Star Trek Into Darkness Review
Star Trek Into Darkness is nothing more than popcorn entertainment. For even the most rabid and devoted Trek-fan.
50Liverpool One. IMAX. 3D
I'm sitting incognito amongst indigenous Scouse population. Gold/Mustard crew jersey fitting rather snugly, Starfleet emblem hidden carefully beneath jacket. Phaser (from release of JJ's first film ... and still the best goddamn light 'n' sound toy replica on the market!) in pocket - but set to stun. Communicator (model Galaxy SIII) switched off as per local law.
As Benedict Cumberbatch's renegade Starfleet Officer, John Harrison would say ...
"Now ... shall we begin?"
James Cameron may well be King of the World, but if J.J. Abrams isn't the Master of the Universe at the moment, then he is certainly the one whispering sweet nothings in the celestial ear of the one who is. But whilst we ponder upon how he will help co-ordinate the chaotic days after the Empire has been defeated in a new slew of Force-related chapters, we can sit back and revel in the second entry in his supreme Starfleet reboot.
I won’t simply come out and say what the big reveal is in this review, but you will find it in the associated thread here – even though I’m convinced that all of you reading this will already know what it is – and there I will discuss how this affects the experience.
Although Abrams has worked with him before, seeing the name of Damon Lindelof anywhere near a big SF extravaganza is apt to make the blood run cold in the veins of any self-respecting genre-aficionado. The repercussions of his lame screenplay for Prometheus are still being felt – destroying life like the Praxis Wave, rather than bestowing it in the case of the Genesis Wave. But, together with the more connected screenwriting of Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, and working from a story that was already locked-down years ago, this is a tale that has no pretence at big profound statements and delivers no whopping sense of disappointment and disillusionment as a result. It is a space romp. Pure and simple.
And in that respect, it certainly delivers the goods.
Captain’s on the Bridge. And look … he’s been fighting again.
Chris Pine’s James Tiberius Kirk is proving to be the same old maverick he was in another time. Throwing the Starfleet Manual to the cosmic winds, he will risk personal life and limb and the safety of all aboard the Enterprise in a do-or-die mission to save Spock from the molten guts of an enraged volcano, inadvertently providing a primitive culture with a glimpse of Things to Come in the process. Troubled by this flaunting of the rules and the Federation-sanctioned Prime Directive not to interfere in a new world’s evolution, James T.’s mentor and Starfleet honcho Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) has no choice but to send the eager young captain back to the Academy to pay a little bit more attention in class. However, you just know that this isn’t a situation that will last long. In fact, barely a couple of scenes later we find Jim Kirk sussing-out the next step in an aggressive attack upon Starfleet, itself, just seconds before the Federation High Command takes a blistering high-rise salvo and poor Pike gets a commission upon the Great Starship in the Sky. This makes Jimbo mad … and, after convincing Admiral Marcus (a loopy, googly-eyed Peter Weller) that he only knows what he can do, he once again assumes command of the Enterprise and, together with his highly dependable crew, goes after the assassin with pure vengeance on his mind.
Klingon for dear life!
When the grim and nasty John Harrison wages his vendetta upon the Federation, he finds that there are simply too many red-jerseys for him to take care of. So, rather deviously, he manipulates their responses in such a way that the delicate truce between them and the volatile Klingon Empire could come crashing down in all-out intergalactic war. Thus, J.J. Abrams gets his new pastie-heads out for the lads. And it is a fine unveiling too, full of menace. Although not exactly major players in this story, their brief sequence is full of potency and intimidation. There’s nothing too radical about their makeover however, and to be honest, I was a touch underwhelmed. But still, the Klingons are back and we certainly expect great things from them in the future. Great and terrible things.
But there’s definitely more a-foot in this dark and deadly web of intrigue, and Kirk will learn that even Starfleet has some foul secrets in its vaults.
With skullduggery and revenge driving the plot, Into Darkness is not as epic or as grandiose as its forerunner. This is quick off the mark, intensely personal and, basically, it doesn’t let up. There are no great surprises in store for anybody, but the film rarely pauses for breath and smothers the audience in gleaming, incandescent visuals (along with the requisite sixty lens-flares-a-minute) and finally gives us a true sense of what 23rd Century Earth is like. London gets a pasting – as it appears to do in Thor 2, as well – when Harrison’s initial wake-up call informs us that he is not taking prisoners and will even use innocent people as his weapons of mass destruction - and then San Francisco goes all Coruscant and becomes a teeming metropolis of futuristic beauty. I love the greater insight we gain into the machinations and etiquette of Starfleet, as well. A huge array of uniforms and establishments give this classic Space Navy real breadth and variety.
But lest you fear that this will be a purely Earthbound mission, much of the film is set in space, with incredible Warp Speed chases, shootouts in the boondocks of Kronos, cut-the-wrong-wire moments on spectral rocky planetoids, and much shipboard fracas to contend with. Abrams repeats the human-torpedo jump from the first film, which does seem like a less exciting rehash even with all sorts of wreckage strewn in the way, but he keeps the action tight and frenetic and often quite stylishly fresh. As the Enterprise takes a typical battering, I love how we see Kirk and Scotty racing to Engineering through corridors that are spinning around. Once again, the fury of photon weaponry cleaving vast holes in Starship superstructures shows us the human cost as crew members are sucked out into space, or go clanging painfully off metal bulkheads. The image of the Enterprise falling through the atmosphere may seem familiar, but the angles and the realism of its descent are pure heart-in-the-mouth stuff, as is its majestic rising from the depths of an alien sea. For a spellbound moment, we are as captivated by this as the primitive tribe staring at it all agog.
If Kirk has his work cut out for himself in battling Harrison, the just have a gander at the super Dreadnought USS Vengeance that the little Enterprise is forced to play chicken with. Big, black and demonic, this thing even squeals with Dilithium-powered rage as it hurtles after its prey. Now that is some serious hardcore hardware.
“Now let’s go get that sonofabitch.”
What I love about Pine’s Jimbo is his relentlessly go-for-it attitude. Be it his impulse-powered commitment to his next sexual conquest (“Hello, ladies … Jim Kirk!” bleated-out in slavering impromptu meeting with attractive passersby in the street), or his ferocious and often inadequate decision to hit first and ask questions later, he makes for a fantastically off-the-cuff and rewardingly rebellious hero. Young, dumb and fulla cum, as Point Break’s Johnny Utah was once accurately described, this Kirk is an unmolded warrior-chief with far too much testosterone flooding his body than is humanly safe. Ladies, adventure, ladies, reprimand and then more ladies. That’s his working day, and that is what his CV proudly boasts. He has to learn some grave lessons if he wants to gain the implicit trust of his crew and gain legendary status as Admiral. To this end, he will certainly confront some testing conditions in this ordeal. I don’t think the screenplay makes the most out of these scenarios though, and how they will eventually shape the man on the five-year-mission. Whereas the TV show was frequently heavy-handed in its sermonizing, the films were much more sophisticated and wise. However, the reboot sits somewhat awkwardly in the middle and just becomes all the more juvenile and obvious as a result. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being lightweight and glossing over the dramatics with breath-snatching speed in favour of the time-honoured space-romp, but when we all know the powerful and strongly emotional trajectory of the characters in question, this just seems like flippant lip-service, dealt with only out of a reluctant sense of duty.
Pine does his best to convey a full range of emotions, and he effortlessly graduates with honours due to his own innate charisma. What lets him down is the lack of depth or integrity in the script. We completely understand Kirk’s commitment to his crew and to Spock, especially, because we can see it in Chris Pine’s eyes. But the way in which all this is written falls way short of the mark.
Similarly with Spock, too, who has arguably a greater internal conflict with which to wrestle. He says the right things and delivers them with quintessential alien idiosyncrasy, but too little has actually occurred in-between the big things for us to readily accept the gravity of any bond he has formed. Yet Zachary Quinto, once again, astounds as the younger Vulcan Science Officer (well, technically, he’s a Commander and a First Officer), bringing a delicate balance to his logical side and that niggly emotional itch that he cannot seem to scratch. We saw his anger flare up in the first film, when the right psychological buttons were pushed, and when his feelings slip him over the edge this time around – whoa boy – you’d better watch out. His relationship with Uhura, such a great twist in the previous film, is not so interesting this time around. After his logical attempts to stabilize the volcano at the start revealed how little he cares for the needs of the few (or the “couple”), they seem to be having some problems. The plot doesn’t really add much development to this frisson, though. The thematic element of inter-species romance is far better depicted by the randy Jimbo, who we see bedding two exotic damsels at once. So Spock’s home-affairs, like a few other strands, are swiftly forgotten about in the search for the next set-piece.
“So, tell me. Why did you allow me to live?”
“We all make mistakes.”
As our nemesis this time out, Cumberbatch makes for a more threatening and downright sinister bogeyman than Eric Bana’s Romulan avenger, Nero. Arguably, the previous adversary had a better story to spur him onward than Cumberbatch does – because Harrison’s is a pale retread of something already explored, and with superior intellect - but our boy acquits himself with immaculately skin-prickling diction and a surprising physicality that sees him excel with some furious hand-to-hand skirmishing. The Holmesian star reached a point in his training regime for the role when he could perform handstand press-ups (although he wussed-out and did them against a wall. Natch!), and you can clearly see the added bulk that now transforms that thin face of his into the unforgiving warhead sitting atop of a super-sleek missile. One ace sequence sees him level a squad of security men, with the effects track ladling-on some severely bone-crunching impacts that his super-stern expression of hellbent violence actually makes sound all the more credible. And another reminds us of replicant Roy Batty’s skull-crushing capabilities in Blade Runner. Plus, he gets to leap around a lot. Actually, it seems that almost everyone in this film makes some perilous leap of faith at some point or other.
It has become something of an accepted cliché to have the hero face the incarcerated villain through the plexiglass wall of an ultimately rather pointless cell. Clarice Starling and Will Graham both met with Hannibal Lecter this way. But, much more recently, we’ve had Loki on the SHIELD helicarrier in The Avengers and Silva (another rogue agent) duping his MI6 captors from his see-through tube in Skyfall. The genius baddie playing the good guys for fools has turned stale, but it is amusing to see this really avoids becoming much of an issue here in Into Darkness. And another nice surprise is that, in the Post 9/11 climate, a film about a determined insurgent carrying out acts of terrorism and mass destruction avoids any and all political or moral self-aggrandisement. It would be all-too easy to point out metaphor and allegory, most especially in a Star Trek story – the shows and the previous films all rebounded off from current geopolitical conditions – but I would suggest that this manages to swerve all such soapbox statements of US intent. Much to its credit, I should point out. Although screen villainy is frequently lent much dimensionality and sophistication these days – everyone has an agenda or a belief worth fighting for – Harrison’s is a personal score that does, rather happily I feel, descend into pure hokum in the final act, which keeps the film from becoming hamstrung with grey areas of right and wrong. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country was deeply enmeshed in conspiratorial manipulation and starkly reflected the world we lived in at the time, yet it perfectly kept the comic-book action and the humour front and centre. Abrams understands this and his film, whilst bearing overtones of our own troubled times, remains prime entertainment, steady and true.
He also knows that the secret of Star Trek is in the collective talents of the ensemble. The skills of the many outweigh the skills of the few, you could say. There is no way that Captain Kirk could defeat any adversary without the solid backup of his crew. And, to this end, Abrams ensures that each and every member of the Enterprise crew does their commissioned duty, as well as performing many desperate ad-hoc tasks that arise in the course of a galaxy-saving adventure. Thus, we get a collective endeavour that, like The Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven and, of course, Trek’s most overt offspring, Star Wars, the message is one of shared commitment, teamwork and pulling-together in times of adversity and despair. The ethic may be that of unilateral and multi-ethnic embrace, but it is all for nothing if we don’t all do our bit in the cause of a common fight. If anything, Abrams’ iteration on the theme is even stronger in this regard than in the TV show and the earlier films. And this Sesame Street-style camaraderie is the glue that bonds and emboldens Star Trek much more so than those other examples. In his hands, however slick and modern the final product might be, this remains its most endearing and most inspiring feature. Any number of modern filmmakers could have attempted to emulate this and I am certain the result would have been abject and miserable failure.
And he is considerably better at intercutting between more than one exciting situation than a certain Mr. Lucas could ever be.
His first Trek could so easily have been lightning-in-a-bottle but, as I say, the golden glue is the cast and crew. This isn’t the best story they could have come up with. In truth, it is fairly mediocre and I feel nothing more than a doffing of the Starfleet cap to the fans before signing-off and heading out into galaxies new. But it retains the essence of what made the 2009 film shine so brightly, and that is something we should applaud. I have some misgivings about this entry, as you shall should you break the Treaty and enter the Spoiler Thread, but the important thing is the Final Frontier is in safe and dependable hands with Pine, Quinto and the Federation Collective at the helm.
I gave some flack towards Alice Eve – well, more specifically, Alice Eve and her Desperate Dan jaw – in my review for the lousy John Cusack Sherlock Holmes rip-off, The Raven - but I have to say that, outfitted in a Starfleet mini-skirt and sporting a cute blonde bob as Dr. Carol Marcus, the glamorous, torpedo-stroking stowaway daughter of Admiral Marcus, she more than tickles my Tribbles. In fact, acting-aside (which is okay for somebody who is merely portraying a space-babe), she is incredibly hot in this. Far more so than the fancy pencil-neck that is Zoe Saldana’s ultra rake-thin Uhura. Just wait until you catch a glimpse of the flirty Carol Marcus in her galactic underwear.
“Good god, man, I’m a doctor not a Mega-city Judge!”
Karl Urban, the man who is Dredd, once again delivers a pitch-perfect performance as Dr. Bones McCoy. Admittedly, he gets to do less in this film than he did the last time, but he manages to make every second on-screen count. This guy is awesome. Whilst Pine and Quinto do interpretations of Shatner and Nimoy, and very convincing younger interpretations they are too, Urban mimics DeForest Kelly to uncannily precise specifications. Mannerisms, voice and expressions – they are all spot-on. Listen out for a great little reference to his performing of Gorn midwifery, and his constant carping sows the seeds of delightful curmudgeonliness in the years to come! We all want him to be Dredd again, but he is still fantastic as McCoy. Anton Yelchin’s Chekov is once again relegated to split-second desk-jockey timing tactics and uber-transporting duties, and for the life of me I cannot remember anything that John Cho’s Sulu does. He’s certainly there … but does he actually do anything other than occupy the Captain’s chair for a brief spell? He must do. But what?
It is funny to see how Doctor Who’s Noel Clarke, a hardworking home-grown filmmaker in his own right, has made the leap from the Timelord’s TV show to a large-scale and lavish 3D Star Trekacular. Although I doubt we’ll be seeing him in this particular guise in any future entries. And Spartacus fans, see if you can spot a split-second cameo from Crixius’ moll, Naevia, Cynthia Addai-Robinson. She’s just a face in the crowd, but it is somewhat heartwarming to see that her gladiatorial perma-scowl still remains … even in this 23rd Century afterlife.
Another thing to look out for are those little pointy Federation sidies. They were a bugbear of mine last time around because they kept lifting up – merely little flimsy hairs that were hauled down from higher up, as opposed to actually growing there in the first place, as in the originals. Now, they are either anchored down firmly or properly grown, and they look much better. What doesn’t look better, however, is Spock’s Lego hairdo. Just try not to giggle when you see him running, hell for leather, in hot pursuit (pure Tom Cruise M-I style!) and the entire lot starts to flap in the wind! Whether human or Vulcan, it’s not a good look.
There was one Pegg in the casting that didn’t quite fit last time around. He was forced too heavily into the ensemble and although delivering a much more convincing Scottish accent that his character’s Canadian ancestor, his style of comic acting was often at odds with the tone of the film. This time around, Simon Pegg’s overly enthusiastic Scotty is much more likeable, though still unmistakably a Simon Pegg character, rather than an interpretation of James Doohan’s long-suffering classic. If you think that having dibs on Mission Impossible, Star Trek and now Star Wars was a schoolboy dream-come-true for a filmmaker like Abrams, then you must also think about how Simon Pegg’s geek-profile has also gone meteoric. By some soul-promised deal with the Devil, the little pinch-faced gingernut has made it into two of the most bankable Hollywood franchises imaginable, and you just know that he’s bound to crop up in JJ’s other galaxy far, far away as well – even if it is just as a voice to some bizarre alien critter.
A totally consistent cog in the new Enterprise’s engine-room is composer Michael Giacchino who is, unmistakably, the full, bonafide baton-change from Jerry Goldsmith. He is the best all-round orchestral composer working in SF/Fantasy and Action that we have today. His music is richly symphonic, beautifully melodic and profoundly pulse-pounding. The way his set-pieces barrel along with such kinetic and addictive exuberance is so breathtaking that I now punch the air with pride whenever I see his name attached to a full-throttle large-scale project such as this. The Incredibles and Ratatouille revealed his penchant for funky and clever writing, Speed Racer added breakneck velocity and euphoria to the mix. His luxurious work on Land of the Lost was entirely the best thing about the film-flop. But then came M:I-3 and Star Trek, which raised the bar considerably with deft reverence to their inspirations and absolutely whiplash action. The doomed but excellent John Carter benefitted massively from his colossal, old school John Williams approach to alien worlds and derring-do. And Into Darkness effortlessly retains the themes from his first Trekkian adventure and adds some delicate introspection and wistful melancholy to the pot (particularly during the John Harrison scheming near the start), clever new themes for the Klingons (angular, tribal and percussive, though a lot more surprisingly subtle than the famously catchy Goldsmith/Horner motifs) and for Harrison, himself (suitably dark obsession tinged with haunting tragedy) amidst the wild new blitzkrieg of explosions and tumbling starships.
Score-fans take note. The soundtrack CD barely scratches the surface of the music he composed for the film. So, just as what happened with the first film’s score, you can expect a fuller, probably complete 2-disc release some way off in the future.
Abrams’ second Federation foray is all very polished and gleaming and wickedly fast-paced. Even Star Trek by-the-numbers is top drawer, kick-back and grin entertainment, but I feel that Into Darkness is far less memorable or repeatable than its immediate predecessor. There is plenty of humour and split-second valour, a whole heap of explosive mayhem, and some gutsy fight scenes but somehow it all feels drier and far less energizing than before. The story tells us that the stakes are higher, but it rarely feels that way to me, even when mortality comes a-calling close to home.
The future’s bright. Like a lens-flare.
I was initially quite impressed with the 3D image. The furious, pell-mell chase through the red-forest of the alien world was thrillingly depicted at the start, and there is no denying the visual depth and power of the chaos wrought about via toppling skyscrapers, plunging starships and huge swathes of the screen wrenched-apart by explosions, and even the odd lens-flare seems to bend over you. But as the film goes on, I became less and less aware of the depth gained and any showboating pizzazz, and I eventually left feeling that they could actually have exploited the extra dimension far more crucially. However, the IMAX presentation is nothing short of stunning from start to finish. Vertigo-inducing moments have you gripping the arm-rests. Starships wheeling through space have such a propensity for dropping the jaw that you are apt to be rubbing popcorn-crumbs out of your chin for some time afterwards. Facial close-ups are startlingly detailed. Perhaps too much so. My eyes were knackered just traversing the contours and pockmarks of Captain Kirk’s visage, let alone the vastness of space. Quite brilliantly, they add a little Federation-logo-shaped cut on his face, too. Well, I say little – it’s about thirty-feet long on that screen.
Plus the soundmix, enhanced by Ben Burtt’s own supersonic specialties, is right royal bombast of the highest order. If you get to experience it in Dolby Atmos, I’m sure you are in for the aural treat of the year, so far. Even the normal IMAX soundmix was utterly devastating.
There have been some looming disappointments on the Big Cinematic Front for me, this year. The Evil Dead and Texas Chainsaw 3D debacles, and Iron Man 3 all dropped the ball, but Star Trek Into Darkness goes a long way to redeeming my faith in the top tier titles coming our way. This, Man of Steel and The Wolverine are the three I have been praying wouldn’t let me down. Well, I am certainly on my way to that hat-trick.
Wigan just took the FA Cup in our timeline, so things are definitely looking up!
Star Trek Into Darkness gets a strong 7 out of 10 from me. I really enjoyed it, but it has some problems and doesn’t hang together as well as the first film. However, I believe the franchise has, like James Bond, now established itself, and can boldly go in a new direction
VerdictStar Trek Into Darkness is nothing more than popcorn entertainment. For even the most rabid and devoted Trek-fan, whose hopes, like mine, were raised perhaps too high due to excellent trailers, tantalizing plot-possibilities being leaked, enjoyable conjecture and last-minute giveaways, not to mention to unhidden adherence to what remains the greatest voyage of the Starship Enterprise – STII:TWOK – to have expected anything more was just plain stupid. Although I hugely enjoyed this outing, it lacked the sparkle, wit, energy and sheer fun of the first reboot, cramming-in high-stakes sacrifice and profound melodrama much too quickly but treating it all in such a lightweight knockabout fashion that you are rarely exhilarated and only mildly moved.
I sincerely hope that this franchise will now leave the space-dock of the originals and genuinely explore a path of its own. Into Darkness cannot help but feel like fan-bait by needlessly resurrecting a story theme that, if you’re going to do it, really needs more gravity and power than is revealed here. Being quite cynical, I would say that, despite much visual destruction, they treated the wrathful influence with abject superficiality and jettisoned the emotional wallop that it needed.
But the plus points for the many outweigh the cons of the few. Or the one.
The cast are still terrific. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto are simply excellent as the galaxy’s greatest odd couple. Simon Pegg does not annoy anywhere near so much as you’re convinced he will do. Ditch that useless little alien sidekick, though. Bad boy Benedict is awesome, but he really deserved a better story than this to brood and glower his way through. I loved Peter Weller’s googly-eyed Admiral Marcus … and the Admiral’s daughter, of course! I’d like to beam up that, that’s for sure! And the action is both up close and personal and eye-scorchingly spectacular.
Michael Giacchino’s score still rocks with exuberance and wild symphonic flourish, and the visuals are truly entrancing, really benefitting from a full 3D IMAX presentation. So that really is the way to go, folks.
For me, personally, J.J.’s first Trek is superior to this and, with hindsight, Into Darkness has the potential to become simply an okay episode in a series that will have predictable highs and lows throughout a much longer voyage. But now that they’ve got the “big” homage out of the way, let’s crack on with boldly going where none of the other stories have been before, eh?
So, whatever my reservations may be, I would still very definitely recommend seeing this while it is here and now … and in full IMAX 3D, if you can.
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