Star Trek Into Darkness without employing spoilers, big huge damn spoilers. One of them is a spoiler for something that's really damn obvious and you've almost certainly figured it out already if you're actually interested in the movie enough to read a blogger's review of it. One of them is a spoiler for something that's... also kind of obvious, if you've read more than a couple of reviews, given how much they all play peekaboo with one certain plot point almost all the way to the end. Anyway, I'm going to spoil the hell out of the movie, so watch yourself.
I will not, however, be spoiling it as much as the filmmakers did when they gave it such godawful title as Star Trek Into Darkness.
So, the important thing to keep in mind is that I didn't like the beloved 2009 Star Trek, and I was certainly not feeling very enthusiastic about the prospect of a sequel that once again dragged in the screenwriting team of Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman, whose work together typifies just about all that I detest about the modern state of big-budget popcorn movies, this time bringing along Damon Lindelof, whose work has become more and more cripplingly inauthentic and gimmicky as time goes by. But really, as I am honest, there were only two things I absolutely despised about Star Trek, and Into Darkness manages to fix them both. One was the ghastly over-use of J.J. Abrams's lens flares, and while the new film surely has more than any reasonable director would feel comfortable signing his name to, it still has many fewer, and some of them are even used in a way that feels like it ties into anything at all thematically or in the mise en scène. The other thing was Chris Pine's interpretation of hotshot starship captain James T. Kirk as all the awful, douchbaggy, bro-ish things that retrograde masculinists have decided makes for a cool dude that would be worth hanging out with, where in fact he's just eminently slappable. Pine's performance this time around, though still limited by the fact that he's not a terribly good actor, is so much more layered and feeling than anything in any scene of the earlier film that he's basically playing a different character, one who isn't really any more like William Shatner's iconic performance, but is at least a hell of a lot more enjoyable to watch on his own terms than I, for one, found him last time.
I think it's fair to say that Pine's more soulful, less crass Kirk single-handedly drags Into Darkness over the hump into being an enjoyable summertime action-adventure romp, because for the most part, the film is a carbon copy of the last one, in both its strengths and weaknesses, with a few little wobbles here and a few little waggles there. Once again, the absolute best-in-show among the cast are Karl Urban as Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy, an ill-tempered southern crank, and Zachary Quinto as Spock, half-human/half-Vulcan science officer with a yen for logic and rules and priggishness; once again the worst is Anton Yelchin's no-holds-barred cartoon of a Russian that would have made Rocky & Bullwinkle blink; once again, I am mortified on Zoë Saldana's behalf that this is apparently what Orci and Kurtzman and Lindelof and Abrams thinks counts as a strong female character (if anything, she's worse this time around, being defined almost entirely as the always-worried girlfriend). Where the visual effects were, in 2009, jaw-droppingly realistic and detailed and oh-so-tangible for CGI, so again do I hardly expect to see anything more eye-popping and gorgeous in 2013 (it helps that almost everything is metallic or plastic). The action scenes supplied by those effects are once again huge and bruising and not necessarily imaginative, though they are all kinds of impressively massive. Michael Giacchino's score is again a rousing bit of populist pomp, and I'm even inclined to say it's better this time.
And once again, I simply don't fucking get J.J. Abrams. The man doesn't know what to do with a movie camera: re-watching the 2009 film just a couple of days ago in preparation, I was aghast all over again at how excitedly he flings it around the set in drunken loops and a remarkably frustrating trick where he starts the camera at a really skewed angle and then backs up and spirals until it's straight up (or a little skewed the other way, even), the kind of movement that you can't really get away with unless you're dramatising a character's complete psychotic break from reality, not just pepping up a routine dialogue scene. And the close-ups, the absolute fingerprint on every frame that yes, this man got his start in TV, and never met a wide shot he liked. Into Darkness is certainly better on all fronts than Star Trek, but it's also just as certainly a huge step backwards from 2011's Super 8, suggesting that maybe that film wasn't actually a sign of artistic creativity but well-chosen pilfering from Steven Spielberg's closet. Regardless, Abram's pixie-stix style serves mostly to drain the gorgeous visuals and emphatically grand action sequences of their energy, and while at 132 minutes, Into Darkness is already the second-longest Star Treks ever, Abrams manages to make it feel even longer.
Then there's the script. Which is, charitably, a disaster. As is not remotely a surprise, given all the "ooh boy, I bet you just can't guess who the villain is!" innuendo, the villain is 20th Century genetic superman Khan Noonien Singh (Benedict Cumberbatch), also the villain of the consensus pick for the best of all 12 Trek features, 1982's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. He's been changed around quite a lot - he's something closer to a terrorist than a despot this time, and he's at the center of a metaphor for the run-up to the Iraq War (the film is - gallingly - dedicated to the soldiers of post-9/11 America, tasteless overreach like you don't expect to see in a mindless popcorn movie). But Khan he still is, and that gives the filmmakers an excuse to make Into Darkness something of a fantasia on the themes of The Wrath of Khan, and the result is awful: on the one hand, the whole point of the Abrams-led Star Trek reboot is to shake of the dust and make something that's not beholden to the past (I still think that it was a terrible decision to keep the new films somewhat in continuity with the rest of the franchise: a clean break and fresh slate would have been so much easier to work with), and on the other hand, Into Darkness at times feels like nothing but a two-hour collection of subtle in-jokes for all the fans who's obsessive nitpickiness is exactly the thing that the reboot was supposed to address. Harry Mudd! Tribbles! Neutral Zones! Carol Marcus (played, blankly, by Alice Eve)! A pointless cameo from Leonard Nimoy's Old Parallel Universe Spock (I desperately hope they skip this in the next movie)! And, of course, an inversion of The Wrath of Khan's famous death scene, which falls completely flat for almost every reason: because the Pine/Quinto iteration of Kirk and Spock don't have decades of fan goodwill to draw from, like the Shatner/Nimoy iteration did; because the film has already put a Chekovian gun (Anton, not Pavel) in, about Khan's magical blood, and so Kirk's death feels completely consequence-free; because the moment is so self-conscious about mirroring the older scene - down to the fucking blocking - that it has absolutely no hint of sincerity about it, just pastiche; because the use of "KHAAAAAAAN!" here is, unbelievably, even campier and cornier than it was in the original.
It's a surreally misjudged ending that absolutely blows all the accumulated goodwill the movie was able to stir up, which for me wasn't that much to begin with: the best I can say about Cumberbatch's Khan is that he's a much more particular and menacing villain than Eric Bana's utterly milquetoast baddie from 2009, but he has absolutely no flair, no Ricardo Montalban-esque sense of scale (and if it's not fair to compare the two actors, it's also not fair to have every damn moment of this film waving its hands and calling attention to established Trek lore), just a serpentine sense of villainy that's totally one-note; hard to say if it's the actor's fault or the script's, but either way this isn't a very memorable or intense villain, just a nasty dude who manages to outwit the heroes in the most transparent ways.
What saves it, barely, is the characters; or really, not even the characters as such (just like in almost every single Star Trek ever, most of the cast ends up staring blankly with their thumbs up their asses), but Kirk and Spock and slightly less McCoy. What caught me completely off-guard with Into Darkness is that's structurally a dramatic love story: a couple that has been together just long enough to predict each other's foibles, being tried, almost breaking, but discovering through stress and conflict how much they need each other. The wrinkle being that it's a love story about two heterosexual males, one of whom isn't human, and yet the dynamic that Pine and Quinto hit from the first scene to the last is so comfortable and lived-in, turning even the strained, hack screenwriting dialogue that passes for banter into the kind of easygoing back-and-forth that feels like real people with a real history talking. Honestly, there's a depth and warmth of character here that you don't expect to see in any modern popcorn movie, certainly not one that otherwise feels so sleekly generic. There's a lot of shabby storytelling and mismanaged visuals to overcome, but the rich central relationship is what Star Trek is about, in a way I found completely lacking from the first movie: not a story about spaceships and explosions and interplanetary intrigue, but about the way that humanity still exists and thrives in the face of all those things. Whatever other flaws the movie has, its heart and soul are well intact.
Reviews in this series
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Wise, 1979)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Meyer, 1982)
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (Nimoy, 1984)
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (Nimoy, 1986)
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (Shatner, 1989)
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (Meyer, 1991)
Star Trek: Generations (Carson, 1994)
Star Trek: First Contact (Frakes, 1996)
Star Trek: Insurrection (Frakes, 1998)
Star Trek: Nemesis (Baird, 2002)
Star Trek (Abrams, 2009)
Star Trek Into Darkness (Abrams, 2013)