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Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

Star Trek Into DarknessThis is a film that I didn’t love, but also, I didn’t hate.  It is a very entertaining, exciting movie, but has a number of downfalls mainly stemming from the rehashing of old ideas and characters while doing nothing to make them fresh or new.  For a franchise that was just rebooted with the last movie, this seems like filmmakers with a dry well of ideas when they should be going warp speed ahead into bold, new directions.

When the crew of the Enterprise is called back home, they find an unstoppable force of terror from within their own organization has brought the fear of war and destruction to the Federation.  With a personal score to settle and sanctioned by the resilient Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller), Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) leads a manhunt to a war-zone world to capture a one man weapon of mass destruction known as John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch).  As our heroes are propelled into an epic chess game of life and death, love will be challenged, friendships will be torn apart, and sacrifices must be made for the only family Kirk has left: his crew.

Now, I did not like the 2009 reboot movie.  I thought it was shoddily written with a lot of plot holes, big holes in logic, a weak villain with narrow-minded motivations, a style over substance approach, and a tone that did more to poke fun at these classic characters than show serious, due respect to them.  If the marketing campaign for this film wasn’t so good, I likely would not have been ensnared into seeing it.  However, despite my best resolve, I was compelled to check out spoilers after a spoiler-free review hinted strongly enough at a certain aspect of this film that I was not agreeable to in rumors.  There will be a spoiler section later to address that, but simply said, if I went into this film clean, without spoilers, I’m sure I would have at least been angry with the movie.  Instead, having foreknowledge of many pertinent aspects of the film allowed me to enjoy it more, and go into it with an open mind instead of a resistant one.  I was willing to let the movie change my mind, and to an extent, it did in how well the general plot is written.  However, there are several problems with story, characters, and concepts that I will address shortly.

On the upside of things, firstly, Star Trek Into Darkness has some stellar and exciting action sequences.  While the physical action with chase scenes and fights is not very traditional Trek, it is still very enjoyable stuff done with remarkable talent evident in all aspects.  It is a little hard to accept Spock running around in an action centric role during the climax since that’s always been Kirk’s role, but Quinto is at least more than capable of the task.  I did especially like the encounter with the Klingons where Harrison unleashes a one man barrage.  We see only one unmasked Klingon, but he does resemble the forehead ridged versions with a slightly different sleekness.  The starship battles are few, but feature excellent visual effects and rousing, perilous action.  The whole sequence with the Enterprise spiraling out of control, and Kirk and Scotty are running through the corridors as the gravity is spinning them all around is also fantastic.  J.J. Abrams, beyond anything else, knows how to create an exciting, action-filled movie aimed to entertain.

Now, the hardest part of assessing Chris Pine’s portrayal of James Kirk is that his version has so many changes to his back story that he’s ultimately not Shatner’s Kirk.  You don’t get that wit, cunning, and confidence that defined Shatner’s performance early on.  Instead, we have a young, brash, impulsive Kirk who does let his emotions get the better of him.  I do like that the film addresses one thing I didn’t like about the first movie.  Fresh from Starfleet Academy, off of one successful mission saving Earth, Kirk is given the Captain’s chair without having earned it through years of exemplary service and hard earned experience.  At one point here, his command is taken away from him due to his lack of respect for the Captain’s chair and Starfleet regulations.  He had the Enterprise given to him without having earned it, and now, he’s sort of put into the position where he has to make tough decisions and earn his command.  He has to challenge authority instead of dismissing it, and I think this element is handled rather well.  On the whole, I think Pine is a good actor, but I don’t think the writing and development of Kirk has yet to match his strengths.  His fiery emotions don’t resonate as strongly as Cumberbatch’s chilling, menacing presence.  Once again, Kirk does feel a little weak to me in this Abrams universe.  It’s that essential element of maturity and confidence of Kirk that’s missing which always made him interesting, and I hope that’s where these filmmakers are pushing him towards.  His arc in this film seems to suggest that, but I do feel it doesn’t get the forefront time it deserved to be properly poignant.

Zachary Quinto is given a rather meaty chunk of material in developing his Spock.  There’s a good weight of emotional insight we are given into him as he explores the ideas and fears of death.  Quinto reflects that depth immensely well, and the building of the Kirk-Spock relationship towards something more familiar is excellent in my view.  However, I do feel the whole Uhura relationship is still unappealing to me.  I’m glad they gave her more to do than operating the communications station, but I don’t see any major potential for that relationship.  In general, all of the regular crew members are given a stronger role here.  Sulu is given a taste of command, which I really loved as a subtle hint at him becoming Captain of the Excelsior in the original continuity.  Even Chekov, who I’m still unsold on the portrayal of, is given the run of engineering having to keep the ship intact in the absence of Mr. Scott.

This time out, I feel Simon Pegg did a far more faithful and solid Montgomery Scott.  In nearly every instance, he felt genuine from James Doohan’s original series portrayal.  He had more dramatic weight to carry, and had a bit of a subplot of his own to deal with.  He has justifiable conflicts with Kirk’s mission, and smartly weaves his way back into the thick of the plot by the third act.  I was far more satisfied with everything Pegg did here which still had moments of humor, but felt respectable overall.  With this character, it thrived from smart writing and a really good acting job by Pegg.

And continuing to prove my insistence that he’s one of the most solid and reliable actors around today, Karl Urban beautifully channels DeForest Kelly as Dr. McCoy.  He feels so authentic to the character while still feeling natural and passionate in his own right.  As with Kelley, Urban gets some of the best lines in the movie to the point where I’d love to just see a Dr. McCoy movie.  I really, wholeheartedly believe that Karl Urban is just on the verge of a major career breakthrough.  I’ve yet to see him do anything less than excellence in every role he’s taken on.  Urban just needs that one high profile leading role, and I cannot wait for that day.  He is the perfect successor to Leonard “Bones” McCoy.

Even Peter Weller does an excellent job as Admiral Marcus, who sanctions Kirk’s mission to take out Harrison, but the plot methodically reveals a lot of subversive dealings in Starfleet.  There’s even a great Deep Space Nine reference in regards to that.  What Weller delivers when those revelations occur is damn good, and fills a very solid part in this plot.  Also, Alice Eve does a nice job as Carol Marcus, the Admiral’s daughter, and strikes a small spark of chemistry with Chris Pine.  However, it doesn’t amount to much at all.  Also, I was rather confused as to why Carol Marcus now has a British accent when her Wrath of Khan counterpart did not, and nor does her father.  It was a distracting arbitrary choice that doesn’t really enhance the character in anyway.  It’s just peculiar.

Now, what really compelled me the most leading up to this film was indeed Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance.  That chilling deep voice with his intimidating, foreboding presence is so captivating.  His villainous character is intriguing with an air of mystique.  He has his secrets to keep and strategically reveal as his own agendas and plots unfold.  He’s written very intelligently, and we even get moments of emotional depth and pain in one scene.  His John Harrison character is certainly more than what he seems to be at first, and has many surprises in store for the crew of the Enterprise and Starfleet.  I really think, on a performance level, he’s one of the best villains this franchise has ever had.  He’s certainly the best movie villain since General Chang in Star Trek VI.  Cumberbatch is clearly an immensely talented actor, and he really owns this movie with a complex and rich portrayal.  However, there is a very important aspect of this character that I have to take issue with that can only be done in the spoiler section of this review.  Many loyal Star Trek fans may indeed find this to be intensely objectionable.

However, before we get to that, the problems of this movie are that it feels like a modern day remake of a vastly superior film.  How it rehashes old ideas that come off as second rate carbon copies that do more to remind you of how they were done better thirty or forty-five years ago are exactly reminiscent of creatively devoid remakes from unoriginal filmmakers.  Star Trek Into Darkness attempts to have original ideas such as Kirk dealing with failure and humility, but they are rapidly overshadowed by the plots involving Harrison and Admiral Marcus.  This theme with Chris Pine’s Kirk is never given enough time to flourish and take a solid foothold in the film when put in opposition to all of these retreaded characters, dialogues, and concepts.  These were likely intended as homages, but they come off as lazy, unoriginal writing.  The screenwriters couldn’t put together a wholly original screenplay with unique concepts, or at least, utilize smart enough writing to take solid ownership of what it does with these revisited elements.  Considering the majority critical opinions of them, I’m not sure what most should expect from the co-writers of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and the screenwriter of Cowboys & Aliens and Prometheus.  Frankly, I thought the purpose of rebooting the franchise with an altered timeline was to take these classic characters into bold, new directions with fresh ideas.  Instead, they just do the same old thing only not done remotely as well.  They are free and open to do whatever they choose, and they choose to do next to nothing new at all.  This makes it seem like they’ve already hit a dry well of ideas, and that doesn’t bode well for the future of this franchise.

Now we come to the SPOILER paragraphs.  So, if you don’t want to get a full disclosure of plot turns and revelations, please, jump beyond the next two paragraphs to remain free of such knowledge.  You have been given fair warning to avert your eyes.  Your temptation is your own, and I know the temptation of spoilers is indeed intense.  So, here we go.

What has been rumored over the last several months that I ultimately took issue with is this.  The villain of this film, portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, is actually revealed to be Khan Noonien Singh.  Now, the screenwriters integrate him well into the story, weaving all the motivations around him very soundly, and the explanation of his presence absolutely makes sense.  It all ties into the themes of war and Admiral Marcus’ motivations in regards to that by having Khan help Starfleet develop new weapons of war including the Dreadnaught class warship that nearly kills the Enterprise and her crew.  However, we have already had our definitive Khan story with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and the original series episode Space Seed is still a stellar piece of work.  I don’t discount the possibility that another great Khan story could be made, but this one falls behind both of those previous outings.  Furthermore, making Cumberbatch be Khan actually diminishes the quality and potential of what Cumberbatch does here.  Instead of being viewed as a strong, amazing performance of a brand new, fresh villain, he is going to be eternally compared back to Ricardo Montalban, which is a gross disservice to Cumberbatch.  Also, the fact is that his performance bares no resemblance to the Khan we knew.  Khan was a man of passion and regal self-image.  He viewed himself as a Prince bringing order to humanity.  This new Khan comes off like an ice cold, menacing shark of a murderer, a man almost devoid of passion.  The original Khan was a conqueror, a ruler and leader of men.  This Khan is more of the terrorist persuasion acting alone, and really succumbing to the will of others to strike out from underneath their oppression.  Straight up, Khan would never bow to another person’s will, no matter the level of force that opposed him.  In Space Seed, Khan frees his people almost single-handedly, and takes over the Enterprise nearly killing the entire crew in the process.  I could never see Khan acting the way he does in this film.  He was never a lone wolf seeking to terrorize.  He was a proud, cultured man seeking power and stature.  Surely, he wasn’t hesitant to bloody his hands, but him becoming a terrorist against Starfleet doesn’t fit for Khan.  He wanted more to be respected than simply feared.  He was also a man quick to exercise his superiority over others, especially Kirk.  The story works, and the motivation is sound, but the personality is simply not Khan.  Not to mention, Cumberbatch bares no physical resemblance to Khan with his Caucasian complexion and English accent.  I cannot see the character that Montalban originated in Space Seed fitting into the context, personality, and methods of the Khan we see in this film, regardless of how differently events unfolded in this new future timeline.  Everything that Khan was before his resuscitation from cryo-sleep remains the same as it was in the original continuity, and so, he wakes up as the same man in this continuity as in Space Seed.  Thus, I don’t feel there’s enough leeway to allow for Khan’s personality and methods to change so drastically.

Also, the film quotes lines verbatim from The Wrath of Khan, and in the climax, there is a reversal on Spock’s death scene where it is Kirk who rushes into the radiation chamber to restart the engines to save the ship and her crew.  It becomes distracting when Pine and Quinto speak practically the same dialogue that Shatner and Nimoy did back in 1982 only with the roles reversed.  The scene is well acted, but you lose every bit of emotional investment and poignancy of the scene because it is such a blatant carbon copy with no fresh life of its own.  Again, you can’t help but remember how brilliant and powerful it was in The Wrath of Khan when you see this lazy, plagiarist writing realized on screen.  And of course, in poor, unearned fashion, the scene is punctuated with Zachary Quinto’s Spock yelling the infamous line of “KHAN!!!” to very weak effect.  It was done perfectly once, but since then, any other use has always been done in comedic context.  Here, it feels borderline lame because it’s not an original idea for a genuine reaction.  Ultimately, Kirk is revived because Khan’s blood now has some entirely unexplained regenerative properties.  It is setup twice in the film, but it could still be a contentious issue for many.  And literally, it is never explained at all.  It’s just there as a plot convenience, and factors into nothing purposeful enough but to bring Kirk back from death.

Veering towards the technical side of the film, the cinematography of Dan Mindel is very, very good.  He really knows how to use that wide frame to give you a strong cinematic visual with the use of great color schemes, and the action sequences are competently done.  There might be a couple shots that I wasn’t all that keen about due to the more rugged camera work during the space battles or the like, but they were fleeting.  The lens flares are toned down a hell of a lot from the previous movie, possibly due to the intended post-conversion 3D effect.  From a few sources, they say the post-conversion is very good.  And the score by Michael Giacchino is also quite good, but I really would’ve liked to have heard that Alexander Courage theme before the last minute of the film.  Just a hint of it somewhere would have gone a long way.

Overall, I did feel like the story here was a little less than what it could have been despite being well conceived and executed.  It felt like a setup of ideas and scenarios for another film, which would likely deal with a Federation-Klingon war.  It’s setting up this climate of inevitable war from the Klingons encroaching through space and perceived heightening tensions.  Everything is built on that fear of war, and while it is a very good idea which builds upon the events of the previous movie, it didn’t feel like an idea that was used to boost the strength and foundation of this film.  It all felt like the setup for something larger, and in doing so, it partly dismisses this story as a stepping stone.  If the focus was on this story, and doing everything possible with it, including injecting original ideas and dialogue into it fully, this would be a stronger movie.

In short, I think Star Trek Into Darkness will please general audiences, but the loyal Trek fan might have more than a few negative things to say about it.  My apprehension about J.J. Abrams helming the next Star Wars movie is evident here in that he does favor style over substance, and even what substance he has is fairly minimal and not well conceived.  Maybe working with a new screenwriter will resolve these issues, but the last thing that franchise needs, as well as Star Trek, is more creatively disjointed outings that favor flashy visuals over a good, solid story.  Neither franchise will have vibrant, flourishing futures based on work like this.  Again, I did enjoy this movie, especially more than the 2009 film, but I was a long way from loving it.  I was really hoping for fresh, new ideas and an original villain that could stand on his own, but unfortunately, I really didn’t get either.  I do recommend seeing it if you are not apprehensive about some contentious issues with revisited characters and ideas from far superior Trek stories.


Batman: Under The Red Hood (2010)

My interest in comics was re-sparked recently.  I’ve bought them on and off since the 90s depending on cash flow.  Since childhood Batman has been the absolute pinnacle of superheroes to me.  The Adam West show, Superfriends, Batman: The Animated Series, the live action films from 1989 to 2008, and beyond has made me a hardcore Batman fan!  My latest enthusiasm lead me to take an interest in the DC animated movie Batman: Under The Red Hood.  There is some background to offer with this review on Batman comic history.  In the 1980s, DC Comics decided to mature Dick Grayson, the original Robin, into his own man and became Nightwing.  Batman was now without a sidekick, and DC hurried a new Robin into the comics.  His name was Jason Todd.  After a company wide continuity revamp called Crisis on Infinite Earths, what was previously a poorly conceived Dick Grayson carbon copy was changed into a punk kid that divided fans.  So, a storyline was developed where the fans would call a 900 number to determine Jason’s fate.  The vote came down to about 72 for Jason’s death at the hands of the Joker.  About twenty years later, the choice was made to resurrect Jason Todd as a Batman villain in the guise of the Red Hood – the Joker’s original criminal identity.  This animated movie adapts that story, and I feel it delivers an excellent piece of entertainment.  Of course, this comes from someone who never read the “A Death in the Family” or “Under The Hood” graphic novels.

International terrorist Ra’s Al Ghul, one of Batman’s most formidable adversaries, comes into great regret over his latest actions which involve hiring the Joker as a diversion for the Dark Knight.  It goes terribly wrong when the Clown Prince of Crime claims the life of Robin #2, Jason Todd.  Years later, a new masked figure appears in Gotham City calling himself the Red Hood.  Part vigilante, part crime lord, he begins cleaning up crime with masterful efficiency, but without Batman’s ethical moral code.  He rattles the cage of the biggest crime kingpin in Gotham, the Black Mask, and they launch into a violent war.  And when the Joker is brought into the mix, everything begins to fly out of control.  However, Batman’s suspicions over this new violent player forces him to seek out startling revelations and confront hard truths that open old wounds.

What might first strike you about this is the darker, more violent tone of the animated film.  It is rated PG-13.  So, it’s not a children’s film.  There is blood and a guy getting set on fire.  There’s brutality and murder.  It has heavy themes rolling through it of death, murder, redemption, revenge, sorrow, grief, and regret.  It is designed for a mature audience able to handle heavier subject matter, and grasp the emotional weight of the story.

Now, I grew up with Kevin Conroy as the voice of the animated Batman from Batman: The Animated Series on through to Justice League Unlimited.  I own all those series and movies featuring his voice as the Dark Knight.  I even hear his voice when I read Batman in any comic book.  However, Bruce Greenwood was tapped to voice Bruce Wayne / Batman here, and I was not at all disappointed or put off by it.  Greenwood inhabits the tone of both the character and the story excellently.  Much credit is to be given to screenwriter Judd Winick for capturing the essence of Batman here, but Greenwood slips into the proverbial cape and cowl smoothly.  In true Batman style, he expresses his heart in subtle, brief moments.  Similarly, John DiMaggio absorbs himself into the Joker.  At first, I wasn’t entirely certain if I was hearing veteran Joker voice actor Mark Hamill or not, but DiMaggio brings a deeper voice to the microphone that makes Batman’s archenemy more unsettling.  He’s a little darker, more Heath Ledger like in his portrayal, but still delivering the exuberant insanity that Hamill was a master at.  It is a very appropriate portrayal for this darker edged story.

The focal point of the story is Jason Todd, and he is voiced by Jensen Ackles of The CW’s Supernatural.  I feel Jensen does an admirable job here, but at times, the voice sounds a little too mature, too deep for the character’s age.  Jason’s probably in his late teens, maybe early twenties.  Jensen does lighten up his voice from what he uses in his signature role of Dean Winchester.  However, he does portray the role here very well projecting Todd’s charisma, humor, intellect, aggression, hatred, and conviction in well rounded form.  Jason started as a punk kid that Batman attempted to mold into a better person, but he never succeeded.  What he evolves into is someone that has the same core ideal of Batman to combat crime and using much the same tactics, but with more extreme methods drawing the line of how much violence is enough farther out.  He believes that Batman cannot ultimately succeed because he puts limits on himself.  Jason is a character I have become very intrigued by as he walks that thin anti-hero line where he could be a hero or a villain at any given moment depending on circumstance and motive.

In the role of Nightwing is Neil Patrick Harris who perfectly captures the light-hearted charisma and sharp wit of Batman’s original protégé.  How the story portrays Dick Grayson is fantastic.  Dick & Bruce work in tandem battling foes with grace and efficiency.  They finish each other’s thoughts, both thinking the same amount of steps ahead to swing in at the right time for the save.  I’ve always enjoyed Nightwing as a character full of potential.  Here, he’s mainly involved in just the action sequences, but he makes them so much more dynamic with his acrobatics and sense of fun in the face of danger.  I am wholehearted believer in the unlimited potential of Nightwing and Dick Grayson.  By trusted accounts, he made for a wonderful Batman following the “Battle for the Cowl” comic story arc.

I was never exposed to the Black Mask before this, but after this, I am very pleased.  I laughed so hard at his scenes.  His character is blowing a gasket at how the Red Hood is beating down his criminal empire, and he takes it out on every henchman he has.  Slugging them left and right, and ultimately, fending for himself when danger comes crashing through his window.  I found the character immensely entertaining here, but I’m sure, in normal circumstances, he’s portrayed in a more calm, in control, and vile fashion.  Wade Williams just delivers an entertaining, personality rich performance that practically makes the whole movie for me.

I highly enjoyed the animation style.  Very easy on the eyes with smooth motion, and fine, fresh character designs.  They capture the characters very sharply with a good deal of personality injected into their look and movements.  The action sequences are handled with so much detail and dynamic motion.  They are beautifully cinematic and enjoyably exhilarating.  The characters move fluidly with amazing fight choreography.  There’s a fight between Batman and Red Hood late in the film inside a bathroom filled with hard surfaces where you not only get some inspired visceral moments, but the emotion is strongly, deeply ingrained into the intensity of the fight.  However, what I very much love is the look of Gotham City.  The color scheme of the city at night is very alluring and beautiful.  It has a fine glow that gives it atmosphere and ambience, something Gotham must always have.  It is a character unto itself with a personality all its own that forges these characters down these darkened paths.

I think how the story is handled is very smart and poignant.  There are flashbacks throughout the film, but they are injected into the story and visuals in two ways.  One is the straight flashback, but others are more ghostly.  Ghosts of the past haunting Batman when Red Hood leads him to a place of remembrance.  It brings special emotional context to this troubling story that puts so much in conflict for Bruce and Jason.  The climax is brilliantly written and performed.  Everyone gets their moment to shine at their strongest.  Joker has probably the most hilarious, manic moment my memory can recall.  You’re almost excited for him because he’s so exuberant.  Still, it is the deep sense of love that Jason and Bruce have for each other like a son and father which strikes deep.  By the end, it can be heartbreaking.

The only other thing to address with the movie is the absence of Tim Drake, the third Robin.  In the comic book storyline, Tim was Batman’s current sidekick, and was apparently involved in the story.  However, I understood why they did not include him in this adaptation.  They introduced Jason as Robin, and then, introduced Nightwing as having been the original Robin.  Throwing yet another one in there that came after Jason’s death could’ve been confusing for an uninitiated audience.  You would see Robin die, and then, you see Batman working alongside another Robin without an immediate explanation that they are different characters would be highly disorienting.  This is especially so since all three characters have the same basic character design – lean, athletic build with black hair in similar red-green-yellow costumes.  Nightwing essentially fills the role that Tim Drake would’ve had in this story.  No disrespect to Tim, but for me, I think having Dick Grayson present was a smart change.  This is because he and Bruce have a longer history together, and really are like best friends instead of mentor and student at this point in time.  It allows for a stronger contrast from Bruce’s original protégé who became a crowning achievement for him against the failure that was Jason Todd.

With all that said, watching this film makes me want to by the graphic novel to experience this in more depth.  It is a wonderfully conceived and executed piece of work that I have watched three times within a week and a half.  My only negative mark I have for the film is that it only runs 75 minutes.  A full 90 minutes would’ve felt more fleshed out and a little more satisfying.  However, DC Animated has been keeping about a 75 minute cap on their feature films, likely due to production costs.  Regardless, what is here is powerful and impactful.  It feels like a true Batman story filled with a lot of fun action, deep emotional drama, and rich, well developed characters.  If you have enjoyed Christopher Nolan’s live action Batman films, I think you will find a lot to enjoy on a similar level here.  I give it a very strong recommendation to anyone that has a love for Batman, as I do.