May 29, 2018
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
WARNING: Having enjoyed the freedom offered last time by ditching all attempts to remain vague, I am again packing a review with plot-spoiling material. Leave the mystery boxes to J.J. Abrams. Though seeing as this is J.J. Abrams, you should know by now that this movie has no secrets worth keeping. I leave it to your discretion.
I would like to begin with the customary mention of J.J. Abrams’ excessive use of lens flare techniques.
…That was it.
At this point, I am convinced that J.J. Abrams is the single greatest threat to good filmmaking today. The usual reaction to a statement like that is for people to rush and defend him by pointing out how “not bad” his handful of films are. The repeated use of the phrase “not bad” is really all I need to illustrate my point. Certainly, there are many who genuinely love the man’s work, but the general consensus towards most of what he puts up tends to be “eh, it’s okay”. What’s more, people tend to be surprisingly defensive about how “okay” his films are, and therein lies the hidden threat of J.J. Abrams. He’s just good enough to attract brand loyalty, but not good enough to upset the balance. He’s every investor’s dream come true: a director competent enough to consistently make slick-looking, perfunctorily entertaining hits, but with none of that pesky artistic vision to get in the way of market-tested, focus group-approved moviemaking.
I could go on at length about Abrams’ many shortcomings. The half-formed idea that is his beloved “mystery box” is always a favorite. But foremost in my mind is his gift for detail-oriented mimicry that is crippled by his surface level comprehension of what he mimics. In contrast, someone like Quentin Tarantino also enjoys paying to homage to old movies he likes, but he demonstrates an innate understanding of how and why those movies work, and mixes and matches them to create a style all his own. Abrams, meanwhile, can only recreate, adding nothing of substance to make the endeavor worthwhile. Super 8 was supposed to be his big career thesis statement, and the best he could come up with was a big budget E.T. fan film.
And his repeated success scared the ever-living Christ out of me. Disney has taken some daring and bold risks in recent years: hiring a strictly cult TV producer whose one theatrical film bombed to direct The Avengers? Huge risk, and one that paid off big time. But what happens when one of those risks doesn’t pay off? They’ve already handed the reigns of Star Wars to Abrams over far more exciting choices. What happens if they decide to minimize their risk and replace Joss Whedon, unpredictable visionary that he is? Might they instead put the future of the Marvel Universe in the hands of someone more obedient and by-the-book? I shudder to think. Abrams is a threat because he’s just good enough to make people “okay” with him. He encourages people to settle. Sure, he’ll never blow your minds, but he’ll never disappoint you either. Isn’t that more comforting than some strange, unfamiliar artistic type who’s creative vision might be (*gasp*) different from yours?
Case in point: Star Trek Into Darkness. Passable. Rote. Mediocre. Safe. Like all of Abrams’ films, it neither offends nor engages; it merely occupies two hours of your time. Time that might’ve been better spent on something you might actually remember the next day. Instead of the usual breakdown and analysis, I’ve decided to arrange my thoughts in list form. Why? Because Abrams films don’t put me in the mood to try.
Things I liked:
1. The score.
2. The warp speed effects.
3. The Enterprise rising out of the sea.
4. The fact that one of the ships is called the USS Bradbury.
5. Sulu taking the bridge. Way better character moment than that stupid bit from the first one where fencing == ninja. Sulu was my favorite TOS supporting character, and I always wanted to see him in the chair.
6. Zachary Quinto.
7. The fact that Uhura continues to have far more personality and agency than she had in TOS.
8. Uhura speaking Klingon. Great rebuttal to that rather lame joke from Star Trek VI.
9. Simon Pegg
10. What I think was supposed to be an android on the bridge.
11. Kirk getting worn out trying to beat up Khan.
12. The Klingons finally getting some face time.
13. Alice Eve in lingerie. I’m a pig, I admit it.
Things I loathed:
1. The lens flares, but that goes without saying.
2. Chris Pine’s acting.
3. Chris Pine’s “dude-bro” attitude.
4. Chris Pine’s classless version of a ladies’ man.
5. Chris Pine playing Beastie Boys again.
6. Chris Pine’s dorm room cat-girl threesome.
7. Chris Pine’s stupid hair.
8. Chris Pine’s stupid face.
9. Fuck it, basically everything about Chris Pine.
10. Karl Urban and Anton Yelchin, normally good actors, giving fake, exaggerated impressions of Bones and Chekov.
11. The fact that Peter Weller, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Alice Eve are utterly wasted.
12. The fact that one of the ships is called the USS Vengeance.
13. The fact that Alice Eve in lingerie is so lazily forced in that I feel even dirtier than usual.
14. The fact that Starfleet apparently has a mobile planet-to-planet transporter that they never use.
15. The fact that the two highest paid writers in Hollywood are so amateurish at their jobs that they actually resort to a starting a line of dialogue with “As you know…”
16. The fact that they give that line to Leonard Nimoy.
17. The fact that Leonard Nimoy is in it. Once is passing the torch, twice is pointless and pandering.
18. The fact that Khan is in it*.
19. The fact that Spock is called upon to lose his cool and act emotional so often than it becomes the norm and loses all impact.
20. The fact that the writers have a really good moment going during the death scene where Kirk asks Spock how he chooses not to feel, but then they have no idea where to go with it, the train of thought peters out, and they go back to recycling lines from Wrath of Khan.
22. The dead tribble.
23. The fact that the climax is a foot chase.
24. The fact that the tension of said foot chase relies entirely on the need for Khan’s blood, when they have 72 people on board with the same blood already. I usually discourage nitpicking plotholes, but think about your movie for five seconds!
25. The fact that Kirk doesn’t stay dead.**
26. The fact that Kirk doesn’t stay dead.***
27. THE FACT THAT KIRK DOESN’T STAY DEAD.****
28. The fact that this supposed successor to one of the most influential and thought-provoking science fiction franchises of all time still has no interest in exploration and no ambition beyond superficial coolness.
I want to leave you with a quote from that great American, Lex Luthor: “I would rather fail spectacularly than succeed minimally.” True art is risky, my friends. It takes commitment, it takes courage, and it doesn’t always work out. But one thing is still true: it’s always better than playing it safe. You may get a great movie, or you may get an awful one, but either way, it’ll be a memorable experience. More than being annoying, offensive, or painful, the greatest sin a film can commit is to leave no impression at all. J.J. Abrams is inviting you to splash around in the shallow end of the pool, where it’s safe and secure. But you’ve been there before. Dive headfirst into the deep end, and whether you sink or swim, you’ll never be bored again.
*And not because he’s not played by Ricardo Montalbán. Khan is a rare gem among classic cinema villains in that he’s mostly avoided overexposure. Other characters with his level of popularity (Darth Vader, Hannibal Lecter, the Wicked Witch) have long since been mined for all they’re worth with sequels, prequels, remakes, spinoffs, etc. But Khan still felt special and pure because there was so much less of him. The one movie, the one TOS episode, that was it. But now that’s all ruined. And for nothing, since Abrams’ ill-advised insistence on secrecy removed any marketing value the character would’ve provided.
**Because I hate him.
***Because it renders his death pointless.
****Because it defeats what little character arc he had.