Tuesday, May 14, 2013

EARLY REVIEW: STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS



The folks in charge of Star Trek these days have said that it took them four years to produce a sequel to their 2009 hit because they didn’t want to rush things, they wanted to take their time and make sure they got it right. Judging from the finished product, they should’ve taken another four years. 

As a movie, Star Trek Into Darkness is no better than passable. As a Star Trek movie, it ranks among the worst. It has some good, strong moments, but they’re buried inside a loud, sloppy, unfocused, derivative film that doesn’t seem to know what it’s about, and that fails to follow through when it actually introduces an innovative and intriguing idea. 

For example, Captain James T. Kirk, once again played by Chris Pine, is demoted to Commander after a mission on an alien world goes awry. He’s now slated to be the first officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise, the ship that he had commanded, and will serve under returning Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood, also returning from the previous film and once again delivering a fine performance). This is an interesting turn of events, one we’ve never seen before, and one that promises some very interesting character dynamics. Too bad it goes absolutely nowhere and the status quo is restored within about five minutes.

Returning screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci are now joined by Damon Lindelof, who co-created Lost and wrote last year’s major misfire, Prometheus. Their work on Star Trek Into Darkness is, for the most part, generic. There are no truly memorable lines of dialogue, not even from Dr. McCoy (once again played by Karl Urban, who does the best he can with what he’s given). There are no particularly compelling character arcs. The main plot hinges on the villain seeking vengeance—which is what the previous film was about. Two films in a row with the same basic theme? That’s something the six films starring the original cast managed to avoid. 

Things happen in this movie, and characters pop in, not because they make sense or help move the plot along, but because the filmmakers apparently felt they were “cool.” Just two examples: Early in the film, the Enterprise rises from the bottom of the ocean on an alien planet after trying to remain hidden from the primitive beings that live there—a very dramatic and well executed visual, but why was the ship down there in the first place? Why didn’t it just remain in orbit, where there was no risk of it ever being observed? And while it’s certainly nice to see a certain cast member from the original TV series have a scene in this movie, the scene serves no real purpose. 

The screenwriters, along with returning director JJ Abrams, also display a distinct lack of understanding of who the main characters are. Their handling of Kirk is particularly appalling. In short, he’s an ass. He’s portrayed as a sleazy horndog who beds multiple alien women at the same time, and who seems to think that the only way to resolve a conflict is with his fists or a phaser pistol. William Shatner’s James Kirk was a ladies’ man, to be sure, but he wasn’t a creep—and he was as much of a diplomat as he was an explorer and a military leader. This was a guy who could talk planet-ruling computers into short-circuiting themselves. Chris Pine’s Kirk is a bruiser, a reckless, thickheaded know-it-all and a real jerk where women are concerned.




It should be noted that at certain points in the film, Kirk also comes off like Indiana Jones and Han Solo. It seems like Abrams and company want him to be pretty much anybody but James T. Kirk.  And that’s a real shame, because James T. Kirk is a great character in his own right. Too bad his current caretakers don’t seem to appreciate that fact. 

As for Zachary Quinto’s Spock—instead of drifting closer and closer to Leonard Nimoy’s portrayal, which one would quite reasonably expect as the character matures and develops, he’s drifting further and further away. He’s way too emotional and intense, two words that shouldn’t be used to describe Spock. 

Along the same lines—I really wish Abrams and company would end the romance between Spock and Zoe Saldana’s Lieutenant Uhura. It’s not interesting and it makes Uhura far more prominent than she should be, at the expense of Dr. McCoy. The heart of Classic Star Trek is the trinity of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy: the captain at the center, with the science officer representing his logical side and the doctor representing his compassion and humanity. Spock’s girlfriend isn’t part of this triangle. 



(Uhura does have a great scene in this film in which she confronts a team of angry Klingons and addresses them boldly in their native language. It’s nice that she gets some time to shine, and that she gets to show off her impressive abilities as Chief Communications Officer—something Nichelle Nichols rarely got to do when she played the character. But I don’t think her function in the grand scheme of things should extend much further than that—call me old school.) 

The rest of the supporting cast—Simon Pegg as Scotty, John Cho as Sulu, and Anton Yelchin as Chekov—are fine here. Pegg’s Scotty is actually one of the highlights.




It’s no secret that Dr. Carol Marcus, a character introduced in 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan as Kirk’s old flame and the mother of his son David, appears in this film. Originally portrayed by Bibi Besch, Carol is now played by the stunningly beautiful British actress Alice Eve. 


But like many of the other key characters in this movie, she’s Carol Marcus in name only. Eve, who has dropped her British accent convincingly for other roles, retains it here for some reason. (Needless to say, Besch’s Carol was not British.) And in this film, Dr. Marcus is shown to be a weapons specialist instead of a molecular biologist researching the possibility of reorganizing matter at the subatomic level. And there’s virtually no chemistry between her and Kirk. 


So why call her Carol Marcus? Why not just make her an all-new character? The cynical part of me can’t help but think that this was just a way to pillage from The Wrath of Khan, still the most popular Star Trek movie of all.  

And then there’s Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays the central villain. 



I can’t comment much about him or his character without revealing a major plot twist. I’d never seen Cumberbatch’s work until this film, but I do know that he’s a very popular actor and that he currently plays Sherlock Holmes in a widely acclaimed BBC TV series. And if he were playing a different character in Star Trek Into Darkness, particularly one we’ve never seen before, I’d say that he did an adequate enough job. Without giving too much away, I will state that, considering the character Cumberbatch is actually playing, this was miscasting of the highest order. Which is appropriate, I guess, because the part is written and directed completely wrong too, to the point of distraction. I don’t think it’ll work for longtime Star Trek fans. And I don’t think newcomers will be particularly impressed either. 

As far as I’m concerned, this shows just how much Abrams and his team don’t fully understand the property they’re working on. This surprises me, because overall, I thought they did a good job on the previous movie. They do seem to get it on a superficial level, but no more than that. They don’t really grasp the essence, unlike producer Harve Bennett and writer/director Nicholas Meyer, who, as total newcomers to the series, successfully recaptured the spirit of Star Trek when they made The Wrath of Khan.

It’s clear that Abrams and company are very much aware of the long shadow that The Wrath of Khan casts over the franchise to this day, considering how much they crib from it in the new movie, right down to dialogue, imagery, and key plot points—to the point where the only appropriate response is an exasperated groan.

It’s also clear just how much Abrams prefers the work of George Lucas over that of Gene Roddenberry. In addition to trying to turn Captain Kirk into one of Lucas’s Harrison Ford-portrayed characters, Abrams begins the film with an impossible-to-miss homage to the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. In a later scene, he does a riff on the asteroid field sequence from The Empire Strikes Back, with Kirk, Spock, and Uhura in a ship that looks suspiciously like the Millennium Falcon.

Star Trek Into Darkness most likely ends JJ Abrams’s direct involvement with the series. As you probably know, he’s heading off to direct Star Wars: Episode VII, to which I say, “I wish it had happened sooner—preferably before this movie got made.” At least on his next film, Abrams will keep the Lucas worship where it belongs.

As for Star Trek Into Darkness, personally, I think you’d be better served watching the classic 1967 TV episode “Space Seed,” followed by Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I consider that combo a far more satisfying viewing experience—Star Trek at its best. And if the franchise continues in this current direction, it may be a long while before we see that again. 


© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2013.

16 comments:

  1. Don't mince words, Glenn, what did you REALLY think?

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    1. Given that line, Marc, I believe this is the appropriate response (imagine me saying it in DeForest Kelley's voice):

      Marc, I'm your disciple, and I'm your friend. Watch WRATH OF KHAN again. Watch it again instead of seeing this new movie... instead of throwing away your hard-earned money...

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  2. Im still gonna see it. Im sure Ill be disappointed, but I gotta see it!

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  3. Dang!

    I was hoping this would be a film, but when watching the trailer, and of course our conversations, this version Star Trek is really Star Wars.

    Also, like you mentioned weeks ago, the film(s) are too much about the antagonist and revenge. There is nothing about exploration and the "trek" within the title.

    Good review , Glenn

    E.R.

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  4. I hadn't been feeling this one for a while and since you and I are pretty much of like minds when it comes to all things Trek, I'm just glad I got to read your review so I'm prepared for the suckitude to come. I kind of wish I hadn't already purchased my ticket and had instead opted to stay home and finish re-reading THUNDERBALL.

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  5. You have been and always shall be...my friend!

    -TT

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  6. Good review. I totally agree. Thanks for letting us know your opinion.

    Francisco Espinosa.

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  7. Finally a reviewer who echoed my feelings about how much JJ has cheapened the characters of Star Trek -- particularly Captain Kirk. I so relate to just about everything you said above. I'm hoping JJ really IS done with Trek but I actually wish he'd never started...

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  8. Star Trek purists cannot just sit bak and enjoy a fun movie. Nerds like Greg Kirkman have to sneer at anything new because they are no longer self styled experts on the franchise.

    Abrams made ST mainstream and the nerds cannot accept that the general public is in their clubhouse. Boo hoo.

    Abrams took a dull franchise and revived it into a fun money making machine. Get used to it children

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  9. Let's not equate Glenn Greenberg with Greg Kirkman, please.

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  10. Glen--Nice write-up. I agree with most of your main points, but I can't find myself getting too worked up over this misfire of a Trek film. On a non-Trek level, it actually entertained me. Take a look at my DeFlip Side review and compare notes if you'd like. Warning: it's full of SPOILERS. http://deflipside.com/?p=5855

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  11. I'm slightly confused by the review. On the one hand you lambaste it for being derivative, but on the other you're complaining about the characters being different from the originals.

    First of let me say that as a long time Star Trek fan, I was VERY unhappy when I heard that Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Damon Lindelof were given the reins of this movie. The first two "wrote" Transformers 2 and Prometheus was absolutely atrocious. These three guys couldn't write a logical, plot-hole-free story if their lives depended on it. Don't get me started on JJ, he's more of an accountant than a fan of sci-fi. He can see what people think is cool about something and strip it of everything else and package it in a way that appeals to the masses, while simultaneously killing anything good or original about it, i.e. its soul.

    I went into this movie totally ready to hate it, and I even did at first with the opening scene and the violation of the Prime Directive. Regardless of the indigenous population seeing the ship, they should never have been saved in the first place. Nobody really raised properly that point and this pissed me off from the get go, but by and large I liked this movie way more than the first JJ Trek movie.

    Ok, so now you know my feelings on those currently handling the franchise and I'm no fan of the 1st one and I am actually very reluctant to defend those assholes but:

    I think the Carol Marcus thing was just a nod to the old movies nothing more and I'm fine with that. I wasn't fine with the gratuitous shot of her in her undies. That was irritating.

    Kirk IS different but this Kirk's encounter with Khan is waaaay sooner in his career(before the original 5 year mission) than when Shatner's Kirk encounters him. Also Kirk's dad died prematurely in this universe so it kind of makes sense that Pine's Kirk would be different in many ways. Kirk himself told Spock in the Origial series that he was kind of boring at SF Academy.

    Same applies to this Spock vs Original Spock, seeing your home-world destroyed and failing to save your mother will change you. Him being more emotional could easily be explained by the fact that since his mother's loss he's embracing his human half more...or something..

    The Kirk-Spock-McCoy trinity was thrown under the bus in the first film so you can't say you liked that movie and then complain about this now. RedLetterMedia.com nailed it when they said (referring to ST 1) that you can't have three main guys anymore, you need a woman. So Uhura gets bumped up at the expense of Bones. The relationship between her and Spock is shite, true, but it prevents a Kirk-Uhura 'will-they won't-they?'scenario which would suck more.

    This movie was flawed, certainly, in lots of ways, but nowhere near as bad as the first one, which was nonsensical and waaay flashier with zero substance. This one had actual character development and good action scenes. It also had some not-so-subtle allusions to issues we're currently facing. Which is at the core of all Trek.

    I hate JJ, Roberto, Alex and Damon. They are precisely what's wrong with the current fad of "embracing" geek/nerd-culture but this movie was so much better than anything any of them have ever done previously.

    And for the record, Wrath of Kahn was a far from perfect film. There, I said it. Lock phasers...

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    1. "I'm slightly confused by the review. On the one hand you lambaste it for being derivative, but on the other you're complaining about the characters being different from the originals."

      Give me a break, Anonymous. I never expected or wanted the characters to be different from the originals. And I'd say the majority of the audience--whether they're longtime Star Trek fans or not--feel the same way. But I think most of the audience expects and wants to see innovation and originality when it comes to plot and story, not recycled materials from much-beloved, better-made TV episodes and movies. And that's as much of a response as you're going to get out of me on this. Don't try so hard to look for "inconsistencies" in my opinions.


      "I went into this movie totally ready to hate it"

      Why'd you even bother to see it, then? Who goes to a movie that they fully expect to hate? I for one have got better things to spend my money on.



      "The Kirk-Spock-McCoy trinity was thrown under the bus in the first film so you can't say you liked that movie and then complain about this now."

      Just watch me.


      "I hate JJ, Roberto, Alex and Damon."

      What did they do, kill your dog? You can dislike their work. You can choose not to support their work (which you don't seem willing to do, seeing as how you went to see a movie that you were "totally ready to hate"). But to HATE them? Because they created movies that you didn't like? Pretty harsh, don't you think?

      "Wrath of Kahn was a far from perfect film."

      Never said it was. But 31 years later, it's still revered as among the very best that Star Trek ever had to offer. Will people be seeing the same about INTO DARKNESS 31 years from now?

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    2. Thank God I've not seen this movie and definitely have no plans to.

      You know, Glenn, comments like "Abrams made ST mainstream and the nerds cannot accept that the general public is in their clubhouse. Boo hoo. Abrams took a dull franchise and revived it into a fun money making machine. Get used to it children" remind me of the character of Luke in the Percy Jackson movie. That is, a bunch of spoiled kids who want everything to belong to them. I hate it when the "Me generation" gets a hold of something from my childhood and makes it "trendy."

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  12. "ST:ID" kinda sealed the feelings I had about "JJTrek" from the first one... It's a "comic book" style of Trek, in no way does it capture the humanity and greatness of the original, or even TNG and the subsequent series that followed them, let alone the films.

    From the opening sequence of the first "JJTrek" film, I got the distinct impression I was sitting through another comic-book type film-- even the "over grandiose superhero" music reinforced that impression. The visuals, while stunning, were done in a "dumbed down" way that really didn't appeal to me as a long-time Trekker... Main engineering looked more like a brewery than a starship. I read somewhere someone described the bridge set as looking like "an Apple store" and that's pretty much spot on. The story was similarly cavalier about crapping all over the original (destroying Vulcan-- REALLY??) and doing it in a nonsensical way (you have to hang your beam-drill from a chain thousands of miles long-- it can drill through thousands of miles of rock to a planet core but can't peirce a few dozen miles of atmosphere from a couple hundred miles up? The aforementioned "throwaway sets" of the engineering section and bridge... along with the atmospheric processor of the ship being some giant space Cuisinart fed water through a hamster maze of clear pipes through which Scotty is being flushed-- talk about 'cheap laughs' that were TOTALLY stupid!) Maybe that sort of thing is cool with the typical "mall rats" that 95% of Hollywood fare is aimed at luring into the theatre nowdays, but for the rest of us... not so much. "Into Darkness" was an even worse treatment of the subject. It was a poor rip-off of "The Wrath of Khan", pure and simple. You couldn't be more right about the atrocious miscasting of "Khan". While I'm sure the guy is a fine actor, his characterization of Khan wouldn't hold up as one of Khan's nameless henchmen... It was just awful. The mischaracterization of the main characters you mentioned is spot-on too.

    Although torn, I tried, REALLY TRIED, to like "JJTrek", to give it a chance. The first movie made up for some of the more aggregious gaffes (like the ripoff of "Thelma and Louise" with Kirk in his uncles car falling off an enormous cliff-- IN IOWA??!? o~O Anyway, the casting and their performances of the characters made up for the silly interpretation of the Trek universe. Unfortunately there was NOTHING like this to redeem "Into Darkness".

    The best *I* can say about these new Trek films is, they're a fun two-hour romp... but they CANNOT hold a candle to "classic Trek" (in whatever incarnation) because the things that made Trek REALLY appealing and memorable are notoriously missing. They're a "comic book movie" type of Trek... which to be clear, there's nothing wrong with a comic book movie per se, but if I wanted to see a superhero movie like "Captain America" or "X-Men", I'd go see that instead-- I don't want to see "Trek" done in that style... to me it just cheapens the whole thing to a forgettable Saturday afternoon movie...

    Later! OL JR :)

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  13. BTW, REALLY have enjoyed reading all your and Maddie's takes on the various films and TV shows... great stuff. I've been doing much the same with my nine year old.

    Given the dearth of decent programming on TV nowdays, we've been watching "The Six Million Dollar Man", "Bionic Woman", and "CHiPs" for the past couple years... After watching "The A-Team" DVD's borrowed from her uncle (which I was a big fan of back in the day, but found rather hokey and dated watching them now, but Keira found VERY entertaining-- she especially liked Mr. T as BA Baracus...) we've grown to enjoy 70's and 80's TV shows on DVD FAR more than anything currently broadcast on satellite or cable...

    Keep up the good work and I'm looking forward to more reviews from you and Maddie!

    Later! OL JR :)

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