What’s wrong with Star Trek Into Darkness is that it is a hasty hodgepodge of filmmaking, a movie mired in a morass of mucky meanderings. This frenzied follow-up to the terrific Star Trek franchise reboot by the same director, J.J. Abrams, has all the ingredients that should make for a great film: a crisp cast, a dedicated director, a big budget to get it all done in a visually compelling manner, a cool cameo by original Spock, Leonard Nimoy, and a screenwriting triumvirate (Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof) to ensure the story is pitched perfectly.
But it’s not. The script is long, the direction is pre-occupied with showing off effects firstly and telling a coherent story secondly. Star Trek Into Darkness tries either too hard or not at all to embrace or leave behind Star Trek lore. It’s so sure of itself, it doesn’t know what to do next. Consequently, we get lots of over-the-top special effects, zip pans and wonky direction that just serves to dazzle for dazzle’s sake. It’s one action scene atop another, but not necessarily connected together.
Perhaps the hallmark of this much ado mishmash are the sonic sensations of the agitated violins from composer Michael Giacchino that serve to not underscore the action, but to overwhelm it. Staccato strings stir the visuals, oftentimes unnecessarily, working in tandem to showcase the film’s monochromatic emotional beats. The tone of the film anchors itself on unrest: Kirk can’t be Kirk, as he’s not Captain enough yet; Spock can’t be Spock, as he’s not sure his human half is worth feeling; Uhura can’t be Uhura because she’s gotta get all funky on Spock about their relationship during an Away Team Mission; Bones can’t be Bones because Kirk tires of his metaphors; Scotty can’t be Scotty because he resigns from his engineering post; Chekhov can’t be Chekhov because he’s busy filling-in for Scotty.
From the music to the set design, from the costumes to the special effects, all the elements of Into Darkness create both a flat and unsettling tone with virtually no texture. Watching Into Darkness was like sitting on the tailgate of a pick-up that’s driving down a bumpy dirt road. You don’t worry about what’s coming ahead because you can see and feel the bumpy road you’ve been on from the get-go. It’s a movie that just wants to keep moving at the expense of gaping logic potholes in the structure of the story. Action in storytelling is not based on fight scenes and explosions, and Into Darkness has a lot of fisticuffs and fiery digital effects, all at the sacrifice of creating structure with dramatic tension — the true backbone of a good script. When the action scenes take precedence over the dramatic core of storytelling, one ends up with a juvenile jumble of tropes and predictable scenes that don’t necessarily add up to a satisfying conclusion. Yes, Into Darkness has a beginning (that serves only to show Kirk’s humanity and depth of friendship to Spock); it has a middle (that eats-up two hours of one’s life with video game action sequences and tons of exposition that tries to desperately tease Trekkies that Gene Roddenberry would love this film); and it has an end (albeit telegraphed way in advance, making it entirely predictable). So in that classic Aristotelean sense, Into Darkness has dramatic structure. But it fails to weave together scenes that rise and fall in a coherent and logically satisfying fashion.
Like all Bad Robot produced films, Into Darkness has plenty of gratuitous action scenes so the parallel-produced video game development has plenty of levels for players to ascend (and descend). Everyone knows those moments when the silver screen goes berserk with characters hopping atop flying cars and navigating through oncoming space debris — they’re technically wonderful and the special effects wizards should be applauded. But the director should be jeered. What’s wrong with relying on an avalanche of special effect scenes to tell a story? Try sitting next to someone who’s really into playing an action-packed video game…for two hours. The problem is that if you’re not holding the controller, it gets old and tiring very quickly. Some might even use the b-word. Into Darkness isn’t so much boring, though, as it is disappointing. The actors are dialed-in to their parts and are all very comfortable in their respective roles (the only exception being the placid John Cho who is a far cry from being reminiscent of the original Sulu, the brilliant George Takei; note, Mr. Cho is Korean, not Japanese), yet the directed and written action wastes their esteemable talents.
Into Darkness has one queer obsession: tears. We see Kirk cry, we see Spock cry, we see Uhura cry, we see Khan cry. Thank God Peter Weller keeps his cold-hearted cool. His dry-eyed performance is great (though one wonders why he loaded 72 of Khan’s cryogenized crewmembers into torpedoes. Why not just kill them? It’s those sort of villainous lapses that make the movie messy). And while we’re discussing the character Admiral Marcus, let’s discuss the only reason actress Alice Eve was cast as his daughter, science officer Carol Marcus: to confirm that Kirk is also aroused by a human woman, since we see him earlier fooling-around in bed with the titillating tailed twins. The camera lingers on Carol Marcus in all her underwear-glory, whilst she admonishes Kirk for taking an impolite peek. It’s a naughty moment that underscores a movie that’s generally uncomfortable to watch because it lurches forward thoughtlessly, like Kirk turning his head to look when he was asked to look away.
Star Trek should boldly go places. As Scotty declares to Kirk, “I thought we were explorers.” Into Darkness goes to the edge of the Neutral Zone, though. By trying to tie together disparate Star Trek story elements (it beckons you to draw associations to Nicholas Meyer’s superb film, The Wrath of Khan, as well as The Undiscovered Country, The Search for Spock and the episode, Space Seed), Into Darkness takes its audience into a metacosmic muddle. Star Trek was always the intellectual space adventure — it wasn’t as campy as Lost in Space and it wasn’t a Saturday morning popcorn movie like Star Wars. It was boldly going where no one had gone before. Problem with Into Darkness is that we’ve been here before, many times.
Perhaps the most daring part of Into Darkness is its attempt to go political and allegorically 9/11. There’s plenty of exchanges about pre-emptive strikes, then the cocky Kirk learns his lesson and explains axiomatically to cadets that that’s not who we are. Yeah, we’re better than that. Kirk learns humility by the end of the movie, but who cares? Could Khan be as ruthless as an extremist? Well, he pilots a militarized starship into Starfleet Command. Oh yes, the 9/11 allusions abound, with skyscrapers toppling down as the vessel kamikazes into one tower after another. See. See. That’s what happens when you piss off Khan. Kirk and Spock both take repeated retaliatory punches at Khan — all to no effect. The message is literally pounded-in over and over: vengeful violence is a bootless proposition. It’s so much better to freeze Khan today and let someone else deal with him tomorrow. Oh wait. That’s not some analogous statement about Gitmo, is it? No, the real audacious aspect of Into Darkness is, that after we witness all the 9/11 references, the credits roll with a bizarre dedication to all those post-9/11 heroes — you know, the ones who may have been offended by spending $12 bucks to see a great franchise fizzle.
Sure, there’s some fun stuff: A desiccated Tribble on Bones’s lab table, Khan’s blood flowing through a resurrected Kirk, the reversal live-long-and-proper-hands-against-glass scene that was also in The Wrath of Khan, the trippy moment where Kirk and Khan streak into Marcus’s secret starship and tumble-roll to Scotty — oh, and that Carol Marcus scene. Put it all together with the scenes that make no sense (like the undersea hideout for the Enterprise: what, they couldn’t stay in orbit and dispatch some red shirts to observe the indigenous folks and their erupting volcano? Why is Spock lowered into the volcano with the bomb? Something wrong with the transporter that they couldn’t just beam the bomb into the throat of the volcano? Maybe it’s the saltwater, as Scotty feared) and you end up with a mixed-up story that itself goes blithely Into Darkness.
The Prime Directive for future Star Trek films: Tell a coherent story.
Star Trek Into Darkness is in theaters nationwide as of May 16, 2013.
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