Ten Word or Less Review: To boldly go where we have been before.
Why does a spaceship need to be under water to observe a primitive alien civilization? The Enterprise is equipped with lots of gizmos, radars, widgets, doodads and even a thingamajig which should easily enable it to monitor things from space, where the ship belongs. Because you know, it’s a spaceship, not a submarine. The aliens live near water but not under it. And since you are space explorers observing a primitive culture and one of your founding directives is to not interfere with developing cultures, wouldn’t the mere act of landing you ginormous, freaking spaceship in the water and sinking it run a very high risk of being observed by the very natives who aren’t supposed to see you? Remember that guy who landed his 747 in the Hudson River? People noticed that happening. Lots of them. The ultimate answer to this question is that the writers were sitting around and someone said, “You know JJ, wouldn’t it be cool to see the Enterprise rise out of the ocean?” And of course Mr. Abrams said “Damn right that would be cool!” This is the thought process that drives the new Star Trek films. Yes, it is cool to watch the Enterprise rise out of the ocean like a giant whale that’s decided it can suddenly fly. It’s a positively striking image to behold. But it’s also thoughtless and incredibly stupid. These two forces, exciting vs. dumb, are constantly wrestling with themselves in this new incarnation of Trek and when the game is finished exciting looks to have won the space battle, but it is a closely fought battle to be sure. Hulls are breaches and IQs are tested to their limit, but exciting does win despite the best efforts of dumb.
Star Trek Into Darkness picks up with our plucky young crew as they have exciting and senseless adventures across the galaxy. The adventure discussed above culminates in Kirk (Chris Pine) breaking the Prime Directive, AKA the don’t futz with primitive alien life or they might think you’re God rule, so he can save Spock (Zachary Quinto) from fiery death by volcano. Kirk is subsequently demoted for doing this and it creates a bit of a lovers quarrel between the two chums. But before Kirk can be humiliated by merely being second in command of the Enterprise, the mysterious plot of the terrorist John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) throws Starfleet into chaos. I fondly remember a time when every bad guy in every movie wasn’t labeled a terrorist, they were just bad guys. As Alan Rickman once said, “Who said we were terrorists?” I digress. He blows up a secret Starfleet facility and then blasts away half of Starfleet’s commanders when they meet to talk about him blowing up their secret facility. Goodbye Bruce Greenwood, you will be missed. With vengeance on his mind Kirk rashly sets out to track down Mr. Harrison and bring him to justice for his crimes. The pursuit of Harrison takes Kirk and the gang to the Klingon home world. Harrison is captured but then, despite the heaps of marketing effort to do proclaim otherwise, things take some fairly expectant turns for the worse as Harrison reveals his true identity and why he’s there and what he’s up to.
JJ Abrams has received heaps of praise, as well as no small amount of hatred, for how he has handled this beloved, old space cruiser of a franchise. His first Trek adventure from ’09 gave the series a much-needed kick in the pants. He knocked off the rust, freed it from the dogma that was strangling it and make this endless series of adventures fun again. It was perfectly cast with actors who stepped into their iconic space boots with ease and finesse. Pine, Quinto and Karl Urban immediately established the famous banter of Kirk, Spock and Bones but never once did it feel like imitation or retread. This strength of actor and character was one of the primary reasons Abrams adventure worked, the movie itself is pretty rickety, and it’s no small part of what makes Into Darkness a more than watchable adventure in spite of itself. Because it’s pretty rickety too. The trio once again play off each other with charming ease and make what is an otherwise a senseless adventure film work far better than it has any right to.
Pine’s Kirk is still brazen and arrogant and it’s the job of this film to temper that arrogance with a big heaping dose of humility. In two films I have to give the new creators credit for turning Kirk on his head some. In the first movie he was an outright asshole and he was constantly getting his butt tossed around the screen like an action figure in the hands of an angry kid. In this film, the physical drubbing is lessened, but his sense of powerlessness is amplified. One of the best scenes in the movie finds Kirk wailing with all his might on Harrison who stands there like a brick house, unmoved in the slightest. He’s a great mansion of strength being attacked by Kirk’s tiny insect. Quinto’s Spock also still feels like a fresh invigoration of an old character. His comic timing is perfect and his give and take with the rest of the cast is stellar. Karl Urban quietly steals scenes and puts them in his pocket while nobody is watching. I can’t hope enough that at some point the future creative brain trust builds a story around McCoy, or at least makes him a bit more integral to things. Urban more than deserves a kick up from being the third banana. The rest of the casts fill out their limited parts as best they can. Simon Pegg’s Scotty gets a big step up from his limited involvement last time. Everyone else seems to have been sidelined as a result. Better lucky next time Chekov.
The big, mysterious addition to the cast is Sherlock Holmes himself Benedict Cumberbatch, and once again the JJ Abrams mystery box has been built up to a fairly pointless reveal. He’s Khan. Yeah, I said it. And now he’s a cucumber instead of a tamale. The legendary Trek villain so memorably embodied by Latin man-god Ricardo Montalban is now played by an actor so British he could read a McDonalds menu and make it sound like a passage from Hamlet. “To supersize or not to supersize!” Cumberbatch is all baritone articulation and tall, physical menace and Into Darkness is a minor letdown regarding this legendary Kirk hater. Cumberbatch isn’t a poor fit, he’s simply given a limited amount of action to accomplish and some bad writing to accomplish it. He spends too much time behind that same pane of glass that everyone from Lecter to Loki sits behind when captured by the overconfident heroes. It’s a decent attempt at a memorable heavy and he has some moments to soak in but overall the story lets him down. As we watch Khan be filed away a lingering whiff of missed opportunity hangs faintly in the air. The movie further undercuts him by adding a cliché ridden second villain unceremoniously played by the long-lost Peter Weller (RoboCop). Weller’s character is so transparent that you have no choice but to wait for him to reveal his dastardly plan and when he does, you can’t do much but shrug it off. This Swiss cheese story is the biggest setback among a bunch of little ones. Other new cast member Alice Eve, as Kirk’s future baby mama Carol Marcus, also inexplicably British now, doesn’t fit in either. Once again it’s not really the fault of the attractive Ms. Eve. Her character simply seems shoehorned in for the purpose of giving fans some ‘will they or won’t they’ speculation for the inevitable Trek III.
Despite all these problems and inconsistencies hanging over Into Darkness director Abrams pushes things forward with such giddy determination and zippy energy that all the shortcomings just fly right by in a blur. He pulled off the same feat with the first film so why be surprised. He’s the real star of this new Trek universe and as a master of momentum he knows how to cover up plot holes, jump past sketchy story and generally make the audience go with him, Vulcan logic be damned. Having that spot on cast firing phasers is of no small help. His decision to monkey with the most revered Trek baddie of all can be painted as either bold or lazy on your part. It’s your choice. Either way the result comes nowhere near the iconic achievement that is the original “Wrath of Khan“, but it works well as a piece of respectful homage, reinvention and lightning fast, sci-fi entertainment. Considering it’s written by a handful of dips (Orci, Kurtzman & Lindeloff) who seem incapable of coherently plotting an Encyclopedia Brown story we should consider it a miracle Kirk and Spock aren’t revealed as cousins by stories end. Why Abrams keeps marrying himself to these subpar hacks is far more mysterious than anything in the movie. I’ll admit that they have an ear for snappy dialogue, write well for the characters and can punctuate a joke, but they cannot build a coherent or genuinely interesting story for anything. If someone with just a little skill at cohesiveness took charge, these films might really start to fire on their own terms.
Into Darkness leaves the audience in an interesting place, the crew heading off into deep space for their long sought after 5 year mission. After two movies they are now supposedly boldly going where no man has gone before. One hopes that whoever takes over for Abrams from here on out will drop bad guy routines to embrace the spirit of exploration and adventure that has defined Trek through so many incarnations. They don’t need to run into anymore villains from their past, or the future for that matter. We don’t need to have fisticuffs with Klingons, run ins with Romulans or battles with the Borg. Please, let’s forget Spock’s long-lost half-brother. Abrams has made Trek fun again and we can all thank him for that, but now it has to face the most daunting task in its nearly 50 year history, it needs to try something new. Boldly go where you haven’t been before Trek. It’s time. And who knows, it might even be fun.