Movies: Star Trek Into Darkness

Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Peter Weller, Benedict Cumberbatch
Directed By: J.J. Abrams
Written By: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof from the series created by Gene Roddenberry
Paramount, 2013
PG-13; 132 min
3.75 stars (out of 5)


When I was a kid, the man across the street (I think his name was Fred, but it may have been Frank . . . Definitely an "F" name though) had converted part of his house into a salon, and famous people would come to him to get their hair done. Larry Hagman would come (he was nice) and Peter Weller would come . . . And Mr. Weller was, even then, one scary m—f—. So I spent most of Star Trek Into Darkness (and let me just add that I really, really hate that they've dropped the colon because no movie should have a sentence fragment for a title) reliving a kind of childhood terror in the face of Weller's Admiral Marcus.

I should preface the rest of this by saying that Wrath of Khan was one of my favorite films as a kid (along with Search for Spock), so I find it ill advised to attempt to remake a story that, in my mind, was already pretty damn close to perfect. In Wrath of Khan, Montalbán played what was, to my forming mind, a truly frightening villain. I could not find this to be true of the newer model. He's supposed to be brilliant to the point of insane, and angry to the point of homicidal (never minding the genocidal bit), this superhuman creature . . . And I can see why Cumberbatch got the job, and why his fans like him as Khan (well, and they'd like him as anything, wouldn't they?)—it's an upscaled take on Sherlock, right down to the clipped dialogue and cold demeanor. Very different from the heat Montalbán brought to the role. And with Cumberbatch the wrath fell short, or at least paled in comparison to the venom Weller brought as Marcus. (And remember that this is all subjective, as all reviews are, and that my connection to this material and the actors here very likely colors my opinions.)

As for the rest, Pine and Quinto put in solid performances as ever, and I wish there had been more of Karl Urban; Bones has always been my favorite classic Trek character, and Urban does a passable drawl that I find charming. Simon Pegg as Scotty, too, is always fun.

The story itself came across as very plotted, by which I mean one could count the beats, see everything that was coming—it was transparent and offered nothing by way of surprise or any real tension. It was mainly a series of set pieces (though a shout out to the Livermore Lab, right up the road from me, always happy to see you on the big screen).  Places where it seemed they were trying to be clever didn't merit the pats on the back and high fives that they were surely seeking. In fact, in what I see as a truly sad development: When I was a kid and a new Star Trek movie came out, we would go, and the first time the Enterprise would appear on screen would always be greeted with applause from the crowd. But not here, not this time. There was nothing inspired in this movie. It was, in truth, pretty generic and could easily be rewritten to be any other science-fiction space film.

Okay, so entertainment value on the whole was okay. Entertainment value as a Star Trek film was slightly lower than average (this one only made me want to go watch Wrath of Khan again, or maybe the 2009 reboot which held so much promise to which this installment didn't quite live up). And if you're looking any more closely, well . . .

Talk about telegraphing your intentions: Khan's blood from start to finish. Geez. It saves the girl, it revives the tribble, so of course if we have a dead Kirk . . . And the whole "Spock doesn't really care" debate, so yes, we're going to have to address that by having Spock act totally out of character and go into a fist fight with the baddie. A fight that, by all accounts, assuming Khan really is all that, Spock shouldn't have been standing for more than a few seconds. Though I almost wish they'd done more with the mind meld because seeing that disorient Khan—they should have punched that up because it could have been a great moment.

And then, too, the "nods" to the original with the "clever" switches (oh, Kirk is in the radiated chamber this time?), and the almost word-for-word lifting of old dialogue . . . Again, it felt like the writers thought they were being smarter than they really were. I can see, from a character arc perspective, why they chose Kirk to "grow" by coming to understand the need for him to sacrifice himself for his crew, but it was all so hit-you-over-the-head that it failed to hold meaning.

And if Khan is so smart, why didn't he see the torpedo trick coming? Or is this one of those things where we're supposed to say, "Ah, but when you start to believe you're infallible you make big mistakes!" Well, they do say most accidents happen closest to home because you get sloppy when in your comfort zone (familiar territory). So did Khan get sloppy here, thinking he was so close to his goal? It was just unbelievably stupid as a plot point.

Also: U.S.S. Vengeance? Really? You couldn't have come up with something, anything with a bit more finesse? Yes, now I'm nitpicking. But between this and the large blocks of exposition in the dialogue (let's have Khan spill exactly who he is, what has happened, and give us the specs on the new ship) . . . Sigh. Call her the Nike, or even just the Victory. Even Retribution sounds cooler.

And as a denizen of the San Francisco area, I have to ask: Why do people always want to break our stuff? (And again, did they think they were being clever not using the Golden Gate cliché and aiming for Alcatraz instead?)

Okay, but enough of the bad. There was plenty of good. They did the funny moments very well: the scene in Pike's office; the one on the shuttle with Uhura, Spock, and Kirk; the bits with Scotty. And Weller was really good. In my mind he was the scariest of the villains on offer.

The movie didn't beat one over the head with this particular point, which makes it more interesting to examine: that of the moral grey area. Khan is bad, his genocidal agenda is unquestionably evil, but every villain believes he's doing the right thing. It's a world (galactic?) view, isn't it? Khan wants his crew back and is willing to go to any lengths to get them. No different than Kirk in that respect. Marcus believes he's doing the right thing in preparing for the coming war with the Klingons, so much so that he's willing to go to extremes to get the advantage. If it costs him a few men on the Enterprise, well, his goal is to save the world, so . . . The good of the many, right? Here is the meat of the story, if one can get past the thick slices of breading that encase it.

There will almost certainly be a third Star Trek movie. Though this one has underperformed a bit, it's done well enough. And they've set up the idea of this war with the Klingons, which should prove for fruitful storytelling. But I hope they'll do better with the characters in the next go-round, too, because it's the interaction and the camaraderie that Star Trek fans truly value.

ETA: Oh, his name was Fred.


Roland D. Yeomans said...

Like you, my favorite TREK movie was WRATH OF KHAN so seeing the last half of the film do an angst-light copy of the ending made me sad. The new Kirk and Spock hadn't been together long enough for the ending to ratchet up the heartstrings.

I have better hopes for JJ Abrams ALMOST HUMAN with Karl Urban as the TV series lead. Since it is on FOX, it might have a chance but there are unhappy memories of FIREFLY to haunt me there!

Anonymous said...

Great review M. It is easily the best film of the year so far and gets me really excited for what’s next to come this summer. Hopefully the adrenaline continues to rush.