Friday, May 17, 2013

A Review of "Star Trek Into Darkness," Part 1: No-spoilers-allowed edition

This is a difficult review to write, not because I have nothing to say, but because I have so much to say that I feel as if containing and structuring my thoughts is going to be difficult. As a result, I'm going to write at least two different reviews, and possibly more, each focusing on a different aspect of the movie.  This, the first, is going to be a simple thumbs-up-or-thumbs-down type review, completely free of spoilers; it is designed with people who have not seen the movie in mind.

The second will be chock full of spoilers; it will be a broader and all-encompassing contemplation of the question of whether the movie does or does not work; answering that question fully really can't be done without discussing certain aspects of the plot that the filmmakers obviously do not want viewers to know beforehand.  That review will be for people who have already seen the movie, or for people who don't mind knowing all of the plot points prior to actually seeing it.
I might or might not vomit up a third review that examines the movie's place in relation to the 48 or so years of Star Trek that have come before it.  If the first review is for those who haven't seen the movie and the second is for those who have, then that hypothetical third one will be for Trekkies.  But let's not get ahead of ourselves; those later reviews aren't even written yet, and technically, neither is this one; so let me stop the preamble and start the review!

To answer the most immediate question with no further delay: yes, the movie is good.  In fact, I think I'd go so far as to say it is great; I would say it with reservations, but I'd still say it.  This is a wildly entertaining sci-fi/adventure flick that deftly balances excellent character work with strong action setpieces.  This is grand, high-concept blockbuster-style filmmaking, and if you like that sort of thing, this movie delivers.  

The basic plot setup is this: after a planetary-survey mission to Nabiru goes spectacularly awry, Captain Kirk's ability to effectively lead the Enterprise is called into question by some of Starfleet's upper brass, including his mentor, Admiral Pike.  Meanwhile, in London, a terrorist bombing at a Starfleet library (or, as Starfleet calls it, a "data archive") claims numerous lives and prompts Kirk and Spock and the rest of the gang to take the Enterprise on a manhunt: they have been tasked by Starfleet with finding the terrorist, a man known only as John Harrison.
The subtext of Star Trek Into Darkness includes a somber reflection on themes related to how nations and their citizens should react and respond to terrorism.  It's a timely topic (one shared by Iron Man 3) that comes in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, but can -- and probably should -- be considered in a broader post-9/11 context.  You are officially forgiven if, having read those last two sentences, you assume Star Trek Into Darkness is a big fat downer of a movie.  It's a lot of things, but a downer ain't one of 'em.  Instead, the writers have done a wonderful job of taking all that subtext and wrapping it into an action/adventure movie that has a ton of well-earned laughs and never once feels oppressive.  I am reminded of the best way to get a dog to eat his medicine: fold it into a piece of cheese and make him think it's delicious.

The acting is top-notch all the way around.  Most viewers will probably come away most impressed by Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays the terrorist Harrison.  I'm not one of them.  Don't misunderstand me; Cumberbatch is awesome.  But I think Chris Pine as Captain Kirk steals the show.  Pine is a movie star.  This was evident in the first film, and it's even more evident here; all it's going to take is one great non-Trek starring role for this guy to become the next Harrison Ford, or the next Tom Cruise, or the next Will Smith.  Yes, he's that good great.

And, God forgive me for saying it, but...he's better than William Shatner ever even thought about being.  Again, don't misunderstand me; I love me some Shatner, who even at his worst is an interesting and compelling presence.  And I think he gave a few genuinely great performances as Kirk (in "The City on the Edge of Forever," for one example, and in The Motion Picture and The Wrath of Khan for two others).  Here, Pine takes it to another level.  He's brash, he's confident, he's cocky, he's unconfident, he's conflicted, he's angry, he's sad, he's resigned, he's annoyed, he's defeated, he's triumphant, he's a leader, he's a follower, he's a man, and he's a child.  Pick whichever of the two of those you feel are the most contradictory, and sometimes, he's both of them in the same scene, at the same time.  At the end of this year, he will almost certainly deserve an Oscar nomination; he will not receive one, and that's a shame, because great work deserves to be lauded.

Also doing great work: Zachary Quinto as Spock.  I don't think he's as good as Pine, but he's pretty doggone good.  Leonard Nimoy, who originated the role of Spock, will always be my preferred Vulcan, and comparatively, Quinto suffers.  Luckily, the Spock we get in these two movies is a rather different sort of character than Nimoy's Spock, and while Quinto is not capable of playing Nimoy's particular brand of gravitas, he is not being asked to do so.  Nimoy's Spock is somebody who we suspected of having emotions somewhere beneath that placid exterior; Quinto's Spock is somebody who we know has emotions.  Sometimes, they're not even beneath the placid exterior so much as they are erupting from and disrupting it.  Quinto is pretty great at playing the conflict he feels between giving vent to his emotions and repressing them, and while I am a little dubious about this new series' ability to transition Spock into a more traditionally Vulcan character in further films, I am really quite fond of what Quinto is doing here.  And heck, for all I know, the writers will simply continue to move their version of Spock farther away from what Nimoy's Spock; sort of a case of "if you can't beat 'em, turn a corner and go in a different direction from 'em."  That will anger many a Trekkie; I won't be one of them, probably.

Cumberbatch's villain is automatically worthy of being discussed as one of the all-time great Trek villains, right up there with Ricardo Montalban as Khan ("Space Seed" and The Wrath of Khan), John DeLancie as Q (various Next Generation episodes), Alice Krige as the Borg Queen (First Contact), and Marc Alaimo as Gul Dukat (numerous Deep Space Nine episodes).  
DeLancie always seemed to be having too much fun to really hurt anybody, and Krige seemed like she was mainly interested in having kinky sex; they're great baddies, but not necessarily intimidating.  
Montalban and Alaimo, though, seemed as if they would just as soon murder you and your entire family as they would eat a sandwich, and Cumberbatch is definitely working from the same mold.  He's awesome here, and gets to play a surprising range of emotions.  Harrison, as written, is even a mildly sympathetic figure; there are a couple of points in the movie where I found myself getting close to sympathizing with his viewpoints.  Then I remembered that he'd blown up a bunch of people; I decided he was playing me for a fool, and that I wouldn't have it.  But the fact that I even considered it speaks well of Cumberbatch's screen presence.
I'd also like to single out Bruce Greenwood for praise.  He plays Admiral Pike, and he's just terrific.  He isn't in the movie nearly enough (which was true of the first movie as well), and I wish there was a way to have a spinoff in which Pike had the lead role.  That'll probably never happen, but Hollywood can make it up to me by casting Greenwood as Roland in the Dark Tower movies Ron Howard wants to make.  He'd knock that role out of the park.  He knocks most of his roles out of the park, and Pike is no exception.

As for the rest of the cast...?  I have little but praise:
  • Zoe Saldana is tasked with fretting over Spock quite a lot.  There's also a decent of amount of general-purpose fretting.  All we really know about Uhura as a character is that she really hates it when Spock doesn't show much evidence of his feelings.  Saldana does this with an appropriate mixture of anger (not annoyance, but actual anger) and petulance that will not win over any of the Trekkies who hated the Spock/Uhura romance in the first film.  Everyone else will continue to think she's pretty great, and hope that the writers continue to improve at writing for her.
  • Simon Pegg gets way more to do as Scotty here than he had in the first film.  He is still basically just comic relief (and yes, he continues to be trailed by his peculiar oyster-faced sidekick), but Pegg is very good at comic relief, so that's fine by me.  He's also surprisingly good with the few serious moments he gets; these are each crucial, and he nails every single one of them.
  • Karl Urban isn't given a lot to do as Dr. McCoy, but what's there is superb; I deeply hope that the third movie will give him the character development that has so far been reserved for Kirk and Spock.
  • John Cho has very little to do as Sulu, but he does get one great scene.  You could say much the same about Anton Yelchin as Chekov, except that he doesn't get one great scene; he gets a collection of small good ones.  Cho and Yelchin are both good in their roles, and while I deeply suspect that neither will ever be major players in these movies, there is evidence aplenty that they'd be game if given the opportunity.
  • Peter Weller -- ole Robocop himself -- has a small-ish role as a Starfleet Admiral who is an associate of Pike's.  He's deeply convinced that Kirk can't hack it as a Starfleet captain, and he gets some good moments in the movie.  Weller is a real pro, and having somebody like him in a role like this one adds a heck of a lot.  One of my beefs with the various Trek television shows (and the original movies) is that on all but a small handful of occasions, when admirals and commodores and other top-level Starfleet personnel showed up, they tended to be played by nobodies.  As such, when one of these characters was barking orders at, say, Captain Picard, it felt like exactly what it was: a nobody pretending to have some power over Patrick Stewart.  My theory was always that nobody should be cast in those roles unless it felt, emotionally, as if there might conceivably be a spinoff series in which you got to see that character captaining a starship.  Following that standard of assessment, can I envision a series in which Peter Weller was a Starfleet captain?  You're damn right I can.  Therefore, successful casting.
  • Alice Eve plays a science officer who ends up aboard the Enterprise during the hunt for Harrison.  She's very pretty, and she looks very good in a Starfleet-blue miniskirt.  She isn't called upon to do a huge amount as an actor here, but she's good at what she is asked to do.  If you've seen any of the trailers for the movie, you know she can scream quite capably; luckily, there's more to it than that.

J.J. Abrams on the set of Star Trek Into Darkness

We've talked about some of the stars, but we haven't yet made much mention of director J.J. Abrams, who might well be the movie's MVP.  He famously came to Star Trek as somebody who was not a fan; he'd grown up more of a Star Wars guy, and had never really paid much attention to Trek.  He familiarized himself more fully with the shows and movies once hired for the job of directing Star Trek, and in interviews now he claims to have become a fan of the series in the course of that research; but frankly, he never sounds terribly convincing when he says it, and if I had a gun to my head and had to guess, I'd guess that he's fibbing a wee bit.  He strikes me as the kind of guy who likes the concept of Star Trek, but maybe isn't all that won over by the execution of that concept in the pre-reboot series and movies.  When watching his two Trek movies, with their messy humanity and their wit and their passion, you can practically see Abrams watching an episode of The Next Generation or Enterprise or Voyager or Deep Space Nine and saying, "Okay, fine, but what if we do this with people who yell at each other and break the rules and crack jokes and get drunk and sometimes like to fuck?"

"What if Star Trek were exciting?" he might theoretically ask.  These movies are the answer to that question.  Some Trekkies have recoiled from it, and for the life of me, I cannot sympathize with their viewpoints.  I love Star Trek, but there is no getting around the fact that the original was very much a product of the sixties.  Nothing wrong with that, of course, and it continued to inspire people for decades afterward.  Certain aspects of it still do, too.  But the show came out during an era in American culture in which people truly believed that not only could things get better, they would get better, and were already getting better.  The American dream might be working slowly, but it was working; demonstrably so.  And in the future of that dream?  The stars.

Do people still believe that in 2013?  I'm sure that some people do, and I'm equally sure that a lot of people will lie and claim to believe it even if they don't.  But as a culture, I think we're in an awful dark place right now, and it seems apt to get a whole lot darker before the light starts shining again; and for the record, no, I really don't think we believe it.  We want to believe it; but I think we're afraid it might have slipped away somehow.  No need to take sides politically to see that, because it's evident no matter which side you're looking at.  The mere fact that we actually believe the country splits down the middle ideologically speaks to that notion, I'd say.  One of the questions Into Darkness asks is: aren't we better than this?  In one key scene, Scotty confronts Kirk and more or less accuses him of warmongering.  "I thought we were explorers," he says, angrily and confusedly.  I thought so too, Scotty.

The whole movie seems to ask a simple question: is this really who we are?  Are we the kind of people who will let ourselves be swayed toward doing the wrong thing just because somebody else has done something really, really bad to us?  That's not what Starfleet is about, Scotty seems to be saying.  Starfleet is just an imaginary idea, of course; but in a way, you can say the same thing about America.  Some segments of Trek fandom have objected strongly to the Abrams films because, they say, the movies lack the core ideas of moral philosophy that the original had.  I simply don't find that to be the case; the Abrams movies, instead, are canny enough to realize that the America of this millennium so far does not itself possess that core idea of moral philosophy.  We are, in a sense, lost.
So rather than pretend we aren't and have the subtext of his films feel weirdly anachronistic, Abrams has opted for a different approach: he's pointed toward the right direction and said, "Hey, guys...?  Shouldn't we be going that way?"  These new versions of familiar characters are headed in that direction right along with us; they haven't quite gotten there yet, but we sense that they will, and through them we sense that we can get there, too.  As such, this reboot-universe Star Trek feels every bit as of-its-era as the original series did of its own era.  To me, that seems appropriate, and it reinforces the core philosophies of Trek; it doesn't refute them or bury them, or ignore them, it's merely realistic about them.

Apart from that, on a purely technical level, Abrams is getting better with every movie.  He's got a genuine gift for directing actors.  That fact makes me even more anxious than I already was to see his next movie: Star Wars Episode VII.  There's only been one Star Wars movie directed by somebody who had a flair for directing actors: the director was Irvin Kershner, and the movie was the best of the bunch, The Empire Strikes Back.  I'm guessing Abrams combined with Star Wars is going to equal gold.  That said, I also feel bummed out that we probably won't see another Abrams-led Star Trek movie.  I certainly hope Paramount gets somebody with similar talents.

Visually, Into Darkness is a marvel.  The cinematography is great; the use of color is absolutely stunning, especially in the opening sequence.  (This is my cue to implore you to see this at an IMAX screen if possible.)  The visual effects are as good as CGI is currently capable of (which is pretty damn good); the costumes, which (I am delighted to note) continue to be way more inspired by The Motion Picture than one might expect, are excellent; the set design is impeccable.
Speaking of set design, some Trekkies have hated the new Enterprise.  Not me; I even kinda dig the largely-reviled engineering set, which looks suspiciously like a brewery.  But leaving engineering aside, the ship interiors are just gorgeous; this is easily my favorite Starfleet vessel of all.

It's also worth pointing out that Michael Giacchino, who provides the musical score, does terrific work.  He leans heavily on his main theme from the previous movie, but when your main theme is that good, why wouldn't you?

To sum up: I think this is a damn fine piece of entertainment.  You need not be a Trekkie to enjoy it; in fact, it might help a wee bit if you aren't (although a familiarity with the previous film is recommended).  This time of the year seems to be designed for big, thrilling movies that make us laugh, gasp, clap, and cheer.  This one has all of that, and it also has a beating heart of real emotion at its center.  And yes, there's some serious subtext in there, too, but don't worry:
Like the dog swallowing its cheese-wrapped pill, you'll think it's delicious.


  1. Terrific review, Bryant. I just saw the movie last night (my review will be up shortly), and––despite going in knowing most of the spoilers, and expecting to hate it because of WHO the villain is––I was thoroughly entertained. This felt like what it is: an alternate universe retelling of one of TOS's most beloved episodes. Some of the references in the last reel should have felt like a rip off … and yet, they didn't. I liked this much more than the 2009 film (this film doesn't have anywhere near as many plot holes as that one did), and it again left me wanting MORE, right away. For all my bitching about JJ Abrams exciting-but-formulaic approach to everything, the guy is undeniably talented. And you are spot on with your comments about Chris Pine––he makes a terrific JT Kirk.

    1. I definitely hope it won't be four years before we see another movie. That's just too long.

      Glad to hear you enjoyed the movie!

  2. I am encouraged by your positive review of this. Some of the reviews I've read (I rarely avoid spoilers) have made me smack my head. But, I'm keeping an open mind, and am genetically predisposed to enjoy Trek, so I fully expect to enjoy myself.

    There's a lot of backlash against Abrams lately, it seems. I just re-watched the 09 version and there are still a few dumb things here and there, but it's such an enjoyable movie. Pretty bulletproof, actually; I imagine Into Darkness is more of the same.

    Speaking of, this is the first thing I've read that helps explain the title to me! So kudos. Seems other reviewers are skipping over that part, but the notion of brand repositioning Trek to better embody our contemporary attitude towards idealism/ belief/ optimism is not only intriguing but also probably correct.

    1. Just as with the '09 film, there are things that can be complained about. Especially if you're a Trekkie. But, here's the thing: what Star Trek movie is that not true about? Hell, even The Wrath of Khan has stuff that doesn't make sense if you really scrutinize it. None of the movies are perfect, not even relatively speaking.

      Personally, I think the good VASTLY outweighs the bad with "Into Darkness." There are things I'd have done differently, but by no means does that change my feeling that J.J. Abrams is the best thing to happen to "Star Trek" since the Borg were invented.

    2. Saw it today - loved it! I can't for the life of me figure out what movie the Aint It Cool News and Bad Astronomy reviewers (and other negative commenters) were reviewing. Their experience with the movie bore no relation to my own.

      It's a shame JJ Abrams won't be around for pt. 3 (or so it seems at the moment, anyway.) I have to agree that his involvement with these last two Trek films is a huge asset to the franchise.

    3. I just hope there IS a third film. This one isn't exactly lighting up the box office this weekend. It isn't tanking, but it's underperforming compared to expectations.

      Maybe they'll bring Shatner back to direct!

    4. From your mouth to God-or-Whomever's Ear!!

      I'm surprised to hear that. I haven't checked any receipts yet, but I hope this doesn't turn into a John Carter (or a The Motion Picture) situation...

      Either way, I'm just thrilled to have another favorite Trek film. It's possible I'm just a bit keyed up, having just seen it, but it really was great. I hope it opens big elsewhere and everyone from the suits on down is happy.

    5. Seems to have raked in a good bit of money this weekend, so that's good.

      Couple clarifications: "another favorite," as in "among my favorites," not that this catapulted into Top Trek status for me. And by John Carter/ TMP, I mean a movie that performs pretty well and is pretty damn solid yet garners the reputation of a turkey, for some reason, whereupon we all have to endure having to hear what "failures" they are, by half-wits, from here on out.

      But, hopefully the big weekend and positive word of mouth will win the day.

    6. The weekend box-office was good in some ways, but very disappointing in others. For example, it actually made less during its opening weekend than Star Trek XI did four years ago...and this one had not only the goodwill from that movie working in its favor, but also higher ticket prices (including 3D upcharges). So what that means is that in terms of its opening weekend, this movie is a step backwards. That's not a sign of franchise growth.

      Until you look overseas, where this one is doing WAY better business than the previous one. And since that seems to have been Paramount's big goal with the new movie, it IS tentatively looking like a success story, at least in that regard.

      As far as domestic business goes, I think it's been hit hard by there being several big hits on either side of it. "Iron Man 3" has been huge, and "The Great Gatsby" has done well (somewhat unexpectedly). So there are simply fewer dollars to be spent by moviegoers. And of the ones that ARE left, a decent number of them seem to opting to wait a week and see either the new "Fast & Furious" or the final "Hangover."

      My guess is that word-of-mouth will be good on "Into Darkness," and you'll see it hold up relatively well over the next three weekends until it gets crushed by "Man of Steel." It'll end up being a solid hit, just one that underperforms based on the previous film.

      I think.

  3. Dear Bryant,

    It is things like this:

    "And, God forgive me for saying it, but...he's better than William Shatner ever even thought about being."

    that make it impossible for you to take yourself seriously sometimes.