Worth A Look: 20%
Just Average: 40%
Pretty Crappy: 23.64%
5 reviews, 25 user ratings
|Star Trek Into Darkness
by Brett Gallman
Upon witnessing the Enterprise’s recovery from a perilous situation in “Star Trek Into Darkness,” Zachary Quinto’s Mr. Spock remarks that there are no such thing as miracles. However, just four years ago, he practically starred in one—by nearly all means, J.J. Abrams’s reboot of the then-moribund “Trek” franchise was at least a minor miracle in its ability to not only resurrect the series but to also do so in spite of a weak script. With this follow-up, Abrams seems to have resigned himself to this business; this time, though, he’s less miracle-worker and more of a one-trick magician, and his powers aren’t quite as potent.One of the most exciting elements about “Star Trek” was its clever resetting of the franchise mythos—when that film ended, we were left with something familiar, yet different. Some of the particulars had been changed, but the spirit of Roddenberry’s creation remained; after about two decades of being sidetracked, there was a sense of excitement as the series seemed set to return to its swinging, spacefaring roots. For a series whose mantra revolves around seeking “new life and civilizations” on “strange new worlds,” it had a tendency to get hung up on riffing on the same themes and villainous archetypes. “Into Darkness” reneges on its predecessor’s promise by not-so-boldly retreating to and retreading the most familiar of ground—albeit with a twist, of course.
"Spoilers ahead--you've been warned."
That’s the mantra of Abrams and his cohorts—delivering something familiar under the guise of a supposed newness, a conceit that would be clever if the movie weren’t so preoccupied with its own cleverness. There’s a sense that the film is too obviously up to something with its escalating sense of fan service. What starts as a wink and nod swiftly turns into a Kirk double-axehandle to the face once “Into Darkness” goes to the most obvious of places, and it never shakes its fan fiction vibe—this is “Star Trek” into blank parody, a film that has all of the signifiers of the franchise without actually connecting to them in a meaningful way. It’s pastiche of the highest order—if Marvel commissioned a handful of Trek-themed “What If?” issues and shoved them into a movie, it’d probably look like this.
The film actually lives up to its promise for a while; it begins with Kirk (Chris Pine) and Bones (Karl Urban) exploring a pre-warp world that’s on the verge of destruction via a volcanic eruption. As the duo flee from the indigenous locals (who haven’t taken kindly to Kirk swiping a religious artifact), Spock works to stabilize the eruption with a cold fusion bomb (which isn’t exactly how cold fusion works—not that we need actual science in “Star Trek,” right?). In a brilliantly plotted and paced prologue in the spirit of James Bond or Indiana Jones, Abrams crafts a wonderful, thrilling sequence that even recaptures the magic of the original Trek series—at least on the surface.
Underneath that surface, however, an ominous thunder rumbles and presages some of the film’s bigger faults. Some of the internal logic doesn’t quite work once the scene’s big conundrum finally comes into focus: when faced with letting Spock stay behind and perish in the volcano or violating the Prime Directive, Kirk obviously goes with the latter, much to his First Officer’s dismay. Never mind the fact that Spock himself is already in violation of the directive, which states that Starfleet can only observe primitive societies and not directly intervene in their fate. Such odd logic (which is considerably ironic, of course) diffuses throughout “Star Trek Into Darkness,” and, when coupled with the thudding sense of shoe-horned familiarity, it becomes the albatross around the neck of this sequel.
When Spock declares that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” during this scene, there’s little doubt what Abrams and company will riffing on here. It was a line of great import in 1982’s “The Wrath of Khan,” but it’s mostly a throwaway line here that hints at a return to a familiar ground that’s lined with all of the expected signposts: Kirk’s womanizing is played up by his bedding of two alien girls, Chekov gulps at the thought of donning a red shirt, Bones gets to insist that he’s a doctor rather than a torpedo technician, etc. Such winking would be fine if it didn’t feel so obligatory when tossed into a film that’s both simultaneously attempting to embrace and run away from “Star Trek” all at the same time.
Rather than embracing Roddenberry’s grand, optimistic vision of the future, this sequel lives up to its title by basking its universe in darkness and faux-profundity. After the exotic, colorful opening, we’re transported to dreary, overcast 23rd century London, where a Starfleet officer is anxious to save the life of his terminally ill daughter. Out of desperation, he turns John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), an enigmatic fellow officer who offers him a cure in exchange for carrying out a suicide bombing mission.
The destruction of an obscure archives building lands Harrison on Starfleet’s radar, which is exactly part of his plan (of course) and enables him to open fire on a meeting that has gathered the organization’s top captains and admirals. Harrison’s attack results in the death of Kirk’s mentor, Christopher Pike (thus squandering one of the reboot’s better, more promising alterations), an act that enrages the young officer. After Kirk makes his case for retaliation, Admiral Alexander Marcus (Peter Weller) is all too eager to comply, so he-reinstates him to the captain’s chair (his actions in the prologue resulted in an obviously brief demotion) and allows him to pursue his vengeance.
Thus, the skeletal framework starts to coalesce—this time, it’ll be “The Wrath of Kirk” as the hot-headed Lothario goes to the edge of Federation space to pursue Harrison, who has fled to the Klingon home planet (Qo'noS as re-imagined by Id Software, basically) via a personal transporter beam (a device that hints at the wholly arbitrary use of transporting in the film). The trek takes Kirk and the audience into the conspiratorial mind of co-writer Bob Orci, who is likely responsible for the twisty, labyrinthine plot that mixes political intrigue with hidden agendas to remarkable effect as it unfolds. Not content to merely riff on familiar Trek” themes, “Into Darkness” also pillages from “24,” right down to Weller’s shady admiral. Alexander Marcus might as well be a 23rd century descendant of Christopher Henderson, the Machiavellian war-monger Weller portrayed in that show’s fifth season.
Marcus is up to the same stuff here, and it’s his motivation that reveals the true nature of the darkness hint at by the title. It turns out that Nero (Eric Bana’s Romulan baddie from the previous film) didn’t just alter the destiny of Kirk and company with his intrusion on the timeline; instead, it altered the course of Starfleet as a whole, which ramped up its military efforts in the wake of Vulcan’s destruction in the first film. As such, the film does a true about face on the original concept of “Star Trek” and reverts to the same old nefarious plots that in turn result in a big, loud, explosive blockbuster.
Admittedly, the paragon shift holds its own promise, especially if one uses “Star Trek” as a lens to reflect its times; in 1966, Rodenberry latched onto the fleeting sense of optimism and wonder held by space exploration. Even when the franchise became caught up in allegorical politics at the end of the old crew’s run, it effused a generally hopeful sentiment by tying a ribbon on the Cold War in 1991’s “The Undiscovered Country.” It follows, then, that even “Star Trek” can’t escape the ambiguous shadow of the past decade, where the lines have blurred. The parallels here are obvious—Starfleet becomes a sketchy regime that gives little thought to what is essentially a drone strike (Marcus’s plan involves threatening Harrison with a barrage of advanced missiles) born out of the panic of a terrorist attack.
Even if such an approach is anathema to my preferred vision of Trek (I think it’s important to note that it’s tough to criticize a movie for not completely tailoring itself to one’s personal desires), it’s sort of valid and technically has its roots in the canon. Section 31, Admiral Marcus’s secretive Starfleet division, is plucked directly from “Deep Space Nine,” and would be one of the more inspired attempts at fan service had the film chosen to engage any of this stuff beyond a surface level. Again, it’s much more wrapped up in Abrams’s coveted mystery box approach; rather than explore the underlying themes and implications, it’s much more rapt by its serpentine narrative, which gets more convoluted (and nigh incoherent) as it piles baffling decisions and motivations up with its twists.
Like its predecessor, “Star Trek Into Darkness” bombs through it all with a great sense of propulsion and moves at warp speed until everyone is forced to start explaining stuff. It all culminates in the most leaden of exposition dumps by a captive Harrison, who toys with Kirk and his crew before revealing his true identity: Khan Noonien Singh, a 300 year old warlord exiled from Earth back in the 1990s. The revelation means nothing to the Enterprise and only works as a dramatic reveal to audience members in the know; within the confines of the story itself, it actually changes very little except to heighten the dramatic irony of the situation. When Khan insists that Starfleet has wrongfully manipulated him into essentially being a one-man WMD, we know it’s likely untrue. That doesn’t stop the film from engaging one of its more fan-fiction-y conceits, though—what if Kirk and Khan teamed up in this alternate reality? What if Khan really is a homicidal despot with a heart of gold this time around?
The answers don’t matter, of course; once again, the film doesn’t really want to engage its implications. Before a particularly harrowing scene even plays itself out, the film wheels out Leonard Nimoy as Spock Prime to assure his younger counterpart that Khan is indeed the most treacherous of all villains he and his crew ever encountered (an ultimately meaningless revelation since Khan confirms this himself only moments later). Only a great sacrifice enabled them to defeat Khan in the previous timeline, an ominous intonation that foreshadows a fast-forward to “Wrath of Khan” territory, where Abrams rejigs the franchise’s pinnacle into an empty retread that’s quickly rendered inert and devoid of its stakes.
The decision largely fails on its own terms when the film’s most dramatic moment is rendered moot, and it’s even worse within the “Trek” framework. Rather than concoct its own dramatic climax, it instead tries to coast on the sentiment and memories of a superior movie; whatever gravitas is features is largely unearned by its own mechanizations because it ends up feeling like a hollow re-enactment. The theme of “Star Trek Into Darkness” is that Abrams doesn’t really seem to grasp themes; his through-line here involves Kirk developing a respect for a captain’s duties while Spock still grapples with his human emotions, specifically his growing friendship with Jim.
Within the remixed context of “Wrath of Khan” each falls flat because the story beats never quite match up with the underlying motifs, and Abrams expects the familiarity to act as the unifying harmony. Whereas “Star Trek II” earned its climax by leaning on years of genuine sentiment, “Into Darkness” simply siphons that good will and distills it into pure nostalgia. Thirty years ago, the ultimate sacrifice was the culmination of an incredibly contemplative film that explored the wistfulness of growing old; here, the sacrificial moment is the nostalgia in form but without much function.
Simply grafting “The Wrath of Khan” onto this film is an obvious failsafe—it’s not a cover band badly performing a classic song so much as it is the original band dusting off its old material in an attempt to recapture former glory because it’s run out of new ideas. If this iteration of “Star Trek” were a concert, “Into Darkness” would be the part that would be lapped up by casual fans; meanwhile the more devout would be left bristling for something more inspired and fresh as they head out the door.
Such a statement treads dangerously close to “true fan” declarations, which isn’t my intent; I think there’s something to be said for the way Abrams has reinvigorated this franchise for the masses, even if some of the spirit of classic Trek has become a casualty. It’s become a sleek, shiny blockbuster that’s allowed him to show off his natural ability to capture charisma and produce pure thrills, a mode that is (again) counter to the franchise’s original concept before it gradually began to morph to more crowd-pleasing fare (somewhat ironically, we have “The Wrath of Khan” to blame for this). That “Into Darkness” continues in this path is no surprise, especially since the 2009 film took the same approach; this time, however, the seams are a little more obvious, and that’s the biggest problem here—even if you strip it of its “Trek” implications and context, it’s just a little too loud and dumb on its own terms to repeat the rousing success of a few years ago.
It certainly doesn’t go down without a fight. Once again, Abrams’s cast is an incredible collection of pure magnetism. Pine still definitely isn’t the James T. Kirk who ascended to greatness over the course of 25 years but rather an impetuous jerk; this is a film where just about everyone except Jim Kirk is right, which is a jarring notion, but Pine completely owns the role and comes extremely close to making the entire thing work in conjunction with Quinto’s Spock. The latter’s performance is improved from the previous effort, as he’s not as borderline sociopathic in his Vulcan detachment; over the course of the film, he develops a warmth and a rapport with Kirk that would serve as a sturdy backbone of a better scripted film. What Abrams essentially discards in favor of nostalgia is a huge missed opportunity—the conflict between Kirk and Spock is centered on the value of preserving life, but this is a film more preoccupied with death simply because it’s preordained.
Like its predecessor, “Star Trek” also affords plenty of moments for the surrounding cast. While Uhura’s (Zoe Salanda) budding romance with Spock still feels like the product of a mid-90s Usenet shipper’s post, she’s a welcome presence as the new third wheel on the Kirk/Spock vehicle, especially during the all-too-brief clash with the Klingons (who are unfortunately completely forgotten about after the first thirty minutes). Thankfully, original third wheel Bones isn’t relegated to the background, and Urban’s take on the cantankerous doctor still stands as the best performance of this reboot; his ability to channel DeForest Kelley’s inflection without lapsing into caricature is remarkable.
Simon Pegg threatens to steal the whole show as Scotty, who becomes something of the R2-D2 of this new universe. He’s still the buffoonish cartoon relief, but he’s utterly indispensable in the proceedings, particularly when he becomes the most vocal conscientious objector to the Enterprise’s militaristic voyage. Rounding out the ship are Chekov and Sulu, both of whom have their own moments of glory; if there’s one thing that this script gets right, it’s the insistence that the entire crew has a chance to shine and play off of each other. Nearly the entire crew anyway—this time out, the crew is joined by Carol Marcus (Alice Eve), who is ultimately less a character and more of an avatar that assures the audience that the requisite “Wrath of Khan” pieces are falling into place. Her presence is ultimately pretty pointless, which makes it difficult to judge Eve’s contribution to the film unless the film expects her stripping down to her underwear to act as some kind of impromptu swimsuit competition.
What’s most baffling here is that the Trek series still hasn’t managed to conjure up a memorable villain; after years of simply trying to recreate Khan, the series finally goes back to the source but does so in name only. The white-washing of Khan’s race isn’t that bothersome, but it does serve as an appropriate reflection for the utter blandness he projects. Cumberbatch is a fine choice, with his reptilian features making for an immediately sinister presence; however, he’s given little to do with such an empty character. Only one moment allows him to cast some doubt and bring the tiniest hint of an actual dimension to Khan, who was once compelling in his regal, grandiose sense of superiority.
Ricardo Montalban was so amazing that he almost convinced you that his wrath was justified; Cumberbatch just gets to insist that he’s much smarter than everyone else, which explains why he spends most of the movie shooting BFGs, punching people, and falling for the most obvious trick imaginable. Everything about this character captures the wrong-headed approach of “Star Trek Into Darkness,” a film that’s firmly planted in empty fan service and former splendor when it should be moving forward (at best) or at least engaging its familiarity in more compelling ways (at worst).
Instead, it falls somewhere right in the middle; I know this has sounded like a damning screed against J.J. Abrams, but, his plot contributions notwithstanding, he’s kind of the co-MVP of the film. He’s spent his directing career attempting to outrun bad scripts with pure style, and this is no exception. Denying his talent for piecing together enthralling sequences is difficult to deny, and “Into Darkness” is full of them. While the prologue causes the film to peak early, there’s not a dearth of intense, riveting scenes—characters ship-jump through outer space, engage in shootouts, and even engage in exciting foot chases. This film also features the most vertiginous destruction of the Enterprise to date as it free-falls into the atmosphere in dazzling, dizzying fashion. Each of these scenes are astounding in a vacuum and contribute to the film’s relentless sense of propulsion; there’s a clarity and general competence to them that’s welcome in an age of blockbusters that can’t even condescend to deliver coherent thrill rides.
If nothing else, “Star Trek Into Darkness” is that—an amusement park where the rides are meticulously crafted but organized with no sense of unity. You simply board one after the other without much in the way of logic or thematic resonance guiding you, so it elicits an appropriate battle between logic and emotion. Four years ago, they went to war, and my human heart won out; for all its contrived plotting, “Star Trek” is still an astonishing miracle that overcomes its flaws. “Star Trek Into Darkness” just drives me out of my Vulcan mind.
There’s no malice in it—save for some similar script shortcuts, there’s nothing about this film that strikes me as completely lazy, and it’s hard to say that the film is full of empty affectation without any genuine affection. It’s just entirely misguided in its insistence on leeching on the franchise’s legacy. Oddly enough, it feels like the product of Trek fanboys and people who are oblivious to Trek all at once, so it makes for a maddening experience. Abrams is (perhaps notoriously) more of a “Star Wars” guy, and it certainly shows here in his broad, blockbuster sensibilities that make even this faulty film compulsively watchable (for a film that’s mired in a “grim and gritty” approach, it’s often quite fun and full of levity). It's solid evidence that “Episode VII” should be in good hands as long as he keeps his preferred group of screenwriters at bay and refuses to lapse into simple pantomime and echoing (there was enough of that in the Prequel Trilogy).As for the prospect of Abrams shepherding future “Star Trek” adventures? Let’s just say that I have a bad feeling about this.
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originally posted: 05/16/13 23:48:52