(Video on Demand, September 2013) As a confirmed but not dogmatic Star Trek fan, I find this new movie-reboot-series interesting: It’s not quite the same Star Trek that established the reputation of the series, but it holds its own as an ongoing series of action-based SF adventures. This second entry builds on the first one in that it doesn’t really have to re-establish all of the characters, giving more time and freedom to tell a new story. That it’s pieced together from bits and pieces of other Trek miscellanea (I recognized at least three minor references to the original series, and I wasn’t paying that much attention) is a bit unfortunate, as it constantly invites comparisons that may not work to its favour. There certainly are a few problems with Into Darkness: As in the first film, the screenwriters clearly don’t understand anything about science or basic plausibility (A spaceship plunging into the sea? A major engagement in lunar orbit and no automated defense mechanism says boo?) and can’t be bothered to think twice about their universe-changing plot contrivances (Trans-warp? Resurrection serums?). This laziness keeps Into Darkness from being taken seriously as some of the finest recent examples of filmed SF: this isn’t 1983, and there’s a lot of good original SF on-screens to pick from. In order to compete, even a Star Trek reboot has to bring something to the table, and what Into Darkness has in spade is action: Director J.J. Abrams’ film is filled with high-end sequences mixing top-notch visuals with fast-paced tension and quite a bit fewer lens flares than the first film. The characters don’t hurt either, as it’s almost ridiculously entertaining to watch Chris Pine as the impulsive Kirk play off Zachary Quinto’s cool Spock. The rest of the crew also does well, proving the virtue of that particular cast selection back in 2009. This time, though, the addition of Benedict Cumberbatch as the villainous super-man Khan makes for far better drama than the first film: Cumberbatch is delicious as an antagonist, and there’s enough tension for an entire film in seeing him work alongside the Enterprise crew for vastly different reasons. Despite the departure from Trek’s all-optimism canon, I’m not unhappy to see tensions within Starfleet used as primary plot devices: This reboot is setting a nice bar in terms of dramatic interest, and fractious inner politics are a good measure of this pseudo-realism. So it is that while it’s possible (and maybe even necessary) to nit-pick this film to shred, I’m not dissatisfied at all with the result. My biggest wish for the inevitable third entry, though, would be to move farther away from Trek canon: a contemporary action-driven film series isn’t the same as a low-budget sixties serial, and any attempts to keep the two tightly linked can only frustrate everyone.
(In theaters, May 2006) Sure, Tom Cruise is a loon. But now that we’ve disposed of the obvious, let’s look at Mission: Impossible 3 as a movie rather than a star vehicle. It’s certainly a different film from the first two movies in the series: Here, the team is back in action, leading to a number of crunchy heist sequences that don’t just bask in the glory of Tom Cruise. Similarly, we can sense that some care has been given to the script underlying the entire film: Director J.J. Abrams is a veteran of such TV shows as Alias, and this go-for-broke intensity is one of the most pleasant aspects of Mission: Impossible 3. As the often-ludicrous twists pile up, the film speeds up and acquires a pleasant velocity. It brings some of TV’s best tricks to the bigger-budgeted world of action movies and at least gives the illusion of doing something new. Seymour Philip Hoffman’s villain is a case in point: a role that may have been ridiculous in the hands of another actor is here exploited to its most vicious extent by an Oscar-winning actor seemingly having some fun. Even the dramatic underpinnings of the story make sense (though that’s not always the case with the details) despite overly-maudlin romantic moments and some eye-rolling twists. From the electric opening sequence to some of the best action scenes of the year (that Chesapeake Bay Bridge action sequence, complete with armed UAV and palpable desperation, is a piece of art), Mission: Impossible 3 is a crowd pleaser that delivers exactly what it intends. Heck, it even has the potential to revive a moribund franchise.