Monday, May 20, 2013

Just Seen: Star Trek: Into Darkness

Kirk (Chris Pine) running through the red jungle.
That's motion blur, not lens flare.
Caught this in 2D, no less. It's getting to the point now with effects-heavy summer films that I try to make it a decision: 3D for Pixar and animated films or movies with some sort of innovation to it (The Hobbit, Avatar) or see it in 2D if the story promises to be compelling and I don't want the color and resolution compromised by those dumb glasses.

You definitely get your money's worth with this film. You get to see a lot of amazing stuff (even in 2D) and the action is well-directed and logically mapped out. Yeah, after a while there's too much action, especially at the end, but that's the entire stated purpose of J. J. Abrams and Paramount: to strip out Star Trek and turn it into a summer action-and-effects franchise.

The film kicks off in the thick of action, with Kirk and McCoy running for their lives through a blood-red alien forest. The visuals are amazingly cool, pure sci-fi. They're on a pre-technological planet, and the Prime Directive is about to be violated if they can't get out undetected. This being the new, kick-ass, impulsive Jim Kirk, he can't manage NOT to violate the Prime Directive, having the Enterprise rise out of the sea and fly over the terrified locals.

This part bothered me-- but not because the movie was violating Star Trek precedence: the opening sequence was quite faithful to the feel of how away missions went on The Original Series, and if Roddenberry could afford to show anything like this he would have. What bothered me is the fact the Enterprise was hidden from prying native eyes... under water. I know the technology of Star Trek is a magical thing, dilithium this and tritanium that, but... well.. it seemed crazier than usual.

Planet Express Ship,
flying through a gaseous medium
of 1013 millibars or less.
I was immediately reminded of an episode of “Futurama” where Planet Express Ship is being dragged to the bottom of the Atlantic by a huge fish. The outside water pressure becomes incredible:

Farnsworth: Dear Lord, that's over 150 atmospheres of pressure.
Fry: How many atmospheres can this ship withstand?
Farnsworth: Well it's a spaceship, so I'd say anywhere between zero and one.

After this opening development, Kirk is busted by Starfleet and his command is taken away. The main plot starts up here too-- it involves terrorism, questions about militarizing Starfleet, basically another examination of the post-9/11 world filtered into the Star Trek universe. The main story also references a lot of details from both the series and the previous movies: It's done with a certain reverence, and went a long way (but not all the way) to redeeming J. J. Abrams vision for this universe. It's good enough to compel me NOT to spoil any of the details!

A few notes:

The bad guy, surrounded by redshirts. The incidental
body count in ST:ID is really high: not "destroying
Vulcan" high, but a lot of digital extras get blown up.
• Most of Star Trek: Into Darkness works, and that has a lot to do with how much damn appeal Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the rest of the re-cast TOS crew still have. It's really a tribute to Gene Roddenberry: He created characters and a universe so rich and compelling that the smart re-casting for the new series for the most part works perfectly. In fact, I'd fault the film for not spending enough time with the supporting cast: they're all interesting (especially Karl Urban as Dr. McCoy).  

• This new movie continues the franchise tradition of hiring actors with long, rolling names to play villains: Ricardo Montalban (ST-II), Laurence Luckenbill (ST-V) and now Benedict Cumberbatch.

• The J. J. Abrams lens flare thing: Yeah, it's his director's signature, and it's in a lot of ST:ID. But there is not nearly as much of it as there was in the last Star Trek movie. Fact of the matter is, most of the most obvious optical flaring happens in the scenes set on the Enterprise's bridge.

The business end of an anamorphic lens.
A lot of people wonder why Abrams overuses flare so much-- I mean, millions are being spent of actors, sets and effects, and he's shooting a bright light into the lens, blowing out the picture and hiding all that hard work. Back in film school the production core instructors would go bananas when a student screened footage with visible lens flare. Cinematography, they said, was about capturing specular light. (then again, this was in the Super-8 and 8mm Camcorder days, when compound zooms would leave kaleidoscopic strings of artifacts through the center axis of the frame. It usually completely wrecked the shot.)

But times change and film styles certainly evolve. J. J. Abrams is sending a coded message with his little flare signature. If you really know how cinema lenses work, you can tell that Abrams only shows anamorphic lens flares. This is the kind of lens used exclusively for Panavision and CinemaScope cinematography: they are cylindrical, rather than spherical, designed to squeeze the image: they make flares that look like blue horizontal lines and wide counter-reflections. What he is saying: “This is a widescreen motion picture, not digital cinema: it is part of the common heritage of Hollywood spectacles also shot with anamorphic lenses.”

• Because ST:ID is essentially a franchise episode we've now dispensed with the origin story and the characters are now settled into interpersonal relationships much as they were in The Original Series. (except for Lt. Uhura and Spock, of course.). Their banter is looser and as a result this film is surprisingly funny. I saw this film on Sunday afternoon, a half-full auditorium: I have no idea why I was the only person laughing at the jokes.


  1. I saw it Saturday night, full house, 3D; and now that you mention it I am completely unaware of any audience reaction. Wasn't listening for it, I guess, but probably should have been. At those prices, it's an element that is unique to the venue and precious as gold.

  2. The quiet was a little odd. I'm not sure if the audience was in awe-- or beaten into submission by the sheer manic spectacle of the thing.

    There WAS this middle-aged dude wearing pajama bottoms who would get up every few minutes and wander around the auditorium. He didn't bother anybody, but he missed about a third of the film. Weird.