Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness Review Part 1: No Spoilers

I went to see Star Trek Into Darkness in "IMAX" 3D with my brother, J, part of a belated birthday celebration. This is going to be a two-part review, starting here with a spoiler-free part 1, and dropping the gloves to talk about all the details in part 2. I won't spoil Into Darkness here, but I will feel free to discuss plot details of any other film with "Star Trek" in the title, up to and including J.J. Abrams' 2009 Star Trek.

Anyway, after the movie was over, I was looking for the barrel into which I could toss my 3D glasses. J reached out his hand and said, "Here, give 'em to me." I did, and without another word, he snapped the glasses in half. That's how he felt about Star Trek Into Darkness. I can't say I much disagree with him.

Coming in, I was expecting the experience to be a lot like Abrams' 2009 franchise reboot, simply titled Star Trek. That film was Abrams' attempt to hybridize Star Trek and Star Wars: all the familiar Star Trek characters, settings, and tech in an adventure story whose pace and tone were more like something out of the Star Wars universe.  The story was more plothole than plot, but it included some interesting surprises (bye-bye Vulcan!) and enough energy that Abrams was able to keep things moving briskly from action set piece to action set piece. The momentum was sufficient that you really didn't have much time to contemplate all the parts of the story where you apparently needed to read a series of tie-in comic books for the plot to make any damn sense.

The 2009 Star Trek was a good action/adventure film, if not necessarily a good Star Trek film. It accomplished its primary goals of reintroducing the characters and establishing an alternate timeline so that future installments wouldn't be bound by the complicated Star Trek mythos. Grading it was hard, however, because reboots (and prequels, and pre-boots, and adaptation origin stories) are stacked in favor of the filmmaker. The audience goes in expecting certain pieces to fall into place, and the filmmaker gets a (somewhat unearned) pat on the back for simply delivering them. In Star Trek, there was a little pause for applause every time the movie reintroduced a member of the Enterprise bridge crew, pauses for applause every time one of those familiar characters uttered a catchphrase ("OMG! Bones just said 'Dammit, Jim' for the very first time!") or did something in character, and an even longer pause for applause whenever a character did something radically out of character (the big reveal in which Spock and Uhura embrace). At one point, where the story's momentum threatened to stall out, there was still tension largely because there was still one major crew member still missing. So "Where's Scotty at?" plus a space-monster chasing Kirk around an ice planet, will while away the time until we get back on the Enterprise.

Now, don't get me wrong. I love fan service as much as anyone. And this isn't just a problem of Abrams' Star Trek, it's endemic of origin story movies and other reboot-ish ventures: once you're done checking off boxes of all the familiar elements you're introducing, there's not much room left for a story. Making a second film in any of these series is much harder, because you can't get an easy laugh out of stuff like Tony Stark's ringtone being the theme from the 60's Iron Man cartoon, or a big cheer for a character simply showing up. You actually have to tell a story, and give people reasons to applaud.

In its first half, Star Trek Into Darkness actually tells its own story, and at times it really works well. For example, the scene in which Benedict Cumberbatch's terrorist, John Harrison, is introduced is nearly wordless and visually distinct from anything else in the series in a good, good way. That scene suggested a new direction where we might learn more about what it's actually like to live in the Federation--that's the good guy government in the Star Trek universe--as opposed to simply experiencing what it's like to belong to the quasi-military Starfleet. It also sets in motion a plot by which we learn that Harrison's a Starfleet officer who's turned against the Federation. When his acts of terror draw blood, James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is the Starfleet commander tasked by Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) with bringing Harrison to justice, in a plotline that echoes current events (well, events in the recent past, at least). 

Aside from the promise of topicality, another intriguing new element that we see in STID is the way that Zoe Saldana's Uhura has supplanted Karl Urban's McCoy in the classic Star Trek Kirk/Spock/Bones triumvirate--she's now the character who fills the gap between the two series leads, bringing insights and emotion to the table that the others wouldn't or can't express (interestingly, the way this trio works places Zachary Quinto's Spock as the top point in the triangle, instead of Kirk). The scenes between these three characters are a delight, and they build on the relationships established in the 2009 film. Simon Pegg's Scotty also gets a good subplot, although it's one that in a way rehashes his storyline from the 2009 movie.

On the negative side, there's a lot of rehashing in STID. The opening of the film, which shows the Enterprise crew on a typical adventure, pretty much resets Pine's Kirk to where he was in the first movie: cocky kid who thinks the rules don't apply to him, in trouble with authority, and in conflict with Spock, who in turn, once again doesn't understand Kirk's need to go with his gut. Story beats in the second half of the film, which I won't repeat because of spoilers, again set the Enterprise against a larger, more powerful opponent, much like in the 2009 film. As anyone who's seen the trailer or ads can tell, STID once again features Kirk practicing his Extreme Sports skills in a space suit.

This regurgitation of story elements, along with Abrams' normal tendency toward--shall we charitably call it homage?--is supposed to evoke the great adventure films of the 80s. It's supposed to tell the Star Trek audience that the filmmakers really appreciate and revere the franchise's history. The end effect is the opposite. The problems the film has in its second half really mean that, although it's a fairly dependable popcorn movie, I can't recommend it.

However, we really can't discuss the brick wall the film hits in its second half without major spoilers. So, to be continued.


-- Oddly, on a Thursday night, two weeks after release, we were sitting in a rather empty movie theater.

-- I tolerate JJ Abrams' love of lens flare more than most, but the combination of lens flare and 3D is really obnoxious. I really don't want a sheet of flare light in the foreground between me and the stuff I'm supposed to be looking at.

-- Then again, when the best 3D in your movie is the end credits and subtitles, your movie isn't worth watching in 3D. I've now watched four feature films in 3D, and there have been a total of two and a half scenes all told where the 3D effect have added anything to the movie. The objection this time wasn't the typical "It makes the image too dark"--the image is seldom too dark when the director continually points light sources directly at the camera--it's just that the 3D brought absolutely nothing to the table.

-- I also doubt I'll ever again pay for IMAX, unless it's a real IMAX screen like the one at Lincoln Center. The FauxMAX screen at Kips Bay wasn't horrible--I didn't notice any of the "jaggedness" some people report--but it wasn't so impressive I felt compelled to pay a premium. I wonder if I would feel differently if the FauxMAX hadn't been paired with lousy, postconverted 3D. Sadly, I don't think there is such a thing as a 2D IMAX showing of STID.


  1. Great review, DJ! I wish I could've been there, just to see J snap those glasses. F--king classic!

    I also love the way you describe the burden of a first-time reboot director; it reminds me very much of Steve Harvey, a comedian whose bit I saw and immediately thought, "Oh damn, this guy has to talk about how much he loves the city he's performing in tonight, just to get the audience to start clapping."

    I don't hope that any movie sucks, but I had some serious concerns after the 2009 Star Trek did a decent job of entertaining me, but made little lasting impression after I left the theater. My opinion plummeted after I actually tried to think about the plots...

    It was all that that left me with a very sinking feeling about the odds that STID would be any good, and the reviews have told me that I was wise to hold off. Seeing any movie with you two would've been a pleasure, but I was really not into taking a chance after ST2009 and a long day of mind-numbing work.

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