There is a Star Trek video game that came out recently. This is not a review of that. Despite looking rather interesting at last year’s E3, it apparently is not very good, but I haven’t played it yet so I won’t give any sort of definitive opinion on it. No, this is a breakdown of my thoughts on the latest Star Trek film from J. J. Abrams. However, much like its video game counterpart, Star Trek Into Darkness follows a similar arc of intrigue and potential giving way to less than stellar results.
Don’t get me wrong; I so dearly liked this followup to 2009’s franchise film reboot. It’s visually engaging, aurally impressive, and packed with some noteworthy performances. But it is also a consistent and gradual reduction in scale and stakes that should generally be avoided in films, especially in the summer blockbuster sort. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Let’s build up to the big stuff.
(This will avoid any explicit spoilers, but there are some smaller but crucial pieces of information the more eagle-eyed or die hard Star Trek fans can extrapolate from the words below, so be careful)
Into Darkness is perhaps one of the more visually appealing movies I’ve seen in quite some time. It opens on a tiny little planet called Nibiru that threatens the livelihood of an entire indigenous and severely primitive species due to an active (and rather anxious) volcano. You’ve seen bits of this opener in the trailers when Kirk and Bones jump off that cliff into the ocean. I bring this up because this sets the bar for the rest of the movie in terms of visuals.
The entire planet seems designed specifically to overwhelm your eyes. It is an entirely arresting experience. The entire forest that we see Kirk and Bones run through is comprised of trees that are an ashy white with leaves that are a bright but soft shade of red. The people of the planet are similarly wan but they feature muted yellow highlights. The combined effect is rather stunning, if a bit on-the-nose.
The rest of the movie is a bit more subtle and thus a bit harder to put a finger on in terms of appearances, but Into Darkness does feel like a visual step up from Star Trek. The enemy craft is intimidating without being ridiculous (though it looked cool, I’ll never be able to figure out why Nero’s mining vessel needed to have all those squid-like appendages) and instead of engineering looking like a brewery—because it was one—it looks like an actual engineering bay. I still love the idea that space is so disturbingly clean while the planets and their contents are so tangibly muddied. The warp core is especially magnificent.
A few costume quirks kind of land on the negative side of things for me, though. Namely the shirts of Star Fleet members aboard the Enterprise hang rather loose and lose some of that “fit for duty” look. And then the uniforms of the enemy ship look just like of…generic. It looks like someone yelled “SCI-FI!” at a seamstress and this is what she threw back.
And yes, there are still a plethora of lens flares, but I only distinctly remember one or two while the rest are relegated to memories of me reactively squinting at the screen. And Klingons are back, and they feature a new design. It’s a simple but pleasant reveal that builds on whatever anticipation you have for seeing what they look like (and even instills some if you have none). I won’t go any further, but I will say it is a surprisingly tasteful and effective update, much like what you get for the Klingon Birds of Prey cruisers.
I saw the movie twice; once in 3D and once in 2D. While it is most certainly post-conversion, the 3D actually kind of works. You can tell in certain places that involve glass and with characters standing at slightly varying distances from the camera that it isn’t native 3D, but there were points in the movie where I felt like it brought a little something extra. You certainly aren’t missing out from anything revelatory by just watching it in 2D, but the 3D also didn’t hurt the whole experience.
The 3D screening I was at utilized the Dolby Atmos system. For those unfamiliar with it, Dolby Atmos is a sound system that was first debuted with Disney’s Brave back in June of last year that features 128 discrete audio tracks, 64 speaker feeds, 200 speakers, and 13 subwoofers. It is, undoubtedly, ridiculous, but it is also immense.
In the opening and closing moments of the movie, there are scenes involving the Enterprise that very clearly utilize all 200 speakers in simultaneously subtle and overt ways. There are speakers both above you and in a wide array behind and just to the side of the screen and they all work in concert to really drive home how absurdly huge this starship is. You can actually hear all the different places where engines and thrusters are firing and you can almost feel where the water droplets are hitting the hull. If you get the chance, see this movie with Dolby Atmos.
But more generally, the sound design seems to be mostly on par with the previous film, which is to say rather good. I still maintain that the original theme by Alexander Courage is way better than the new one from Michael Giacchino, but few things reach that level of quality, so I’ll let that one go. But the new warp sound definitely has a more noticeable aural impact (as does the accompanying visual effect) and the sound of phasers going off still sounds both otherworldly and very obviously thick metal strings being whacked about, a fantastically appropriate effect for a Star Trek film.
Let’s just get this out of the way now: Benedict Cumberbatch is stellar in this film. There is one part where he goes into a bit of a monologue and I would dare say he gets a bit cheesy, but the amount of gravitas he still manages to deliver is incredible. Cumberbatch’s ability to force his low and rumbling voice to carry across a room with distinct and unwavering clarity and command is striking. He is menacing without appearing to be uncontrolled, which results in a calculated evil you rarely see in movies.
The highlight, however, is once again Simon Pegg. Every scene that came up with him in it became my new favorite scene. I’m not sure if it’s a relative contrast of a drab, empty space to Pegg’s immaculate comedic timing, but Into Darkness has further cemented him as one of my favorite actors/people/best friends. And for as little as he is in the movie, Bruce Greenwood as Admiral Pike remains spectacular. He knows how to amicably command a room until he needs to turn nasty. The way he lands on every word as if it is the most important thing ever said but moving between them like an Olympic hurdler runs the track is without equal.
And the returning duo of Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto as Captain Kirk and First Officer Spock has taken a step up in terms of delivering portent. Pine no longer relies solely on his roguish charm and Quinto doesn’t lean so much on his preternatural Vulcan looks and instead manage to deliver something much more raw. Quinto’s emotional bits as Spock are truly emotional and Pine manages to actually come across as an actual starship captain. There are times when things fall a bit flat in the middle, but that has more to do with the writing than the acting.
Some of the new faces like Alice Eve as Dr. Carol Marcus and Peter Weller as Admiral Alexander Marcus do well, though Weller better than Eve. Eve does well as Carol, conveying eagerness and sincerity where they could have easily turned into cloying annoyance, but her character doesn’t really go anywhere. It’s disappointing given how often I felt like we were purposefully made to look at her character and her circumstances and wait and wait and wait and nothing happens. Weller similarly manages to turn what could have been a cutout, check-the-boxes character and created something much more interesting. He commands a room just as well as Greenwood, but with a totally different utility: intimidation. It’s striking to say the least.
Here is where the problems come in. For all the topnotch wrapping and the incredible bow put on top, the present—the actual contents of the pretty paper and heavy stock box—is wholly addled. Before I start into this, I do think that if you can get over caring about character and story development, this is a very fun film. I realize that “fun” in and of itself is a very bland term, but it is that sort of breathless sensation you get when you watch something like a circus performer walk a tightrope or strong men attempt to heave kegs over a 30-foot bar. It’s engrossing, but ultimately intellectually disengaging.
The story ultimately revolves around Kirk and his troubles. He’s brash, all right, but he’s talented, intelligent, and, most importantly, untested, which is a setup rife with possibilities. It’s a chance to address the rapid ascension we witnessed in 2009’s Star Trek where Kirk goes from cadet to captain in the span of a few interplanetary excursions. In Into Darkness, we are almost ridiculed for believing we’d get a proper resolution when we see an even tighter turnaround time that has even less reason and more Kirk being Kirk.
And everything in the movie revolves around Kirk, which wouldn’t be a problem if his story was actually fleshed out more. Spock and Uhura’s relationship ties back to Kirk, Cumberbatch’s character’s motives dovetail with Kirk’s arc, and just about every side character’s B and C stories are simply branches off of the Kirk tree. And Kirk’s story is nothing more than a muddled, confused cocktail of mentor problems, friendship problems, and leadership problems. It starts off so promising with the potential to explore the merit of being a leader versus the ability to lead and then it all gets squandered on a meandering plot.
It meanders for more than just Kirk-related reasons, though. The villains, as great as they are, come across as confused. The twist isn’t really a twist, but I’ll forgo spoiling it anyways, so I’ll just say that at a certain point, the focus shifts from watching our protagonist figuring out what to do and watching him simply react to the multiple villains cross swords. Yes, multiple villains, so for all promises made in the trailers that Cumberbatch’s character will be the focus of the movie, our attention is split between two commensurate villains only to be robbed of any sort of resolution with one and a lingering malaise with the other.
I will say, though, that for all the complaints I’ve seen about plot holes and whatnot, I didn’t find them to be much of a problem. Most of them aren’t even plot holes as they can be explained away by us simply not knowing the reason or methods behind an action, but the bigger problem is when a potential inconsistency arises and the movie very obviously and deliberately provides a device or bit of dialogue to cover it up. It sometimes comes across as if someone made a pass over the script, left some notes, and then was later fixed with a five-second bit of dialogue spackle.
The biggest problem, however, is that the entire story is a downward slope. If you recall in the first Star Trek, we get a nice if bumpy ride upwards to a big and grand finale involving the big bad guy, our favorite good guy, and their two ships mucking about an artificially induced black hole. It was quite the finale in terms of scale and stakes; Earth was about to go the way of Vulcan and the Enterprise might go down. Into Darkness, however, starts out big and gets smaller and smaller and eventually gets into a personal vendetta story that we don’t get impetus for until five minutes beforehand (the impetus is extremely well written and performed, though). We go from everything is at stake to just a few things are at stake to a couple of ships are at risk to just one life is on the line. And all of that is handled in sequence so none of it overlaps and none of our anxieties build on anything prior.
The entire movie does operate very well as a vehicle for fun, though. If you recall how much you loved watching the action-packed bit in the middle of Star Trek where Kirk, Hikaru Sulu, and a red shirt attempt to space jump onto Nero’s drill over Vulcan, you’ll love all the away mission shenanigans that the crew gets up to in Into Darkness. It feels a lot like a more traditional episode of Star Trek but with a multi-million dollar budget and a grade-A director behind the scenes.
Your enjoyment of Star Trek Into Darkness is really kind of a tossup. Whether you’re a fan of the first J. J. Abrams movie or not, whether you’re a Trekkie through and through, or whether you can get into some dumb summer movie fun all plays into it. The spectacle in terms of the visual and auditory largess is so far one of the highlights of the year, but having to overlook some of the fundamental plot problems is quite the wall to climb. And somehow I managed to make it over and, while I mentally could not engage with the story except in the beginning and in a few fantastic scenes afterwards, thoroughly enjoy my time in the theatre. The question, I guess, is if you can do the same.
+ It is an utterly stupendous movie with regards to the visual aesthetic and sound design
+ Across the board, the acting is great and, in some cases, amazing
+ The beginning asks some interesting questions regarding the very nature of Kirk’s character and his command
– Much of the plot is wasted on two villains more interested in each other than our protagonist, the grounding point for most of the drama
– Many of the side characters are wasted, such as Sulu, Chekov, and Carol
Final Score: 8 out of 10