Doing the near impossible by eclipsing the warp speed of 2009's Star Trek, J.J. Abrams' sequel is wall-to-wall action empowered by the strong characters set up in the original. Star Trek Into Darkness, from geek-friendly writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof, hones in on the destructive heroism of James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), the Captain's friendship with all-too-logical Spock (Zachary Quinto), and a worthy adversary for the crew: the superhuman terrorist John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). The approach leaves the ensemble, elegantly woven into the adventure of the first movie, on the sidelines. Instead of reminding us why we love the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise, Into Darkness floods the screen with spectacle and relies on memories of the past to fill in the blanks. What's the Klingon word for "overload?"
From the first notes of Michael Giacchino's rousing score, we're thrust into the middle of the action. A chase scene on a lush planet jumps to an escape from volcanic eruption jumps to Kirk and Spock back on Earth defending themselves against Federation punishment (a dialogue scene that taps snappy dialogue and big emotion to keep the momentum going). Kirk is under fire for going against the "Prime Directive," stating that the Starfleet won't interfere with the internal development of alien civilizations. Standing down isn't his style — and it costs him Spock as his right hand man, the Enterprise, and a career. He's pulled back in by Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller), who needs Kirk's renegade style to catch Harrison. A format Starfleet officer, Cumberbatch's Harrison is more than meets the eye, but violent attacks against the Federation are enough to light a fire under Kirk's ass. The rage-filled Captain recruits his former crew to boldly go after Harrison.
Into Darkness lacks the camaraderie that made Star Trek pop — and even Cumberbatch's scenery chewing instincts are stymied by surface-level drama — Abrams never blinks an eye when it comes to the direction. He finds tension with the grand CG set pieces (a spaceship chase through the canyons of an alien planet is basically a proof of concept for Star Wars 7) and finds all the right angles for a intensely close-up space jump scene through a field of debris. The movie acknowledges that this is repeat business, essentially the same scene from movie one, but it's expertly crafted and a thrill thanks to Abrams' knowhow.
With all the innovation on display, Star Trek Into Darkness can't escape the shadow of its dramatic cues. It's completely indebted to Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan — a foundation that must be bewildering to the non-fan. The movie also functions as a 9/11 allegory. Or, more specifically, the conspiracies surrounding 9/11. With a large portion of action taking place on Earth, trauma strikes among skyscrapers and screaming pedestrians in an on-the-nose fashion. It wrenches the gut, but it's easy. True drama between Kirk and Spock exists thanks to Pine and Quinto's vivid portrayals, but it's all for naught when the inciting incidents are nostalgic riffs rather than freshly born situations.
Star Trek had its fair share of plot holes, but they were swept up in the fun factor of watching a motley crew of young actors figure out teamwork. Into Darkness is missing the team, and missing the fun. Abrams takes a dark turn with his follow-up and promises an epically-scaled sparring match between Kirk and Cumberbatch. The movie winds up moving so quickly, glossing over so much to get to that final clash, that Star Trek Into Darkness fizzles out by its finish.
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From the creators of the TNT miniseries Gettysburg including executive producer Ted Turner and writer/director Ronald F. Maxwell Gods chronicles the Civil War from its beginnings when the South rises up. Confederate General Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall) a distinguished military man but also a loyal native Virginian chooses to fight for his home rather than his country while Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson (Stephen Lang) a devoutly religious man becomes Lee's most trusted lieutenant. On the other side we have Colonel Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) a professor from Maine who ends up one of the Union's finest military leaders. In between there are glimpses of the wives and families left behind. Stories of this magnitude with their dramatic bloody battles and tragic endings usually leave you numb or crying for those lives lost and destroyed. Instead Gods and Generals holds no resonance whatsoever meticulously plotting out the details and making this decisive moment in American history interminable at three and a half hours. It's like wading through a textbook--or worse watching Civil War fanatics carefully reenact the famous battle scenes on the very ground they were fought over and over again--while the players stand around quoting long-winded verse from the Bible or Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Blech.
The actors in Gods and Generals must have honestly thought they were making something important when they signed up. Main players Lang (who played Major Gen. George Pickett in Gettysburg) and Daniels (who reprises his Gettysburg role as Chamberlain) have their moments but after hearing them recite one speech after another especially Lang's Jackson who says more prayers to God than anything else you start to wonder if they ever realized they made a mistake. (Or have we for sitting through it?) One of the more superfluous scenes is when Jackson and his black cook Jim played by Frankie Faison are standing outside in the freezing cold night for about 15 minutes both looking up at the stars and praying to God. It seems like the actors are trying to make such sermonizing poignant meaningful but all this pontification simply drags the movie further down. These speeches aren't just Lang's and Daniels' territory--Mira Sorvino as Chamberlain's wife and Kali Rocha as Jackson's wife get their own personal moments in the sun too. If you count the cast of thousands each with their own things to say well you get the point. Thankfully Duvall who is the only good thing about the movie gets to keep the talking to a minimum.
If you want to see a Civil War melodrama at its best where watching the heroes race through a sacked city makes you hold your breath and witnessing horrific hospital scenes makes you squirm then watch Gone With the Wind. If you want gut-wrenching Civil War battles or more understanding of how slaves truly felt then watch Glory. If you want a heartening history lesson about the Civil War that not only teaches you about the era's political machinations but also shares the insights and thoughts of the men and women who experienced it then watch Ken Burns' documentary series The Civil War. Gods and Generals offers none of that in its dry textbook version of the Civil War which uses the same shots are used over and over again (how many times does the camera pan up to the night sky or show the panoramic view of Fredericksburg Virginia? I lost count) features more actors waxing prophetic than real drama and actually makes you yawn during what should be intense battle scenes.