught in a bottle.

Just as with all great mythological stories, "a hero is only as good as his villain" and boy did Benedict Cumberbatch answer the bell.  Oozing a cauldron of buried fury and intensity, Cumberbatch redefines the term "formidable."  Where Eric Bana's Romulan Nero blustered and wore his anger on his sleeve in the first movie, Harrison's motivations here are deeper and darker.  For many movie audiences, this might be your first encounter with the outstanding Benedict Cumberbatch.  Remember the name because he's got quite the year lined up with four more high profile roles after this one, including three Academy Award contenders (12 Years a Slave, August: Osage County, The Fifth Estate) and one more headlining villain part in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.  Learn more reasons to love him here.

Director and franchise torch holder J.J. Abrams continues to outdo himself with every directorial effort.  Even if all of those ridiculous lens flares annoy the film snob deep down inside, you have to agree that the man has a nose for action and eye for spectacle.  He pairs those two senses with an uncanny ability to inject heart into it all.  Four years of further technical advancements in visual effects and 3D filmmaking since the 2009 reboot make that evidently clear with stunning action sequences throughout this sequel.  Set to Michael Giacchino's returning and redefining musical score, Star Trek Into Darkness is exceptionally paced and heavy on high quality story development.

While some plot points are predictable and a few key nods were stolen from other Star Trek lore, the kudos for that effort go to Abrams's three-man team of go-to screenwriters, Lost's steward Damon Lindelof and the hit-making duo of Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman.  They are the minds responsible for accepting and succeeding in that daunting final challenge of extending the story and bolstering the core necessary for a good sequel.  One of their key improvements from the first film is the increase in humor.  The knee-slappers, mostly stemming from the brash Pine interacting with his many straight-laced fellow officers or the mere presence of everything connected to Simon Pegg, are as numerous as the plot twists.  While these three writers might be standing on the shoulders of others, their work is superior enough to earn them their own credit for making it work in reboot fashion.

In the end, this isn't just a good sequel.  It's a great sequel.  Right when you think one story angle can't get more exciting, a new ingredient or wrinkle is thrown in to make the tension and enjoyment that much greater.  With a breathless sense of action that builds cliffhanger on top of cliffhanger, Star Trek Into Darkness  fires on all cylinders to deliver arguably one of the best summer blockbusters we've ever seen.  As I alerted my Facebook followers, this movie makes Iron Man 3, no slouch in its own right for raucous entertainment, look like The English Patient.  Your jaw will drop from sheer amazement on many occasions.  Your heart will skip a few beats in moments of jubilation and you will find yourself frozen to your seat and facial expression from compelling peril.  You won't be checking your watch and you won't be able to get the smile off of your face.

LESSON #1: THE RESPONSIBILITIES OF A SHIP CAPTAIN-- In the first movie, Captain Pike tried to mold the young Kirk into a suitable officer worthy of command, but many of his lessons didn't take.  As we'll discuss more in Lesson #2, Kirk's inability to stick to orders and rash decision-making has steered him to trouble.  A good and responsible ship captain puts the crew and the mission first.  As Spock so perfectly says, "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few."  It's Kirk's duty to preserve the souls under his command, all while being composed of the necessary honor and sacrifice to "go down with the ship."  In cheating death and breaking the rules, Kirk still has a great deal to learn.  The arc continues in this sequel.

LESSON #2: THE INTERSECTION BETWEEN PURE DUMB LUCK AND INNATE TALENT-- Where does Kirk earn his worthiness?  He earns it and demonstrates it through dumb luck and inate talent.  While plenty of great leaders have one or the other, Kirk has both.  He's best when working on the edge and is steered by his sharp wit and quick thinking.  They serve him well, but those tendencies can (and will) lead to mistakes, possibly grave ones for greater good and the mission.

LESSON #3: THE MORAL CHOICE VERSUS THE LOGICAL CHOICE-- The outstanding dichotomy of the Kirk and Spock collaborative friendship and co-leadership is the pissing contest between the moral choice and the logical one.  As we all know, Spock is a man of logic.  He makes the safe call, the most assured one, and doesn't let emotions cloud his judgment.  Kirk is driven by his gut and fortitude.  He will take risks when pushed to make a moral choice over the logical one.  That clash is the root of their mutual respect and acts as the balanced mixture that makes them a great team of leaders.