Saturday, August 31, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) - FilmReview

Article author: Alwyn Ash

"There will always be those who mean to do us harm. To stop them, we risk awakening the same evil within ourselves. Our first instinct is to seek revenge when those we love are taken from us. But that's not who we are."

The history of Khan Noonien Singh is an important one within the legacy of Star Trek, a genetically engineered superhuman whose ship, the SS Botany Bay, is discovered adrift by the USS Enterprise in deep space. Awakened from a cryogenic sleep, Khan and his people attempt to gain control of the Starfleet vessel. Thwarting this attempt at mutiny, Captain James T Kirk (William Shatner) shows leniency by allowing Khan and his followers to spend the rest of their days on an uncolonized planet, Ceti Alpha V. Though being exiled, Khan accepts the challenge.

Starring Ricardo Montalban as Khan, the episode "The Space Seed" aired in 1967, during the first season of "Star Trek: The Original Series". It was a plot that would be revisited years later in the feature film "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan". Montalban owned the role, and the actor's place in Star Trek history was most definitely assured, immortalised by a villain unmatched in anything since the 1982 motion picture.

Now there is no denying that the 2009 reboot of the Star Trek franchise, directed by J. J. Abrams, did wonders for a film series that had lost its momentum - the last big budget feature, "Star Trek: Nemesis" (released in 2002), was both a critical and financial disaster. Taking such a well-loved franchise and finding new ground was always going to be a risky... shall we say, enterprise? However, the gamble paid off. Set in an alternate timeline, we got to revisit Kirk during his early years, joined by all the original faces who shared his original voyages through space on the USS Enterprise.

It might seem a bit ironic to say "faces" when, clearly, the characters now belong to someone else, but the casting was simply wonderful and loyal to the show's origins. Chris Pine, for example, captures the essence of James T Kirk without even trying, whilst at the same time making the part his own; Karl Urban is unmistakable as Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy; and Zachary Quinto's Commander Spock is simply a joy to watch. Supporting cast include Zoe Saldana (Avatar, Colombiana) as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead) as Lieutenant Commander Montgomery "Scotty" Scott, John Cho as Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu, and Anton Yelchin (Terminator Salvation, Fright Night) as Ensign Pavel Chekov.

Though the plot for "Star Trek" (2009) wasn't the most original - Eric Bana's Romulan villain Nero didn't feel so inspired - the CGI was the best yet (even with those lens flares), each shot carefully constructed to make best use of character and script. The only problem I had with this first movie was the casting of Pegg as Scotty and that of his mascot, Keenser (played by Kenyan-born actor Keenser) - just why was the "Hot Fuzz" star cast in a role that quite clearly didn't suit his talents? Perhaps also, there should have been more screen time for Rachel Nichols as the Orion Starfleet cadet Gaila. However, overall there was much to enjoy about this new debut...

"Star Trek Into Darkness" works in similar fashion, injecting much life into an old tale. Once again the cast is excellent, each actor embracing their role and quite clearly enjoying the process. Like its predecessor, there is a visual mastery that embraces every scene, captures every bit of passion that is injected into the film by J. J. Abrams and his crew. The introduction of English actress Alice Eve as Lieutenant Dr. Carol Marcus is a welcome one. Even the new timeline - changed as a result of Nero's actions in the previous installment - works well. I find it amusing that some Star Trek fans seem to think their beloved franchise destroyed by J. J. Abrams' altered timeline, but isn't it just a case that the timeline featuring everything from the Original Series (plus "Star Trek: Enterprise") through to "Star Trek: Nemesis" simply continues to exist on its own path?

Though I had already learned via spoilers that Benedict Cumberbatch was to portray Khan Noonien Singh in this feature, I was prepared to watch it with an open mind. And, as terrorist Commander John Harrison, Cumberbatch works his skills well, bombing a secret installation Section 31 in London, a prelude to a far more cunning plot involving the deaths of senior Starfleet personnel. Given reason for revenge, Kirk commands the Enterprise and goes after Harrison, who has escaped to the Klingon homeworld. It is following these events that we learn of the terrorist's true identity...

Though expected, this simple revelation helped me to realise that Cumberbatch just isn't the Khan we deserved - it is perfectly understandable that following in Ricardo Montalban would be a difficult task for any actor, but casting should have reflected Montalban's physical appearance as well as his mannerisms as Khan. Considering the careful appointment of the main USS Enterprise cast to accurately emulate their predecessors, it is disappointing that the iconic character of Khan wasn't treated accordingly; though a good actor, Cumberbatch fails to be anything more than just another villain, unlike Montalban whose performance took the Star Trek film franchise to an altogether new level.

If some are wondering just what these films mean for Star Trek, it is this: J. J. Abrams has opened a door into an alternate reality, one where anything can change. If it had not been for actor Leonard Nimoy's appearance in both "Star Trek" and "Star Trek Into Darkness", one could easily consider that these movies are a full reboot and nothing more, able to be placed into a separate category from what has gone before. However, Nimoy's presence as the older Spock significantly recognises that Abrams has developed a sequel series, though veering in a different direction. Here lies the danger of complacency, the desire to recycle rather than to create original drama. Yes, Star Trek has a history, and exploring the original USS Enterprise's crew in a new light brings all kinds of exciting possibilities - so let this venture be completely brand new, subtle nods to yesterday, but a strong sense of "to boldly go where no man [or woman] has gone before..."

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