Movie Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

 Star Trek Into Darkness succeeds as a film despite numerous flaws and moments of brainlessness and poor decision making, much like Captain James T. Kirk himself. I've been a very vocal critic of JJ Abrams and his 2009 reboot of Star Trek. Despite getting the stamp of approval from the majority of one of the most notoriously critical fan bases in all of geekdom, I felt like the film was often getting by solely on the strength of its iconography. It preyed upon preexisting emotional attachments to characters and relied on those feelings to carry it and mask the fact that it was (in my opinion) an incredibly flawed and mediocre story, script, and cast that would not have made me care about those characters if they had gone by any other names. Still, it was a relief that Hollywood didn't totally destroy it, and I was looking forward to Star Trek Into Darkness with cautious optimism. It is with great joy (and immense relief) that I can say the movie did not disappoint, and far exceeded my expectations.

Having taken care of the troublesome business of establishing character roles and relationships in the first film, this impressive sequel has the freedom to dive straight into the action. We reconnect with the crew of the Starship Enterprise in the midst of them botching a routine mission to the Class M planet of Nibiru, and dealing with the ensuing drama and chaos. Older incarnations of Star Trek managed, with varying degrees of success, a delicate balance between brains and brawn. The opening moments here were a great throwback to some of the better action sequences of the original series, where characters juggled action, humor, suspense, and character growth all at once. One of the main joys of Star Trek, particularly in the original series, was observing how the characters dealt with those ridiculous situations, and all of that is present here.

The plot is thin and somewhat convoluted, with the first half of the film feeling like classic Trek and J.J. Abrams hitting the necessary marks with success. The film lost me somewhat in the second half with some forced twists and occasionally heavy handed political messages, but let's be honest: the real strength of the Star Trek series to me, in any incarnation, was never in the story, but in the characters and how well they worked together as an ensemble.

The heart of this film lies in the relationship between Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) and the two of them have terrific chemistry together. The internet is already exploding with gifs/slash fiction/bromance tumblrs and the like, and with good reason. Every scene between these two held my attention, and I wouldn't have been caught off guard in the slightest if Kirk had leaned in for a kiss at any point. I was very critical of Pine's performance in the first film, thinking that he had all of the obnoxiousness of William Shatner with none of his endearing qualities, but he's grown quite a bit as an actor since then. Through the course of these two hours we see him go to some dark places and watch him grow up a little, and it was very well done. The real star of this movie, however, is Zachary Quinto. He builds on his stellar performance in the last film and takes Spock to places even the great Leonard Nimoy never managed to go. Even when the writing is mediocre or sloppy (which is often), he sells the hell out of this performance and makes me believe every moment of it. It would be incredibly easy for a lesser actor to take this material and turn Spock's struggles between his human and Vulcan halves into an intolerable whiny emo bathroom break, but he applies a deft touch to emotional range and inner conflict and steals the entire movie for me with no exceptions. Quinto is not Hayden Christensen and I love him for it. Without question, he is the best part of this film for me, and the reason why I will see it again.

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is somewhat sacrificed for the sake of diving so deeply into the Kirk/Spock relationship. We get a few nice moments with Uhura (Zoe Saldana) but her chemistry with Quinto is nonexistent and I never quite buy their relationship, which is thankfully sidelined for the majority of the film after some amusing but meaningless early scenes. I was initially not a fan of Saldana's take on Uhura, thinking she wasn't strong enough to fill the stylish boots of Nichelle Nichols and offering nothing more than a beautiful face, but she too stepped it up here and I was actually wanting more of her. Simon Pegg, who felt like comedic stunt casting in the last film, also has a wonderful moment where he brings a surprising depth of courage and conviction to Scotty that I really appreciated. Karl Urban's performance as Dr. McCoy sometimes seems as if he studied Deforest Kelley's Bones-iest moments a little too closely -- he's a great imitator, but sometimes I'd actually like to see him bring more of his own take on the performance. Unfortunately, the writers don't seem to want to give him much of a chance to do so, as they too seem as if they spent too much time combing the script of Star Trek IV for Urban's dialogue. Alice Eve is underwhelming in her debut as Carol Marcus, and the rest of the cast is criminally underutilized throughout the film. I understand that there's only so much that can be crammed into two hours (Abrams is not Peter Jackson, for better or worse) but it does leave me wishing for more time to watch these characters grow. Abrams's work on television was great with character moments, and with that knowledge I almost wish that this was a TV series rather than something forced into the "big summer blockbuster" box, because I would like to see what he would do with these characters with some more time and the creative decisions that got made without access to astronomical Hollywood budgets. When an $84 million opening weekend is being considered a "disappointment" by the studio, I feel nothing but frustration and revulsion for all the usual Hollywood bullshit.

A film can only be as strong as its villain, and Benedict Cumberbatch does a great job with very weak material. One of the most poorly handled and disappointing scenes in the film was when they forced this poor actor to do an awkward over-long exposition scene where he has to explain his entire plot and back story like the villain at the end of a Scooby Doo episode. Benedict Cumbersome. Beyond that, though, he does a good job of scaring the audience as well as the crew of the Enterprise. There is always something delightfully unnerving about a villain that you know is not only smarter than you but also seems to know what fork to use at a fancy dinner and how to fold a fitted sheet -- the Martha Stewart of sci-fi antagonists. Like Martha, a large part of Cumberbatch's chilling effectiveness lies in the calm and measured quality of his distinctive voice, and I'm looking forward to hearing him as Smaug this winter.

The film throws in plenty of nods to the past that will delight and annoy Trek fans depending on their individual dispositions. It's tough to not get emotional at the first sight of The Enterprise rising from the water early in the film, and I know that a second Leonard Nimoy cameo probably was not strictly necessary, but if I had a problem with it in my notes, the tears falling (FROM SOMEONE ELSE'S EYES) may have smudged it and made it unreadable. Abrams is aware of this and does at times seem to be milking us for our tears. Yes, there is a moment toward the end of the film where a certain very-iconic line is shouted, and people seem to be sharply divided on whether or not this was a terrible idea, but you got the sense while watching the film that it would be inevitable. Thankfully there are plenty of more subtle winks and nods to reward long time fans of the series, including a few that I didn't catch and had to have explained to me.

There is so much to love about this film, which makes my frustrations largely irrelevant but somewhat jarring. There were times that I just wanted it to go deeper (never a satisfying feeling in any context) -- there are major large scale events happening in the Federation here, as well as some tough decisions made by those involved, and I would like to just once see the consequences of these events. Without spoiling anything, the ending feels very much neatly tidied up as if nothing of the previous two hours had mattered at all. It's all very glossy and very Hollywood -- I want to see some of the blood, tears, and grittiness of the characters having to live with themselves and move on with their lives in the aftermath of these events. Still, all of these complaints are swept aside the moment I hear the first note of that iconic theme and the mission statement of the Enterprise is spoken aloud.

And that is probably the point of the whole thing. For all its awkward script problems and plot holes that make the brain ache, Star Trek Into Darkness delivers where it matters: in the heart. There were glimpses of the sense of excitement and exploration that made me and so many others fall in love with the series at an early age, and as the franchise continues, I'd like them to work harder at cultivating that sense of whimsy. I sometimes find Star Trek's optimistic and hopeful version humanity's future to be anachronistic and irrelevant in light of how badly we are fucking ourselves up and how terrible we are as a species, but its precisely those reasons why I think this series is just as important now than in the early days when it was serving as a pioneer for diversity on Television. Star Trek at its best represents humanity itself at its best. At a time when its very difficult to imagine a future where we don't blow up ourselves and our planet before we even have a chance to explore others, Star Trek offers the now almost impossible idea that, just like J.J. Abrams has done, we somehow manage to get things right.   Rating: B+

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on May 20, 2013