Star Trek Into Darkness, poorly punctuated title and all, is a perfectly fine large-scale summer adventure movie. But it’s not much more than that, and that’s a shame. (Spoilers ahead.)
To clarify: J.J. Abrams’ sequel to his wildly successful 2009 reboot of the monumentally popular franchise has no obligation to please me and my tastes. But since I have to pay money in order to see it by legal means, it does have a responsibility to provide me with a satisfying viewing experience that I couldn’t have gotten from watching a different movie. And that’s where this movie fails. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: it’s fine. It’s big, it’s loud, it’s colorful, it’s often very well-acted and it’s propulsively enjoyable. But it doesn’t do anything that I haven’t seen in many other movies.
For one thing, it’s an origin story dressed up as a sequel. By the end of the film, Kirk has established himself and the Enterprise is setting out on a five-year mission to attend to the business that it has always attended to, exploring the universe and its infinite possibilities. But it’s taken two whole movies to get to that point. At one point in Into Darkness, Scotty vocalizes this complaint when he objects to firing the torpedoes. The Enterprise is supposed to be searching and discovering, not seeking and destroying, he says. And I think I might have preferred the former to the latter. Why? Because I can see seeking and destroying in a vast majority of the action movies coming out in 2013. But searching and discovering? That’s far more rare, especially on a canvas this wide. The screenwriters acknowledged that this movie’s premise doesn’t represent the essence of the Enterprise, but they didn’t have the guts to embrace that essence.
Perhaps it’s unfair to complain about the idea for the story when I wasn’t in the writers’ room to hear the logic behind it. Fair enough. But I can complain about several story points that really frustrated me, once again, because they lacked originality and freshness. Here are a few tropes I can do without in narrative films for the foreseeable future.
A favorite supporting character from the original film dies in the early minutes of the sequel, spurring our hero to seek revenge. I was disappointed when Captain Pine bit the dust for a few reasons. One, I like Bruce Greenwood. Two, it was the easiest way to initiate a story, and I’ve seen it too many times before.
Our hero sacrifices himself to save his family/friends/crew and appears to die, only to be saved by some miracle/deus ex machina moments later. I did not believe for one second that Captain Kirk would die. For one, he was the character we spent the most time with and the one we were clearly supposed to care about above all others. Second of all, he’s on the poster! Unassailable evidence! But in all seriousness, this trope has got to go. It’s a complete waste of my time – I know he’s going to come back, so I don’t need to feel the emotions the movie wants me to feel.
Uh-oh. The movie’s central romantic figures are fighting. I wonder if they’ll stay together! Wow, what a surprise! They do. Even worse, this movie barely bothers to develop the contrived conflict in any meaningful way. We get one scene of Spock explaining his philosophy on emotions to Uhura on the way to Klingon, and a few scenes later, they kiss. I’m not even sure we see them speak to each other for more than three seconds for the entire rest of the movie. Abrams & Company have struggled to integrate this relationship into the larger story since the first film, but they arguably did better last time.
The villain has a secret or two. Let’s give him several long expository monologues to explain it in greater detail than a nefarious character of this sort would ever do in “real life.” Don’t get me wrong here. Benedict Cumberbatch totally delivers on the expectations the news of his casting established. He’s menacing but just ambiguous enough to be convincingly manipulative. And if anyone is going to make a clunky monologue sound like poetry, it’s him. But even he can’t save the movie from this cliche. I understand why the exposition was necessary and I understand why the exposition was tactically beneficial to Khan at the time that he delivers it. I don’t understand, however, why the movie couldn’t have found a way to show us this backstory instead of telling us. You have the power of the visual at your disposal; use it.
I could go on here. The supporting character (in this case, Anton Yelchin’s plucky but underutilized Chekhov) who disappears during the climax of the movie only to save the day just in time. The handy defeat of the previously indestructible villain by questionable means. The villain-as-terrorist allegory. The otherworldly cantina filled with wacky creatures, which feels like a tamer rehash of a famous scene from Star Wars. (Perhaps Abrams got his movie franchise projects confused; he’s directing Star Wars Episode VII next.)
I have a few more criticisms to impart, but I don’t want to bury my praise too far down. Chris Pine is really good in this movie. Shockingly good, even given his capable and funny performance in “Star Trek.” Even when the script wasn’t selling me on the emotions I was supposed to be feeling, he convinced me as both a firm but reckless captain and a conflicted rookie still finding his way. Also, the movie does avoid one particularly annoying summer movie trope, that of the ever-expanding pileup of explosions and cacophany. This movie builds to its high-octane moments with finesse, and it’s not afraid of meaningful dialogue between characters for minutes at a time. (It may sound like I’m reaching, but have you seen Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman’s Transformers movies?) And as with the original, it’s visually striking and convincingly epic.
Cliches are inevitable. I’m not even sure they should be as taboo as they are. But when these cliches overwhelm the possiblities for inventiveness and creativity that lie within this movie universe, I can’t forgive them. A Star Trek movie should capture my imagination, but this one left me wanting more.
Beyond Kirk and Spock, I knew very little about the other characters: Chekhov is Russian, Bones is wisecrack-y, Uhura is spunky and pretty, Scotty is energetic and quick-witted, Sulu is…capable? I don’t know. In the first movie, I accepted these thinly drawn characterizations, assuming that we would spend more time with these characters in future installments. Unfortunately, the Into Darkness doesn’t do much more with the Enterprise crew than the original did. I still don’t know anything about these characters: why are they on their ship? What do they think about the events of these two movies? Why should I care about them as anything more than screentime fillers? Diehard fans have an advantage, in that they can plug in their memories of earlier versions of the characters to fill in the gaps for these ciphers. But I’m flying blind, and I want more. The actors are capable of far more than they’re being asked to do.
I don’t want to be overly harsh on Star Trek Into Darkness. As I’ve said several times, I think it’s a well-produced summer blockbuster and a decent addition to the series. I enjoyed it, but it didn’t excite me the way the last one did. I watched the last one again a few days ago, and it held up as an effective introduction to what promised to be a meaty reboot series. After Star Trek Into Darkness, I’m still waiting for the main course.