Efficient, nasty action scenes can't overcome mostly bland characterizations and a half-baked story.
Less a classic "Star Trek" adventure than a "Star Trek"-flavored
action flick, shot in the frenzied, handheld, cut-cut-cut style that’s
become Hollywood’s norm, director J.J. Abrams’ latest could have been
titled "The Bourne Federation."
plot pits the Enterprise crew against an intergalactic terrorist named
John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch, giving his honeyed baritone a
workout), who’s waging war on the Federation for mysterious personal
reasons. There’s a joke, an argument, a chase, a spaceship battle, or a
brutal close-quarters firefight every five minutes, but all the action
is intimately tied to character. The major players, particularly Chris
Pine’s James T. Kirk and Zachary Quinto’s Mr. Spock, are as finely
shaded as the incarnations played by William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy.
This new voyage of the starship Enterprise
is brash, confident, and often brutally violent, and features the most
lived-in production design I’ve seen in a Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster
since "Minority Report."
Why, then, is the film ultimately disappointing? I suspect it’s the pop culture echo chamber effect: Abrams and his screenwriters (Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof) are so obsessed with acknowledging and then futzing around with what we already know about Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Uhura, Scotty and company that the movie doesn’t breathe. "Star Trek Into Darkness" is peppered with nods to past films and episodes: Kirk’s impetuous decision-making and horndog sexual proclivities; Spock’s denial of his half-humanness; Dr. McCoy’s cranky witticisms; Scotty’s protestations of what he and the ship “canna” do; references to tribbles and neutral zones and the Harry Mudd incident. The central plotline refers to one of Trek’s most celebrated storylines — a callback that alternately seems to honor the original, then turn it on its head, then honor it again. The final act includes an homage to one of the most famous scenes in the entire Trek canon — but this, too, is an inversion, or appears to be, until the script springs another whiplash reversal.
like to be more specific in my complaints, and feel as though I have a
right to be. After all, the “surprises” Abrams would prefer I keep
secret aren’t surprises if you’re passingly familiar with the Trek universe. (All you really need to know is that the film is plotted like a Bourne film or a season of 24,
and that Harrison is not as he seems, or as he represents himself; his
layers have layers.) But I’ll save a detailed gripe list for a blog post
this weekend, and say here that "Star Trek Into Darkness" is one of the most aggressively self-conscious summer blockbusters ever made.
The story starts with a "Raiders of the Lost Ark"-like
action sequence: Kirk, Spock and the gang are embroiled in a secret mission on a red
jungle planet filled with superstitious tribespeople whose lives are
threatened by a volcanic eruption. The correct thing to do is leave Mr. Spock
behind, because going back to rescue him would violate the Federation’s
Prime Directive against messing with the natural development of
primitive cultures. It’s in this opening sequence, for better or worse,
that the movie establishes a vexing narrative pattern: The characters
have urgently necessary arguments about the morally, ethically, and
procedurally correct thing to do in a crisis, then one character
(usually Kirk) makes a unilateral, straight-from-the-gut decision that
worsens everything; and yet somehow at the end he’s rewarded, or at
least not seriously punished.
given to understand that it’s always a good thing to prize personal
friendship and loyalty above the concerns of one’s crew, ship,
federation or species. Sometimes the reward is quite deliberate — as
in the end scene, which finds Kirk being celebrated as a hero after
making what looked to me like a series of catastrophic rookie mistakes
that ended dozens of lives. Other times it’s as if the cosmos itself is
rewarding or at least protecting Kirk, as when he loses command of the
Enterprise for his behavior on the primitive planet, then gets it back
thanks to another sudden plot twist. A good alternate title for this
movie would be the name of one of Steven Soderbergh’s great books about
filmmaking: "Getting Away With It: Or, the Further Adventures of the Luckiest Bastard You Ever Saw."
The Federation itself seems to have plenty in common with Kirk: Both
the opening mission and a subsequent intergalactic act of aggression are
presented as having grave consequences if they fail, then the film just
sort of writes them off with a shrug, as if to say, “Well, that’s all
in the past, and as long as it doesn’t happen again, no harm, no foul.”
(Has anyone in the Federation actually honored the Prime Directive?)
the film’s stumblebum plotting comes from a desire to give audience
what it wants: Kirk in command, flying by the seat of his tight pants;
Spock learning that it’s OK to acknowledge his emotions and then act on
them, and that there’s more to life than following rules all the time;
etc. But surely there were more elegant ways to get us there! Abrams
makes the 23rd
century look like a place of actions and consequences, in which humans
and other creatures might actually live, think and feel, in a world in
which a fall of more than ten feet could break a leg, lava can melt
flesh, and people who are dead stay dead. But he also tells stories in
which rules — Starfleet tactical procedures, the Prime Directive,
gravity — have no narrative weight. Too much of "Star Trek Into Darkness" has what I call a “playground storytelling” sensibility: “Lie down, you’re dead. Never mind, you’re alive again — now fight!”
This narrative flailing-about isn’t merely amateurish, it’s at odds
with the gritty production design and pseudo-documentary camerawork and
references to 9/11 and the War on Terror. It takes a great artist to be
both serious and silly, and Abrams, for all his enthusiasm, just ain’t
For all its sloppiness and blind spots and fanboy pirouettes, though, "Star Trek Into Darkness" is still an involving film with more heart than most summer blockbusters. Abrams’ roots in TV (Felicity, Alias, Lost) seem to have made him attentive to the dynamics of groups, and to the repeated phrases and gestures that bond viewers to characters. Pine’s beefy frat-boy Kirk is appealing, especially when he’s being called on the carpet; Pine has several strong scenes opposite Cumberbatch’s Harrison and Bruce Greenwood’s mentor-father figure, Capt. Pike, in which Pine is overmatched as both character and actor but uses the imbalance to enhance the scene. Sometimes you see terror in Kirk’s eyes as he blusters; his vulnerability makes you root for him even though his “I gotta be me!” philosophy destroys careers and ends lives. Quinto’s Spock is equal to, but different than, Leonard Nimoy’s incarnation, and it’s a relief to see that Abrams has made the destruction of Vulcan in the first film a key component of the character’s psychology. As Spock explains to communications officer Uhura (Zoe Saldana), his main squeeze, it’s not that he can’t feel any emotion, it’s that he’s decided he’s better off not feeling it: this Spock is a Holocaust survivor who has adopted numbness as a survival strategy. Uhura, Simon Pegg’s Scotty, John Cho’s Sulu, Anton Yelchin’s Chekov, and Karl Urban’s “Bones” McCoy all have their moments, too; they behave like plausibly real people even when the script is asking them to do and say things that common sense tells us is horse manure, and their presences lend the film a dignity that its careless storytelling doesn’t earn.