Lens flares, zooms, explosions, 3-D, space ships, aliens! Ugh, that was exhausting. Still, I cannot knock Star Trek Into Darkness. It takes a crafty, passionate hand to do a film like this right. Often science fiction action films stumble over the edge into camp or tread lightly in two safe zones: talking down to children or challenging the adult intellect. The Star Trek franchise has long suffered all of these states except for a handful of transcendent moments on television or in the movies. Director J.J. Abrams, however. seems to have the ideal formula locked down.
A fourth theatrical film into his career, and there’s no doubt Abrams has an innate talent for the science fiction action genre. Super 8 was the fifth greatest film I saw in 2011 (An antidote for Oscar hype: My 20 favorite films of 2011 [numbers 10 – 1]). Before that, I appreciated his previous Star Trek film enough to purchase the Blu-ray, and I only buy about three to four new releases for my library per year. I have not seen Mission Impossible III, but I may correct that. But, most importantly, three sci-fi action films in, and I have no trouble calling him a better director than George Lucas. The more I learn about what happened behind the scenes of Star Wars: A New Hope, the more I feel its success came from serendipitous good fortune for Lucas. However, Abrams is the super-evolved spawn who grew up with Star Wars through the rose-colored glasses of 1970s youth. It seeped into his consciousness as a consumer, and he idealized it in a manner as most adults beguiled with nostalgic memories of the film’s release in 1977. The trick is he turned his passion into a talent for writing efficient scripts and later directing similar films. That’s what makes him the ideal choice to direct the seventh Star Wars movie.
Abrams’ talent unfurls in full blossom on the 3-D screen with Star Trek Into Darkness. His signature use of blue lens flares cut bright highlights into many shots. As much as he loves setting technology in motion, he also relishes in the way characters and nature react to it, adding a heft and presence beyond gravity. From puffs of steam from a levitating freight vehicle barreling down an invisible aerial road to the spaceship Enterprise wobbling through hyperspace, all these animated props are granted a deeper dimension. Abrams loves the zoom effect. From a classic use jolting the audience’s eyes to a closer look at a distant skirmish to melding wide exterior shots of floating spaceships to intimate close-ups of its crew, he keeps it feeling fresh and engaging.
The symphony of sonic overload during the violent scenes perpetrated by a mysterious character (A brooding and blistering performance by Benedict Cumberbatch) who comes out of nowhere to disrupt the peaceful mission of exploration by Starfleet is presented with balance against the mere mortals struggling with the ethics of deep space exploration and their own human (and sometimes alien) foibles. Abrams even indulges in some quiet moments. He set up one particularly frightful scene of violence by first presenting a couple fretting over a sickly daughter using barely a word of dialogue.
The actors dive full force into their characters, and no one over stays their welcome on the screen. One could say the film heightens their distinctions, from Dr. Leonard McCoy’s (Karl Urban) sardonic skepticism to Chekov’s (Anton Yelchin) humble desire to live up to a new task after Scotty (Simon Pegg) butts heads with the captain over the subtleties of the engine room on the Enterprise. The same can be said of the leads, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine playing cocky with ebullient charm) and Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto delighting in Spock’s limited range of stoic and befuddled). It’s also a delight to have Uhura (an assuredly poised Zoe Saldana) raised to a high level of relevance from the original TV show to Spock’s love interest, as established in the previous film. To top it off, the passage of time since the last film reveals a witty layer of friction threatening the bond of Uhura and Spock in a manner that should distinguish a love affair between a human and a half human/half Vulcan. But the most fascinating actor to watch is Cumberbatch. As the slippery central nemesis of the film, he plays a sort of creature confident in his position above the beings around him. His presence in various scenarios takes the challenge of this character to all sorts of interesting levels, as one amusing kink in the plot piles on top of the other.
If there are any gripes about Star Trek Into Darkness, they are nitpicky ones. Maybe a syrupy exchange between a couple of characters in a life-and-death situation could have been cut with a few more drops of vinegar. The sexism heaped upon the women may be innate in the “Star Trek” world of the original television series from the ‘60s, but Abrams’ early work as creator of both the “Felicity” (with Matt Reeves) and “Alias” television serials proves he can do women fairer justice. But everything else works so clean and clear in Star Trek Into Darkness, these complaints only take up a few seconds of the film’s run time and hardly resonate through the rest of the movie.
With this brilliant Star Trek sequel, Abrams proves he knows how to create an atmosphere that engages movie audiences instead of pandering to them. As Star Trek Into Darkness breezes along the director always maintains an element of surprise and mystery to keep the drama moving forward. He peppers in moments of wit throughout featuring dialog provided by a team of three capable writers (Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof) whose combined sci-fi/action credits speak for themselves. Yet Abrams never indulges in the script for exposition. Instead, he uses it as part of a mood that serves the roller-coaster experience of the film. He knows there’s no room in sci-fi action for indulgent introspection. Sure Tarkovsky does fabulous intellectual sci-fi but leave that to him if you are not going to go dive into that sort of movie whole-hog. Though this reboot of the Star Trek movie franchise is slated to carry on with Abrams in a producer role, what he has proven exciting about his work with stale sci-fi franchises is that he can breathe vibrant life back into them. It bodes well for the upcoming series of Star Wars movies.
Star Trek Into Darkness is rated PG-13 and runs 132 (breezy) minutes. You can catch it at any multi-plex right now, including 2-D, 3-D and IMAX. Paramount pictures invited me to a 3-D screening Wednesday night for the purpose of this review.