This past Friday saw the release of one of the more hotly-anticipated blockbusters of a packed summer; J.J Abrams‘ “Star Trek Into Darkness.” The film was already on the radars of many, thanks to its well-liked 2009 predecessor, but sci-fi geeks everywhere became doubly keen to see when it was announced earlier in the year that Abrams would be helming “Star Wars Episode VII.”
However, the response so far seems to have been flavoured by a slightly underwhelmed note. Reviews have generally been positive, but few are doing backflips over the film with many, including ourselves, finding it to be inferior to the original, and some being far harsher than that. It hasn’t quite lived up to box-office expectations either; it’s done ok (much better overseas than at home, for one), but it certainly hasn’t hit the expectations that Paramount had for such a major project.
The release of the film this past Friday means the U.S. has finally caught up to the rest of the world, so we wanted to go a little more in depth on the movie(as we already have this summer with “Iron Man 3” and “The Great Gatsby.”) The fact that Abrams kept so much of the film in his ‘mystery box,’ meant that there was a certain amount that couldn’t be talked about in reviews if you wanted to keep them spoiler-free. As it turns out some of those secret elements are amongst the worst aspects of the film, so *Spoiler Warning*, we’ve laid out below the Best & Worst of “Star Trek Into Darkness” — let us know your own thoughts in the comments section below.
The opening is a lot of fun
It’s been four years since we last saw the crew of the starship Enterprise, but that doesn’t mean that J.J. Abrams and his crew are going to slow down to let us catch up. The opening moments of “Star Trek Into Darkness” are easily its most breathless and streamlined, both thematically and in terms of its core narrative. Yes, it’s ripping off Indiana Jones, among other things, but it’s also a perfect way to be reintroduced to 21st century Star Trek, dropping us into the middle of the action – Bones (Karl Urban) and Kirk (Chris Pine) and bolting away from a Mayan-looking temple, on a planet covered in red foliage. The primitive natives, with inky black eyes and caked-on ceremonial body-paint, are hurling spears at the Starfleet officers. Things then start to pile up – a cold fusion bomb needs to be planted inside a volcano; the zippy shuttle has to bail, leaving Spock (Zachary Quinto) inside the volcano; oh and the Enterprise is underwater, which like much of the movie, doesn’t make much sense, but is pretty nifty all the same. It all goes to help set up the sense that we’re stumbling into the end of a “Star Trek” episode; it’s just unfortunate that it seems to be more fun than the movie that follows.
The action scenes in general are strong.
The opening isn’t alone; the action set pieces are in general beautifully constructed and almost always flawlessly executed. There’s the aforementioned opening sequence, which kicks things off with a bang and (from there) a series of wonderful sequences. There’s the escape from the Klingon patrol ship, with Kirk piloting a small, disc-shaped ship away from a Bird of Prey by going through a tiny canyon. It’s followed later by the impressive ‘cannonball’ sequence where Kirk and Khan are catapulted out through a space junkyard to get to the Vengeance (easily the film’s best use of 3D, which in general is not very impressive.) A little while later there’s an impressively loopy sequence with the Enterprise in freefall. This scenario, seemingly pulled off with “Inception“-like practical effects, has crew members running up and down walls and across hallways that have turned into chasms as the gravity shifts. It’s the most thrilling thing in the movie except for maybe one other bit; the “warp chase” where the hulking warship Vengeance chases the Enterprise as they are both travelling at warp speed, an action beat that’s never before appeared in the franchise. As usual, Abrams knocks most of these sequences (bar the dull final footchase) out of the park, which leads us to our next point.)
Abrams remains a technically adept director
The first Abrams-piloted “Star Trek” was ridiculed by some (at least after the fact) for what they perceived as excessive stylistic flourishes particularly for Abrams’ use of lens flares, which were used by the director to make literal the kind of bright, starry-eyed optimism of the original series. By the end of that movie though, they had become so over-powering that the image began to strobe, creating an experience as wildly weird and psychedelically hallucinogenic as anything in “Spring Breakers” or “Enter the Void.” While Abrams doesn’t push things quite as far this time around (you get the sensation that he was hampered by both the 3D and IMAX technical limitations), he does direct things beautifully. The lens flares are back, but they carry with them ominous overtones – they are somewhat dimmer and blurrier; the previous movie’s hopefulness is fading. The shots aren’t as long and swirly, again reinforcing that this isn’t a scenario that you want to luxuriate in. Additional Abrams-y flourishes including the kind of twinkly stardust trail the Enterprise leaves after it jumps into warp (something wholly absent from 2009’s reboot) and a number of Abrams editorial tics, most notably the immortal “Khaaaaaan” call getting cut off by a zooming Vengeance nearly hitting the Enterprise, and Kirk realigning whatever-the-fuck it was in a series of successive, time-shortening quick cuts. Abrams’ heart might not have been in this one as much, but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t direct the hell out of it, and it gives confidence in his technical abilities to take over “Star Wars” (if not in his storytelling abilities — see below).
Chris Pine & Zachary Quinto are great.
If there was one major triumph of Abrams’ 2009 “Star Trek” it was the casting; the likability, and the fresh spins on the characters of the Enterprise crew managed to carry through the film, in spite of script flaws and other issues it might have had. The same is mostly true of the follow-up, at least when it comes to Chris Pine’s Kirk and Zachary Quinto’s Spock. The former is Shatner by way of James Dean, and he remains hugely charismatic, sometimes a bit silly, and sometimes sincere. It’s his film, really, and he owns it. While Quinto has less to do this time around, he’s still as strong as ever; in theory the emotionless Vulcan, in practice deceptively funny, and having a deep vein of feeling running under the surface. It’s the latter that helps the film work better than perhaps it should; Pine and Quinto continue to have terrific chemistry together, and with the sequel staying away from the rivalry and one-upmanship of the original, they’re given more time to build their friendship. The result, when Kirk is seemingly biting the dust, is that it’s genuinely moving, and it’s testament to the work that the two actors do across the two movies.
Khan is a bad villain, badly executed.
The music booms. The camera pulls in, and Benedict Cumberbatch announces to the audience that, indeed, he is KHAN. Kirk, Spock and Bones shrug and wonder, who’s that? A lot of “Into Darkness” feels like cheap fan-service, but the fact of simply featuring a character with a superficial resemblance to Ricardo Montalban’s legendary “Trek” adversary feels like the writers assuming that merely tossing in elements from “Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan” counts as storytelling. There’s literally zero reason for Khan to adopt the moniker of John Harrison except to allow a reveal to the audience, an audience who given that ‘Wrath’ was thirty years and ten “Treks” ago, probably don’t give a shit if he’s Khan or not because, like the Enterprise crew, they mostly don’t know who or what a Khan is. And for fans, Khan’s smarts have been replaced by brute force, a drastic miscalculation for several reasons, one being that the chance to match pig-headed pugilist Kirk against an actual thinker is a dramatic contrast that interferes with the constant bang-boom-pow of the story. Credit the creative forces behind “Into Darkness” for their naked dismissal of the need for new ideas: seeking information about Khan, Spock dials up Spock Prime, a move akin to simply popping in the DVD of “The Wrath Of Khan.” Furthermore, it’s never really clear what Khan wants — to kill things? — what he believes, or why he does any of the things he does. Not every villain needs a great backstory — Heath Ledger’s Joker, for one — but whilst Cumberbatch is fine, he’s hardly mind-blowing in the role partly because he doesn’t have anything interesting to play with. The film hints halfway through that perhaps Khan is the wronged party, and might be on the side of the angels, which might have been a worthwhile surprise. As it is Khan only makes Eric Bana’s villain from the original “Star Trek” look more compelling.
Most of the cast don’t have anything to do.
This was probably also true of some of the original movies but in theory “Star Trek” should be an ensemble piece. To an even greater degree than first film, everyone except Spock and Kirk fade into the background. Simon Pegg fares the best as Scotty; again, he’s perplexingly kept to the sidelines for much of the film, but he’s allowed to do more than just be comic relief, and pulls it off nicely. Karl Urban‘s Bones on the other hand, such a highlight of the first film, has a few decent quips but little else of any substance to do. Zoe Saldana as Uhura pretty much has to watch the boys get on with the action (see below), and neither John Cho‘s Sulu or Anton Yelchin‘s Chekov have a single memorable moment. It’s all well and good casting the bridge of the Enterprise with such talented actors, but there’s not much point in doing so if you’re not going to use them.
The film’s 9/11 references leave a sour taste, and the politics are muddled.
One of the more clunky and cumbersome aspects of “Star Trek Into Darkness” is its politics. In part it’s because a terrorist attack is seen as a gee-whiz moment early in the film (when a Starfleet member is coerced into blowing up a building) or because the overtly 9/11-inspired climax sees the giant Vengeance ship taking down buildings in downtown San Francisco (this is all the more uncomfortable when you consider co-writer Bob Orci’s Twitter persona as a 9/11 truther and conspiracy fanatic.) The imagery alone is tricky, but the politics become even messier when you think that the movie is really a metaphor for American military intervention overseas. This is most notable in the scenario that the Dick Cheney-esque Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) cooks up, which involves firing stealth missiles at a potentially retaliatory civilization, which would trigger a long and costly intergalactic war. Like “Iron Man 3,” it’s flirting with real-world ideas — the kind of thing that the original series did — but these notions never really solidify into anything noteworthy or relatable and instead come across as half-formed (and not particularly timely). We’re not against the idea of using real-world parallels in blockbusters — Spielberg invoked 9/11 effectively in “War of the Worlds,” for instance, but it has to be thought out, and here it just feels cheap.
Kirk’s death is cheap and terrible.
Something that the trailers had been hinting at from early on was the possibility of one of the crew of the Enterprise dying. Was Spock destined to be deceased by the time the credits rolled around, like the last time he tangled with Khan, in “Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan?” In fact Abrams flipped expectations (in a way that pretty much everyone guessed, to be honest) by killing off Kirk, who succumbs to radiation poisoning having heroically restarted the plummeting Enterprise. We can see why it was a tempting choice but it was a pretty terrible one, all things considered. For one, having been the lead of the film, and having set up his conflict with Khan, it takes him out of the game for the film’s conclusion. For another, Abrams doesn’t even have the courage of his convictions from ‘Wrath,’ which at least left Spock’s resurrection until the next movie. Here, Kirk’s barely got time to get cold before he’s up and kicking again, and it lessens the weight of his sacrifice. These are only just the beginning of the problems here. For one, the device of Khan’s magic blood is so lazy and so half-heartedly set up that you figure that writers Lindelof, Kurtzman and Orci must have thought it up in order to get out of work early. For another, Spock chases down Khan for his blood when he has 72 perfectly good deep-frozen spacemen that he could use for the same thing. Finally, with Khan & co still on tap, Bones has essentially cured death, and it’s pretty much robbed any future movies of any real stakes. It’s a disaster on pretty much every level, to be honest.
The sexual politics are prehistoric
The original “Star Trek” television series was hailed for its color-blindness and its gender equality, and Abrams has, on TV at least, been behind some strong female characters. 2009’s “Star Trek” seemed to live up to both of these, introducing an Uhura (Zoe Saldana) who could kick ass with the best of them – she engages Kirk in a technical debate while they’re both in their underwear. It was cute and playful and sexy and moved the plot along. What’s more – she was given a complicated inner life, especially in dealing with her Vulcan boyfriend Spock. In “Star Trek Into Darkness,” Uhura’s role is minimized greatly, much to the detriment of the film. When she does show up, she’s mostly complaining about Spock’s indifference towards her, but doesn’t stand up for herself (instead he gives some confusing speech about choosing not to connect with his emotions or something.) Worse yet is when Alice Eve (who is fine in the part, it should be said) shows up as one of the more important canonical ‘Trek’ characters, Dr. Carol Marcus, the mother to Kirk’s son. In this movie, she is some kind of “doctor” who sneaks aboard the ship under a fake name and takes Scotty’s job as a scientific advisor. She then gets kidnapped and spends much of the movie hobbling around and screaming like a B-movie queen. But the real reason Eve is there is to take her clothes off, in a nakedly leery way that seems to have happened exclusively so it can be put in the trailer.
There’s no sense of awe
For some reason, despite Abrams’ typically ace direction, much of the awe of the original 2009 “Star Trek” has largely dissipated. There were moments in that first film that simply took your breath away, like in the opening prologue when Abrams’ chose to strips way the sound effects and concentrated on Michael Giacchino‘s score, to name but one. Whilst there are moments like that in “Star Trek Into Darkness,” they don’t happen with nearly the same regularity. Part of this has to do with how much of the movie is set on earth, which instantly shrinks the movie’s sense of scope and scale (it feels like a lot of this movie takes place inside office buildings and conference rooms). Abrams directed “Star Trek Into Darkness” really well, but after the first movie was over, our screening erupted into spontaneous applause. The same didn’t happen this time around.
It’s not about anything.
Nay-sayers of the original film — particularly those who were fans of the earliest incarnations of Trek — protested that for all its bells and whistles, there wasn’t much substance to it. That was probably fair, but the film at least had well-drawn character arcs to make you feel that you were enjoying more than just things exploding. As we’ve said, “Into Darkness” fails to make much headway in terms of political subtext, but perhaps more importantly, it doesn’t really move the characters any further forward either. Kirk learns how to become a leader, which he’s already learnt in the previous film, and then mostly forgotten. Spock gets in touch with his feelings, which, again, we’d mostly seen in the previous film. Even Khan is pretty much just a merciless, fanatical killing machine, which isn’t wildly interesting. For an episode of a syndicated TV series, it’s fine to leave your characters in the same place as you started, but for a movie that happens once every four years, that’s hardly enough to maintain our interest.
The fan service.
JJ Abrams famously outed himself as a non-Trekker, but you wouldn’t know it from all the Easter eggs added here by the film’s three screenwriters: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof. While “Star Trek Into Darkness” is meant to play for a broader audience than those who will debate “Kronos” vs. “Qo’noS,” the three scribes appealed to the diehard fans by inserting plenty of nods to the original series as well as “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” including the appearance of a Tribble, Alice Eve’s Carol Marcus and Chekhov’s reaction to switching from a yellow to a red shirt. That’s all well and good when you can slip them in every so often, but when you’re directly interfering with the narrative — such as making the villain’s backstory the plot of a forty-year-old TV episode that 80% of the audience haven’t seen, or by having Spock shout “Khaaaaaaan” in a way that, if you haven’t seen ‘Wrath,’ seems kind of silly — in order to pay fan service, you’re doing it wrong.
But what do you think? Agree? Disagree? What were your highlights and lowlights? Let us know in the comments section below.
– Drew Taylor, Gabe Toro, Kimber Myers, Oliver Lyttelton