Review: STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS onto Blu-ray


STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS Blu-ray + DVD Combo Pack cover artOn September 10th, director J.J. Abrams‘ hit franchise sequel STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS beams onto 3D Blu-ray, Blu-ray and DVD after an early digital download release on August 20th. While it’s not the original cat-and-mouse battle from the classic Trek crew, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS forges its own stamp upon a similar story, highlighting more diverse elements as terrorism, human genetics manipulation and a more modernist questioning of Starfleet’s mission as one of benign exploration or militaristic defense. The Enterprise’s crew of actors all seem quite comfortable in their roles now and take command of their characters in true TREK fashion but with important innovations and updates befitting this 21st century film series. The mysterious, seemingly malevolent John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) stands at the heart of an attack on the Federation’s most secret facility in London, but he’s not the only foe that Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) must face as they take command of the Enterprise in this enjoyable sequel.

If there’s a drawback to STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, it’s that Harrison’s character (the secret’s long out about Khan 2.0, so we’ll go with it) lacks the very personal vendetta against Kirk that the original Khan in 1982’s STAR TREK: THE WRATH OF KHAN so obsessively fed with his hatred over the abandonment of the Botany Bay survivors on a desolate planet — a plot point sprung from the classic STAR TREK television series’ “Space Seed” episode starring Ricardo Montalban in the villain role. Here Harrison, played by the equally powerful but far less exotic Cumberbatch, directs his vengeance against Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) and Starfleet for betraying Harrison’s crew which has all happened previous to this story and off-screen in a much less satisfying result. What’s missing here is the decades-long, hate filled mano-a-mano chess match between Kirk and Khan that made the 1982 film such a watershed entry in the classic TREK film franchise: the Khan story truly needs that personal touch to fulfill its dramatic potential. With Harrison aiming his wrath at Marcus and Starfleet by proxy, not targeting Kirk directly, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS becomes a triangular battle in design which is inevitably a bit weaker than the original head-to-head Khan-frontation from 1982.

Still, Abrams and the writing team of Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof have great fun reinventing their own parallel timeline tale of Khan’s wrath to the point of redirecting one of the original participants in the battle across timelines to set up a mirror image of the story with their own cracks and reflections on the theme. STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS starts with a slower burn than expected but the setup pays dramatic dividends as these story arcs of Kirk, Marcus and Harrison converge into the main conflict.  Some aspects of the 1982 story are faithfully explored while others are turned on their ear to keep viewers guessing and not get ahead of the film, with plenty of easter egg references and unique twists to pay off for TREK devotees. Harrison/Khan and Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) enter and conclude the film on very different paths than seen before, leaving a galaxy of future possibilities (totally original to this film series, we hope) that weren’t possible before.

Perhaps the best factor of this sequel is that this Abrams-commanded cast also starring Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, John Cho, Zoe Saldana and Anton Yelchin are now past the crew-building phase and own their respective roles running the Enterprise in quick order. The actor “translation” between classic TREK actors and the 2009 cast is a forgotten exercise and now these people are a new generation’s Scotty, Bones, Sulu, Uhura and Chekov without hesitation, ready to offer their talents, quirks and TREK-typical wordplay exchanges at full throttle while the action builds on-screen. It’s a rare achievement to create such cast-wide chemistry twice between two entirely different groups of actors, but by this second film, there is no doubt this Enterprising team embodies that true TREK vibe.

STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS blends the familiar with the unexpected with grand visual fashion, even if a few of the more eye-catching moments like the Enterprising rising up from an alien ocean seem more inspired by a visual effects cool factor than anything anchored by storytelling demands. The spacebound battle action fires off with gusto if, alas, with much less tactical ingenuity than before: such KHAN style cat-and-mouse ‘submarine warfare’ fights were a hallmark of the original TREK series, and disappointingly INTO DARKNESS never really rises to that meet that benchmark when it should and could. What we hope for now from the future of this TREK reboot franchise is that it begins to explore much more original stories and character arcs, allowing for greater elements of surprise than continual comparisons to what we know has already happened in the classic TREK timeline tales reflected in Abrams’ two films thus far. It’s time to take the franchise training wheels off this epic Enterprise and her crew and let them truly fly off into the mysteries of that final frontier as promised with the start of their five-year mission. It’s very much the time for this TREK to boldly go where past-TREK has not gone before and wow us with completely original tales and adventures with Kirk, Spock and Bones, seeking out truly new life and new civilizations. In this aspect, we hope STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS is the promise of even better TREK yet to come.

BLU-RAY REVIEW

It’s safe to say that STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS is a stunner on Blu-ray disc (and even DVD), with a robust and immaculate transfer of its 1080p HD image in 2:35-1 screen ratio that will give you all she’s got, Captain. A combination of the sequel’s cinematography and Paramount’s excellent export to Blu-ray, INTO DARKNESS possesses a rich, dynamic but never overpowering color palette that makes the Apple Store vibe of the mostly white Enterprise interior seem less antiseptically stark. The planetary missions adeptly range from vivid daylight reds and yellows on Nibiru, to the dark shadows and alien greens of the Klingon homeworld Kronos, and the rather diminished saturation of the skyscraper-dominated San Francisco amid the final destructive battle near Starfleet headquarters. Director Abrams may be onto something as he apparently vowed to film STAR WARS: EPISODE VII on 35mm film and not digital cameras, given the amazing clarity of detail evident in this Blu-ray transfer: the Nibiru aliens’ flaky skin makeup to the subtle fabric textures of Starfleet uniforms and into the vast floating debris field between starships in space make the most of the HD video experience.

Equally impressive is the Dolby TrueHD 7.1 soundtrack for the film, delivering an auditory gut punch when the Enterprise bursts into warp speed and yet preserving the delicacy and power of Michael Giacchino’s musical score. Once again, Abrams and his sound designers wisely include several moments of silence or near enough to it, further expressing the dynamic range of audio depths and heights evident as on-screen action demands, and the 7.1 audio will definitely give your surround system a good cardio workout during viewings. INTO DARKNESS was mixed incredibly well in its theatrical presentation, and such expertise is delivered right into your living room or home theater: an active effects soundtrack impresses when required but never stampedes over the dialog channels, while surrounding audio cues effectively fill the sound field environment around home viewers.  STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS is a treat for TREK fans’ eyes and ears to be sure.

BONUS FEATURES

As Shakespeare once put it through the Danish prince Hamlet: aye, there’s the rub. As much as we applaud Abrams’ original production quality, Paramount and Bad Robot’s insistence on HD high-quality bonus feature documentaries and featurettes, there are simply far too few of them offered by current Blu-ray standards of today. More disappointing still, additional bonus features have been fractured off into downloadable content and retail exclusives you’ll have to source elsewhere to collect what you truly deserve when buying this Blu-ray edition.

But let’s start with the bonus features that are included on the Blu-ray/DVD 2-disc edition of STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS:

  • Creating the Red Planet – Experience the creation of a never-before-seen alien world, as featured in the action-packed opening sequence of the film.
  • Attack on Starfleet – Go behind the scenes with the cast and filmmakers and witness the creation of the shocking attack on Starfleet Headquarters.
  • The Klingon Home World – Discover the stunning world of Kronos, and see how the filmmakers reinvented the Klingons for a new generation.
  • The Enemy of My Enemy – Find out how, and why, the identity of the film’s true villain was kept a mystery to the very end.
  • Ship to Ship – An in-depth and thrilling look at the filming of the iconic space jump sequence, which both defied the laws of physics and pushed the limits of visual effects.
  • Brawl by the Bay – Sit in with Zachary Quinto and Benedict Cumberbatch as they revisit their intense preparation for the film’s breathtaking climax.
  • Continuing the Mission – An inspiring look at the partnership between the film’s crew and the organization that assists returning veterans to find meaningful ways to contribute on the home front.

These are all top-notch productions offering fun and informative insights into the making-of process for the film, and their high quality is appreciable to any Blu-ray aficionado. Per Abrams himself via Paramount’s press release: “They did a great job and I’m thrilled with how everything looks and sounds.  We also have some really fun behind-the-scenes special features that we shot on the Red and created entirely in-house at Bad Robot. They really look amazing and unlike anything I’ve seen on DVD or Blu-ray before.”  While we salute Abrams and Paramount for their efforts to enhance the home video experience, we quite seriously wish Blu-ray purchasers of non-retailer-exclusive editions got to enjoy the full package of available and produced bonus features.

A short list of what you don’t get includes:

  • Audio commentary track with J.J. Abrams and crew available only via the iTunes digital download of the film.
  • 30 minutes of additional bonus feature content available only via Best Buy retailer exclusive edition or streaming content via CinemaNow.
  • 30 minutes of additional bonus feature content available only via Target’s retailer exclusive edition not duplicated in Best Buy’s exclusive content.

All totaled, that’s 192 minutes of additional bonus features that are available for STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS viewers but inaccessible by purchasing the standard Blu-ray/DVD combo pack from Paramount.  A die-hard TREK fan would need to buy four separate copies of STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS — three Blu-ray discs and one digital download — to obtain all these bonus extras for their collection, which is simply a ridiculous expense and effort to force Trek fans to endure just to enjoy the fullest home video experience of the film.

While we fully understand that studios like Paramount are offering incentives to boost digital downloading of their film content, deleting such a basic, expected Blu-ray feature like audio commentary from a disc release is baffling and frustrating to say the least. Then requiring two additional disc purchases to complete the full making-of experience — often a main incentive for viewers to buy Blu-ray editions at all — simply screams of a philosophy that puts marketing and profits ahead of customer experience and franchise loyalty. Worse, Paramount knows die-hard fans will end up making those additional disc purchases — either at full price tomorrow or with discounted prices later on — and cynically relies on their devotion to boost their Blu-ray sales figures for the film. Such corporate darkness about the TREK franchise is discouraging, and we can only hope Paramount does not repeat this trend on future releases lest a backlash against TREK begin to surge in retaliation. Khan isn’t the only one who can summon up some unholy wrath when betrayed.

Overall STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS is well worth purchasing in its Blu-ray/DVD combo pack or tacking on the Blu-ray 3D edition in a three-disc set if your system meets those specs. Both versions will offer superior and stunning transfers of the feature film that you’ll enjoy at home, along with well-produced bonus features that will definitely leave you wanting more. Our main criticism is that Paramount left so much more out there for you to want with few options to getting it beyond multiple purchases of the same film in one format or another, that even this excellent Blu-ray presentation can’t help but feel incomplete by comparison. Still, FilmEdge gives STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS on Blu-ray 3.5 stars out of 5, praising its merits and noting, but not faulting, this edition for its missing components — this home video release simply deserves to deliver all the available content the feature film obviously inspired.

STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS Blu-ray/DVD Combo pack is now available to order for $19.99 at Amazon.com

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