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.”

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A Cold-Blooded Family Man

Richard Kuklinski's family thought he was a skilled businessman, not knowing how bloody his business truly was...

Richard Kuklinski’s family thought he was a skilled businessman, not knowing how bloody his business truly was…

Violence in cinema inherently fascinates audiences because it represents an imitation of an irreversible act in real life; but even more then this, violent characters have an almost innate ability to captivate moviegoers. Once more, it seems as though we are able to “forgive” the gut churning violence through a combination of cognitive dissonance and identification with a character. How a film manages this is very significant, since the most extreme the violence, the further away we tend to shy from rooting for or sympathizing with the people in it.

All this is highly relevant because the main character of Ariel Vromen’s new film The Iceman is based on a factual cut and dried psychopath who was a real mob hit man with no conscience to speak of. A man who, as the film will remind us as almost an afterthought; is believed to have killed over one hundred individuals. The Richard Kuklinski that Michael Shannon portrays is this man, but he must also show us something in him that is admirably human as well. That Shannon succeeds to the degree he does is a testament not only to the spell of the film’s narrative but to his remarkable physical prowess.

"The only God I believe in is a loaded pistol with a hair trigger.”

“The only God I believe in is a loaded pistol with a hair trigger.”

From the first gravely syllable that rolls of his tongue, Michael Shannon is unrecognizable as the heavyset, square jawed man whose eyes hold a cold indifference that will prove his namesake. He’s adept at socializing only to the extent that it is expected of him, and even then an isolating distance is always present in those grey eyes. Kuklinski is a man of few words not because he lacks them, or because he chooses them carefully, but because they mean as little to him as the lives of the people they come from. Looming in almost every frame, Shannon dominates the film with his impassive; yet moldable features that time and time again fool us into forgetting about his cold-hearted nature.

Who does Kuklinski see when he looks in the mirror? The mafia killer, or the doting father?

Who does Kuklinski see when he looks in the mirror? The mafia killer, or the doting father?

When he meets gangster Roy Demeo (Ray Liota) who offers him a job as a disposer of human liabilities, it’s nothing but a means of making money to support his wife Deborah (Winona Ryder) and his families’ lifestyle. His tenderness with his two daughters shows an attachment that is utterly absent from his face while on the job, and the juxtaposition between the family man and the mob killer is the film’s primary point of interest.

Spanning a period of twenty years, the film mostly depicts the brutal aftermath of his crimes, preferring instead to chart the slow dissolution of Kuklinski’s employment and its effect on his family life. During the latter he meets a fellow murder-for-hire named Robert Prongay (Chris Evans) who turns him onto the ghoulish practice of storing bodies in the freezer of his ice cream van in order to disguise the time of death. These scenes of them storing bodies in a freezer while discussing their lives are perhaps the most disturbing, since both the characters and the film treat this as though it were just another day at the office.

Kuklinski and Prongay store bodies in a walk in freezer that's as cold as their consciences

Kuklinski and Prongay store bodies in a walk in freezer that’s as cold as their consciences

All of his co-stars are allowed just enough time to build a convincing relationship so that Kuklinski’s eventual fall has weight behind it. As his wife, Winona Ryder captures a woman who has just enough insecurity to shrug off her husband’s mood swings from aloofness to textbook psychopathic outbursts. Ray Liota also does well and doesn’t phone in his performance for once in a long time, but infuses his mafia boss with frustration that illustrates his more human side.

If there is any stand out it would have to be Chris Evan’s mercilessly deranged hitman for his casual display of amorality that feels arresting even in comparison to Kuklinski’s sociopathy. Known as “Mister Freezey” to the neighborhood children, Evans looks like the Unabomber on holiday with wild Charles Mason hair and a dark pair of aviators—the sort of person you’d forbid your kids getting a Creamsicle from.

"I tracked her down and force-fed her a puffer fish, I'm keeping her in back for a month then I am going to dump her up near the coast" Chills.

“I tracked her down and force-fed her a puffer fish. I’m keeping her in back for a month then I’m gonna dump her up near the coast”  Chills.

Where Kuklinski has a strangely old testament code—no women or children—Prongay has no such qualms about killing witnesses in ways ranging from bombs, to poison administered in truly unsettling manner. Kuklinski’s relationship to him is one of simple convenience, but it’s still perhaps the most damning evidence of Kuklinski’s separation from the rest of the human race.

The Iceman works because Shannon is able to make Kuklinski’s love for his family a redeeming side, rather then using them as a barrier to mask his true self. By surrounding him with even worse killers and gangsters, his motivation to protect and provide for his family feel justified and, in a word, sympathetic. Kuklinski is a killer, but unlike say, Patrick Bateman, this is only his job.

Roses are red/ violets are blue/my Annabel is golden/as the light of the moon

Roses are red/ violets are blue/my Annabel is golden/as the light of the moon. The poetic soul of a father, and a killer.

In everyday life he was an iceman, a cold, blocky giant thawed from some patch in the remote wilderness, who never truly desired anything in this world he entered into, and so had no reason to care for anyone in it; until perhaps in a strange twist of fate, he found he was suddenly responsible for life himself. We do not ultimately know if this love he maintained for his family was reciprocated, but the last words Shannon says in the film are taken from the man directly;

“I’ve never felt sorry for anything I’ve done except hurting my family. That’s the only thing I feel sorry for.”

Your willingness to believe this hinges on whether you believe Michael Shannon truly captures the dichotomous essence of the man, or if it is merely an idealized portrait of a twisted father, husband, and ultimately serial killer; who was so alien and mystifying to regular people that we could never hope to know the truth of him.