In the weeks following its release, Star Trek Into Darkness (Trek: Into Darkness?) rapidly contracted a reputation as one of the most controversial and polarizing movies in the series, not because it was an anti-Bush, pro-terrorist message flick disguised as apolitical science-fiction, nor because it embodied pretty much everything that constitutes an unnecessary sequel, but because many long-time fans viewed it as an insufficient and deeply disappointing successor to the legacy traced out by Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn.
Whoops, I meant to say SPOILER! For a moment there my mind slipped and overlooked that I, being an independent columnist, am not entitled to frivolously disclose major plot twists that aren’t revealed in any given movie’s marketing campaign, unlike my professional, overpaid peers in the United Film Commentators’ Guild of America. Representative Nancy Pelosi, please take note of my catastrophic error and amend your proposed amendment to the 1st Amendment to prohibit fake journalists and other bloggers like myself from further abusing our free speech privileges to comment on popular culture to the detriment of those who haven’t yet seen the movie in question. Nevertheless, the most broadly spoiled plot twist in the recent history of Hollywood also happens to be one of the stupidest, reducing what could have been a bold and exciting journey where no movie has gone before to nothing more than a cliché-ridden retread of past U.S.S. Enterprise voyages and excessively campy nostalgia-quencher. Speaking as a moderate fan of the original Star Trek TV show who hated the first four big-screen adaptations with such a passion that all of them, Kahn included, easily make my Rottenest Tomatoes chart (which is outdated by several years, at this point), I won’t attempt to compare Star Trek Into Darkness with the vastly inferior ‘classic’ to which it pays homage other than to say that it’s vastly superior in only superficial areas, viz. its special effects, cinematography, and art design. All in all, this is an underwhelming follow-up to one movie that mixed the formula right the first time and another that had no formula to speak of, neither of which cried out for a respective sequel or prequel. “Shall we begin?”
Yes, that is an Inception "bwaaaaah" effect in the second half. So awesome.
Opening upon a primitive world whose natives have not yet invented the wheel, the movie reintroduces viewers to Captain Kirk and his crew as they execute a mission to do something in a volcano – I remember not the particulars. In any case, Spock is steeling himself to suffer an especially fiery and sacrificial death in the depths of the mountain when Kirk breaks Starfleet code by exposing his ship to the savages in order that he might rescue his best friend and first officer. In so doing, he hypothetically disrupts the natural development of the planet’s civilizations and ecosystems, devastating its environment and causing irreparable damage to the scientific study of the indigenous population’s pure and arguably superior culture. One need not wonder, therefore, why Starfleet restores Admiral Pike’s command of the Enterprise and demotes Kirk for his brash leadership and brazen violation of the law, though he’s back in action soon enough after the shoot-first-ask-questions-later warmonger Admiral Marcus commissions him to annihilate a fugitive named John Harrison, suspected of orchestrating a deadly explosion at a London library. A defector from Starfleet, criminal mastermind, and superhuman terrorist who has a knack for skullcrushing people off-camera, PG style, Harrison justifies his actions as righteous retaliation for greater offenses committed by Starfleet against him and his crew. “Is there anything you would not do for your family?” he asks Kirk in one of several memorable and characteristically evil monologues. The more intimately that Kirk comes to understand Harrison, the more uncertainly he comes to regard the Admiral and his real motives for trying to eliminate this master intellect.
There are basically two significant themes recurring throughout Into Darkness, the first of which is an extension of the emotion-logic conflict introduced in J.J. Abram’s prior movie and the second of which is a far too apparent political statement. Kirk typifies the impetuous and daring pragmatist who sees rules as a stubborn hindrance to his duty, while Spock represents the proper and patient lawman who fears that chaos will stem from a contempt of order. The former man thinks predominantly through his passions, the latter through his mind, and the movie is for some part a commentary on the need to balance these opposing ends, to heed legal institutions but answer ultimately to morality, to approach every problem with reason and every fight with one’s gut. Into Darkness largely works when it explores this dynamic between Kirk’s recklessness and Spock’s decorum, but writers Alex Kurtzman, Robert Orci, and Damon Lindelof (who’s famous primarily for ruining Lost and Prometheus) unfortunately feel the need to inject a preachy lecture about the War on Terror into the plot. The social commentary, applicable to a wide array of issues including drone warfare, due process of law, and war in the Middle East generally, is so pronounced that several characters almost qualify as allegorical stand-ins for real-world figures, whether it’s Harrison resembling the Underwear Bomber or Tsarnaev brothers as a righteously furious and victimized jihadist who attacks innocent people in just retaliation against the United States’ imperialism, or Admiral Marcus playing the George Bush/Emperor Palpatine role as an authoritarian leader who feeds lies to his subordinates in order to start the war he so desires.
The first problem with these stereotypical portrayals is that terrorism can never be justified; no matter how vile the injustices of the protested establishment may be, exacting violence against private citizens will always be an even viler crime of utmost cowardice and cruelty, which is precisely why the Obama administration’s and mainstream media’s attempts to rationalize terrorist attacks at Benghazi and the Boston Marathon are so heinous. The declaration that “we will find out who did this and why” necessarily implies that the terrorist, Harrison for example, must have been justified in his atrocities against mankind and that the United States, or Starfleet in this instance, is somehow culpable for his crime, which is not just illogical and absurd but inexpressibly disgusting. Secondly, Bush never “lied” as Admiral Marcus does to start a war in Iraq, which was initiated not to satisfy a lust for oil, economic expansion, “Islamaphobia”, or personal vengeance but to prevent an irrational dictator from unleashing weapons of mass destruction on the U.S. and its allies, as Saddam Hussein had formerly proven he would do without a moment’s pause. Kirk essentially spells out the movie’s message in a final speech: “There will always be those who mean to do us harm. To stop them, we risk awakening the same evil within ourselves. Our first instinct is to seek revenge when those we love are taken from us. But that's not who we are.” While it’s true that we should never stoop to our enemy’s level and that wars should be waged only for preventative rather than corrective motives (which is just one of several reasons I oppose a purely political strike to “punish” the Syrian regime), it would be the height of foolishness to describe either the Iraq or Afghanistan war as an outgrowth of Kirk’s “first instinct to seek revenge when those we love are taken from us”. Adding insult to injury, the movie’s producers haughtily “dedicate” it to “post-9/11 veterans”, whose very sacrifices the film mocks and maligns as nothing more than fruitless losses in one man’s selfish war of retribution. Into Darkness assaults audiences with a warped worldview that’s not just preposterous and misguided but deeply offensive to all those who have given blood, sweat, toil, and tears to counter future attacks on the life and liberty of their countrymen. To those who might object that I am artificially reading my own opinions into the film instead of judging it at face value, I would point out that cast members Benedict Cumberbatch and Simon Pegg themselves have interpreted the story as a bitter critique of Bush/Cheney's foreign policy, and the writers have said much to the same effect.
With all that said, Into Darkness still delivers excellent entertainment like the reboot it follows and mostly excels at all the technical aspects of filmmaking. The cast is fairly competent overall: Chris Pine perfectly conveys Kirk’s sarcasm and pluck, Zachary Quinto is appropriately stern and emotion-washed as Spock ( although the script sometimes overplays his stilted and robotic manner of speaking), Simon Pegg nails a lot of good one-liners in the role of Scotty, and Karl Urban never fails to delight with Dr. McCoy’s cheesy “Damn it, man…”s and talk about “superblood”. Zoe Saldana mostly botches the part of Uhura, but that’s mainly the writers’ fault for giving her charater nothing to do but squabble with Spock in a romantic affair that’s painfully forced but does generate a few good laughs.
Kirk: Are you two going to work well together?
* Uhura walks away without answering the question.
As anyone who has watched Steven Moffat's and Mark Gitiss' excellent modern take on Sherlock might expect, Benedict Cumberbatch is mesmerizing as the film’s antagonist, delivering every line with palpable venom and leaving viewers constantly guessing at his grand schemes. John Harrison is so nefarious and captivating a villain on his own merits that it’s almost inconceivable why the writers elected to dilute his already exceptional character with an unnecessary plot twist involving Kahn. I should also briefly comment on the newest addition to the Enterprise crew, Alice Eve, who wields a British accent to distance herself from her evil father Peter Weller and his American accent. She has all the acting chops of a Victoria’s Secret model trying to transition from a Michael Bay commercial to a Michael Bay movie, which is a fitting comparison considering the one and only reason that her character is in the movie.* “Make that two reasons – huh huh.” I would have embedded this movie’s Honest Trailer above, but then no one would have read the rest of my review.
Alice isn’t the only thing that dares to look spectacular in this movie, as Into Darkness boasts some of the flashiest special effects, cinematography, and sound design to hit the cinemas this year. The pan- and shaky-camera in the command deck gets a little tiring after a while, but the movie still looks great overall, managing to maintain suspense and adrenal rush even though viewers know in the back of their heads that the heroes will pull through the chase or the fight in one piece. Two particular, one in which a colossal Starfleet ship plows through a cityscape and levels a row of skyscrapers and another wherein Kirk and Harrison are blasted out of an airlock into a minefield of space debris, feature some of the best applications of CGI I’ve seen outside Transformers, Tron, and some select other movies. The film has a variety of fantastic planetary settings, and its depiction of a futuristic London looks like the evolutionary descendent of Blade Runner’s Los Angeles and Star Wars’ Coruscant. However, Michael Giachinno’s soundtrack is mostly copied and pasted from his work on the first movie, which makes it redundant and disappointing.
Like 2009’s refreshing update to the Star Trek franchise, Into Darkness is immensely entertaining and visually impressive, but good graphics cannot exist in a vacuum; they must be complemented with a meaningful and substantive story, something this sequel is sorely wanting. This franchise will need a hefty dose of Kahn’s superblood to lure me back for future installments.
Grade rating: B-
* Though most people have asserted that her pivotal scene is completely gratuitous and serves no purpose in the grand picture of the plot, I might venture that it's a (really) veiled commentary on the absurdity of women integrating themselves into the military and expecting to be treated exactly the same way as men in a sexually-blind working environment. HA! But we all know that's not what the scene means...
For a more optimistic take on the same movie, feel free to check out my good friend Mr. Bonecutter's review at Moovie Nooz.