By J.J. Abrams
J.J. Abrams has now all but solidified himself as the next Steven Spielberg. With this film, the first Star Trek reboot, and Super 8 (not to mention the upcoming Star Wars films), he is one of the most exciting and trusted blockbuster directors working in Hollywood. Star Trek Into Darkness continues the positive trend. Carefully crafted, and boasting a strong attention to detail, it is an extremely fun ride. It had good overall performances, a very interesting villain, and it was impeccably paced to maximize tension.
Abrams can certainly stage an action sequence, especially a disaster, like no one else, and there were quite a few scenes in Star Trek that reached a very high level of suspense. However, with this said, it simply didn’t have the thematic weight to warrant a glowing recommendation. It relied too heavily on past knowledge of the franchise (even back many years) to build investment in its characters. It also was a bit overkill, piling one battle or action sequence on another. I would have enjoyed just a little breathing room, maybe some tension built out of something other than another death-defying barrage. However, as this is a summer blockbuster, it is hard to expect much depth, and as a popcorn flick, it more than hits its marks.
A very strong *** out of ****
I find it impressive what Abrams has done for Star Trek, now having crafted two thrilling adventure films from the shell of a franchise that had previously built a large fan base employing more cerebral plotting. Until Abrams, Star Trek stories drew mainly from political intrigue, webs of interpersonal clashes, and the curiosities of strange new worlds. Yes, the original Star Trek series was campy, but even so, it thrived on the basis of cultural and political conflict (along with a healthy dose of melodrama). Comparatively, with his additions to the franchise, Abrams has succeeded in creating something fresh, simplifying the formula into something more crowd-pleasing while simultaneously paying respect to the brand’s roots in utilizing the political conflict inherent to the Star Trek universe.
|A perilous situation.|
This isn’t to say the films are dumbed-down, but rather that much of the intellectual fat has been trimmed. While this film has its fair share of twists and turns, its central conflict remains mostly uncomplicated, pulling from basic themes of revenge and political corruption. The plot may be intricate, but the motivations driving the plot are not, and with more simple conflicts, there is more time for well-staged action sequences and perilous situations – which are Abrams’s sweet spot. This man was built to make blockbuster films and knows how to use all the tricks at his disposal (including the ever trusty countdown-to-exploding-device) to efficiently create suspense. There is nothing new here, really, but with Abrams’s skills, it is nonetheless exhilarating. It is top-notch formula filmmaking, and while some of it seems overly contrived, it is an impressively slick and eminently exciting ride.
A weak ***½ out of ****
I agree that it is quite impressive what Abrams has done with the franchise. It is fresh, and crowd-pleasing without ever being dumb, even if the “intellectual fat” has been removed. I am very close to a 3 ½ star rating as well – it was really was very entertaining and extremely thrilling. I thought Benedict Cumberbatch was ever so fun and thrilling as the film’s villain, John Harris. What did you think of him?
|Good old Benedict.|
In his scenes, Cumberbatch commanded the screen. I found myself wanting to see more of him, as the brooding charisma of his performance was both electric and frightening. I found myself thinking of Die Hard’s Hans Gruber, probably because Cumberbatch’s voice benefits from the same timbre as Alan Rickman. Yet, unlike Die Hard’s iconic villain, Cumberbatch’s Harris is always coolly in control of his plans, demonstrating a superior cleverness over his adversaries. In fact, when he is ultimately vanquished (not really a spoiler – c’mon, did you really think the bad guy would win?), it takes some suspension of disbelief just to accept that he is outduelled. Yet, as the film is filled to the brim with the highly unlikely, barely-made-it-out-alive hijinks that define American blockbusters, I was mostly comfortable accepting this suspension of disbelief as well.
Without giving too much away, I also appreciated the way the film handled this character generally. As a viewer, we spend much of our time assessing his motivations and cannot make a true judgment until far into the plot. This was refreshing and a nicely compelling move, as most blockbusters simply present a power-hungry baddy at the beginning and move on from there.
Throughout the film, there was a lot of angst built between characters – between Scotty and Kirk, Kirk and Spock, Spock and Uhura, and more. What did you think of this? Did it help the story or weigh it down? Did you think these conflicts given enough attention to be credible?
I love your comparison of the voice of Cumberbatch with Rickman – it is a very nice parallel. As far as angst and tensions go, I felt as though some of the relationships and their ensuing spats were more believable than others. Although I identified with the baseline frustration in the relationship with Uhura and Spock, it isn’t a particularly fleshed out relationship, so the scenes were a bit forced. I thought the tension between Kirk and Spock was better, and I don’t yet have an opinion on the one between Scotty and Kirk. Simon Pegg can sell anything with a deft comic touch, but the question is was his reaction to the missiles true to his character in this or the last film? I guess I’m not sure, and I don’t know that we know Scotty well enough and this point to make that judgment. What did you think?
|Ah, the bromance.|
You hit on a big consideration for this film – as with many sequels, it relies heavily on character development done in previous installments. While the attention given to the Kirk-Spock tiff made it believable due to its central role in the plotting, I also found myself a little lost with the Spock-Uhura conflict, even if it was rather simple when you break it down. It had honestly been too long since I had seen the first installment to remember they had a relationship, let along be invested in its survival. Likewise with Scotty – while I bought his administrative quarrel with Kirk, it was hard to say if his actions were fitting. This all raises an interesting question – if a film assumes prior viewer knowledge, does the film lose value? I would say no, especially if the film is a sequel, but it does make the job of a critic a bit more difficult.
I would agree that a film doesn’t automatically lose value if it relies on prior viewer knowledge. However, I think the issue with this film was that it was so concerned with the zip, bang aspects of the production that it just left everything else by the wayside, including any character development that both (a) didn’t happen in the previous film (b) needed to happen for the tension to fully work in this film. Now again, I thought it was great fun, there just wasn’t much in the way of actual nuance. Additionally, it broached some very interesting subjects (specifically war profiteering) that were later dropped and not fully realized in favor of more (admittedly very cool) action sequences.
I can hear the fanboys now – “But we already know these characters!” And indeed, they would be right – they have a whole television series logged into their memory. Not being a trekker myself, it is hard to know how much the film relied on or played off the years of character work from the iconic show. Yet, while this could account for some of the glossed over character portrayals, I nevertheless agree that since its story stems from character flaws, it could have been more compelling with a greater exploration of these flaws. Instead, we are given archetypes, and while this serves well enough to provide motivations for its plotting, it is not as impactful as it could be.
|Red shirts next to a villain - uh oh...|
You could also say the same thing for the political themes it mostly dropped in favor of action – as with the character flaws, these themes are presented mainly as a jumping point to battles and thrills, rather than being the focus of the film. Since these themes, though they were simplified, are far more interesting than your standard bad guy vs. good guy setups, I found the film as a whole more interesting than standard action fare. Yes, it could have been more meaningful by exploring character psyches and political philosophy, but as a summer blockbuster, that was clearly not its intent, and it is hard to fault it for prioritizing excitement over thematic depth – especially when it so skillfully excites.
Two-as-One Rating: ***¼ out of ****