Star Trek Into Darkness

  • star_trek_into_darknessYear:  2013
  • Director:  J. J. Abrams
  • Series Rank:  #7
  • Year Rank:  #39
  • Oscar Nominations:  Visual Effects
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Makeup
  • The Enterprise Crew:  Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Alice Eve
  • Villains:  Benedict Cumberbatch, Peter Weller

When I walked out of the theater after seeing Star Trek in 2009, I started explaining to Veronica all the reasons the film annoyed me, and I continued it through the whole ride home.  I didn’t see Star Trek Into Darkness with Veronica because we didn’t have a chance to get a babysitter and I wanted to see the film before the secret of who Benedict Cumberbatch was playing got out.  But even so, once I got home, I knew it wasn’t as good as the first one and that it was, in many ways, a pale imitation of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the film that provided the initial inspiration for this film, but I had a much harder time explaining why.

It wasn’t the various plotholes, whether they irritated me a lot during my initial viewing (the ship caught up to the Enterprise at warp speed?  that’s ridiculous, although not as ridiculous as the ship then shooting phasers at the Enterprise at warp speed – did none of the filmmakers take a physics class in high school, because, hell, I didn’t and I know that wouldn’t work), or whether it was something that only really annoyed me this time (wait, this new ship can beam Carol Marcus off the Enterprise when the shields are up but not the torpedoes?, or how about how Scotty is supposedly only off the ship for a day, but he flew a shuttlecraft all the way to Jupiter?  how friggin fast does a shuttlecraft fly?).  It also wasn’t the minor things (like those hideous gray uniforms, or the gratuitous and unnecessary underwear shot of Alice Eve as Carol Marcus, which was also pointless, since she’s much hotter in her uniform).  It also wasn’t the terrible performance again from Anton Yelchin, mostly because in this one he’s not on-screen that much and even when he is, he’s not suddenly super-Chekhov like he was in the first film.  The terrible performance from Peter Weller did bother me quite a bit – he overplays just as badly as Eric Bana in the previous film – but not enough to bring this film down to *** on its own when the first one, with a terrible, and rather boring villain had been a ***.5 film and this one has Benedict Cumberbatch.

Cumberbatch, in a sense, is perhaps part of the problem.  I’m not talking about the white-washing of the character – the character was originally played by Ricardo Montalban after all and he’s no more Indian than Cumberbatch is.  I’m talking about the fact that he’s such a damn good actor.  When William Shatner was facing off against Montalban, it was a case of ham against ham, two similar actors vying for superiority.  But poor Chris Pine doesn’t stand a chance when he’s trying to go toe to toe with Cumberbatch.  When Khan says “I’m better” and Kirk asks him at what and he replies “Everything.” you believe him.  There’s a reason that in the same year that Cumberbatch played Khan, he also played a sociopathic dragon that flies off to eat an entire town.  And his range is such that aside from those two roles, he also played a kindly, but weak slaveholder and a pathetic wreck of a man who’s about to run off and marry his half-sister without realizing that’s what she is.  And a narcissistic prick who thinks he is the best person suited to make decisions for the world (no, not Khan – Julian Assange).

But the real problem is that the filmmakers couldn’t come up with any ideas.  Or that they watched too many other Star Trek films and just kept taking ideas.  Battling Khan with a character sacrificing himself at the end to save the ship?  The second film.  The military trying to manipulate people into war?  That was the sixth one.  An admiral who is essentially betraying the Federation with his actions?  That was in the ninth film.  The Enterprise out of power and crashing?  That happened in the seventh one, although it was also trapped without power in the second, blown up in the third, malfunctioned in the fifth, sabotaged in the sixth, set for destruction in the eighth, fired upon under the orders of a Starfleet Admiral in the ninth and faced off against a much bigger ship that could easily destroy it while it could do nothing in the tenth and eleventh.  Why not just do what John Kovalic suggests and rename it the U.S.S. Sean Bean?

It’s not just that this film takes all of these ideas from earlier films and throws them all together in a mish-mash.  It’s that it still doesn’t really know what to do with them.  Think of the ending of Star Trek II.  I’m not talking about the fact that Spock’s death was foreshadowed and that the character had been building for 15 years before he did exactly what was in character and sacrificed himself, whereas this crew hasn’t earned our emotions enough to pull this stunt and they should have at least had the courage to really kill off Kirk and not half-ass it and bring him back just a few minutes later.

No, I’m talking about the Genesis Countdown, the finest few minutes ever put together on a Star Trek film and a few of my favorite moments in film history.  There is very little action in that scene.  Yes, the ship is trying to get away, but almost everyone is on the bridge.  Spock goes down to engineering to save the ship, but there is almost no action in that except for knocking out McCoy.  He uses his knowledge to save the ship.  Now, look at the same sequence in this film.  You have several moments of Kirk and Scotty racing through the ship, fighting the failing gravity controls.  They run into Chekhov, and he has to have his own sequence of running.  Then, Kirk has to punch out Scotty, and go use brute force to realign the warp core (which, if you’re watching carefully, shouldn’t work, since he’s not kicking it in the right direction – the core moves in a different direction from how he kicks it).  Even after that, we have to have the long chase of Khan down on the planet surface, a scene which works well for a couple of reasons (that Khan can resist the Vulcan nerve pinch is really frigging cool, and I love that Uhura is the one who ultimately subdues him, although, he went down with one phaser shot when Scotty shot him, but she shoots him numerous times and he’s still conscious).  The filmmakers are determined to make this an action franchise and it’s just not what Star Trek has ever been about.  As Veronica says, you can’t imagine this crew as explorers.  (Actually, that’s not the only thing that Veronica says – she also says that Benedict looks awesome in his duster and that it is so NOT OKAY to use an Archive to hide your weapons development.)

Not only this, but the message of this film is somewhat conflicted.  Pike tells Kirk that he doesn’t respect the chair and that will get him and his crew killed.  Kirk is told by Spock and McCoy and Scotty that their mission is morally wrong and when he finally listens and does the right thing, that’s what’s actually going to get him and his crew killed.  So, what’s the lesson to be learned there?  Follow orders because they are there for a reason?  But Kirk breaks his orders for moral reasons (and because the orders are illegal) and that’s going to get them all killed.  So what is he supposed to do?  The film just doesn’t quite know how to make this Kirk be the Kirk we already know from the first 25 years of Star Trek.

All of that might make it seem like I can’t stand this film.  Actually, I quite like this film in a lot of ways.  Bruce Greenwood again gets some very good scenes before he is killed off, Urban, Quinto and Saldana are in very fine form and Pegg works much better as Scotty in this film than he did in the first one.  The visual effects are again very good and the music, playing off the score written for the previous film, works very well once again.  Some of the scenes are really well done and there are truly great character moments.  As I said in my review of the first film, I love the development of the relationship between Spock and Uhura and their conversation while approaching Kronos is especially good – one of the few moments of real levity in a film that is mostly pretty dark.  And, of course, there is Cumberbatch, by a long way the best villain this film series has ever had.  From the moment that Kirk and Khan land on the admiral’s ship, things are non-stop excitement all the way to the end, and while my brain tells me it’s not Star Trek, I also get swept up in all the action.  This film has some really great moments.  I just wish it could have had some more originality to it and I wish it could have been better.