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Star Trek Into Darkness: Things I Liked, Things I Didn’t

This post contains spoilers. If you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to be spoiled, don’t read another sentence.

I should admit upfront that while I enjoy J.J. Abrams’ update of Star Trek, I ultimately prefer the quiet, more thoughtful and ethical dilemma-driven Original Series to the more action-oriented approach of the recent movies. That preference drives my major dislikes below, but I ultimately think it is a weaker film for its reliance on action, and that it’s not just my personal preference saying so.

I should also admit that I’ve only seen The Motion Picture of the original series movies, so I have very little knowledge or preconceptions of the particular Trek lore that informs Into Darkness.

Things I Liked

Benedict Cumberbatch

Now, THIS is a villain. Cumberbatch is menacing every second he’s on screen, but menacing in such an extremely charismatic way that I never wanted him to leave the screen. It’s only been a few days since I saw the movie, but I already remember every one of his scenes 10x better than all the other scenes. Kirk who? No, but seriously, he’s a villian who gives you chills simply with a glance or a tone of voice, and I loved seeing that.

The cast’s continued embodiment of the roles

I just said I didn’t remember the rest of the cast as much as Cumberbatch, and that’s probably true, but they still all did a wonderful job embodying their characters from the original series. That was my favorite thing about Abrams’ first Star Trek movie, and nobody’s fallen down on the job since then. I particularly liked the extra time given to Checkhov, even if he did prove not to be as good an engineer as Scottie. He was trying so hard!

Spock’s character moments

Along with the previous thing, Zachary Quinto continues to be a standout as Spock. He gets the character perfectly, and I quite liked his arc here – always bringing up the logical thing, as Spock is wont to do, but he played the parallel scenes discussing his suppression of emotion with Uhura and realizing he can’t always suppress it with Kirk really well, and it was great fun seeing the ever-cool Spock go off the deep end in rage. Incidentally, after that one scene with Kirk and Spock, I can totally see the genesis of slashfic. Just saying.

The long shot of Scottie running

There’s humor spread throughout Star Trek Into Darkness, but the moment that made me laugh out loud predictably involved Simon Pegg (who I love anyway). When he’s on the other starship and trying to get to the airlock he needs to open to let the Enterprise team in, and the camera just lets him run all the way down a very long hallway. Kudos to Abrams for letting a long shot like that play all the way out, especially in the middle of an action sequence. It’s a great technique that not many directors utilize any more, and it played perfectly here. Probably my single favorite shot of the whole film.

The beginning of the five-year voyage

In movies or shows that have a long history and a lot of lore, I really love moments that tie it into the existing mythology, so I liked the ending with the Enterprise setting out on the five-year voyage that is the basis of The Original Series. It’s a fan moment, to be sure, but it definitely brought a pleased smile to my face and left me with a warm fuzzy at the end of the film.

Things I Didn’t

Relying on action rather than psychology

Okay, I get that the new Star Trek films are specifically reimagined as action films, and I get that that’s part of why they’ve managed to be so popular. And I certainly love a good action sequence. But here’s the thing. The most intense and electrifying moments in this film are whenever Cumberbatch is on screen simply talking. He’s utterly menacing, and even though he proved to be a formidable physical enemy in the fight against the Klingons as well as later, he’s still more terrifying just talking. There’s a battle of the wills (and ethics, and morals) set up here between him and Kirk as well as Spock, and it seems like there was SO MUCH unplumbed possibility for psychological warfare in here. It’s clear he’s extremely devious and untrustworthy, but his concern for his crew is a strong magnet for someone like Kirk. And the film seems to want to deal with the psychological challenge of dealing with someone like this, given Kirk’s final speech that talked about the danger of becoming like the enemy in order to beat him. But we actually didn’t see any of that play out on screen, it was only talked about, because the film wanted to spend its time in action set-pieces instead of psychological complexity.

The reveal

Admittedly, I haven’t seen The Wrath of Khan, so I had no stake in whether Cumberbatch was Khan or not. Frankly, I don’t think trying to keep his identity secret in the marketing made much difference anyway, even if everyone hadn’t already guessed it was going to be him. Relying on a reveal like this is silly, and Abrams needs to stop doing it. And then the reveal itself, when Cumberbatch just goes “My name is…Khan.” It’s simply fan service, nothing more. If you didn’t already have a knowledge of Khan from previous Star Trek iterations, the only reaction is “and….so what?” Because his being Khan doesn’t mean ANYTHING at this point within this film.

The overlong central action sequence

And that unbalanced dependence on action is nowhere more clear than in the central action sequence which starts with Admiral Marcus attacking the Enterprise and doesn’t end until Spock finds Kirk in the radiation chamber, or even possibly when Khan is defeated. It escalates over and over for no reason other than to escalate, and with no rise and fall that lets you regroup and start to care again. By the time Kirk headed up into the core, I was like, okay, he’s got to do what now, oh, whatever, I don’t even care anymore. It was too much, my adrenaline had already run out with no breathing time to recover it, I didn’t feel any real stakes (now, if they’d actually let Kirk die for real, that would’ve helped some), and I was basically just biding time until it was over. Which was like forty minutes or something. And it’s not like I’m not an action fan. I love well-executed, interesting, well-shot, well-choreographed, and well-paced action. This was largely just bombast. Also, apparently the people on the Enterprise are a gazillion times more important than anybody on the ground, because it was uber-important to stop the Enterprise from crashing and killing everyone on board, but no one cares that Khan crashed his ship and took out several city blocks presumably full of people.

As a side note, having the part where Khan and Kirk shoot across debris-filled open space to hit a three-meter airlock on the other ship be so close to the beginning of this sequence? Dumb. Because really, everything after that is anticlimactic. Nothing can really beat that in terms of flashiness.

The Conclusion

Should’ve had more Cumberbatch, more mind games, and more exploration of the moral quicksand of defeating an enemy like Khan. Should’ve had less mindless, bombastic action. A decently enjoyable popcorn movie, but nothing more. Star Trek is capable of much better, but I’m not sure Abrams is the right guy to tease it out.

  • Dan O’Neill

    I surprisingly loved the hell out of this, even though I do admit that there are some problems when it comes to dedicating itself to the legacy of Trekkies. Good review.

    • http://www.the-frame.com/blog Jandy

      Thanks for the comment, Dan! I enjoyed watching it, too, except I did get bored in the central action sequence.

  • http://travismcclain.blogspot.com Travis McClain

    What I appreciated most about Star Trek Into Darkness was its political commentary. That was always a key part of Star Trek but it’s rarely made it into any of the movies. I felt like this was the Star Trek story we *should* have had a decade ago, but no one at Paramount had the temerity to dare such an unpatriotic/treasonous questioning of the Bush administration. Watching Mr. Spock convince Captain Kirk that his anger wasn’t sufficient justification for an unethical act of extrajudicial revenge was one of the most gratifying things to come out of Star Trek in ages.

    Though that itself raises an important question: Did Khan actually consent to giving his blood to save Kirk or did Dr. McCoy just kinda, y’know, take it? Because there was no discussion about whether or not Khan had a say in the matter and that seemed completely antithetical to the film’s overarching thesis about the rule of law superseding our immediate emotional demands.

    • http://www.the-frame.com/blog Jandy

      I think the overarching answer to that issue is that everything in the film serves the plot. It has a few times when it promises something more, either on the level of character, political commentary, psychological depth, etc., and then ultimately just lets everything fall to the level of plot and doesn’t follow through on any of the dilemmas it raised.

  • http://unpublishedforareason.blogspot.com/ Hannah M

    I’m pretty sure “Should’ve had more Cumberbatch” is the thought I’ve had about every movie since I saw my first episode of Sherlock.

    • http://www.the-frame.com/blog Jandy

      It is a pretty universally-true statement, isn’t it? :)