What may be most surprising about the new franchise entry Star Trek Into Darkness is how much it has in common with Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, at least from an aesthetic point of view. Both are filmed as if everyone and everything was caught up in a fever; both are overdirected with an emphasis on the visual over narrative; and both strive to make their stories relevant to current events. But though …Gatsby never quite reaches the heights it could and doesn’t quite come together, at the same time, …Into Darkness is such a failure it makes …Gatsby look like something directed by Orson Welles.
There is something incredibly sad and dispiriting about …Into Darkness. It’s actually easy to miss it, but a lot of people die in this movie; I mean, a lot of people. But with perhaps one exception, they are all disposed of with the flick of a CGI switch and without any sort of context or build up so that their deaths have any sort of emotional impact. These characters (if you can even call them that) don’t die in ways that mean anything; they die in ways to thrill the audience so those watching can ooh and aah at all the explosions and neat SFX going on. And there’s just something depressing about taking a franchise that, from its original incarnation and up through the movies made with the original TV cast, was meant to be uplifting and full of hope with a theme of the sacredness of life, and turning it into a cold, merciless killing machine, like the Terminator.
J.J. Abrams is the director and the screenplay is by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof, all of whom, except for Lindelof, were responsible for the 2009 rebooting. I have to be honest. The story here never made a lot of sense to me. It begins with a terrorist attack by the villain de jour, Khan (played by buffed up Benedict Cumberbath, though not as buffed as Ricardo Montelban who originated the role, but hey, some pecs are harder to fill than others), in which he manipulates events to get all the top military brass in one room. Why? Well, unless I missed something (and in the spirit of full disclosure, it’s quite possible I missed a lot in this movie), his real target is only one person in that room. All I could think afterwards was: Khan is this genetically altered superhuman, a scientific genius, and had the freedom of mobility of any other citizen, so why didn’t he just take his target out the old fashion way of a Tony Soprano: just show up on the bastard’s doorstep and blast a hole in his head. No, Khan’s approach here is what is called in screenplay parlance as trying to swat a mosquito with an elephant.
This lack of logic doesn’t stop here. Our intrepid hero James Tiberius Kirk is quick enough on his feet to figure out before anyone else that the meeting of the brass was a set up. Yet, he then seems incredibly slow on the uptake when it never seems to occur to him that Khan’s stashing himself away on the Klingon planet of Kronos might just also be a set up. In fact, this is one of those screenplays in which people tend to act in certain ways to make sure the plot works out the way the writers need it to rather than let the characters dictate what happens.
To the filmmakers’ credit, and as was said, the authors try to make this Star Trek relevant and there are some interesting ideas that are broached in the first act. There is a clear parallel to the present day controversy over using drones to take out American citizens without benefit of trial or a discussion as to whether they have Constitutional rights. And Peter Weller plays a Karl Rove/Donald Rumsfeld type character who tries to start a war under bogus pretenses. But after these intriguing and thought provoking issues are introduced, they’re pretty much dispensed with (as quickly and with as little conscious as those unknowns that are killed off) so Abrams can get around to doing what he does best: blow things up. As I said, it’s all a bit dispiriting.
Even the strongest aspect of the 2009 entry doesn’t wear well in this sequel. Whatever else one can say about the previous Star Trek movie, it was brilliantly and cleverly cast. Half the fun of the film was enjoying how well everyone fit and played their roles. But here, the acting is pushed to the edge with in your face line readings and everybody wearing their emotions on their sleeves. No one has the impact of the earlier film here because there’s no room for subtlety among all the ticking time bomb plot turns going on (all of which seem to be set for thirty seconds, yet feel like they take minutes to happen). And it doesn’t help the actors that there’s precious little humor here, far less than in the previous entry; even Hamlet has more laugh lines. Cumberbatch as Khan is perfectly fine, but since most of his acting is relegated to telling everyone what happened in the past (and even this is a bit hard to follow and understand) and he’s given no real emotional arc to play here (in the episode in the TV series, he’s at least allowed to fall in love), he can do little but sit and glower. Only Weller really makes an impression. In fact, about the most interesting thing about the cast this time round is there willingness to be billed in alphabetical order at the end (which must have made John Cho’s day).
Even the climax feels like a downer. Kirk sacrifices himself in the same way that Spock did in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. It certainly doesn’t have anywhere near the emotional impact of Spock sacrificing himself. And not only does it just feel lazy and unimaginative, it also feels like an insult to the writers of the earlier movie.
Tell me what you think.