At some point in the first third of the new Star Trek film, Simon Pegg’s character Scotty asks, “I thought we were explorers?” He is confused by Captain Kirk’s sudden interest in becoming the archetypical action hero, saving the day by killing the enemy. Pegg’s interview with online entertainment publication io9 reveals why he asked the question: “I think that Scotty feels that everything that is happening is so besides the point, so besides what they’re supposed to be for.” Therein lies the real problem with Star Trek Into Darkness, the sequel to 2009’s Star Trek, a blockbuster revival of the cult series. J.J. Abrams returns to direct the sequel after leading the first film to box office success and critical acclaim. Made famous by his obsessive use of lens flare, Abrams reuses many of the same elements that made the first film successful but he doesn’t present anything new in the process. Into Darkness is much more clinical than Star Trek, sacrificing the humanity that made the first film such a refreshing revival and turning the series into yet another generic action franchise.
Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto return to their roles as Kirk and Spock, respectively, and continue to excel through the chemistry of their partnership. It seems that nothing has really changed from the first film to the second, giving the feeling of picking up exactly where we left these characters. Kirk is still the womanizer turned reluctant hero and Spock is still the logic-minded Vulcan whose loyalty is unmatched. The thrilling opening sequence presents the best in both characters. The Enterprise goes on a mission to protect the civilization on the planet Nibiru but the plan goes awry when Spock’s attempt to sacrifice himself leads to Kirk panicking and allowing the ship to be seen by the primitive civilization. Meanwhile, the mysterious John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) is bombing buildings and causing mass destruction on Earth. When Harrison escapes Earth, Starfleet Command tells Kirk, Spock and company to go on a rogue mission to find him and kill him.
This brings us back to Scotty’s big question, “I thought we were explorers?” The line is almost presented as a warning to the audience that the wide-eyed idealism and revealing character moments of the first film would not be present in this one. Relying heavily on choreographed action sequences, the film simply does not allow for a reprieve from the violence, which lasts from the second act to the majority of the third act. The characters are presented as being brainy enough to outwit their opponents while also holding their own in physical battles. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a Trekkie. In fact, going into this film, I hadn’t experienced any part of the Star Trek franchise except the 2009 film. I’m not saying that Abrams got the characters wrong or that they don’t behave in the same ways that I believe they would and therefore the film is bad. What I take issue with is the fact that the film feels like a formulaic replica of the type of blockbuster that comes out every summer. The irreverent charm of the 2009 film is missing in this one, leaving us with a self-serious action flick that conflicts with the characters themselves.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s John Harrison is the type of villain seen in recent gritty blockbuster films The Dark Knight and Skyfall. One scene, in which Harrison is locked in an air-tight prison**, is presented in the exact same way as The Joker’s in The Dark Knight and Raoul Silva’s in Skyfall. Harrison is the mastermind villain who proves to be more powerful through his mind games than his actions. We’ve seen it all before. However, Cumberbatch does give a great performance in the role, hamming it up and dialing it back when he needs to. There is an intensity to the way he carries himself that makes him a menacing figure, both in size and confidence. Unfortunately, his character ultimately feels underwritten by the end of the film, though he’s not the only one. Almost every character serves simply as a mouthpiece to explain what’s going on around them or what is about to happen. Zoe Saldana’s Nyota and Karl Urban’s “Bones”, both well-developed characters in the first film, are given nothing to do but spout off lines of exposition. Though Kirk and Spock are involved in most of the film’s action scenes, neither character has a particularly interesting arc. The real lead of the film is the action itself, which often missed for me more than it hit.
**I’m not revealing anything huge, since this happens relatively early in the film.
After the film was over, I had no idea how I felt about the 133 minutes I just experienced. Sure, I laughed in parts, particularly at some of Pegg’s lines. I was engaged during the opening sequence, which featured interesting shot compositions and beautiful visuals. But more often than not, I felt myself tuning out of the film due to lack of interest. Action films are one of my least favorite film genres, so I do have a personal bias that must be accounted for, but when done right, an action flick can thrill me like any Oscar-caliber film I’ve ever seen. It’s all about the pauses in between the action. As a filmmaker, you need to give the audience a chance to take in what they just witnessed. Abrams and company seem to believe that the audience needs pulse-pounding action IN YOUR FACE nonstop for 3/4 of the film. Who knows, maybe moviegoing audiences have an easier time taking in action sequence after action sequence than I do. After a while, the action becomes the norm of the film, rendering it on the same level for 2+ hours. When I knew the film was resolving, I couldn’t get over the fact that I simply didn’t care about anything I had just witnessed. Aside from some witty scenes, the opening sequence and the performances of the actors, Star Trek Into Darkness did nothing for me, both as a student of film and as a guy who just likes going to the movies.
P.S.: The plot development at the end of the film is one of the most ludicrous things I’ve seen in a film in a long time, especially for what it implies for future Trek films.
MVP: Benedict Cumberbatch