Star Trek: Into Darkness
Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof
Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Benedict Cumberbatch, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Peter Weller, Alice Eve
PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence.
Buy on DVD
Buy on Blu-ray
Four years after J.J. Abrams popular reboot of the Star Trek franchise, his latest vision once again takes us to familiar places, some of which we may not even realize we’ve seen before.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. That’s the phrase that too often precedes an aged joke that has been making the rounds in one form or another for several decades. These anecdotes, knock-knock jokes and assorted bits of humor aren’t necessarily as funny as the teller believes and are often followed by a series of groans. But there are still those who’ve never heard the joke or still laugh even though they’ve heard it before either because there’s nothing better out there or they simply don’t have the imagination to envision something better. J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek: Into Darkness embodies that phrase. It takes us familiar places, without much in the way of originality and public laps it up, not because it’s good, but because it’s better than some other junk out there and they believe this is the best that can be done.
In 2009, Abrams introduced the first reboot of the classic Star Trek characters with new faces in old roles and a new timeline to permit the producers to do whatever they wanted without having to answer to a well-established and rightfully well-regarded canonical history. Abrams carefully whittled away what made the property great, a thought-provoking exploration of the human condition, a series of TV shows and movies that took the pseudo-Utopian future and crafted compelling adventure stories and witty asides that stoke the imagination of young and old viewers alike. Yet, he did so by creating a whiz-bang space action saga that cracked wise, including one-liners carefully selected from years of fan worship to tweak the right emotional response from hungry fans and never once crafting something unique or visionary. It was all old-hat, scenes, adventures and dialogue that we’d seen before.
After Star Trek, Abrams took a break and created the Spielbergian homage Super 8, which again provided enough thrills to delight audiences while hiding his inability to craft films that weren’t part-and-parcel direct copies of other films. The only visual distinctiveness he added to either of his prior projects was an obsessive and obtrusive use of manufactured lens flares. Yet, his movies made money and critics seemed to adore him in spite of these flaws and thus continues the Abrams vision of Star Trek, a film which suffers from all of the frustrations and frailties of his prior two films and is saved entirely by a solid slate of performances from an admittedly talented cast.
This time out, Abrams’ brood of writers, Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof, went deeper into Star Trek canon and pulled out one of its most formidable opponents. And if you haven’t already been spoiled by this fact, you might want to stop reading now. Khan Noonien Singh (Benedict Cumberbatch) was a genetically enhanced human put into a hyperbaric chamber to sleep for 300 years. Awoken by a war-hungry admiral to help create a battle-heavy starship that would make them the dominant force in the Alpha Quadrant, Khan (incognito as John Harrison) escapes and executes a series of brilliant, but stylistically under-emphasized, machinations that result in the death of of Kirk’s (Chris Pine) mentor (Bruce Greenwood). Seeking revenge, Kirk accepts Admiral Marcus’ (Peter Weller) to bring the Federations wrath down on the terrorist, threatening him with newly designed, long distance torpedoes that lead to a sudden stand off with Khan who surrenders to prevent the use of said weapons.
There is only one plotline at play here and it plays out mostly as expected. Cumberbatch is a terrific actor, but he’s saddled with some ham-fisted dialogue and generates a tear or two that seem out of character for the man portrayed in the rest of the film. Cumberbatch tries to add depth to a two-dimensional character, a villain whose only purpose is to pique the curiosity of admiring fans and wipe away all memory of the weak villain of the first film. Can you imagine what a talented screenwriter could have done with the duality of the Khan character and how conflicted and sympathetic he could have been? I certainly could, but in the hands of Orci, Kurtzman and, especially, Lindelof, that doesn’t really matter as long as they have a detestable bogeyman.
Which highlights one of my biggest problems with this latest reboot of the vaunted franchise. In spite of interviews that have clearly shown Abrams’ initial unfamiliarity with the Star Trek universe, the core Trek fan is an integral part of the marketing and success of this franchise. Paramount seems more interested in making money than they do staying true to it. Consider this: in the run-up to the 2009 film, Abrams and Paramount wanted to force CBS, who owns the rights to the original TV series, to pull all existing toylines from the market so that there was no “confusion” between the original series characters and the new ones. Those old toys still made millions for CBS and they weren’t willing to wipe them out of existence, keeping a part of the original flavor alive in the marketplace. Abrams was reportedly disgruntled over this and scrapped many plans he had for ancillary projects, including series reboots and other projects to bolster his monetary stake in the series. It highlights the issue I have with Abrams in this property.
Abrams has admitted in the past that he is a Star Wars fan and his sci-fi interests are more closely aligned with that property. What he did with Star Trek and now Into Darkness is turn the series into an action-heavy, plot-marginal rendition of Star Wars using Trek characters. The reason episodes like “Balance of Terror,” “City of the Edge of Forever,” (both from The Original Series) “The Best of Both Worlds” (from The Next Generation) were such compelling episodes was that they blended action with sci-fi elements that have defined the core of what makes the genre so compelling. We may not be alone in the universe, but the potential for metaphorical comparison with events and people is endless.
Trek has come to define what it’s like to push freedom, individuality and independence. It featured black, Russian and Japanese characters at a time when all were facing persecution in the U.S. The show generated the first interracial kiss on television, explored ideas of social justice and the dangers of ignorance while ushering in the modern era of technology like iPhones, sliding doors and now replicator technology, that wouldn’t have been possible without its forward-thinking ideas.
Yet, in a time with movies like District 9 and Moon creating moral imperatives and asking questions Trek once delved deeply into, it’s all the more dispiriting that Abrams has chosen to take this franchise to places its already been and regurgitate that which may be popular, but isn’t terribly inventive. I warned previously of spoiler material in my review, these next few sentences will reveal a climactic scene in the film. If you don’t want this ruined, do not read the rest of this paragraph. You can pick back up in the next. Take for example scenes late in the film that replicate elements from 1982’s Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. At the end of that film, a failing warp core sends an emotionless Vulcan into the radiation-heavy chamber to stop the imminent breech that will destroy the ship. As he lays dying, he places his iconic Vulcan hand against the close wishing Kirk a long and prosperous life. These scenes are reversed and injected into the final moments of the film, further demonstrating how Abrams can’t even create new moments without pulling what has worked in the past and using it again. It’s what he did with Spielberg’s work in Super 8, so we shouldn’t be surprised it shows up again here.
As much as I want to applaud the work of the cast who do a fantastic job impersonating characters that are part of the cinematic consciousness. As much as I want to stand up and cheer at the exciting and stirring action sequences. As much as I want to thank Cumberbatch for doing everything he can to infuse Khan with the kind of humanity Ricardo Montalban did in the original series and again in the film. I cannot do it. I gave the first film credit for being an exciting science fiction film that just happened to use Trek characters and otherwise hardly resembled the great franchise.
This time, I’m not going to celebrate more of the same. Sometimes, it takes real courage to take something in a new direction, but claiming that’s what you’re doing and not delivering it, but just redoing everything that’s gone before only showcases your limitations as a filmmaker. Apart from his ability to bring together fantastic actors and pay for top-notch visual effects, Abrams is unable to do anything more than ape his predecessors. His work is no more impressive than the likes of Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich. The distinction here is that Abrams, and those critics who enable him, believe he’s a magnificent director, yet generates mediocre work. At least Emmerich recognizes that his work isn’t high art and he embraces that distinction, making his films distinctly more enjoyable, at least if you don’t permit yourself to believe the hype.
Star Trek: Into Darkness may seem like great entertainment, but if you break the film down into its basic parts, you’ll discover that there’s not a single original idea or execution to be found. You can put a mink coat on a sow, but that doesn’t make it anything more than a sow in a mink coat.
Guarantees: Visual Effects
Probables: Makeup and Hairystling, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing
May 24, 2013