A Winter Princesses’ Tale

Elsa and Anna share a warm bond, despite the former's chilly powers.

Elsa and Anna share a warm bond, despite the former’s chilly powers.

Disney has long been maligned as merely making “kids movies,” characterized by their fairytale logic as well as presenting an unrealistic picture of the world meant to provide children with entertainment rather then making them think. This attitude is rather unfair when examined, since most of the themes of past Disney films are just as present in live action films, and it’s only the absence of talking snowman and spontaneous musical interludes that differentiate them. Disney works in allegory, and any lover of literature will readily defend this approach to material.

Frozen is one of the Disney films for the new era of children who have already seen these aforementioned tropes enough times for the nostalgia to wear thin, and who are looking for a message more insightful then just “true love can transform a beast into a man.” It is also the first Disney film to feature two female leads who are sisters, making it one of the more feminist films the company has produced.

Elsa is a nICE girl who discovers her powers are both a blessing, and a curse.

Elsa is a nICE girl who discovers her powers are both a blessing, and a curse.

It is a subtle film, so subtle in fact that the lack of grandiose set pieces and clear villain marks it as almost the polar opposite of previous works like The Lion King or The Little Mermaid. It is instead part of their new every oeuvre, just updated from the Hans Christian Anderson story “The Ice Queen” from which it takes inspiration from.

The setting is the slightly Norwegian looking kingdom of Arendelle, surrounded by snowy mountains but nondescript enough to pass for any fairytale setting. A snow dragon could just as easily fly into town and demand the hand of the princess as a wicked stepmother could plot to usurp the kind through a magical flute or some other mcguffin.

What happens in Frozen however is far simpler, the oldest daughter of the king and queen named Elsa (Idina Menzal), is gifted (or cursed) with the power of Glaciokinesis (Control over ice) which provides initial fun for her and her sister Anna (Kristen Bell) in the form of conjuring snowmen, but turns tragic when she loses control and accidentally inflicts a near mortal wound on her sister.

Anna and Elsa meet the Duke (Alan Tudyk) of the suspiciously sinister sounding "Weasleton"

Anna and Elsa meet the Duke (Alan Tudyk) of the suspiciously sinister sounding “Weasleton”

Though her sister survives through intervention on their parent’s part, her memory is wiped and from then on Elsa isolates herself for fear of losing control and hurting her sister, while Anna cannot understand why she has suddenly drawn away from her. After the traditionally Disney deaths of the meddlesome parents (Seriously, these films sure like to break families up considering how much they contain messages about the importance of said family) the two sisters grow apart for ten years until Elsa’s christening as the Queen forces them both into the world.

While Anna is ecstatic at the thought of going into the outside world, as well as meeting her “one true love,” Elsa struggles with the fear of losing control of her icy powers. When the fait accompli event happens and Ana meets the neighboring kingdom’s prince Hans, she thinks it’s love at first sight, and they ask for her sister’s blessing. Unable to take the stress of repressing her emotions as well as her sister’s painful frustration with her, Elsa finally reveals her powers, scaring the citizens of the city, and retreating to a palace of her own icy making; inadvertently plunging Arendelle into an early winter.

    It's love at first sight for Anna and Hans, which in a Disney movie usual means an upbeat montage is soon to follow...

It’s love at first sight for Anna and Hans, which in a Disney movie usual means an upbeat montage is soon to follow…

From then on Ana makes it her goal to bring back her sister and thaw the kingdom, though she remains naïve about the exact way to accomplish this. She is joined by Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), a wry but good hearted ice merchant, as well as his reindeer Sven, and later, an oddball talking snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad) who harbors dreams of sun on his face and wants to “Do what snow does in the sun.” A paradoxical dream to be sure.

The conflict of Frozen is thus not about defeating a villain, saving the princess, or recovering some magical tableau, but about whether Anna will be able to reach her sister, and whether Elsa will find a way to control her powers and stop pushing her away. As an allegory for family relationships this is a powerfully realized one, particularly with the double language concerning a “frozen” heart and the way Elsa’s attitude appears so cold on the surface, while the audience senses her desire to be warm.

What's a Queen without her castle?

What’s a Queen without her castle?

The film is equally adapt at deconstructing fairytale conventions while remaining true to the light hearted tone of the movie, such as the idea of love at first sight, any problem being able to be overcome by working together, and the need for romance to be the primary motivator behind the female characters. Passing the Bechdel test is just one of the things the film does by the nature of it’s narrative alone, it also refrains from judging Ana for her belief in “love at first sight,” and goes to great lengths to show Elsa as not an evil snow queen, but a girl blessed with tremendous power who is struggling to understand it.

Whether Elsa's powers are a symbol for puberty, homosexuality, or mental illness, Frozen celebrates the ability to "Let it go" and be free to express ourselves without reserve.

Whether Elsa’s powers are a symbol for puberty, homosexuality, or mental illness, Frozen celebrates the ability to “Let it go” and be free to express ourselves without reserve.

Indeed, although it’s clear that Elsa’s powers are a danger to those around her, her most powerful character moment occurs after she has fled the castle and feels the warmth of freedom for the first time in her life. In a sequence that is just as important emotionally as it is visually, Elsa transforms herself from a repressed girl with hair pinned back and drab attire, to a fully fledged Snow Queen whose voice rises to a fever pitch as she sings “Let it go/let it go/can’t hold it back in anymore/turn away and slam the door” It is the first time we truly understand how much she has been hiding herself from the world. It is glorious and uplifting in a way that we haven’t seen Disney do in some time, and will certainly be up for an Oscar as this years best original song.

FROZEN

Kristoff AKA the Abominable Snowman isn’t taken with Anna as Hans was, but a journey together can change a lot.

Of the supporting players, Kristoff is likeable and kind without stretching into pushover territory, and early on serves as a kind of audience surrogate for the questions that Anna seems to be ignoring. One of his more amusing quirks comes when he stages conversations with his reindeer, almost certainly a parody of the traditionally “talking animal” schtick of past films. It’s both hilarious and meta, and actually works with his character being a bit of a mountain man, albeit one who has adjusted well enough so he’s not viewed as an outsider.

Olaf is ecstatic about telling his new friends about his passion for all things HOT.

Olaf is ecstatic about telling his new friends about his passion for all things HOT.

Meanwhile, Josh Gad as Olaf the snowman is a hidden gem of the film, as he provides just the right amount of enthusiasm to lift the characters up, instead of simply being cute and cracking jokes. Providing some of the best physical comedy, he nonetheless identifies with Anna’s desire to connect with her sister, as well as her feelings towards Hans. He’s a hopeless romantic made endearing by his lack of sense about basic natural laws concerning thermodynamics.

Visually the film is superb, with snow and ice used to wonderful effect, and Elsa’s prism-like ice castle a standout. From the opening shots of twirling snowflakes (A special program was created to make them all unique) and the introduction to the kingdom via ice harvesting, the film has the mark of classic Disney. While the songs from Robert Lopez (Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon) may feel like icing on the cake rather then generation-defining melodies, they also nicely express the characters feelings.

Elsa-Frozen

In the typical Disney film, Elsa would turn evil with power and become the antagonist. Frozen subverts this, to both its success and detriment.

In truth, if Frozen has one weak point it is in its haste to deconstruct some of the fairy tale tropes from previous animated films it sometimes forgets that its central character dynamic is the most compelling aspect of the film. Though every plot point has meaning to the characters, by making Anna and Elsa’s conflict very much felt rather then experienced it avoids pitting the two girls directly against each other the way traditional conflicts take place. In doing so it avoids demonizing either for their actions, but also ends up robbing the films 3rd act of stakes and while we are happy at the genre-defying resolution, it feels—if not too easy—like it would mean even more if the audience had better experienced the conflict between the two sisters instead of just the internal one.

Pictured: Tangible conflict of character.

Pictured: Tangible conflict of character.

But that resolution really is in some ways more important, because it represents a more meaningful take on fairy tales without having to completely reinvent the genre. Disney has been a significant part in shaping the ideas of children concerning what makes a hero, what makes a villain, and what exactly constitutes “true love,” and while we enjoy these tales, we also recognize that they come from a different time and mind. It is only when a movie like Frozen makes the relationship between two sisters the driving force of the movie that we see how this aspect of relationships has gone unnoticed, and after witnessing the Anna and Elsas’ emotional bond, it’s hard not to wonder why we dismiss princesses when Frozen reminds how they are always more then just pink gowns and tiaras. There’s also a woman—or a little girl—under it all.

Two By Two, Hearts of Blue

Adele (Adele Exarchapolous) and Emma (Lea Seydoux) weave a warm love story.

Adèle (Adèle Exarchapolous) and Emma (Lea Seydoux) weave a warm love story.

Stanley Kubrick was said to be interested in directing a pornographic film during his latter film days, with the implication being that a man with vision like him could somehow elevate what was thought of as a dirty medium into something transcendent. An attempt to perhaps normalize sexuality in our pervasively puritanical society, but it also says something about what place sex has in a visual art like film. Sex is for the viewers, not for the characters.

This leads to a paradox; nothing is more natural or representative of human existence then sex, and yet within Hollywood it is both vilified as a corrupting force, and celebrated in excess that strips all meaning or human connection from it. In a way, sex in movies is not obscene in itself, but it’s the way the act is repeatedly referenced and then hid with quick cutaways or made to cater to the male sexual desire that make it taboo. When filmmakers frame this aspect of sex as “the forbidden act,” then viewers make a clear distinction in their minds about what they should and should not find normal about it.

No qualms

Adèle and Emma have no qualms about the openness they feel for one another.

Blue is the Warmest Color is unique in it’s approach to both love and sex, and though this uniqueness can seem merely the product of a culture gap (The film is from French director Abdellatif Kechiche) it is still a remarkable feat to put these images onto film in such a strikingly straightforward fashion. Pun intended. Blue is a coming of age story of sorts, but it is not anchored by the events that occur during that story, but to the feelings and emotional progression its central character undergoes. Loosely adapted from a graphic novel by Julie Maroh, it is the story of 15 year old Adèle, played with touching grace and desire by Adèle Exarchopolous, and her relationship, both emotional and sexual, with a blue haired artist named Emma.

Emma helps initiate Adele into the LGBTQ community.

Emma helps initiate Adèle into the LGBTQ community.

As the same named character, Adèle Exarchopolous conveys emotional uncertainty and compelling curiosity with subtle expressions that are far more evocative of youth then any amount of makeup (Neither actress was allowed to wear any) or needless dialogue would. At times she disguises her beauty by pulling her hair into a pineapple top that sends ribbons of brown hair cascading over her face, but this gesture feels more like an actual teenage girl still trying to discover who she is rather then a traditional Hollywood toning down of natural beauty. When she smiles she resembles a more coquettish Lena Dunham, and when she kisses Emma, her face lights up in a way that expresses unbridled passion that is identifiable to anyone who has experienced something they call love.

On the outside, Adele fits in, but she still finds herself missing something...Blue.

Adèle fits in at school, but privately feels she is missing something…Blue.

As her co-star and lover, Lea Seydoux perfectly embodies the more self-assured lesbian whose refusal to be anything other then what she feels gives her an indomitable spirit and sense of belonging in this world. Her hair the color of soft flower petals that have matured over many years, she is at once nothing alike Adèle, and yet her blue eyes reflect the same curiosity and love as Adèle’s. She introduces her to the overwhelming tide of sexual exuberance in a way that is stunning to watch, yet does not convey the possessive lust that would mark her as a philanderer. Emma is not a Don Juan; she is a teacher who takes pupils as much to teach them what she knows as to learn from them in turn.

The blue in Emma's hair is a mark of her youth and passion...

The blue in Emma’s hair is a mark of her youth and passion…

This bond is challenged in subtle ways, such as when Emma hosts a garden party for a group of high-class friends and Adèle finds herself alone and talking to people about her sexuality in such a frank way it unnerves her. Blue is refreshingly devoid of the standard punishing beats of the gay love story (A significant change from Julie Maroh’s novel), and apart from one scene of painful homophobia, the movie treats Adèle and Emma’s romance as no different from a heterosexual couple. Whether this, or the actresses not being gay in real life detracts from the message is up to the viewer, but it is notable how the story’s lack of these points allows the characters to define themselves by more then their sexuality, thus coming across as three-dimensional people instead of stereotypes.

All passion must eventually fade and be replaced by hard reality.

But all passion eventually fades through the songs of age and experience.

Another way Blue breaks the mold of standard love fare is its utilization of close ups to establish a feeling of intimacy with Adèle. Mirroring how the love scenes are shot, the camera is almost always front and center on Adèle, capturing each smile or flash of insecurity so that the audience knows exactly what she is feeling in each and every moment. In this way her experience and feelings are inescapable, which contributes to the feeling that her emotional beats are more important then the story ones.

The movie is intimate not because Adele and Emma make love, but because it lets us understand the true weight behind that love.

The movie is intimate not because Adèle and Emma make love, but because it lets us understand the true weight behind that love.

It is this inescapable quality that makes Blue is the Warmest Color feel so real and personal. As audience members we are used to seeing people fall in love, but rarely do we get a sense for how deep that love is beyond the way events in the story seek to test it, bending it backwards and forward as we “oh!” and “ah!” and hope that the person’s strength is enough to survive it and lead to a happily ever after. This is what will always be artificial about love stories, because they are composed of intimate feelings that simply cannot be truly felt by another, only evoked through inadequate words.

It is fitting therefore that a film that chooses to be so open in it’s depiction of the carnal act would likewise be so honest in it’s depiction of Adèle and Emma’s feeling for one another. Like the sex in the film, love is naked and honest without compromise, and so it cannot exist simply because we are told it does, but because we feel the connection as well as the devastation that comes from such a close bond with the characters. Anyone who has experienced true affection will know how it does not seek to please itself and itself only as is the case in pornography, and so even though the images of lovemaking are striking, by the end of the film it is the love between the two women that comes across as far more graphic and memorable.

Child of The Revolution

Katniss and Peeta return home, but find the Capital is always lurking over their shoulder…

Katniss and Peeta return home, but find the Capital is always lurking over their shoulder…

“Heroes are made, not born,” or so the saying goes, but what does it actually mean to be a hero, or a heroine for that matter? Is it defined by what you do, or is it merely what people think you’ve done? Or maybe even what you stand for? For the protagonists of Catching Fire, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), all three are equally dangerous in the eyes of their tyrannical capital of Panem, because the truth doesn’t matter, only the games do.

The games are, of course, the titular Hunger Games, whose participation is a death sentence disguised as a great honor, designed to quell the hope of an uprising in the 12 districts that make up this melding of dystopian/social allegory. Catching Fire picks up right after the two champions have returned home, alive, but scarred by their experience in the 74th Hunger Games and dealing with the aftermath of the Romeo and Juliet-esque masquerade they adopted in order to turn the citizens of the capital to their side. When news comes that a special “Quarter Quell” is being held that will recall winners from past tournaments, Katniss and Peeta are forced to face even deadlier games where the Capital has the perfect chance to get rid of both of them.

Even though they just escaped death, Katniss and Peeta’s victory lap is unexpectedly cut short.

Even though they just escaped death, Katniss and Peeta’s victory lap is unexpectedly cut short.

Whereas The Hunger Games primarily scrutinized celebrity worship as a kind of dark mirror to our own world, Catching Fire illustrates how Katniss and Peeta’s survival has given the people hope and is rapidly breeding a revolution that she’s terrified of being a part of. She is placed in a position of equally great influence and great vulnerability by events that have been no fault of her own, and during the course of the movie she struggles to keep the ones she loves safe while still practicing her own method of resistance.

Katniss doesn’t get to spend much time with childhood friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and when she does his talk of resistance seems foolhardly and dangerous in her eyes.

Katniss doesn’t get to spend much time with childhood friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and when she does his talk of resistance seems foolhardly and dangerous in her eyes.

As Katniss, Jennifer Lawrence displays the same vulnerability and determination that first caught the public eye in the similarly dystopic Winter’s Bone. As a heroine she is inspiring in her courage, resourcefulness, and resilience, and yet it is Lawrence’s ability to keep her emotions grounded so that she always feels like an ordinary girl first and a “hero” second. In another movie this could feel like a secret identity, but in Catching Fire the lines between Katniss “the girl on fire” and Katniss the girl determined to survive start to blur the more she see’s the futileness of pretending she is only the latter.

 

Like Katniss, Peeta has difficulty feeling at home among the Capital citizens, and it’s not just their tendency to dress like experimental fashion models.

Like Katniss, Peeta has difficulty feeling at home among the Capital citizens, and it’s not just their tendency to dress like experimental fashion models.

The film’s narrative sticks to Katniss for the majority of the running time, but does a good job of updating viewers on the various other enemies and allies she has begun to accumulate. Josh Hutchinson as her fellow tribute and unforgivably noble “nice guy” is great at helping her deal with the mounting burden she’s faced with, and yet he does not lose faith that they will find a way to survive the whirling dervish of traps designed for them in the new jungle of an arena they are dropped into.

"You are a strangely dislikable person."

“You are a strangely dislikable person.”

The rest of their team includes the always-welcome Woody Harrelson as the boozy, disgruntled, and frequent scene-stealer Haymitch Abernathy. In a more traditional dystopia he would be spotted behind the scenes, meeting with anonymous figures in bars to manage the growing stardom of his reluctant resistance symbol, probably with an ass-kicking ex-girlfriend backing him up when his penchant for alcohol and one-liners lands him in the midst of a decidedly R-rated dustup. As he exists in Catching Fire, Haymitch is merely a mentor—maybe even a father figure—who balances Katniss’ desire to be a kid with the sobering reminder that in a the world of The Hunger Games, kids are the last one’s excluded from the horrors of death.

Cinna watches from the gallery seats, knowing he can only provide Katniss with moral and aesthetic support.

Cinna watches from the gallery seats, knowing he can only provide Katniss with moral and aesthetic support.

Returning as Katniss’ resident soulful muse and stylist is Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, whose gold makeup may appear to mark him as just another one of the Capitals happily clueless one percenters, only for it to become clear that his exuberant getup is really a method of blending in while he hides his disgust and horror at a society that thinks nothing of partying while the lower districts team with death squads.

Where there was once a woman with bugglegum hair and a smile for miles, now there is yet another victim of the Capital’s inhuman practices.

Where there was once a woman with bubblegum hair and a smile for miles, now there is yet another victim of the Capital’s inhuman practices.

Elizabeth Banks lends an extra female presence as the bubbly-but-slightly-starting-to-curdle hostess Effie Trinket. Where she was previous all too excited to beckon Katniss and Peeta to their crowd-pleasing deaths, growing unease is written over every bit of eyeshadow. If Effie were in Nazi Germany, she would be the female officer who tallies the death toll after seeing the ragged faces of the men and women behind the fences, and finds that she can no longer keep her job and her humanity separate.

Caesar Flickerman’s unflappable persona isn’t that far removed from the more manic talk show hosts…

Caesar Flickerman’s unflappable persona isn’t that far removed from the more manic talk show hosts…

On the other side of the proverbial commentators box is TMZ host expy Caesar Flickermen (Stanley Tucci) whose laugh gets louder and creepier every interview, and whose mouth looks seconds away from unhinging like a snake and devouring his guest. He’s flanked by savy new Hunger Games director Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, basically reprising his villainous Mission Impossible 3 role) and Donald Sutherland dripping menace (and a little blood) as the cold and threatening president Coriolanus Snow.

Finnick is surprisingly vulnerable once the games begin and Katniss and him find themselves on equal footing.

Finnick is surprisingly vulnerable once the games begin and Katniss and him find themselves on equal footing.

Katniss and Peeta meet new Hunger Games players in the forms of the puckish Finnick Odair (Sam Caflin) who wields a trident with polished finesse and whose handsome frame belies a casual air of nonchalance. With cheekbones that could sink the Bismark, and a smile that could easily conceal traitorous fangs behind it, Caflin is the second show stealer as he keeps Finnick both sly and mysterious, all the while nursing a darkened soul that begs for future revelations about his past.

Mirroring Katniss’ one-woman survival story is former tribute Johanna Mason (Jena Malone, fire in her former hair now simmering in heart), an unrestrained and dark-eyed axe carrier who looks like Aubrey Plaza if she’d been stuck on the Island from Lord of the Flies. Lacking inhibitions about things such as clothes and personal space, she is a new sight for Katniss and keeps her own agenda secret while not disguising her hatred for the Capital.

Before civilization collapses.

Before civilization collapses.

After the kids start running around with a pig’s head on a stake…

After the kids start running around with a pig’s head on a stake…

But the question remains; is the story of Katniss Everdeen of the classic hero driven to rebel, or is it something more? As the architects of the revolution paint slogans and form an angry mob in front of the disbelieving watch of President Snow, it’s hard not to feel that though the story began with the games, it’s the children raised to go to the slaughter that are the true focus. When oppression reigns, resistance forms as a basic tenant of human behavior, and all it takes is Katniss making an indomitable enemy like the Capital bleed to turn that resistance into action.

Katniss Skywalker, or Luke Everdeen?

Katniss Skywalker, or Luke Everdeen?

Either way, both share a love of staring out into the distance and imagining what their future holds.

Either way, both share a love of staring out into the distance and imagining what their future holds.

Taken this way, Katniss’ transformation is not from a wet-behind-the-ears farm boy into a Jedi master, but an ordinary girl, endowed with human strength and frailties, who learns to see herself as more then simply a hero or a heroine of the people. She is not the originator of the revolution, but a conduit of a legacy that has existed since the dawn of time. It has flowed through countless individuals, and will continue to flow wherever there are people whose bodies are beaten down, but whose hearts stay strong.

Katniss readies the first shot that will ignite the war.

Katniss readies the first shot that may ignite a war.

Catching Fire’s title is enormously apt, as it brings to mind the way a fire spreads from a single flame into a towering inferno that can engulf the entire area, but is also apt for how Katniss’ determination gradually shifts from simply surviving the games, to changing the world that has created them. If The Hunger Games has an overarching theme, it’s how the right person at under the right circumstances can start something much bigger then themselves; but that person may not always be able to know the part they are to play until they let their arrow fly…


Prisoners Of A Genre

Detective Loki and Keller Dover are both prisoners of narratives that won't let them succeed.

Detective Loki and Keller Dover are both prisoners of narratives that won’t let them succeed.

Prisoners is the sort of movie I’d expect to find out it was based on a novel by some fairly prominent author, one which probably tells a well-worn story but has enough style and ideas in it to mark its independence from others in the genre. As a movie it does the first of these right, telling the story of two kidnapped girls and the struggle of a police officer and one of the girl’s fathers to locate them in the face of worsening odds (Sound familiar, Gone Baby Gone?). But I said that I expected it to be based on a novel, and when I read the credits I found that it was in fact an original script by first timer Aaron Guzikowski, I realized that what I’d taken for a slightly unconventional mystery was in fact a wondrously obtuse script that can’t distinguish the events of the plot with the actions of the characters.

These characters are so evasive that it’s like each of them has had one important scene of theirs cut, and the audience gets nearly zero background on them other then their job and place in the story. This technique can be successful when the characters interact with a number of people and scenarios, but Prisoners largely limits these and makes each of them feel one-dimensional. Take the detective assigned to the case, Loki (Bizarre mythological name meaning precisely zilch in this scenario) is a hard cop who we are told has “Never left a case unsolved,” but he has no personal life, no relationships, and the only clue to his upbringing is a neck tattoo and a series of zodiac signs on his knuckles.

Jake Gyllenhaal considers whether he's in a mystery thriller, or an allegory for religious extremism.

Jake Gyllenhaal considers whether he’s in a mystery thriller, or an allegory for religious extremism.

As played by Jake Gyllenhal he is alternately fierce and soft-spoken, but any sense of his growing obsession and desperation is limited because we really lack evidence of what his normal state of mind is. Even a single scene of Loki trying to sleep, or going home and trying to medicate with liqueur would bring understanding to his tension, but all we get is a notable eye tick that none of his supervisors seem to notice, which makes all his behavior and emotions appear out of the blue instead of making sense for his character.

Keller Dover is what Wolverine would be if he lacked claws, the healing factor, humor, and common sense.

Keller Dover is what Wolverine would be if he lacked claws, the healing factor, humor, and common sense.

Hugh Jackman’s character Keller Dover is even more frustrating, because while his relationship with his son and daughter mark him as a religious family man, he’s also a survivalist with a basement full of guns, generators, and canned food that don’t appear to bother his family in the slightest. Keller is the type of figure who should be interesting because of his contradictions in worldviews, but the story makes him fixated on the idea that a mentally handicapped man named Alex Jones (Paul Dano) is responsible for his and his neighbor Franklin’s daughter’s disappearance because they were last seen playing around his RV. This turns Keller into an unsympathetic character that hounds Alex even after he’s been exonerated thanks to both his mental state, as well as the circumstances for his suspicion.

Not that Loki has any more patience for Alex...

Not that Loki has any more patience for Alex…

The idea that the lengths Keller goes to in the name of saving his daughter should be a compelling one, but because the narrative suggest his evidence of Alex’s guilt is the product of his desperation, his morality and justifications seem increasingly unbelievable and grating. His motivations make sense, but his target just doesn’t, especially not when Loki is following up leads on another creepy person who appears at a neighborhood candlelight vigil like only creepy red herrings in these thrillers do. It’s the meta-problem of the viewer knowing more then the characters, and when the narrative is split like Prisoners is, it’s like reading a mystery that you’ve already solved, and are getting impatient with the characters for not figuring it out.

Franklin and his wife (Viola Davis) are overcome with grief, but it's mostly offscreen.

Franklin and his wife (Viola Davis) are overcome with grief, but it’s mostly offscreen.

You might notice a little confusion in my summary of characters and events, like the other father Franklin (Terrance Howard) who’s daughter Joy is missing, but this actually best stimulates how the movie seems less interested in exploring the characters and more interested in directing them around in patterns dictated by their role in the story. As such, Franklin’s daughter Joy barely seems to register as a fellow captive when Keller yells at Loki to stop wasting time and find my daughter, and his wife Eliza (Zoe Borde) spends nearly the entire movie crying in bed while he pretends to go out and get drunk.

More then just the characters though is a question of what exactly is the narrative we are supposed to be following, and what it is trying to say. Prisoners meanders on both sides of the law, with Loki’s only being more compelling because of the elaborateness of the red herrings he happens upon in this seemingly idyllic community. If the movie has a strong point it is the strangeness of the events that are uncovered, and how they appear to be hinting at some very disturbing activities in the past.

However, the bizarre thing about Prisoners is how almost all of these events are merely referenced almost like throwaway explanations for people’s behavior. For instance, we eventually learn why a character has been sneaking into people’s houses, but the motive is so interesting that the fact that the movie doesn’t focus on it feels strange. Prisoners seems like it’s trying to be less about the investigation and more about themes of obsession and faith, but it doesn’t highlight these in a way that feel integral to the rest of the plot, except when they are invoked as explanations which are too brief to feel significant.

When your biggest motif is largely a mcguffin, you might want to re-examine your screenplay...

When your biggest motif is largely a mcguffin, you might want to re-examine your screenplay…

The movie attempts to present these events as pieces in a puzzle, linked only by a strange maze-like pattern, discovered in the first act by Loki, but it takes him so long to piece this together that you’re left wondering why the movie is wasting your time with more pointless false leads when it’s already telegraphed how important the pattern are to understanding the case. It’s this quality that makes Prisoners feel like it’s an amateur work, all the Chekov guns go off arbitrarily rather then logically so that instead of feeling like a cohesive mystery, it feels like a series of coincidences whose connection to each other is due more to the story then to logic.

If the focus is supposed to be on the significance of the maze, why does a whole sub-plot follow Keller who never learns of it, yet he’s given information about it that is only viewers will understand? If the focus is supposed to be about Keller using extreme measures to locate his daughter, why do the circumstance leave so much open? And if the focus is supposed to be on how all these characters are somehow “prisoners” to an idea of emotion, why doesn’t it have these characters reflect on these in some way that is not internal?

Alex and his mother (Marissa Leo) suffer the investigation, but only Alex is a target for Keller.

Alex and his mother (Marissa Leo) suffer the investigation, but only Alex is a target for Keller.

(SPOILERS)
But the most unforgivable part of Prisoners is that when all the pieces are laid bare, you realize that neither Keller nor Loki actually figured out the mystery. Keller receives his break in the case thanks to luck, and Loki virtually stumbles onto his while doing separate police work. As viewers, characters figuring things out and making breakthroughs are the important to making them feel compelling, and seeing them basically handed the solution by the narrative is just unsatisfying.

Keller along with his wife, Grace, son, Ralph, and soon-to-be-missing daughter Anna.

Keller along with his wife, Grace, son, Ralph, and soon-to-be-missing daughter Anna. Perhaps the only time they are together and happy in the narrative.

Prisoners actually has a pretty twisted story at its core, but it’s a story whose clues are not so much eluded to, as merely suggested as a possible explanation for what has happened. We don’t learn exactly WHY one of the characters did what they did, only that they were a certain kind of character who might do something like that. This lack of understanding ultimately lends a hollow quality to everything, and robs events of the impression they would otherwise make on the viewer.

Prisoners also conclude with an ending that I can only describe as “brilliantly stupid,” or “stupidly brilliant” depending on whether you agree with the possible interpretation mechanism for the movie’s plot. There really isn’t anything ambiguous about what its final shot is suggesting, but it ends before the needle falls as though it’s aware of its own foregone conclusion and wants to leave us with something other then closure. Perhaps we as the audience are the final prisoners to the film’s eclectic motivations in this way, or maybe it’s the directors attempt to remind us that not all mysteries in real life end on a dime.

Giant Robots For Adults

The Gipsy Danger pulls back a fist, ready to know the audience's eyeballs for a loop.

The Gipsy Danger pulls back a fist, ready to knock the audience’s eyeballs for a loop.

The expression “turn your brain off” is a bit unfair in the realm of movies, because it implies  the only way to enjoy certain things is to not think to deeply into what they mean. There is a difference however between a movie that asks you to turn off your brain because that meaning is shallow, and a movie that asks you to turn off your brain because it really has no other meaning other than what it is happening onscreen. As kids this is a simple exercise perhaps due to the fact that we lack a wealth of experiences, but as adults who often seek something deeper from life’s experiences this can be like trying not to notice you are breathing manually.

Pictured: Giant Robot. Not pictured, its full amount of awesome

Pictured: Giant Robot. Not pictured, its full amount of awesome.

Pacific Rim is the cure we didn’t know we needed for this affliction of adulthood, and represents filmmaking in perhaps its purest form of engagement through visual media. It is a rip-roaring action fest that takes its cues from childhood cartoons and anime and shows them bigger and more extravagant then we ever dared to believe. It is at every moment a movie-movie, and not a meaning-movie, and takes such delight in displaying this that you cannot help but see it as singularly unique rebuttal to all the self-serious superhero and “End of the world” film of recent years.

The Sydney opera house finally gets its due, curtousy of a transdimensional monster.

The Sydney opera house finally gets its due, courtesy of a trans-dimensional monster.

Its story is classic giant monster-invasion fare, beginning with an intro like a science fiction serial from the 50s that lays the ground for the ludicrously enjoyable premise. Gargantuan monsters known as Kaiju have begun to emerge from a crack in our dimension at the bottom of the Pacific ocean, and mankind has pooled it’s planetary resources and developed humongous robots, called Jaegers, to take them down. Cue the obligatory title card.

The washed up hero in his natural habitat, and outfit.

The washed up hero in his natural habitat, and outfit.

Our story follows has-been Jaeger pilot Raileigh Antrobus (Charlie Hunnam) and newbie trainee Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) as they are called in by commander Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) in a desperate mission to take the fight to the kaiju’s home turf. Since the Jaeger system is such a strain on the mind, each one requires two pilots to work together in a kind of neural merge that lays bare each pilots memories to the other. Both Raleigh and Mako have their share of emotional baggage to work through, but their issues are small potatoes compared to dealing with monsters that spit acid and can go through a Jaeger with their teeth alone.

Rinko Kikuchi suits up, and for once finds the female suits don't cut off at the hips.

Rinko Kikuchi suits up, and for once finds the female suits don’t cut off at the hips.

Luckily they have a self-proclaimed “Kaiju groupie” Newton “Newt” Geiszler (Charlie Day) and fellow scientist Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) who have been studying the monsters and the portal they emerge from in hopes of ending the Kaiju threat for good. Assisting in their efforts are several other Jaeger teams airing from different nationalities, including a set of Chinese triplets with a three-armed fighting style, a Russian couple whose Jaeger looks like it’s sporting a nuclear smokestack for a head, and a father-son Australian team (Robert Kazinsky and Max Martini) who butts heads with Raleigh in that special “Hero needs a rival” way.

Pentecost and his team look on in awe as their childhood fantasies come to life before their eyes.

Pentecost and his team look on in awe as their childhood fantasies come to life before their eyes.

On the actor’s end of things, each performer embraces their role in a serious/but not too serious way that allows for levity in the midst of all the destruction. No one is trying to turn this into a movie about the human condition, but the characters are still allowed enough humanity that you want to root for them, even if that humanity is exercised through well-worn tropes of vengeance and redemption. The standouts include Idris Elba who takes the calm under pressure leader trope and imbues it with unrelenting hope and determination, and Charlie Day who plays his manic scientist with just enough enthusiasm that he is endearing rather then annoying.

Newt isn't afraid to get up close and personal with a kaiju, as his tattoos make clear.

Newt isn’t afraid to get up close and personal with a kaiju, as his tattoos make clear.

Director Guillermo Del Toro even throws in a bit for veteran anti-hero character actor Ron Perlman as a swanky, and scene-stealing Kaiju organ dealer deliciously named “Hannibal Chau.” Dressed like a pimp with a fondness for clashing colors, and sporting a ridiculous pair of shoes with gold scale platting that chings with every step, Hannibal is a larger-then-life human in a world where giant monsters routinely destroy cities and even dwarfs his massive ego.

Hannibal Chau chews more scenery then the kaiju, much to Newt's chagrin.

Hannibal Chau chews more scenery then the kaiju, much to Newt’s amazement.

But all these human chess pieces are but the icing on the cake compared with the Jaeger VS Kaiju battles that make up the film. Though the Jaegers featured come equipped with fancy plasma cannons and spinning blades to presumably slice and dice the Kaiju into sushi, their opponents are so monstrous and resilient that every encounter quickly escalates into an all-out brawl. Pacific Rim therefore delivers what its premise has promised and more; giant robots piloted by humans slugging it out with monsters who make Godzilla look like a gecko.

The kaiju designs and abilities are all unique, making each fight a new experience.

The kaiju designs and abilities are all unique, making each fight a new experience.

To watch a giant robot rocket punch a grotesque yet mesmerizing monster in the face is one thing, but to see one do this half a dozen times, followed by them picking up an oil tanker and laying onto them as though it were a baseball bat is something transcendent. It’s like being transported back in time to when you first saw Power Rangers and watched them punch each other into buildings. Seeing it in a movie theater is visually cathartic, as though we are at last acknowledging a cultural childhood that has been hidden away under adulthood.

That's a boat, being dragged like a an axe, by a giant robot, to beat a monster into paste. Nuff said.

That’s a boat. Being dragged by a giant robot. To beat a monster into paste. ‘Nuff said.

Each time the Jaeger stands, or the Kaiju reveals a secret weapon, we experience a thrill  we felt when we were kids and first learned to identify with characters and were drawn into their battles. When a Kaiju finally shudders to the ground in defeat, we cheer, and when their savage force overwhelms our heroes we wince as though part of ourselves is under attack as well. There is no metaphor, no symbolism; we feel the action because the battles are on the screen and in our heads with nothing in between.

Chuck Hanson (Robert Kazinsky teams up with Stacker when the odds against Raleigh and Mako intensify.

Chuck Hanson (Robert Kazinsky) teams up with Stacker when the odds against Raleigh and Mako intensify.

Pacific Rim pulls out all the stops in its final phases, amping up the odds with increasingly creative Kaiju, and more jaw dropping fights that push our heroes past the breaking point, while an utterly enthralled audience watches with bated breath. While other more “serious” action movies would squander their suspense by devoting unnecessary dialogue to humanizing their characters or trying to impart some message, Guillermo Del Toro knows that truly being a kid again means we have to stop looking for meaning, and embrace the fantasy. And what better way to do that then having a giant robot suplex a creature with glowing eyes and toss it into San Francisco bay as if it were an annoying little brother?

A Clockwork Solution

James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) and his Wife Mary (Lena Headey) and son try to survive a night of Freudian release.

James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) and his Wife Mary (Lena Headey) and son try to survive a night of Freudian release.

Western civilization has an extensive history of repression of things we deem “taboo,” yet it’s odd that violence is rarely seen of as one of these. Despite its destructive nature, media and news seem both all too eager to report it, and then move on from it as though violent acts were nothing more then a human tornado whose inevitability we must accept and grow stronger as we rebuild our shattered human nerves. There are some who would argue that as long as we continue to treat violence like necessary evil of the world, we will never achieve a truly enlightened sense of harmony with our fellow man.

But what if we could limit that violence to only one day a year? One day to live as savages in exchange for 364 days of peace and prosperity?  Could channeling violence stop it from ruling our lives, and in this “Purge” of primal lust would we become more or less human?

We repress our hidden desires behind masks of normalcy, but on Purge night we mock the need for such thing.

We repress our hidden desires behind masks of normalcy, but on Purge night we mock the need for such thing.

Billed as a “Speculative thriller,” The Purge takes this scenario and applies it to the familiar “home invasion” movie set in a dystopia that really isn’t any different from our own. In this theoretical future of America, our new “Governing Fathers” enacted The Purge ten years ago as a measure to combat our massive economic distress and poverty by unifying the nation. While it is in effect, all emergency services are disconnected and all violent crimes are permissible, with the somewhat cheeky exception being the government itself. It’s an idea Sigmund Freud might have dreamed up, only to dismiss it as too radical despite the various talking heads on TV that repeatedly mention how it has improved the average quality of life in the country.

All across America the streets empty as the social order mutates into something unthinkable.

All across America the streets empty as the social order mutates into something unthinkable.

While some of the high class purchase comprehensive security systems like the one designed by James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) that turn the annual Purge into a 12 hour lockdown, others take the opportunity to hold “parties” where they re-enact the pig scene from The Lord Of The Flies and hunt the lower class with radical Darwinism as their calling. These two worlds come to a head for James and his wife Mary (Lena Headey) and their two children when a moment of compassion for a torn and bloodied outsider (Edwin Hodge) results in group of masked strangers marking him and his family as new targets in this night of bloody release.

No good deed goes unpunished, not when the government sanctions the "extermination" of the lower class like this bloody stranger.

No good deed goes unpunished, not when the government sanctions the “extermination” of the lower class like this bloody stranger.

Despite the terrifying “Home as violated space” trope that feeds the horror on the outside, The Purge exists more in the realm of movies like Dredd 3D that enhance their plots through the surrounding ideas and themes that permeate the world. James’ place as a man who has profited from The Purge makes his decisions and interactions more meaningful then if he were just a victim of it, and his rationalizations provide the moral gray area that forces us to consider whether there is a difference between participating in The Purge, and standing by idly to watch it behind barred windows.

James Sandin is forced to confront the true horror of the night he has built his career on.

James Sandin is forced to confront the true horror of the night he has built his families’ livelihood on.

As characters, the Sandin family are not groundbreaking, yet strangely old-fashioned. Ethan Hawke initially shows us James’ ego-driven personality that could lead him to treat the event as just another challenge in the business world, yet the instant he and his family are under lock and key the facade begins to weaken as he is confronted by the sudden change in the world outside their doors.

Hawke summons determination to his sallow features that quickly becomes sweaty and shaking like a man in with a sniper trained on his head. Though he seems an odd choice for a leading man, Hawke’s recent stints in fellow horror films Sinister and Daybreakers illustrate that his performance is largely linked to the character’s range, and as such James Sandin is a serviceable if not memorable role for him.

Lena Headey finally plays a mother who doesn't dote on a psychotic boy king.

Lena Headey finally plays a mother who doesn’t dote on a psychotic boy king.

If James’ must be the traditional masculine protector, then Mary Sandin is the character that experiences the most emotional and character growth. Lena Headey, known for playing cruel and manipulative she-wolfs (Cercei Lannister of Game of Thrones and Madeline Madrigal of the aforementioned Dredd) underplays her domestic side to show a woman who knows deep down how wrong The Purge is, but has no other resource like her husband does to protect herself and her children.

These housewives are only "Desperate" to kill each other.

These housewives are only “Desperate” to kill each other.

In this way, while most of James’ best scenes involve him tackling the problem head-on, Mary’s are when she is dealing with an overenthusiastic neighbor with an I’m-going-to-kill-you expression, or when confronting the home invaders with the righteous fury that has been dwelling in her eyes. In the end, she is a character first and a mother second, showing depth beyond just wanting her children to be safe.

Max Burkholder is timid, yet questioning, which leads him to reach out with compassion when a stranger stumbled into their security feed.

Max Burkholder is timid, yet questioning, which leads him to reach out with compassion when a stranger stumbled into their security feed.

Their kids, Charlie, and Zoey, are slightly more interesting then the usual “innocent child” and “vulnerable young girl” archetypes. Charlie has long black tech geek hair that differentiates him from the blond crewcut that would mark his “childhood” status, and spends most of the movie utilizing a bizarrely archaic remote controlled robot to view the house. He’s the one most disturbed by The Purge, checking his vitals like a hypochondriac even when his father tries to rationalize the purpose of the event, and there is subtle symbolism in the way he tries to put the outside world behind a screen, until reality intrudes.

Zoey Sandin, wearing what the movie clearly thinks is standard schoolgirl attire.

Zoey Sandin, wearing what the movie clearly thinks is standard schoolgirl attire.

In contrast to her brother, the first shot of Zoey is a barely restrained glimpse of thigh under a movie-length schoolgirl skirt, not so subtly showing Adelaide Kane’s youthful charms. She’s probably the closest character to a trope, with a vague anger at her father and the fact that she is dating an older guy who thinks it’s fine because she’s “mature for her age.”  Being the teenage daughter, she is also the first to be threatened by the mixed sex party of delinquents, yet the movie shows admirable restraint in not making her safety a major cause for concern, with only two remarks hinting at such uncomfortable subject matter.

Hiding under the bed is the oldest cliche in the book, but Zoey doesn't have any other choice.

Hiding under the bed is the oldest cliche in the book, but Zoey doesn’t have any other choice.

Her room suggests a diligent student who is both smart enough to call bullshit on The Purge, but her character is so mired in unspecified teenage angst that the potential for an intellectual opposite of James is neutralized.  Strangely enough though, it’s through her character that The Purge throws its first narrative curve-ball, even though that ball seems to vanish out of frame and remain unexplained for the duration of the movie.

The “Purgers” who invade are led by a sophisticated sociopath in a business suit with the twisted aura of Patrick Bateman and the unsettling grin of The Joker. This “Polite Stranger” (Ryhs Wakefield) approaches the night with the passion of a delusional zealot mixed with the indignant privilege of an Ivy League grad so that he is both instantly hateable and instantly watchable in equal parts.

Rhys Wakefield is all smiles especially on a night where he doesn't need to worry about expressing the true evil behind that smile.

Rhys Wakefield is all smiles, especially on a night where he doesn’t need to worry about hiding the true evil behind that smile.

His homicidal collaborators all appear to have come from the same economic bracket, alternatively weird and disturbing in grinning masks like a drama class from hell. In their glee for The Purge they reveal the true intent of it as hidden call to class slaughter, the worst sort of evil that breeds whenever someone can justify the inferiority of another group in their own minds.

Ethan Hawke takes up arms to protect his family from the monsters who have invaded the night.

Ethan Hawke takes up arms to protect his family from the monsters who have invaded the night.

One of the unique touches of The Purge is how it portrays this free-for-all of violence and the horror that accompanies it. The invaders are not supernatural maniacs (Though they do tend to pop up when the Sandin’s are looking the other direction a lot) instead they are vandals who dress up to give themselves an aura of the uncanny to frighten their prey. Armed with dangerous looking knives and lyncher’s shotguns, they initially reside on the outside of the house, content to freak out the Sandins with creepy laughter and threatening poses on their security cameras. In one uniquely sadistic scene, they even tickle a person while restraining them, clearly drunk on the power of the night.

The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street...

The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street…

The Purge shows an abruptly practical sense of the Sandin’s struggle against them, opting for short bursts of action rather then elaborately choreographed take downs. It makes sense that a good number of encounters begin with both parties entering the room at the same time without noticing the other, while the winner turns out to be the one who brought the most useful weapon to the fight.

This realistic take on the scenes also underlines the ironic nature of being able to get away with anything violent, in that though lots might like to, they probably have so little experience that they don’t know how to.

After all the sneaking around and woefully inadequate flashlights in dark corners, The Purge initially seems to be heading towards a deus ex machina style ending, only to twist itself into a horrible knot combining so many themes and buzz words it feels in danger of going of the rails into ridiculously overbearing allegory. It’s saved however by a denouement that is powered by human fragility instead of ideology, one which is unrealistic yet still feels thematically resonant in light of all evil that has supposedly been “Purged” that night.

The social commentary in The Purge is not subtle, but it is highly resonant with many of our current problems.

The social commentary in The Purge is not subtle, but it is highly resonant with many of our current problems.

By the film’s conclusion it’s hard to say if The Purge really exercises anyone of his or her violent impulses, but we are reminded that there is another way of dealing with the beast within us. And that is to tame it rather then letting it consume us.

Into The New Dark Age

Kirk's first face-to-face confrontation with the other, a man who appears human, but is eerily off.

Kirk’s first face-to-face confrontation with the other, a man who appears human, but is eerily off.

It’s said that the best way to reintroduce a story from the past is to do so in a way that makes it relevant to the public and the issues that they are presently facing. Though people might disagree on the exact specifics of what made Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek so topical, one of the most notable things it attempted was to build a picture of the future as a time of unity, broadcasted to a world which was anything but. Fast forward to the new series of Star Trek films by director J. J Abrams and we notice a distinct change from this to a world where humanity seems in perpetual danger from something outside itself.

Luckily for the males at least, there will always be exotic alien girls to kibitz with.

Luckily for the males at least, there will always be exotic alien girls to kibitz with.

As a sequel to the 2009 reboot, Star Trek Into Darkness (never forget the verb) at first appears to merely be going through the same, albeit entertaining motions. Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is still sleeping with whatever species has a female member, while remaining a determined leader who will flaunt Star Fleet’s rules and regulations if his crews’ safety is at sake. His ideological opposite, Spock (Zachary Quinto), is of course butting heads with him while he also struggles with his feelings for intergalactic language officer Uhura (Zoe Saldana). And Doctor “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban) is of course still bemoaning the fact that he is woefully under qualified for doing anything other then his medical duties at anyone who will listen.

Bones is THRILLED at finally having some actual doctor's work to do, rather then just dealing with ungrateful captains with swelling limbs.

Bones is THRILLED at finally having some actual doctor’s work to do, rather then just dealing with ungrateful captains with swelling limbs.

All this changes however with the emergence of a mysterious ex-starfleet officer named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), who attacks Starfleet command in a dangerous display of cunning and ruthlessness that affects Kirk personally and snaps him out of his previous devil-may-care mindset. Acting on orders from commander Alexander Marcus (Peter Weller), Kirk and his crew depart on a mission to bring Harrison to justice, not knowing the true forces at work behind the mission.

The team is all assembled, including the obligatory "Red Shirt"

The team is all assembled, including the obligatory “Red Shirt”

While Star Trek has dealt with the concept of the “Other” before, never has it been so apparent as in Kirk’s mission to capture, or kill Harrison. It’s easy to draw parallels with the hunt for the perpetrators of the world trade center attacks because both bring up a question of what justice really means when faced with a mission that boils down to being a legal assassin. Not only this, but command explicitly authorizes Kirk to use a new kind of weapon to do the job, one which the ship’s faithful engineer, Scotty (Simon Pegg), is loath to even have on the ship due to its destructive potential.

Montgomery Scott (Simon Pegg) receives some unwelcome news about some late additions to the ship's weapon stores.

Montgomery Scott (Simon Pegg) receives some unwelcome news about some late additions to the ship’s weapon stores.

Since Harrison has retreated to an uninhabited area, Kirk is reassured that there will be no collateral damage, but he still struggles with the morality of killing him instead of returning him to Earth to stand trial. When we have technology to solve our problems with merely a button press, what does our responsibility become for that button? If we can kill a suspected terrorist with a remote drone strike with low chance of casualties, how do we decide when it’s justified?

Kirk, Uhura, and Spock come under heavy fire by hostile forces, and dark screen filters by the marketing department.

Kirk, Uhura, and Spock come under heavy fire by hostile forces, and dark screen filters by the marketing department.

This rather dark turn into uncharted territory drives both the story and the characters as what appears to be the correct and moral path flips without warning, particularly when John Harrison is so convincing when it comes to playing both the vengeance-driven ubermensch, and the wronged outsider who still believes in honor. One of the greatest moments of this occurs when a new crew member discovers a deeper reason for why the Enterprise has been tasked with carrying the new weapons.

James Tiberius Kirk, still the leading cause of penis envy among male viewers.

James Tiberius Kirk, still the leading cause of penis envy among male viewers.

Luckily, all of the movie’s actors are game for such weighty subject matter. Chris Pine continues to play his playboy hotshot like a cross between Van Wilder and Han Solo, an interstellar frat boy whose greatest challenge is guiding his crew when he can’t always be sure they’ll be able to escape unscathed. Playing off Zachary Quinto gives him a chance to show a desire for connection that is closer to camaraderie then his interactions with any of the other crew, while also showing how Spock is the one character who can really pierce his macho armor.

Zachary Quinto as Spock finds a way to look approaching death in the face in way that is both logical, and compelling.

Zachary Quinto as Spock finds a way to look approaching death in the face in way which is both logical, and badass.

As Spock, Zachary Quinto continues to evolve his relationship with his human half, partially out of his affection for lieutenant Uhura, and partially out of a desire to understand the sometimes illogical behavior of the humans he accompanies. It’s still a treat to watch him display everything from curiosity to confusion with only his eyebrows and Beatles bowl-cut, and when desperation breaks out across those features it feels well earned.

Nyota Uhura blazes a trail as she fights SKYNET to prevent a apocalyptic future. And chastises Kirk in her spare time.

Nyota Uhura blazes a trail as she fights SKYNET to prevent an apocalyptic future. And chastises Kirk in her spare time.

Uhura’s love for Spock is only the tip of her character however, and Zoe Saldana shows just as much determination as Pine when it comes to both fighting the physical battles, and the mental battles of ideological warfare. She is never boring, never underused, and can always be counted to bring a certain gravity to her scenes, even when they are something as ridiculous as a couples’ fight in the middle of a chase scene.

"You just sat that man down at a high stakes poker game with no cards and told him to bluff."

“You just sat that man down at a high stakes poker game with no cards and told him to bluff.”

The rest of the crew form a strong backbone of determination and bravery, beginning with Helmsman Sulu’s (John Cho) stare down of a dangerous criminal with nothing but his dangerously calm voice. Bones is still the lone voice of reason that Kirk listens to, and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) continues to amuse with a Russian accent that sounds like he has a kid Dracula up his nose. Joining is Carol Wallace (Alice Eve) who gets not only to casually show her well-toned stomach, but also demonstrate nerves of steel and a hyper-fast mind when it comes to disarming planet-obliterating bombs.

Alice Eve gets between Kirk and Spock, but not in the way you'd think.

Alice Eve gets between Kirk and Spock, but not in the way you’d think.

Playing an anti-villain is no new thing to Benedict Cumberbatch as his much talked of turn on the BBC’s Sherlock as a so-called “High functioning sociopath” will attest to, and he embraces this side as the enigmatic “John Harrison”. Possessing a moon-white face more like any alien then the actual aliens featured, Benedict mesmerizes both Kirk and the audience with a tactile grace and eerie calm that make his more-than-human nature apparent in every scene he’s in. He is “The Other,” cold and remote, and yet we want to feel for him because we can still see that outline of humanity that deceives our eyes.

With a face like the right side of the uncanny valley, and eyes like twin lasers, Benedict Cumberbatch comes out with all guns blazing and fells every fangirl in the house.

With a face like the right side of the uncanny valley, and eyes like twin lasers, Benedict Cumberbatch comes out with all guns blazing and fells every fangirl in the house.

It’s through these eyes that the viewers are drawn into the murky politics and real danger of Kirk’s mission. There are fantastic scenes of space combat, and thrilling rescues aplenty, but once the true stakes of it are known, the film heads for its dire descent and isn’t afraid to put it’s characters in potentially life-ending situations. It’s a shame that the final moments are handled so flimsily then, preferring to wrap up loose ends and return to status quo with a feeling of empty optimism rather then the dark unknown that the title promises.

Kirk suits up and prepares to launch himself into the dark unknown.

Kirk suits up and prepares to launch himself into the new future.

Perhaps it’s fitting though, since, like the dark ages which were a harrowing period of history where the unknown seemed all around us, this new Star Trek enters it’s own Darkness, only to emerge not unscathed, but more aware of ourselves and the importance of not losing to the darkness that threatens from within our own hearts. This above all else is a message our modern audience needs right now in our uncertain trek to the future, where our only solace is that we do not travel alone, but journey together on the infinite mission of The Starship Earth.

(Slight spoiler below)

"We have met the enemy, and he is us."

“We have met the enemy and he is us.”