J.J. Abrams is at it again with Star Trek: Into Darkness, the follow up to his highly-successful 2009 Star Trek reboot.
The movie begins with a vignette wherein James Kirk (Chris Pine) makes a decision to violate the prime directive to save the life of his friend. He is of course reprimanded for this, but it begins the movie-long discussion of institutional ethics versus personal morality. The plot then shifts to the main adversary, the seeming-superman John Harrison, who leads a terrorist attack against a top secret Starfleet facility. The U.S.S. Enterprise is tasked to track down this man on the Klingon home world, Kronos, and destroy him. The plot twists and turns from there.
Now, you probably know by now that I am a sci-fi nerd. And you can pretty much infer from my previous article that I am, in particular, a huge trekkie. I walked into this movie with great anticipation and excitement, and walked out satisfied on a base level, but ultimately disappointed.
The cast itself excels. As a whole, they act as a beautifully synchronistic homage to the quirks and loveable characteristics of the original characters (Karl Urban’s Bones is, in particular, unbelievably good). However, the only characters really allowed to develop as people, to have more than one-dimension, are Kirk and Spock (Zachary Quinto). Scotty (Simon Pegg) makes a moral stand, Uhura (Zoe Saldana) gets to once again be awkwardly and unnecessarily in love, Bones flirts for a moment, Chekov (Anton Yelchin) is in over his head, and Sulu (John Cho) gets a moment in the captain’s chair (alluding to his future position as captain of the U.S.S. Excelsior), but that’s all they really get. Other than that, this movie is the next chapter in the power struggle between the two stars, furthering and attempting to complicate the conflict between the brain and the gut. This is done well, however, and very much in line with the constant themes of the Star Trek series. Their conflicting friendship and power struggle mirror very much the situation of the original series, and the real life personality conflict between William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. Pine’s cool and casual Kirk and Quinto’s sexualized less-than-Vulcan Spock work well together and needfully carry the movie. It’s just a shame it couldn’t be more of an ensemble effort with such a strong cast.
Benedict Cumberbatch is as masterful of a villain as we all knew he would be. His John Harrison (and actual identity, which will make some fans happy, others shrug their shoulders) was brilliantly cold, direct, and elusive. However, he hardly has time to develop as a villain, which is a sad waste of Mr. Cumberbatch’s talents. His motivation is stated, but not flushed out. Parts of his history are supplied by a cheap plot trick, so as to not take time away from the action. There’s little space for the audience to really identify with or even understand his character and motivation. When I saw this movie with less Trek-informed friends, as soon as the credits rolled, they turned to me to get the story of the character from his appearance in the original history. It’s just not given enough priority in the film to hold up.
And this is the primary problem with Abrams’ second foray into Star Trek. He’s trying too hard to reference the source material that the movie has a hard time standing on its own. There is layer upon layer of Trek references, which give the audience a knowing chuckle, but end up being too much. There are even shots and direct quotes from earlier Star Trek ventures, some of which are interesting in usage, others not so much, but as a whole it makes the movie distracted and incomplete. While the movie can hold up on its own, the non-trekkie viewer will miss a lot of the intention, making it a generic sci-fi action flick. Carol Marcus (in the original-the once-lover of Kirk and father of his son) is added as a new character, for example, but she is used very little in the actual plot. For the non-trekkie, I’m sure she comes off as completely superfluous. The execution of these types of inclusions just aren’t well thought out. Also Leonard Nimoy’s cameo is eye-roll worthy. So beyond unnecessary and used in the least clever way imaginable (come on, Nimoy, it’s time to give up your place in the franchise). Overall the movie is just an attempt at homage without adding anything new or of value to the Star Trek canon.
Also, I have mixed feelings with the overall terrorist plotline, especially with Abrams’ end dedication to the victims of the 9/11 attack. One sequence in the film is very much supposed to invoke the feeling of that attack specifically. On the one hand, this sort of gritty terrorism is very much relevant to the world we live in, making the story and motivations somewhat relatable. On the other hand, the movie says nothing about terrorism other than basically terrorists are bad. It’s just another convenient device to push the plot forward, for the characters to be invested in taking down John Harrison, and for Harrison to be setup as a heartless and manipulative bad guy. To me this is a problematic and cheap.
All that being said, it is still an entertaining movie. Abrams is a master of the action scene and high stress. The tension in this movie constantly builds without ever breaking. The viewer is drawn into the plot by sheer force of event after event. The stress never becomes overwhelming though because the humor is also expertly done and well dispersed throughout the movie. Star Trek is made for that balance. All you need is Bones saying “Dammit, I’m a doctor, not a ___” and the tension of a villain face-off is momentarily alleviated. The cinematography and costuming are equally wonderful and well-utilized in creating the federation universe. The background spaces and aliens are beautifully rendered and very much in line with the low-budget oddity of the original series. Kronos is as dark and desolate as one could hope for. The laws of physics are taken lightly, but that’s nothing new or unexpected. It’s not overly distracting. Space is still cool.
So, overall, I’d say see this movie, but go in with low expectations. If you’re a trekkie you’ll have a laugh and feel part of some exclusive club for a moment. If you’re not, well, just enjoy the ride.