Please note, this piece is to be read by those who have either seen Star Trek Into Darkness or who don’t mind having its various plot points spoiled for them. It is a frank discussion of what works and what doesn’t work in the film and will include descriptions of all the major beats, including the ending.
Let me start by saying that I quite like Star Trek Into Darkness. I have now seen the film three times and while I don’t quite love it like I love the 2009 Star Trek — director J.J. Abrams‘ first attempt at boldly going and so on — I did enjoy it. The first film certainly has problems of its own, but several things keep you from stopping to think about the film’s issues, mainly the breakneck pace, the incredibly charismatic cast, Michael Giacchino’s fantastic score and, yes, even Abrams’ direction. In fact, it’s most of those same things that help keep Star Trek In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida afloat. But the cracks in the hull are far more apparent this time around, and the whole thing could have easily been a disaster.
After the jump I review the downsides and then move past them to highlight the upsides.
In the first sequence on a fledgling planet we discover that the Enterprise is hiding at the bottom of the ocean. How it got down there without being seen isn’t addressed, nor is why the decision was made to turn a starship into a submarine in the first place. Even Scotty (Simon Pegg) recognizes this by commenting that they’ve been underwater for two days now and it’s “ridiculous.”
Spock (Zachary Quinto) is planning to head into a volatile volcano and detonate a cold fusion device which will freeze the volcano and save the planet. But of course things go wrong, and with no other way to save Spock’s life, Kirk (Chris Pine) violates the Prime Directive by allowing the planet’s inhabitants to see the Enterprise as it rises out of the ocean to save Spock by beaming him back to the ship.
There seems to be no reason why they couldn’t have armed the cold fusion device and just dropped it into the volcano on their way out of town, but that wouldn’t allow the rest of the plot to progress, so instead we get Spock in mortal danger in the first ten minutes of the film. Anyone who actually thinks they’re going to kill Spock in the first ten minutes hasn’t seen very many films. And that’s all without mentioning how this first sequence is basically the same first sequence from Raiders of the Lost Ark. And yet it works, mostly because it’s thrilling in spite of the problems and beautiful to look at as well.
And then there’s John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), Star Trek Infallible Detergent‘s villain of sorts. Turns out he’s actually Khan. Yes, that one from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. And while Trek fans may have wanted to see a new spin on the best bad guy in Starfleet history, I doubt this is what they had in mind. We don’t even know he’s Khan for half the movie and by the time he reveals himself there’s not much time to develop the character before we have to start the business of defeating him. Cumberbatch doesn’t help much either. Fantastic though the Brit may be, particularly on the BBC Sherlock series, here he’s bland and dry as a piece of toast.
In the same role, Ricardo Montalban went famously over the top, crafting an iconic performance. Gone is Khan’s energy and emotion and the feeling that he’s teetering on the edge of Crazytown and may launch a full scale invasion of that place at any time. We’re left with Cumberbatch over-enunciating every word as if to assure us that his mouth works just fine. There’s really nothing about Khan that works, save for the fact that we get a villain that needs to be defeated. And yet the film itself works in spite of this.
To wrap all this up, we fast forward about a year and Kirk is giving a speech about the events of the film and he specifically talks about how the natural instinct is to seek vengeance but that that’s not who we are. The only slight problem with Kirk’s words is that we’ve just spent the last two hours DOING EXACTLY THAT THING. The entire film is a revenge film, every beat. Kirk wanting revenge for Pike, Khan wanting revenge for his crew, Spock wanting revenge for Kirk. In fact, our good friend Erik Davis over at Movies.com wrote about how the film was almost called Star Trek: Vengeance and how that is in fact the title for the film in Russia. So, whether that’s “who we are” or not, the entire film is about vengeance. And yet the film works…
There are other, smaller nitpicks, like the ridiculous title and how warping from one end of the universe to the other is now done in just a few minutes and how Marcus is able to beam Carol from the Enterprise to his ship despite the fact that the Enterprise HAD to have their shields up since they were just being fired upon and how Spock Prime shows up because the plot hasn’t done a decent job of showing Khan to be a dangerous villain so Spock Prime needs to remind us all that the guy is definitely a bad guy whom we should fear. But really, Spock Prime is there because we all love Leonard Nimoy and we want to see him in this new film no matter how much shoehorning it took.
And yet, the film still works…
At least for me it does. I totally understand if some combination of the above issues or ones I didn’t mention that you might have noticed made the film less than enjoyable for you. I get that. And if that’s the case, I’m sorry. I think most of us go into new movies hoping to like them and to go into something as big as Star Trek and be disappointed just plain sucks. But for me it’s still an enjoyable film, and here’s why:
First and foremost, the cast is what makes this movie work. Cumberbatch notwithstanding, the cast is phenomenal. This is the same cast that made the first film work and it’s their relationships and the way they so effortlessly play off each other that makes both films fun to watch despite their flaws. Pine’s Kirk may not be the Kirk from the series, but he’s so damn charismatic and likable, and he plays so well off Quinto’s Spock. Quinto gives a calculated and measured portrayal in the role of the famous Vulcan and the banter between Spock and Kirk is fantastic.
They’re the main ones, but Bruce Greenwood is great as Pike despite his brief screen time. Pegg’s Scotty is hilarious, and given more to do this time around Karl Urban’s Bones is spot on. Sulu (John Cho)and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) are underused but awesome in their moments, and Peter Weller deserves special mention for his no-bullshit performance as Admiral Marcus. It’s an outstanding cast and that’s why it’s able to overcome so many flaws. It’s rare to see so many great actors doing great work.
The cast is even good enough to overcome a very specific issue. While copying the end of Wrath of Khan, STID pulls a reversal and has Kirk go into the radiation core to fix the warp drive, rather than Spock. And then, despite the fact that the audience knows about the healing power of Khan’s blood from the little girl at the beginning of the film, we get a full tearful goodbye as Kirk dies. People are upset because they know the movie’s just going to bring him back to life. I get it. And they’re right, it should feel hollow. Even if you missed it the first time, you know the next time you see the film that he’s going to be alive in about ten minutes. So how could that scene matter at all? How could it have any emotion? Because of Pine and Quinto.
Keep in mind that while we as the audience know that Kirk isn’t really going to die, at this point in the story neither of those characters has any reason to suspect that a miracle cure may save him. They’re saying goodbye as if it’s actually goodbye. Their performance is what makes that scene work when it shouldn’t. I’ll admit it, I teared up the first time I saw it. Giacchino is smart and lets the silence build while Spock takes in the scene and realizes what’s about to happen. And as Kirk and Spock exchange their “final” words, Giacchino brings in a simple, subtle piano that highlights the emotionality of the scene. It’s the perfect compliment to the performances on screen and it makes that scene hold up, even to second and third viewings.
Giacchino gets credit for helping that scene work, as well as countless others throughout the film, as a result of his masterful score. He knows when to push it and when to pull back, when to let silence fill the void and when to crescendo triumphantly to highlight victory, like the moment the Enterprise peeks back through the clouds after having regained power. His score helps to make the movie work even when it shouldn’t.
And then there’s Abrams himself. While Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof may have botched the script, Abrams took it and shot it with style. The scenes don’t seem quite as well-shot or framed or blocked as the scenes in his first Trek outing, but he still makes a few in particular sing, like the opening sequence with Bones and Kirk running through the forest. The shot with the camera in front of Bones showing the spears of the indigenous inhabitants coming right at the screen is not only a great shot but a great use of 3D, and the overhead shot tracking Kirk and Bones as they run out of the forest and jump off the cliff’s edge is fantastic. It’s done at a breakneck pace and starts the film off on the right foot, setting you right down in the middle of things and not giving you a chance to catch your breath before literally hitting the ground running. It may not have the grandeur or the epic nature of the opening of the first film, but it’s still a damn good way to open a movie.
Ultimately, these elements make the movie work. They are able to overcome the films numerous faults and they turn the film into a fun and enjoyable experience even on multiple viewings. I can certainly understand if it doesn’t work for some people. The flaws are legion. But for me, the cast, the score and Abrams all worked together to make a film that I liked. And I’m excited to see what they do next.