There’s something you guys should know about me right away, before we even get in to talking about Star Trek Into Darkness. It’s gonna make some of you uncomfortable, and it might even make some of you distrust every single thing I say about this movie from here on, but it needs to be said, because you need to know the perspective from which I was approaching seeing this particular film. So brace yourselves, Trekkies. Take a deep breath. We’re all gonna get through this. Ready? OK: I loved J.J. Abrams’ first Star Trek movie. I mean, flat out, caveat-free, absolute love. I came out of that movie feeling refreshed and overjoyed and itching to see it again, and then of course I looked at the internet. I was sincerely baffled by all the hate some viewers threw at that flick. I thought they were nit-picking. I thought they were actively seeking reasons not to like it, instead of just sitting back and enjoying this new interpretation. “You don’t get to decide what ‘real’ Star Trek is,” I would argue. “It’s for everybody. It always has been. Just because the Kobayashi Maru scenes didn’t live up to your particular moral interpretation doesn’t mean it’s not a good movie,” I said. I embraced the popcorn exuberance of that film, and four years later I’m still unabashedly embracing it. I still love that movie. So, why am I telling you all of this? Because, Star Trek haters, after seeing Star Trek Into Darkness, I can finally feel your pain.
Let me be clear: I did not hate this movie, but I also didn’t walk away with the same unreserved love I had for its predecessor. There are parts of it, several parts, that I will declare unreserved love for , but there are also parts that filled me with the same fanboy rage that I once dismissed as entitled and self-righteous. I get it now. I’m still fuming at some of the decisions this movie made, though I think I’m fuming for entirely different reasons than people fumed about the first flick. I’m going to explain all this (spoiler-free, so don’t worry, you nerds), but first, we set the scene…
Basically, you guys all know what’s up here, right? You saw the trailers. Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Bones (Karl Urban), Sulu (John Cho), Chekov (Anton Yelchin), Scotty (Simon Pegg) and the rest of the Enterprise crew are up to their usual shenanigans (Kirk’s a loose cannon with no regard for regulations, etc., etc.) when an emergency situation grips Starfleet. John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), a rogue Starfleet officer, has turned into a terrorist and launched a one man war. Kirk and company go after him, with the help of a beautiful scientist (Alice Eve) and the blessing of Starfleet’s top Admiral (Peter Weller). Not surprisingly, massive superdestruction ensues, because Harrison is no ordinary terrorist.
The good news is most of this movie is a hell of a good time. This time around Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof actually seemed to do a better job of balancing the mega-scale action setpieces with the moral and philosophical quandaries of the Trek universe. There’s more discussion about responsibility, about mortality, about lessons learned, and while it still might not make the hardcore Trekkies happy, I was pleased to see more depth here, and to see that depth actually worked into the plot instead of randomly thrust into bits of superfluous dialogue. I was afraid this was going to turn into a Lethal Weapon style franchise where Kirk gets chastised for breaking the rules every 30 seconds, only to shrug and keep right on breaking them. No, there are consequences this time, and the film is better for it.
But as you may have guessed from the trailers (and the first film), this is also a very, very action-heavy film, and it doesn’t disappoint there. Abrams does some truly spectacular stuff with all of Starfleet’s toys, milking the destruction brought on by Harrison’s wrath for everything it can possibly give. There are intense firefights, gorgeous space battles and some epic disaster moments. It’s got all the bombastic spectacle that you want from a movie of this size, and it’s all very, very well-made. Say whatever else you want about J. J. Abrams. The man knows how to blow shit up real pretty.
The flick is also pretty much well-acted across the board (well, except for Eve, who seemed tragically underused to me, as though at times the filmmakers were just waiting to get her in her underwear). Urban, who was my favorite part of the first flick as McCoy, is back in full-force. Pine finds more meat in Kirk. Quinto digs deeper into Spock’s complicated relationship with emotion and actually manages to milk it for some very original pieces of work on the character. Cumberbatch is thoroughly, gloriously villainous, with a voice that’s like the richest, darkest, gooiest syrup you’ve ever wanted to pour all over your chest (Did I say chest? I meant pancakes! Damn you, I MEANT PANCAKES!). The real scene-stealer, though, is Pegg. Last time around he breathed new life into Scotty. This time he gives him new dimension, new emotional depth, and yet still fills every scene he’s got with a sense of comic energy.
Basically, as an action-packed space adventure for all (OK, most) ages, this flick works great. It’s fun, it’s fast, it’s got wonderful bits of comedic invention and fantastic action filmmaking. It’s got a villain you love to hate and heroes you love to cheer. If you’ve never been into Star Trek before, or you just don’t care about things that came before, you might come out of this particular film with the same unabashed love with which I walked out of Star Trek four years ago. If you care about the history of the franchise at all, well… that’s when things start to go south.
First come the little character problems. These aren’t really sins against Star Trek, though. They’re more like the general filmmaking oversights that come from trying to cram your film with as much action as possible while still giving it something resembling a heart. Mostly, the film succeeds at the whole heart thing, but there are a few areas where it falls short in the character department. For one thing, Harrison’s motives often feel a little murky. Yes, they are explained, and they’re explained well, but at times it seems the writers just wanted to fall back on “He’s a villain, so just let him be villainous.” That didn’t happen with Nero in the first film, and as far as I”m concerned, it shouldn’t happen here. It’s a small problem (most of the time, you understand exactly what he’s doing and why he’s doing it), but it still bugged me at a few key moments. There’s also the problem of Kirk. It seems, to me anyway, like he only learns his lesson when he wants to, and then selectively unlearns it later. Sometimes it feels like there’s no real thru-line to cover his decision-making, and while I understand that he’s supposed to have somewhat of a loose cannon mentality, it often feels too much like he’s just a puppet in the hands of Orci, Kurtzman and Lindelof, and that can get distracting.
But the real problem with this film, the part that made me actually seethe a bit as I sat in the theater, is the third act. I’m not going to spoil it for you (though if you’ve read enough internet rumors over the past few months, you might have already figured some of it out), but I am going to sort of broadly criticize the direction the story took. The conflict between Harrison and the crew of the Enterprise was trucking right along for most of the film. It was engaging, it was thrilling, and it was at times even unpredictable. And then, as we rounded third and headed for home, it became a contrived conglomeration of old ideas and new that seemed designed to simultaneously tip a hat to Trekkies and punch them in the gut. The result is not just a final act plot that feels flimsy, ill-conceived and sloppily assembled, but also a “Hey, look how clever we are” vibe that made me forget about much of the actual cleverness the film contains. Again, no spoilers here, but the climactic sequences of this film feel at best like a half-clever homage to Trek past and, at worst, like the stuff of really bad fan fiction. But here’s the thing: Even as it’s doing all of that, it’s still a really well-made movie. The action is firing, the drama is high and the pace is brisk. If we were talking about a wholly self-contained set of ideas, they’d be golden, but we’re not. If you’re going to go through the trouble of crafting an alternate timeline so you can reset the Star Trek universe, at least have the decency to tell me a new Star Trek story, not a vaguely re-engineered thing that’s sorta kinda a new twist on an old thing. It feels like the intent was to wink and nod in the direction of the hardcore fanbase, but for me it often just felt like an insult.
Honestly, I still had a lot of fun watching this movie, despite the weak sauce of its ending. In many ways it manages to be superior to its predecessor. It’s got more character development, better action and, dare I say it, a better adversary. It’s a damn fine blockbuster in nearly every respect. It’s just a shame it had to wrap up the way it did. So, while I loved Star Trek, I walked away from Star Trek Into Darkness with bittersweet love/hate.