Renn: I’m not in the habit of walking out of a theater only to sit down immediately with the intention of critically exploring the film in question. For reasons that have been interpreted a variety of different ways, the powers that be behind the film have set up such a scenario however, and here we are. All that said, I think this is one of those films that doesn’t require all that much more thought than was apparently put into it by the filmmakers. Which ain’t much.
If you saw JJ Abrams’ 2009 reboot of the Star Trek franchise, then you have all of the information necessary to anticipate your experience with Star Trek Into Darkness. Like almost all of Abrams’ films –save for M:I-3, which I’m quite fond of– this sequel to the origin story of a parallel universe crew captained by James T. Kirk is bright, but not so bright. Lousy with momentum (comma optional). You can call it “DUMB fun,” but only if the first word is in all-caps.
The fun is there though. A fine cast continues to do fine things. As far as modern synthetic action goes, JJ still has his eye for relatively coherent action and good ear for punctuating humor. He keeps working with goddamn hacks to write his films, and yet nearly transcends them. He has made yet another Star Trek film with virtually no respect for any of things that make the franchise special, but for your blockbuster dollar you’re often delivered much worse.
Nick: Star Trek is so baggage heavy for so many people it’s real hard to provide the kind of useful text to cater to them all. I like Star Trek, have seen all the films and many of the original series episodes but I don’t much care if the new series breaks continuity or challenges precedents set forth in a previous incarnation. I care if it’s fun, if it’s cinematic, and if it takes the series into fun new territory.
Even with all the checks and balances in place this is a mixed offering. JJ Abrams definitely gives the film a nice sheen and there’s no denying his ability to stage a neat sequence. He’s not the wrong director for the gig. He’s actually the absolute right director for the gig because, aside from his infatuation with pointing blue lights at the lens to create flares in the most glaringly inappropriate sequences (during a female character’s big emotional moment for example), he doesn’t bring too much signature style to the mix and allows the franchise to maintain the spotlight. He’s a good director but he’s made a huge tactical error in his choice of writers to align himself with. The banter in the JJ Abrams of Star Trek is fantastic. Especially when coupled with really gifted performers like Chris Pine, Karl Urban, and Bruce Greenwood. The bigger thoughts suffer.
Renn: Pointedly I have to say that even the charm of the cast and Abrams direction cannot save an all-the-way awful first half or so. The film starts off with an entertaining sequence, but one that reminds you very quickly of all the little JJ touches of shallowness this franchise is based on (Kirk being more obnoxious than simply brash, is an example). But once the film starts putting the pieces in place for its conspiratorial storyline it at once becomes very stupid and very predictable. It’s a shame when a great character actor like Peter Weller is brought on screen, only to immediately drop some of the lamest, inane dialogue imaginable. Then characters begin flying all over the galaxy missing obvious villainous cues, dropping exposition, and getting wrapped up in what have become severe blockbuster cliches. Senseless terrorist attacks, bad guy behind glass, the dramatic dialogue about vague darkness, all in service of taking the basic pieces of a great Star Trek story and repurposing far beyond them having any meaning. They do get to drop that name though…
Nick: It’s not THAT bad. It’s just not anything new. JJ Abrams’ writing team loves to swim in a particular pool of cliches and it often hamstrings the overall impact. There are some astonishing visuals and where the film makes up for lack of originality is in its scenes on Earth where we see pretty phenomenal catastrophe that floors anything Roland Emmerich can cook up. Sure we don’t care, but it’s pretty. As for the name Renn mentioned, it’s no secret who Benedict Cumberbatch is really playing but for the sake of those who want to be “surprised” I won’t invoke any Fantasy Island references. The problem is that the new incarnation has made a lot of efforts towards invoking the characters from previous entries in tone and (somewhat) appearance. The villain doesn’t adhere to those rules. That said, Cumberbatch is awesome. Even when trying to squeeze awful dialogue through clenched teeth. One scene in particular where the camera is tight on him as he shares his story emotionally could have been fantastic were it not for the lack of quality in the dialogue. The worst recipient of heavy-handed writing is Simon Pegg, whose heritage is forced on us with a whole mess of “cannae”. We get it, Scotty is Scottish. Pegg’s a great actor, so why not let him act instead of forcing rote words through his face?
Renn: For about 30 minutes I really thought it was going to be THAT bad. The second half starts moving in such a way that the performances and the action eventually take over, but everything it takes to get there is rough. A lot of early action scenes are just plain not good enough to distract- Abrams does his best work bouncing between ships or doing big operatic space combat, and it takes an act or two to get there.
It might be that expository close-up of Cumberbatch that most represents how forced and tired the backbone of this movie is- his casting as a villain should have been an event, instead it’s crunchy british voice spouting C-level comic book dialogue. This is low-grade post-Joker stuff- the kind of gritty franchise turn studios were mandating years ago without understanding what Nolan was actually doing. Once again JJ is happy to throw away millions of unseen lives without loading it with any real tragedy for the big CGI destruction shots, the difference being the spectacular destruction here has teeth the distant implosion of Vulcan lacked in Star Trek. It’s not gross or wrong or anything melodramatic, just clumsy.
I’ll make a turn back to some of the things I liked, but while I’m on the harsh end I have to also mention that the film often looks awful. I’ve got no problem with lens flares (though WOW the lens flares), and I generally love the bright, colorful style Dan Mindel and Abrams achieve, but there are too many shots here where these actors look distorted and unnatural. I find it distasteful to play armchair cinematographer, but somewhere choices were made that made for some rather inconsistent photography. Actors faces are changing shape within scenes, or columns go from being straight to curved (barrel distortion). I probably wouldn’t mention had I not heard a group of teenagers discussing it on my way out. It’s a thing.
Nick: It makes you wonder if JJ Abrams knows something we don’t about the balance of Star Trek fans and their expectations and the wide, young demographic that wants to pony up dollars to be numbed for a few hours. The Star Trek fans are going to buy a ticket regardless. That money’s in the bank. They paid to see Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. The real money is in the audience that buys Transformers tickets, so maybe a less intelligent and more young-skewing vibe is a wise decision.
I don’t mind the look of the film. I don’t mind the music. I love the sound design. Chris Pine does good work, Zoe Saldana, Urban, and even Quinto all bring their best. Pegg has some great moments but is handed some truly bad dialogue. Cumberbatch is too good for the material and so is Bruce Greenwood. Peter Weller is awful, and a lot has to do with dialogue but he should be commanding the screen every scene he’s in and he flat out doesn’t.
I actually didn’t mind the first thirty minutes. I liked it considerably more than the final thirty minutes.
Renn: Even removing the egregious hackery of the screenwriters at work here, I do despair just a little bit over JJ Abrams’ steady march to the top of all media. He represents a more energetic, invested version of the worst studio instincts to cleanse and dumb down. He’s great at it- assembling classier casts and shooting far better action than your usual lowest-common-denominator tentpole, for sure. But not unlike the man whose franchise he is about to take over, his commercial success seems to be tempering his instincts to do better. There were a great deal of compromises inherent in Star Trek, things that could have, should have been improved in a sequel. They weren’t. Not even a little bit. My investment in Star Wars is not a deep one, but I look here and and look there and I feel anxious for all those hoping for a new lease on that universe.
It’s that momentum though- like his version of Kirk, Abrams plows propulsive through logic and emotional reality in a way that ensures the film is never a drag to watch. You may leave with nothing, and there are landmines there for those deeply invested in this universe, but it moves. That’s not an easy trick- this movie is irredeemable garbage in other hands. Once again Abrams has turned a disaster into a very watchable disaster.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
Nick: There is another fact, one that many people will disagree with me on. Star Trek isn’t really an A-List franchise. The crew of the Enterprise when combined makes for a really cool and dense character but as it stands they are all really fun one-note characters going through the motions. Even at its peak (First Contact or The Voyage Home financially and Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country creatively) it’s a great complimentary franchise. The naval combat element hamstrings it even though I personally find it much more compelling that dogfight theatrics (which this film overuses). Star Trek is one of those franchises you have to enjoy in a vacuum. I think we’ve grown to expect too much. This one doesn’t hurt the brand at all. It’s just not raising its bar like the Bond and Batman films did.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars