Star Trek Into Darkness is my new favorite movie of 2013. It’s not the best movie of 2013 thus far (that would be Mud, a great little flick and the latest stop on the Epic Matthew McConaughey Comeback Tour), but I had a blasty blast watching J.J. Abrams‘ follow-up to his successful 2009 cinematic Star Trek revival. As many critics and old-school Star Trek diehards like to point out, Abrams’ version of Trek is very different in tone and style to the previous TV shows and films. I call it “Blockbuster Star Trek”. There’s a bigger emphasis on action and humor in these films, and less on actual science and the exploration of strange, new worlds. It’s easy to understand why this “dumbing down” of Star Trek would offend the diehards (a group I count myself a member of), but this new, glossed-up style is precisely the reason the 2009 film became accessible to modern summer audiences and grossed $257.7 million domestically, by far the biggest gross of all Trek movies. In other words, so long as Abrams is directing and/or producing this series with this cast, ain’t nothin changing, folks.
I for one have a more open mind about this stylistic hullaballoo, and believe there is room in this universe for multiple versions of Star Trek. I’m glad the success of the first film put some new, younger eyes on these classic characters; and maybe, just maybe, it brought some new fans to the older material that people like me have known and adored for years. Even if you hate what Abrams has done, that’s a net positive in my book. However, I am fully aware that many of the longtime fans are downright offended by what Abrams and his writers have done to the Trek universe. I understand their beef and I sympathize with their disappointment. I’m just not as rigid in my insistence that Star Trek is ONE certain thing.
My biggest issue with Abrams’ Trek (and especially with Into Darkness) is the retreading of old characters and individual scenes from previous canon. I would suggest that if you’re gonna do a whole new style with the series, they should have introduced all new characters from the get-go. But I realize that would have been more challenging creatively, and the studio needs the name recognition of Kirk, Spock, Uhura et al to sell tickets. Or at least that’s what narrow-minded studio execs believe.
When I stepped out of the theater after seeing Into Darkness, I was in the clouds with bliss. Upon a second viewing, further reflection and some reading of various other reviews, I still love the movie, but I can admit the story has a lot of issues. There are also about 500 plot holes, which reminds me of a big sci-fi movie I saw last summer co-written by one Damon Lindelof. Funny.
WARNING: This review is HEAVY ON SPOILERS. You cannot have an interesting discussion of this film without talking specifically about what happens. Simple as that. As we go along, I’ll also note how Abrams’ work on these two Trek films might reveal how he’ll be handling Star Wars: Episode VII, which will now be getting his full attention (in between his duties on the 48 TV shows he executive produces). Let’s do this.
WHAT I LIKED
–The cast. Obviously. I think they got this cast pretty much perfect the first time, and their chemistry only gets stronger here. I’m not a fan of Chris Pine‘s Kirk having basically the same character arc as he did in the first movie (cocky, selfish but potentially brilliant officer must learn to put the needs of the many ahead of his own impulses), but he’s still very good in the role. Zachary Quinto is again perfect as Spock, Zoe Saldana is great as Uhura, and high marks again to Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho and Anton Yelchin filling out the classic Enterprise crew. We get some interesting newbies this go-around, most notably Benedict Cumberbatch as the film’s villain, John Harrison/Khan. I’ve been on the Cumberbatch bandwagon for as long as it’s been rolling, and if he were in every movie for the next 10 years, I wouldn’t complain. I think he is spectacular in the film; my problem is with Khan being regurgitated as a villain in the first place. But we’ll get into that more down below.
I thought Peter Weller was excellent as Admiral Marcus, even if I don’t believe for a second that a character this diabolical would actually exist in Starfleet. There’s warmongers and then there’s this guy. Ho-ly shit. I couldn’t buy that a man who spent an entire career in Starfleet would then suddenly be willing to destroy the Enterprise, the flagship of the fleet, with hundreds of innocent people onboard in cold blood. I didn’t buy that that would happen, and I didn’t buy his alleged motivations (Basically his reasoning is, “Ehh, we’re pretty much at war with the Klingons anyway, so why don’t we just actually start a war and get it over with?”). Jean-Luc Picard would have an aneurysm if he met this guy. But he sure was fun to watch, I’ll admit that. The scene where he and his custom battleship, the Vengeance, chase down and try to destroy the Enterprise is superb and filled with delicious tension. I need to see Peter Weller in more movies.
As an aside, it’s past time for Zoe Saldana to get a lead role in her own movie. And no, Colombiana doesn’t count. She deserves her own movie that’s actually good. It doesn’t have to be an action/sci-fi movie (which she’s quickly being pigeonholed into Michelle Rodriguez-style), because I’d watch this woman in just about anything.
–The spectacle. Throughout his brief directorial career, J.J. Abrams has consistently had a good eye for the “money shots”; the big action scenes, huge crashes, stunt sequences, etc. This is going to serve him magnificently on Star Wars, and it’s not a talent every filmmaker has. There are a bunch of individual shots in this film that I’ll never forget; pretty much every time the Enterprise goes into warp is awesome, the Enterprise rising out of the ocean on Nibiru at the beginning, the Vengeance dropping out of warp RIGHT IN THE ENTERPRISE‘S GRILL (instantly dwarfing it in a brilliant perspective shot), the Enterprise crew members being sucked out of a hull breach WHILE THE SHIP IS AT WARP (seriously, how fucked up would that be?), Kirk & Khan being launched out of the Enterprise as human torpedoes as they try to infiltrate the Vengeance, Kirk & Scotty running through the ship at odd angles with the internal gravity systems failing (during which I let out a few Inception BRAHMs in my head), the Enterprise dropping through the clouds in a free fall and then we hold on that shot until it slowly rises back up again, and finally, Khan crashing the Vengeance into San Francisco at the end was simply jaw dropping.
All of the stunts and effects work is grade-A on this movie, but those are the individual parts that stuck out to me.
We get a lot of massive destruction and action sequences in today’s $200 million megablockbusters, but strangely, most of it is forgotten as soon as you leave the theater. Star Trek Into Darkness avoids that problem with spectacular visuals and several moments like those I just mentioned worthy of entry into the Awesome Effects Shots Hall of Fame. What, that doesn’t actually exist?
-I liked the Spock vs. Khan finale, from the foot chase to the duel on top of whatever flying vehicles those were. The fight was brutal and well-choreographed (I love that Khan apparently has a Fatality in that skull crushing thing he does), and because Vulcans are supposed to be stronger than humans I believed Spock could hold his own against the superman Khan. I especially liked when Spock tries to apply the Vulcan neck pinch on him, and it causes Khan immense pain but doesn’t knock him out. That’s a cool little Trek mini moment for us nerds. What I wasn’t a huge fan of is when Uhura beams down and has no problem standing still on top of this high-velocity flying object (she literally just stands there perfectly balanced as if this fight were happening on the ground). Also, how is it that the Enterprise can’t beam Spock and Khan straight to the ship because they’re “moving” (this is exactly what Sulu says), but they can transport Uhura on to the high-velocity flying object? Explain that to me, please.
Abrams’ proficiency with these action sequences (which, many have noted, are very Star Wars-y in nature anyway) is a good portent for Episode VII. I can’t wait to see what kind of lightsaber battle he can come up with.
-I thought the majority of the dialogue was really strong. The script as a whole has some big time structural and logic issues, but the dialogue was pretty damn solid. I’d say Spock gets the best lines, followed by Khan. The only thing I have a problem with in both these movies is that the futuristic technobabble isn’t as complex as it was in the older movies and TV shows. I respected and appreciated the fact that the characters in Star Trek: The Next Generation talked above me when I was younger. I have a strong vocabulary today due in great part to hearing lots of big words on ST:TNG when I was 11-14 years old. That show made me smarter. These movies seem afraid to do that, which is a shame.
-I’m glad we got introduced to J.J. Abrams’ version of the Klingons, although I was under the impression they’d be a much bigger part of the plot. I couldn’t have been more wrong about that. Unfortunately, it’s one scene and done for the boys of Kronos, and we only see one of them in full facial makeup (the rest keep their helmets on during the scene). This boggles me, since the Klingons were Starfleet’s biggest rival in the Kirk/Spock days. I’d like to see a Blockbuster Trek where the Klingons are the primary antagonists, but that doesn’t seem likely anytime soon.
-I’m thrilled J.J. Abrams toned down his patented lens flare by about 75%. Let’s reduce it by 25% more for Star Wars, please. If I see another behind-the-scenes video where Abrams is literally shining a bigass flashlight into the camera lens, I’m gonna cut my movie-loving wrists.
–The sound design! Wow! A++ work here, so good that I need to name these guys: supervising sound editor Matthew Wood, sound designer/re-recording mixer Will Files, sound effects editor David Acord, production sound mixer Peter J. Devlin, and re-recording mixers Roberto Cappannelli, Tom Lalley, and Andy Nelson. Bravo, gentlemen. This is one of the best sound mixes I’ve ever heard, both the overall mix and the effects. I absolutely adore the sound of the Enterprise exploding into warp and then the trailing signature it leaves behind that gives off that crispy burning sound. Awesome awesome awesome. Another good sign for Star Wars.
–Michael Giacchino’s score, as with the first film, was on point. There aren’t really any new themes to speak of, but his situational scoring was excellent, and sometimes that’s more important. It’s definitely an underrated skill. Because Giacchino has been J.J. Abrams’ go-to composer on all 4 of his directorial efforts thus far, I assumed he’d also be getting the gig on Star Wars: Episode VII, a prospect that intrigued me greatly. That is apparently not going to be the case, however, as Abrams admitted recently that he has indeed asked John Williams to return to the series, and Williams has all but said yes. Not that I’ll ever complain about John Williams scoring a Star Wars movie, but I thought Giacchino deserved the chance at it, and I am admittedly curious what someone else would do with it. Is that blasphemous? In my view it’s pretty simple: Williams can never top what he did on the original trilogy, so this was the perfect opportunity, without George Lucas at the helm, to hand the reins to a worthy successor.
Behind-the-scenes on the music of the film from the always great SoundWorks Collection:
-I love the inside Trek joke of Kirk telling Chekhov to “Put on a red shirt” to take over Engineering after Scotty leaves, and then having the camera linger on Chekhov’s terrified face for a beat. A few people in the screening I went to audibly gasped or laughed at that moment. Well-played, whoever’s idea that was. If you don’t get red shirt reference, go use your favorite internet search engine.
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE
-Although I think Dan Mindel‘s cinematography is really good on the whole, there are way too many extreme closeups in the dialogue scenes. This is a minor gripe, but it’s always been a pet peeve of mine. By extreme closeups, I mean a shot where we can’t even see someone’s entire head. This is a complete waste of the 2.35:1 widescreen frame. A perfect example is the bar scene between Kirk and Pike. They cut back and forth between the two men talking, and the frame cuts off their chins and parts of their foreheads. WHY?! I can read emotion and facial inflections in a regular closeup. I don’t need a macro shot of Kirk’s eyes to see when he’s emoting. During my second viewing of the film, I noticed they used these closeups in most of the intensely emotional scenes.
–The problems with re-using Khan. Into Darkness is clearly not a direct remake of 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Why, then, did they choose to bring back this character as the primary antagonist and reinterpret one of the key scenes from that film (the Kirk death scene, which is a reversal of what happens in Wrath)? This baffles the shit out of me. I was against the series retreading Khan as a villain, but since they wouldn’t confirm whether or not Benedict Cumberbatch was playing Khan, we had to wait until the movie came out to know for sure. Well, yes, he does, and no, it still wasn’t the best idea for this character.
I rewatched Wrath of Khan last week because I thought it would be helpful for this review, and the simple fact is he isn’t that strong of a character in the first place. Sorry, but yeah I’m going there. It’s not like he’s this classic villain begging to be reinterpreted by a different actor every 20 years, like The Joker in Batman. They sort of give Khan a different backstory in Into Darkness, but if you’re gonna do that…WHY NOT JUST CREATE A NEW GODDAMN CHARACTER?!? It doesn’t make any sense, friends. It’ll be interesting to compare what this movie did to what Man of Steel does with General Zod. It’s funny, because I see no outrage anywhere on the web about the idea of bringing Zod back. Is that only because Christopher Nolan is involved and we trust his instincts implicitly? Even after Dark Knight Rises? I dunno. I guess I need to rewatch the original Superman, too. I think it’s a little different here though, because the Star Trek universe is so vast that there’s limitless potential for creating new characters, both alien and human, whereas with comic book movies we sort of expect to see familiar villains. Despite that, Abrams and his writers thought the better way to go would be to recycle a character that’s already been used as a villain in a Trek movie. Hooray creative thinking.
Now, having said all this, I actually do prefer Cumberbatch’s Khan to Ricardo Montalban‘s, but the fact remains we’ve been there and done that with this character. Cumberbatch is much more directly active in the plot and more menacing in general…he’s not just sitting on his ship barking orders at people. Literally the only things Montalban does in Wrath of Khan are put weird insects into two guy’s helmets, lift Chekhov into the air as a show of strength, and talk shit on the bridge of his stolen Federation ship. I dunno, I found classic Khan to be highly overrated as a villain. All the more reason NOT to use him again.
–Kirk’s “death”. First of all, nobody in the audience with a functioning brain believes they would kill off Chris Pine’s Kirk after two movies. Second, even when it became evident the filmmakers were asking us to believe that, I knew instantly they had the “Khan’s blood” McGuffin to fall back on, thus further making the plausibility of Kirk’s death, well…INCONCEIVABLE. This knowledge in hand completely hollows out the impact of the whole extended, emo-filled goodbye between Kirk & Spock. I was sitting there thinking, “Okay, wonderful, now let’s skip to the part where he gets revived.” You weren’t even CLOSE to fooling me, movie. Shame on you.
Now, of course, this scene is what- an homage?– to the Spock death scene in Wrath of Khan, which unfolds in almost precisely the same way, except there Spock sacrifices himself to a highly radioactive engine room to save the ship. Here, Kirk does that while Spock is down on Earth trying to apprehend Khan. The filmmakers probably thought this was cool, but I call it lazy screenwriting. They appear to have been under the impression that fans of Wrath of Khan would loooove this tribute, when the reaction I’ve seen has been the exact opposite. I’m not one of these people who think Wrath of Khan is the greatest thing Star Trek has ever done, so I’m not emotionally invested in that way, but like I said, I do find it offensively lazy. I agree with the people who say these two films haven’t earned that moment between Kirk & Spock. In contrast, when this happens in Wrath of Khan, the Shatner/Nimoy characters have over 15 years of history that the audience is drawing upon in that moment.
Then, to add insult to injury, they have Spock recreate William Shatner‘s infamous KHAAAAAAAAAAN scream. What’s amusing is that people who are most inclined to “get” the reference are the ones who are the most annoyed by it. Probably not the result the writers were after. I had a good laugh when Spock did the yell, and I’m not sure that’s the effect the writers were going for, either.
And of course, as nearly every other reviewer has pointed out, with 72 other superhumans already on-hand sleeping in their torpedoes, why did they HAVE to have Khan’s blood to bring Kirk back? Oh yeah, right, because it gave them an excuse for another action scene. Blockbuster Star Trek, ladies & gentlemen! Or am I supposed to believe Khan is the only one with regenerative blood? I don’t recall that being specifically mentioned.
Also, the way in which Dr. McCoy discovers the potential power of Khan’s blood, when a dead Tribble he randomly injected the blood into earlier pops back to life (just at the right moment, wouldn’t ya know it!), is bombastically stupid. The most ironic thing about this movie is that if a real Vulcan ever watched it, he or she’s head would explode at the utter lack of logic present in the story.
This all goes back to what annoys a lot of people about this movie, despite its strengths and the talent involved…its utter lack of originality. We’ve seen franchises rebooted dozens of times now, and we’ve seen a hundred remakes of classic films, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone remake a sequel. Am I wrong? Is Warner Bros. going to remake The Dark Knight 20 years from now? It’s been 22 years since Terminator 2, let’s give that another go.
–Regarding James T. Kirk, I was more than a little annoyed by how little he’d changed as a person since the first movie. If anything, he’s even more impetuous and out of control than ever before. I found it difficult to believe this man would be handed the reins to the flagship of the Federation. His immaturity and emotion-fueled bloodlust are almost laughable at points. This is not Chris Pine’s fault, of course. That falls to the writers and to a lesser degree the director for going along with it.
–The Leonard Nimoy cameo. It wasn’t necessary. If it was only done as fan service, that’s pretty lame, and it’s what worries me about Abrams giving Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher integral parts in Episode VII (which I am vehemently against), as if Star Wars fans won’t show up unless the old characters are in it. In this film, all it ends up being is Young Spock getting Cliffs Notes on Khan from Old Spock, who has firsthand experience. Another cheap, lazy writing stunt. I hated it, and I wish Nimoy had told them to shove it when they approached him with the idea.
-Yes, the scene where Alice Eve strips down to her underwear is gratuitous and adds nothing to the film. However, I’m not enough of an anal feminist to get worked up about it like some other people. Additionally, Alice Eve is attractive and I’m a heterosexual male. By the way, is that really what we envision women’s underwear looking like in the 23rd century? Just askin the questions, folks. I don’t have all the answers.
–I don’t like the transporter in these movies, which basically looks like a tornado of light that engulfs the transportee. It could’ve looked cooler is all. And with all the transporter complications they have throughout the film, the impression I get is that the transporter tech was invented about a month prior to the events of this film. That fucker needs a software patch, pronto. They can’t transport people who are moving, they can’t transport people through mild to moderate atmospheric disturbances, and the transporter can’t differentiate living matter from a metal torpedo. Anything else it can’t do, bro?
-While it’s cute that they kept some of the old school technology from the original series in place for nostalgic purposes, it is a little silly to see these guys using flip-open communicators in the 2200’s that are bigger and bulkier than the flip phone I had 10 years ago. And Uhura’s earpiece is like 5 times as big as the standard Bluetooth headset today. I’m just sayin. It was a bit distracting.
-Of course, as with anything co-written by Damon Lindelof, you can nitpick plot holes until you’re blue in the face. And because I enjoy doing just that, here are a few of my favorite sticking points:
*The Klingons don’t seem to care too much about a couple dozen of their warriors being killed ON THE KLINGON HOME WORLD by a bunch of humans. After Khan surrenders and the Enterprise leaves, we hear nothing else from the Klingons. I guess they’re not interested in finding out who did this, which is interesting since the Enterprise is literally stuck in Klingon space without warp power for hours. Nor do the Klingons mind when a second Federation starship, a massive warship at that, shows up in their territory unannounced. The Klingons I remember wouldn’t tolerate this kind of bullshit.
*Speaking of which, apparently the Enterprise can travel from Earth to Kronos in about 10 minutes. On the TV shows, that journey would’ve taken several days. There don’t appear to be any degrees of warp speed in the Abrams universe. They either go to warp or they don’t. Kirk doesn’t say, “Warp 9!”, he just tells Sulu, “Punch it!” and off they go. And yes, only Trek nerds like me notice these details.
*How does Scotty fly an unauthorized shuttle into this classified Starfleet military base orbiting Jupiter, no questions asked? He doesn’t even know what he’s looking for, but finds this facility and flies on in with a squadron of other shuttles without anybody noticing or caring. Interesting. Top marks on security there, fellas. This would be like me driving up to NORAD in a beat up Honda Civic and driving on in amongst a motorcade of Army jeeps and Humvees. Highly unlikely.
*So the Enterprise parks underwater at the beginning of the movie so the indigenous species won’t see them. Then the crew panics when they have to surface in order to rescue Spock, because NOW the aliens will see the ship! NOOOOO!!! Prime Directive FAIL! But wait- nobody noticed the giant starship descending from the sky and diving into the ocean in the first place? That must have created a lot of fucking noise, not to mention a gargantuan oceanic disturbance, which I guess nobody heard, saw, or felt. Interesting.
*They take the Enterprise away from Kirk after the Prime Directive violation on Nibiru, which seems like a pretty serious setback for the young captain. Unfortunately, the impact of that punishment is completely obliterated a mere 10 minutes later in screen time when Kirk gets the ship back immediately after Pike is killed. Oooo, I’ll bet he learned his lesson! Even more amusingly, Kirk makes it blatantly clear he’s willing to break the rules again since he’d much rather violate Klingon space, fire a bunch of torpedoes AT the Klingon homeworld and kill Khan out of revenge, instead of bringing him back for trial as would be SOP.
*I love that during the final battle in space, where the Enterprise is crippled, there isn’t a single Federation starship, shuttle or Starbase in the area that can come to her aid. Umm, helllllooooo! This is EARTH! The capital of the Federation! Really, there’s NOBODY else around? NOBODY in orbit or below notices that two Federation ships are fighting each other to the death? Is the Enterprise Starfleet’s only vessel in this version of Star Trek?
You get the idea. I don’t want Damon Lindelof within 300 miles of the Star Wars: Episode VII set to give his “input”. J.J. Abrams needs to lose Lindelof’s number for the next few years. I don’t even want this guy THINKING about Star Wars for the next decade. There were 3 writers on Into Darkness, but this is now two consecutive high-profile Lindelof projects (after Prometheus last year) that were riddled with plot holes. And let’s not forget he was also involved with Cowboys & Aliens one year earlier. NO MAAS!
-Look, I adore Zoe Saldana as much as the next guy, but why is she now the go-to non-white actress for sci-fi movies? First, she’s in the biggest sci-fi movie of all-time, Avatar, then she’s in the Star Trek movies, and now she’s been cast as Gamora (whoever the hell that is) in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, set for release next year. This is what I mean when I talk about short-sighted Hollywood casting. Mr. Abrams, Zoe Saldana is not allowed to appear in Star Wars as well. In fact, nobody from these Star Trek movies should be cast in Star Wars. The geek mind can’t handle that overlap. It would cause a tear in the space-time continuum. I say this because Benedict Cumberbatch and Simon Pegg have both expressed interest in appearing in Episode VII. Don’t do it, Abrams.
There you have it. In spite of its many problems, as of this moment Star Trek Into Darkness is the movie I’ve enjoyed most thus far this year. I don’t expect this to last very long, since I’m finishing this post just 3 days before Man of Steel opens. My expectations for Into Darkness were lowered the moment it became clear they were using Khan as the villain, so it didn’t end up being a huge disappointment on the whole. There’s enough in this movie that I love that can’t be ruined by a few plot holes and unfortunate instances of uninspired imaginations. This is still an easy recommend for me, and a must-see in theaters for its outstanding technical merits and big screen visuals. I understand the frustration of old school Trek fans, and again I sympathize, but I couldn’t bring myself to get enraged over these minor infractions, even if they are numerous. Perhaps that’s because I’m a much bigger Next Generation fan than Original Series fan. If they ever fuck with Picard, Riker, Data or Worf, or Q or The Borg in the same way they messed with Kirk, Spock and Khan, I may not be so calm about it.
I did not see the film in 3D, primarily because it’s a post-conversion. I’ve heard the 3D is just okay, but I don’t care enough to find out. HERE is a good review of the 3D in the film, but if you’ve read this far into the review you’ve probably already seen the movie and it doesn’t matter whether or not I recommend you see it in 3D. I’m just gonna keep typing words that are a complete waste of time and effort. And here’s four more.
Further reading: I insist you check out io9’s hilarious Star Trek Into Darkness: The Spoiler FAQ.
P.S. I would have loved to put more cool GIFs into this post, but unfortunately there aren’t many good ones available since the film is still in theaters. The ones being made off of bootleg camera copies of the movie are not up to my standards of GIF excellence. There probably won’t be a whole lot of them until the movie is available at home, but you can be sure I’ll have those ready in time for the Biggies early next year.
Star Trek Into Darkness – 132 minutes – PG-13
IMDb Rating: 8/10
Biggies Consideration: Best Cinematography, Film Editing, Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup, Original Score, Stuntwork, Visual Effects, Sound, Sound Editing
And one more thing…