Star Trek Into Darkness

I want to write about everything that's wrong with Star Trek: Into Darkness, but it's difficult to know where to start.  Do I begin with big, obvious complaints, like the fact that the movie is yet another entry in the now bankrupt trend of remaking and rebooting every existing property in Hollywood? Or should I zoom in on the hundreds of details in this film that are annoying, ill-conceived, or just plain sloppy? Since both of these critical approaches can be applied almost identically to all too many modern tent-pole productions, and since most such films don’t merit a lengthy, well-reasoned analysis, I’ll do my best to keep this short, and to speak to the specifics of this particular picture.

I'm a fan of many properties in the Star Trek canon, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, is one of my twenty-five favorite films of all time, so I wasn’t going to miss the second of the rebooted films. Star Trek, J. J. Abrams’s initial entry in the franchise, was not a good movie by any criteria I can come up with, but Abrams and his screenwriters deserved credit for trying to do something fresh and inventive.  The spry prequel was intended to restart the series while remaining faithful to its founding spirit, and to attract a younger audience without upsetting the older fans that had kept the property alive for decades, and, at the very least, I appreciated that effort. This sequel, however, lacks the semi-redeeming novelty of creating an alternate history for familiar characters and we are left with just the dull combination of self-conscious writing and bombastic but meaningless spectacle that prevented the new Star Trek series from being any thing more than an interesting failure.

This second film is even guiltier of recycling characters, plot points, philosophical musings, and even entire sequences from the old films and pumping them up without enriching or examining them from a fresh perspective. In many cases this picture actually degrades much of what it sets out to strengthen and augment. The filmmakers seem to want the audience to be conscious of what they are doing with the material at the cost of enabling us to fully engage with what the characters are doing. The picture speeds by at such a breakneck speed and with such casual, throwaway humor that no dramatic tension is ever created. The stakes never feel real in any of the action sequences and when emotional scenes between the characters arrive, they feel labored and self-aware.

Screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (who wrote the highly profitable but creatively bereft Transformers, The Island, Watchmen and Cowboys & Aliens) and Damon Lindelof (co-creator, with Abrams, of the television show Lost, and writer of Prometheus, last year’s unforgivably bad Alien prequel) are three of the best-paid and most sought-after screenwriters of all time, but their scripts have the distinctly amateurish feel of online fan fiction. In fact, I'll wager there are many fan fiction writers out there who can handle exposition more gracefully than these high-priced scribes. One of my biggest complaints about Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises was how much his characters had to engage in laughably explicit expository dialogue while simultaneously running, jumping, and beating each other up, but Kurtzman, Orci and Lindelof take this style of exposition to a new level of absurdity. And in a futuristic world in which flying vehicles and teleportation are the primary means of transportation, how can anyone take it seriously when the main character uses the conspicuously faddish colloquialism “throw me under the bus?” Is that really the best these uber-scribes can muster? 

What set the original 1982 Star Trek II apart from almost every other reboot in film history was producer/writer Harve Bennett and director Nicholas Meyer’s brilliant use of the well-established character dynamics and rich cultural history inherent in a TV show that had become an American touchstone, to explore powerful and universal truths about aging, mortality, friendship and sacrifice. This moive is clearly too interested in its shiny exterior to delve into its potential for real emotional and philosophical depth. 

Rather than giving us substantive moments of connection to the protagonists, Abrams and company toss off a few scenes between characters who amount to no more than flimsy outlines, with a few inside nods to the original series thrown in for the sake of nostalgia. It would be unfair not to single out Karl Urban as Dr. McCoy, Simon Pegg as "Scotty," and, especially, Zachary Quinto as Mr. Spock, all of who adeptly call to mind their original characters while still bringing something fresh and enjoyable to their performances. The same cannot be said of the rest of the large cast, including Benedict Cumberbatch, whose characterization of the film's villain is limited to the affectation of an imposingly sonorous speaking voice.

Instead of boldly going where no film has gone before, this movie blindly follows the path of most recent films of its kind. It does not thrill, inspire, or provoke thought--or at least not past the level you would get from reading a synopsis or hearing the filmmakers talk about their intentions at a sci-fi convention. From the tedious and overblown pre-credit sequence to the manipulative sham of a twist climax, we are placed at a removed distance from the characters on screen and never engage with them. Watching this movie is like watching a video someone else took from the front of a roller coaster. But make no mistake: it's nothing like riding the coaster yourself.  

Directed by J.J. Abrams
Produced by Damon Lindelof, J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci

Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof
Based on the television series "Star Trek" by Gene Roddenberry

With: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Benedict Cumberbatch, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Peter Weller, Alice Eve, and Leonard Nimoy

Cinematography: Daniel Mindel
Editing: Mary Jo Markey and Maryann Brandon
Music: Michael Giacchino

Runtime: 132 min
Release Date: 16 May 2013
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1