A film review by Craig J. Koban May 22, 2013
STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS
2013, PG-13, 133 mins.
2013, PG-13, 133 mins.
Chris Pine as Kirk / Zachary Quinto as Spock / Zoe Saladana as Uhura / Karl Urban as "Bones" McKoy / Simon Pegg as Scotty / Benedict Cumberbatch as John Harrison / Bruce Greenwood as Pike
Directed by J.J. Abrams / Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof
I have found it next to impossible to discuss STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS without journeying into massive SPOILER territory. You've. Been. Warned.
screening STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS I promptly went home and watched an
episode of the original 1960’s TV series.
It was called “The Apple” and concerned the Enterprise crew
visiting a strange alien planet where its denizens – primitive people
with orange-tinged skin and little antennae protruding from their necks
– worship an advanced machine that they believe to be a deity.
Kirk, Spock, McKoy, et al decide to help these subjugated people
and restore them towards a sound evolutionary path.
why do I bring this up? Watching this old episode reminded me of what J.J.
Abrams’ rebooted STAR TREK series…is not.
If you’re willing to overlook its seemingly dime-store studio lot
production values and archaic visual effects, the first gen STAR TREK
series was – as Spock may iterate – fascinating because of its human
– and not-so-human – element and the interplay between William Shatner,
Leonard Nimoy, and Deforest Kelly. These
40-plus-year old episodes never relied on action, spectacle, and fancy
eyegasmic visual flourishes to set themselves apart.
No, they relied on characters that went on to become icons and
solid writing that touched on contemplative themes.
That was and is the essence of great STAR TREK.
that’s precisely what’s lacking in the Abrams’ re-imagined
and retrofitted TREK universe, something that I noticed a lot in his first
2009 STAR TREK film and yet again in
its follow-up, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS.
Superficially, we get the classic Trekian characters of old, but
both they and would-be thought-provoking storylines seem to take an aestheticizing
backseat to frenzied and mercilessly sped-up action and grand
CGI visual effects, which all seems like the least important elements of the
finest TREK of yesteryear. The
2009 feature afforded Abrams the chance – via some nifty, if not highly
convenient, scripting - to take this iconic and incomparable series into
the 21st Century by both honoring and ignoring key series cannon, which
would appease TREK fundamentalists and non-die hards.
Unfortunately, too much of STAR TREK 1 and INTO DARKNESS feels like
it's catering to lowest common denominator tastes for costly and
intricately dense visuals, high tech production values, brawny stunts and
whiz-bang mayhem. More often
than not in the new entry, I felt like poor Kirk, Spock, and McKoy were
reduced to subjugated action figures within their own story.
DARKNESS takes place shortly after the 2009 film. Kirk (Chris Pine,
thanklessly making his captain his own and not a Shatner clone) and his
Enterprise crew are – much like their alternate timeline counterparts in
“The Apple” – trying to save a primal culture from destruction, this
time from a very active volcano. The
Federation’s “Prime Directive” states that Kirk and his crew must
not reveal their advanced hardware to the primitives or fundamentally
alter their way of life. Alas, the reckless, but courageous and
crew-loving Kirk does just that to save Spock’s (Zachary Quinto) life at
one potentially deadly point during the mission.
Predictably, this does not sit well with the Federation brass, and
Admiral Pike (the solid Bruce Greenwood) is forced to strip Kirk of his
captaincy and take control of the Enterprise for himself.
this is occurring, a vengeful and rogue Starfleet officer named John
Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch, holder of, like, the coolest actor name
ever) has decided to wage his own personal war of terror on his old
bosses. He manages to – in
one of the film’s few potent sequences – plant and detonate a massive
bomb in London and then unleashes, to Starfleet’s shock, a surprise attack on a
meeting of all the higher ups in San Francisco that were convening to plot
a course of action to apprehend him.
After the American attack, Admiral Marcus (played with militaristic
coldness by Peter Weller) decides to give Kirk back his ship and crew with
orders to track, find, and ultimately kill Harrison, who has fled to the
Klingon home world. Things
get very complicated for the Enterprise crew when Harrison reveals his
true identity and end game after Kirk decides to capture him instead of
killing him as ordered.
TREK INTO DARKNESS only begins to develop a semblance of a dramatic pulse
and unpredictable level of intrigue when Cumberbatch’s baddie fully
emerges in the narrative, and the British thespian exudes such a caged and
internalized animalistic hostility and aggression that is the stuff of
savagely engaging protagonists. He’s
provided a back-story that I maybe shouldn't reveal, other than to say
that it heavily hints at one particular classic TREK villain by twisting
his origin story a bit by given him a psychological depth and purpose that
perhaps outshines the rest of INTO DARKNESS' own story.
Cumberbatch radiates reptilian charm and icy resolve so
resoundingly well that you can’t help but be transfixed whenever he
appears on screen; he's this sequel's main epicenter of compelling
he’s also part of this film’s problem.
He is - SPOILER WARNING - revealed to be, yup, Khan, the
same genetically enhanced superman from the original STAR TREK II, but
retooling such a beloved Trek villain for this new series is not the big
sin of INTO DARKNESS. The
real misdeed here is how the Khan character is utilized to riff – a
euphemism perhaps for uninspired copying – key scenes and sequences from
the 1982 TREK film, right down to lines of dialogue end situations, albeit
with little tweaks here and there and specific character reversals.
Instead of brazenly and boldly going where no sequel has gone
before and taking this new crew in refreshing directions, Abrams and his
screenwriters seem to wallow in lazily reformatting celebrated moments
from THE WRATH OF KHAN that – if you consider the limited screen time
that this new cast has had with one another – this series has not really
earned. There’s a callback
scene here that also replays one of the original series’ heart-tugging
death scenes, only to later cheat its way out of a potentially dark and
ballsy sense of uncertain closure. The
nostalgic manipulation of viewers and TREK fans here is kind of unsavory.
of this, and much more, reveals a startling lack of creativity and
imagination that went into STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS.
This film plays upon our strong emotional connection to the finest
moments of THE WRATH OF KHAN without actually telling a truly novel
standalone story that deserves and earns such a dramatic reaction.
When Spock died at the end of the 1982 film, it was done at the
expense of a wellspring of memories of his relationship with Kirk over
several decades of immersing ourselves in their intergalactic bromance.
Chris Pine and Zachary Quito are fine actors, but when they try to
re-appropriate such a scene it never reaches the same heights of
tear-inducing pathos because they don’t have the same level of Shatner/Nimoy
camaraderie that we really care about.
The chemistry between Shatner and Nimoy was unmistakably natural;
Pine and Quinto’s is easy-going, but dutifully manufactured by
not that STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS isn't a proficiently made piece of
summer entertainment. For all of his lens flare-obsessed penchant for visual chaos,
Abrams knows how to make a mind-blowingly good looking film, thanks
largely to the ultra crisp and detailed cinematography by Dan Mindel
(which is neither hurt nor helped by the 3D here), the virtuoso production
design, and Industrial Light and Magic’s tour de force visual effects
work that rivals anything that I’ve seen in a STAR
WARS picture. Yet,
this new TREK is more about obtrusively eye-popping imagery first and
telling a truly immersive character driven and thematically compelling
story a very distant and regrettable second.
That, and the way it gracelessly borrows moments from everyone’s favorite
big screen TREK adventure may leave many old school series purist ramming
their heads against the cinema walls in disgust.
Where, dare I ask, is the contemplative ideas-heavy sci-fi and richly drawn character interplay of the finest of old TREK here? After watching INTO DARKNESS, I will take the cheaply disposable paper mache and cardboard cutout backdrops of the antiquated old series, which only helped emphasize and value its human – and Vulcan – personas struggling through futuristic, but relatable conundrums . Too much of INTO DARKNESS, by comparison, seems hopelessly lost in space in its hero worshipping of making an unendingly spiffy looking adventure film that never really dramatically resonates as deeply as it thinks it does. This is not the final frontier that Gene Roddenberry envisioned all those precious decades ago.
STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN (1982) 1/2
STAR TREK (2009) 1/2
And, for what it's worth, CrAiGeR's ranking of all of the STAR TREK films:
1. STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN (1982) 1/2
2. STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME (1986) 1/2
3. STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT (1996) 1/2
4. STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979)
5. STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY (1991)
6. STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK (1984)
7. STAR TREK (2009) 1/2
8. STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS (2013)
9. STAR TREK: GENERATIONS (1994)
10. STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER (1989)
11. STAR TREK: NEMESIS (2002)
12. STAR TREK: INSURRECTION (1998)