The Good: Great story, Wonderful character development, Amazing special effects, Great acting!
The Bad: A lot to keep track of!
The Basics: The latest Star Trek movie erupts onto the big screen with a phenomenal story that translates original Star Trek elements into the bold alternate universe of the 2009 Star Trek!
Star Trek is a massive franchise and it was pleasantly revitalized by the 2009 film Star Trek (click here for my review of that!). In 2013, fans and those brought to the fold of the franchise were promised a fantastic new film which would continue in the Star Trek Beta universe (as many of us have taken to calling it - the Beta universe is the time-altered universe based on the events that opened Star Trek). In the months since the 2013 feature was granted the subtitle Machinations Of Doomsday, the new film has been widely speculated to have something to do with the device from the classic Star Trek episode "The Doomsday Machine" and as J.J. Abrams and his team have been clever enough to shroud the film in secrecy, it is up to me (as first reviewer of the film) to confirm that yes, in fact, The Doomsday Machine plays a prominent role in the movie. The fact that the creative team and the publicity mechanisms managed to not leak images of the cinematic version of the Doomsday Machine is a real coup and provides Star Trek: Machinations Of Doomsday with a truly amazing moment that is likely to thrill both Trek fans and those looking for great cinema alike.
The real issue die-hard fans had with the 2009 Star Trek was the way that everything they had invested a lifetime in had been undone. In the Beta Universe, there is no Star Trek the original series or anything that comes after! The issue with following "Star Trek" as a plot problem was simple: what hasn't been done in the Star Trek universe before? As I've long complained about the Star Trek cinematic adventures (click here for my review of them!), they are largely the same movie recast time and time again as "kill the villain" stories. Star Trek: Machinations Of Doomsday returns Star Trek to the idea of exploration and instead of fleeing from the Star Trek universe as it was, Machinations Of Doomsday is clever enough to use specific elements to weave a story that both fleshes out the Beta Universe using classic Trek pieces to tell a story that does something none of the prior cinematic installments have done. Like all great films, Star Trek: Machinations Of Doomsday manages to utilize the elements at the outset to tell a great story while progressing the characters involved.
Chief among them, and the main concern plaguing J.J. Abrams and his writing staff for the sequel to Star Trek had to be the inclusion of Spock Prime. One need not be any form of fan of the Star Trek franchise to realize that on the character level, Spock Prime - who survived Star Trek - becomes the greatest liability to creating a brand new story. Here we have a character who: 1. Is exceptionally intelligent, 2. Is highly ethical, and 3. Has illustrated no problem with altering the fate of an already altered universe. The catch here is simple: the very first thing that Star Trek: Machinations Of Doomsday absolutely had to do to buy back the fans they mortgaged in the first film and to address the lapse between Star Trek and Machinations Of Doomsday is address exactly what an ethical person who knows all of the forthcoming galactic disasters would do to save as many lives as possible. And that is precisely where Machinations Of Doomsday begins.
Before continuing, it is worthwhile to note that Machinations Of Doomsday hinges on a very basic knowledge of some of the original Star Trek. For those who want to go into Star Trek: Machinations Of Doomsday with the best possibility of understanding all the depth of what is going on, it helps to have seen the following episodes of the original Star Trek: "Where No Man Has Gone Before," "Space Seed," "Operation: Annihilate," "Metamorphosis," "Amok Time," and "The Doomsday Machine." It also helps to have seen Star Trek: First Contact, but it is also germane to note that while this might seem like the movie hinges on too much original backstory, there is enough explanation within the film to help newbies along (the characters, after all, are new to this, too!). Furthermore, J.J. Abrams and his creative team manage to do in Star Trek: Machinations Of Doomsday what no prior Star Trek incarnation has done, which is to essentially tell the story of two starship crews in one outing.
Four years after the events of Star Trek, the U.S.S. Enterprise is in orbit around a space station near the Deneva System. Tasked there by StarFleet based on information from Spock Prime, the crew is searching for a single man, the carrier of a parasite which would kill the inhabitants of a nearby planet. Bypassing the orders, Kirk bombards the station with ultraviolet rays, killing the creatures infecting the would-be patient X, leading McCoy to note how exploring the Final Frontier has become a lot more mundane than ever before, thanks to Spock Prime. Following that mission, Spock Prime manages to finalize a peace treaty with Romulus which will allow the Vulcan refugees to emigrate to a province there. While at the signing ceremony, Spock Prime collapses and he dies shortly thereafter.
Recalled to Earth, the U.S.S. Enterprise crew attends Spock Prime's funeral and the crew is given their next mission. Fortunately for Spock Prime's last wishes, the U.S.S. Enterprise will be headed toward the Galactic Barrier for their assignment. Unfortunately for Spock (the Beta Universe, still alive, Spock), Uhura is one of several crewmembers (Chekov and Dr. Elizabeth Dehner being two others) who is prevented from joining the Enterprise on the mission expressly because of where the ship is headed. Uhura and Chekov join the U.S.S. Constellation under the command of Captain Gary Mitchell while the U.S.S. Enterprise journeys to the Galactic Barrier where they send Spock Prime's body, in a reconstructed "Jellyfish" ship, back to his native universe.
Following the departure of Spock Prime, Spock begins acting erratic. Captain Kirk takes the Enterprise to a point along the barrier where he is able to decrypt his full orders. While the Enterprise waits and Spock shows further signs of unraveling, the Constellation takes aboard Zephram Cochrane, whose body is inhabited by the non-corporeal Companion. The Constellation goes in search of the S.S. Botany Bay and when Cochrane learns who is aboard it, he begins to express anger and frustration that StarFleet wants to awaken Khan in a controlled setting. Having learned that the Doomsday Machine is coming through the barrier soon, Sulu, Kirk and Scotty try to enlist Spock to help them figure out how to stop the device when it enters our galaxy. Unfortunately, Spock's behavior degenerates and McCoy has to relieve him of duty.
When Cochrane destroys the Botany Bay, the Constellation's mission is freed up and Kirk decides to acquiesce to Spock's demand to be returned to Romulus with Uhura. When the Constellation arrives at the Barrier, Kirk takes the Enterprise to Romulus, leaving Sulu and Scotty with the Constellation. After Spock quiets the pon farr on Romulus, the situation turns dire: the Constellation is crippled by the Doomsday Machine and the ship is cast into the Galactic Barrier. Kirk's problems are multiplied then: the Doomsday Machine is loose, members of his crew are imperiled aboard a damaged ship, his first officer is racked with guilt and his best friend is becoming a god before his eyes!
Star Trek: Machinations Of Doomsday could have been a piss-poor mismatch of several Star Trek episodes, but what makes the film work so very well is that it has consequences and it is tightly focused on the characters. This is a Star Trek adventure that is obsessed with consequences. In the last film, Vulcan was destroyed and in the original Star Trek ("Amok Time") it was made very clear that Vulcans must return to Vulcan when their mating urges begin. Now that there is no Vulcan, the question of what happens to the Vulcans when any of them go through pon farr (the Vulcan mating ritual) has to be addressed. Fortunately, Machinations Of Doomsday provides two options: the Romulan colony and an all-Vulcan starship which is not currently anywhere near available for Spock's needs. And when Spock's needs cause the Constellation to be wrecked and leave Gary Mitchell fundamentally altered, the viewer is treated to another helping of consequences: Spock expresses an almost-crippling guilt. Even the Zephram Cochrane storyline, which could have seemed extraneous, is all about consequences. In his hundred years of isolation, he has ruminated on life after World War III and having come face-to-face with one of the greatest war criminals who escaped prosecution from his Era, he begins to unspool.
The character work that surrounds the primary characters is intense. While guest characters Zephram Cochrane and Gary Mitchell are integral to the story of Machinations Of Doomsday, they reflect upon the heroes more than anything else. Chekov gets a chance to enhance his character through his interactions with Cochrane and Mitchell acts as an important emotional pull for Kirk. The scene in which Spock and Kirk discuss their childhood offers a grim sense of humor (Kirk's statement "I didn't have many friends growing up" segues to a prank he and Gary Mitchell pulled off and Spock's agreement flashing to a young Spock getting beaten up) but it also provides another point of connection for the two men. From that point on, Spock never suggests attempting to kill Gary Mitchell as he moves toward godhood.
While Kirk wrestles with the consequences of delivering his best friend into a situation which threatens both the Enterprise and billions of lives (as the Doomsday Machine continues toward planetary systems after the Constellation is crippled by it), Chris Pine is given a real chance to stretch his wings. Kirk is not just brash or cocky in this outing. He's a man who is on the verge of losing much of what is important to him and that offers Pine an emotional tightrope he did not have to walk in the first Star Trek. Pine does a good job of having Kirk's decisions weigh upon him as he makes them. At the key moment of the film, it is Pine's setting of the eyes and tightening of the jaw which sell the idea that Kirk is choosing the future, the crew of the Enterprise, over the past and that is great acting.
Zachary Quinto is given an even harder task as Spock. Spock is undergoing pon farr, which makes perfect sense, but Quinto has the difficult task of presenting Spock's emotional outbursts unlike the ones from Star Trek. Moreover, if it was his Heroes character Sylar which essentially bought Quinto the role of Spock, his challenge in playing Spock undergoing pon farr is to play the role as Spock, not Sylar or any other angry character. And Quinto does it. Quinto's pon farr-addled Spock is menacing, surprisingly loud and somewhat painful to watch. When Spock and Uhura are reunited and work to calm the pon farr, Quinto and Zoe Saldana have incredible chemistry and they offer the steamiest scene Star Trek has ever presented.
While the big two do their thing, it is important to note that Machinations Of Doomsday truly is an ensemble piece. John Cho, Anton Yelchin and Simon Pegg have scenes aboard the Constellation that they make feel as vital and important as anything going on with the Enterprise and selling the adventure with two ships is clever and surprisingly well-executed. In other words, Machinations Of Doomsday executes what the most rabid original Star Trek fans wanted the show to be. Decades of delusions have made many original Star Trek fans believe that Star Trek was an ensemble piece, but it was Kirk and Spock's show with McCoy occasionally vital. The rest of the crew - Sulu, Scotty, Uhura, Chekov - came and went episode to episode (Uhura didn't have a first name until the last film!) and the performers who played them were seldom given the chance to shine. Not so in Machinations Of Doomsday! Simon Pegg, especially, gets to flesh out Scotty in a way the first film did not allow. Only John Cho is given little to play with (though, ironically, the character of Sulu is given a bit more . . . ).
But just as the main cast is given weight and roles worth coming back for, the two primary guest stars are equally phenomenal. James Cromwell offers another great performance as Zephram Cochrane and Cromwell manages to keep the character serious, especially when he is performing with actors so much younger than he is. Cromwell's age in the picture actually lends him an immediate depth and presence that makes the viewer care what Cochrane has to say. With a similar sense of screen presence - though not for the same reason - Andrew Garfield rocks Machinations Of Doomsday as Gary Mitchell. Garfield has a maturity he brings to the role of Mitchell and where he earns his money is not in the easy, conspiratorial scenes wherein he and Chris Pine play off one another, but rather in the scenes where he must illustrate weight that would plausibly make Mitchell a starship Captain. The lecture Mitchell gives Cochrane after the destruction of the Botany Bay would be laughable were it not for Garfield's presence and ability to stand toe to toe with Cromwell. Similarly, Garfield playing his mental ascendancy starts subtle and never reaches satirical because Garfield has the physical presence to make the transformation to god believable.
The sense of character conflicts and consequences transform Star Trek: Machinations Of Doomsday from a complicated action adventure into a true thrillride that is accessible to all audiences. J.J. Abrams directs a film which has wide-ranging appeal that will please the fans because it is not predictable. This is not just a "kill the villain" film and the divergence makes the climactic events of the film feel fresh. Sure, it sets up potentials for the next sequel, but Machinations Of Doomsday is stylish and fresh, while still exploring something deeper about humanity, much like Inception did.
And the effects are tremendous. While early images leaked of the U.S.S. Constellation falling into the Galactic Barrier (which is finally explained in Star Trek lore!) prepared viewers for the idea that the space battles would be tremendous, nothing could prepare audiences for the actual moment the Doomsday Machine arrives in the galaxy and the resolution to that storyline is clever. Along the way, viewers are treated to plenty of great special effects, not the least of which are the costuming and make-up effects that outfit more Romulans and Vulcans than Star Trek has ever shown on screen before. While some might not appreciate the final sequence, it has a very Star Trek feel.
Because Star Trek: Machinations Of Doomsday is so character-centered, the viewer is taken on an emotional journey that many of the Star Trek films have not managed to rise to. And it is hard not to laugh or cheer with McCoy's summation, "Human ingenuity got us out of a situation Vulcan weakness got us into." That line caps off the primary film and leads viewers to feel something lighter than they may have felt during the two and a half hours prior.
I write "primary film" because, more than any other film putting a scene after the closing credits, Star Trek: Machinations Of Doomsday has a scene fans will want to stay in their seats for. Fans of Star Trek are given the very real death of Spock in Machinations Of Doomsday and the most Abrams and his team ask the viewer to accept is that Spock Prime and Chekov were able to salvage enough of the original ship Spock arrived in to build one to return Spock Prime to his native universe. The final scene, which I shall not spoil here, involves where the body ends up and it allows Star Trek fans to entertain the idea that the Beta Universe is its own thing and that the Prime Universe can progress. One can only hope that outtakes from the scene end up on the DVD when it is released. But for those wanting confirmation of another big name from Star Trek (the original series) appearing, I won't do that. But I will say that "big names" is more appropriate!
With Star Trek: Machinations Of Doomsday, Star Trek's rebirth as a franchise is solidified, while declaring that the franchise will not simply be a continuation of what the viewer has seen before (an irony given that the plot elements do contain so many pieces of original Star Trek episodes). That, for sure, is a treat for all audiences.
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© 2012, 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.