[Review] - Star Trek Into Darkness, In IMAX (Spoiler Free)

[Author's Note: This is the first part of my complete review of Into Darkness; the concluding part can be found here, though you should only read it after you've had a chance to see the film. This part is my impressions of the film in general, and the second are my thoughts on the specific, spoilerific aspects of the film.]

Courtesy of Paramount Studios

I've said before that the best way I can think to describe Star Trek is that it is a relentlessly watchable film. J.J. Abrams made an incredibly accessible film, which managed to capture the spark and spirit of the originals, and made the series fun again. Of course, the science in the movie was horrid, some of the worst I've seen in a while, but that suggests to me that J.J and the writers were more concerned with getting the characters and the emotion right, rather then getting hung up on technical details (arguably one of the things that brought the franchise to it's knees).

The followup, Into Darkness, is a relentless movie. There are no pauses, no breaks, and very few nestled pockets of calm. Those that there are don't last very long. Once the action starts, and to the film's credit it does take some time to actually start, it never relents. However, the price the film pays for that relentless pace is to sacrifice what makes Star Trek stand out from most other science fiction, and the reason it has lasted nearly fifty years: the film lacks any real message or substance. It is an exciting thrill ride, that is also an empty vessel.

Hit the jump for the review, which has been, and always shall be, spoiler free.

Technically, this film is a marvel. The digital effects, something I am usually highly critical of, are spectacular and done with the highly level of regard and quality. Possibly because they are largely restricted to the space-based scenes where flaws are less noticeable. But the film looks gorgeous, and whatever faults you may have with Abrams as a director, you cannot claim that the man doesn't know how and when to point a camera in the right direction. The Enterprise in space is one of the few things that can get me teary in the eye, and the shots of the ship, enhanced by the 3D and the IMAX depth, were breathtaking. There is a transition in the opening sequence, from a drawing in the sand to the ship in space, as it launches itself into warp, that is numbing at how simply beautiful it is.

But that is enough gushing, as I am libel to do when it comes to the Enterprise. The story is this: a terrorist attack in London is followed up by another in San Fransisco, leading Kirk and company on a top secret mission to hunt down and kill the culprit, John Harrison, played with depth and aplomb by Benedict Cumberbatch. As they find out once on this mission, which takes them from Earth to the Klingon homeworld of Kronos (with an apparently already exploded Praxis) and back, this are not always as cut and dry as catch the bad guy. Things are not always as clear as "bad guy."

The cast is in fine form, and actually feel like they own the roles now, rather then renting them as they did in the first film. In the lead up to the film, I said I didn't have an emotional connection to these actors in these roles yet, and that may well have turned the corner. There are still some rough patches, mostly with Zoe Saldana as Uhura, though more because the character is so drastically different then the original it might as well be a different one. And Anton Yelchin as Chekov because, like the original, he is given the least to do in the script. Cumberbatch, who no one was doubting would give a stand out performance, is good as Punchy deus ex MacGuffin, alternating between a Vulcan calm and a creature of pure rage, and will undoubtedly bury any mention of Peter Weller, who is just as if not more impressive as Admiral Marcus. So I'm not going to bury him: Weller gives just as genuine and commanding a performance as everyone else, playing the beleaguered and at times desperate head of Starfleet Command, and his scenes with Pine's Kirk, the sense of a kindred spirit, are fantastic. And provides a completely different sort of mentor from the one we also get in Bruce Greenwood's Admiral Pike, who is as always awesome.

Also new to the cast is Alice Eve as Carol Marcus, recast as a weapons expert rather then a biologist from the original time line, and it was good to see another woman in the cast, even if she has little to do. The other series were more equalised in terms of gender, but in the original series Uhura stood largely alone. No more, and hopefully in later instalments, Marcus is expanded upon further. I give kudos to the writers for not, considering the character history in the franchise, just making her a love interest for Kirk. Despite some brief flirtation between her and Bones of all people, she wasn't added in as just rom-com fodder. That role goes entirely to Uhura and Spock's continuing relationship, which has reached Tracey and Hepburn levels of bickering.

Speaking of bickering, the film is very funny. Some people had complaints about the numb-tongue scene in the first film, but I thought it was a great diversion from the stuffiness that Trek can take on when it takes itself too seriously. While there is nothing as obviously slap-stick in Darkness, and it doesn't venture into straight up comedy as Iron Man 3 did, it is a very funny script, much of it at Spock's expense, but who better to laugh at then the man who will never get the joke. Humour, used appropriately, is an important element in any fiction, and one I take most serious, and thankfully it is the one thing that writers Kurtzman, Orci and Lindelof got right.

What they got wrong, on the other hand, is something else entirely, and pretty much the rest of the film. I won't discuss specifics right now, but the film suffers from second and third act issues, where action set pieces distract from the actual storytelling and the storytelling borders on plagiarism. The results are alienating, and lazy. While the motivations for all of the film's actions are kept quite simple (always better) and quite reasonable, the method for going about them becomes muddled as layer after layer of subversion, betrayal and confusion gets heaped on. That, and so very much of the film is about specific characters having a difficult time running to press very particular buttons, an act that seems laughable on a ship as advanced as the Enterprise.

The worst vice of the script is the lack of message. Or, theme even. Trust maybe, but any adherence to that theme disappears early in the second act. Star Trek, from it's very beginning, has always been about ideas (frustratingly, Abrams has said many times that the reason he was never a Trek fan as a kid was because it was too much about the ideas). The first film had great themes, about destiny, about loyalty, about identity. This film starts out promising great ideas, and even parades them before us in the opening scenes. The Prime Directive is set up with such fervour, you'd think it was going to go somewhere, but it doesn't. Responsibility, honour, even the modern issue of drone attacks is brought up. But none of it is every explored. Plots are introduced and dumped without a second thought. Contravences replace actaul plotting. The characters get their moments, and as in the last film the focus is on the evolving relationship between Kirk and Spock (a great subplot that goes absolutely no where is Spock's jealousy over Marcus as the new science officer), but for emotions to really mean something there has to be a force behind it. In the end, when sacrifices are made, the reasons for the sacrifice aren't there. It just happens, and is sad. There is no substance to them.

The science was, once again, horrid, with the writers having no sense of scale, or distance, or speed. The Enterprise makes the jump from the Neutral Zone to Earth in seconds, despite being damaged, and the distance being hundreds, if not thousands of light years. The "warp zone" is treated as a physical thing for the first time in franchise history, taking on a liquid, Stargate like function. There is little consistency in terms of abilities. Communications between ships isn't possible because of battle damage, but they can hail a colony in another star system. They can't beam up targets from a moving platform because it's moving, but they can beam someone down. As I said before, everything is apparently manual. But those errors can be overlooked for not being universe-ending super nova, which is just a dumb idea. I would like to note that the Enterprise, a majestic lady of peace and exploration, has long been voiced by the stern yet comforting voice of Majel Barrett, while the U.S.S. Vengeance is personified by a cold male voice. That is as close as the film gets to symbolism.

What is clear after the credits have rolled (and don't bother sticking around, there isn't anything afterwards) is that Abrams will make a very good Star Wars movie. Because Wars has never been about the message, it's about space wizards and gimp-suit iron lungs and flashy space battles. Those things are good, and they are in fine form in Darkness. But the movie doesn't live up to being a Star Trek film, but falls into the trap of just being a very pretty, viscerally enjoyable action movie rather then an intellectual one, and yes it is possible to be both (Skyfall, Avengers, many of the original Star Trek films). It's immediate predecessor was far superior, and for reasons I will not go into yet, Darkness has a myriad of other issues that frustrate me all the more. J.J. Abrams has recently stood on the shoulders of giants: Spielberg with Super 8, Nicholas Meyer with this film, and soon to be George Lucas. What I would like to see is Abrams stand on his own shoulders for a while.

And I think the best way for him to do that is to leave the Final Frontier behind.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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