The new Star Trek movie isn't a terrible film. Star Trek Into Darkness has some bravura action scenes, and some brilliant comic bits. But it's also aggressively, tragically stupid. It's not even a great popcorn film, because it fails to deliver on its own promises. And it's not half as good as J.J. Abrams' first Star Trek.
Note: This review contains no major spoilers, but does have some broad generalizations, from which one could draw vague but pointed inferences.
Four years ago, J.J. Abrams showed that Star Trek could be thrilling again. His first film starts off with a really powerful opening sequence, where George Kirk sacrifices himself for his crew and his newborn son. And it ends with a pretty rousing finale, where Jim Kirk saves Earth from meeting the same fate as Vulcan, and Spock discovers that his father really did love his mother. Also, Abrams' first movie takes chances with the Trek mythos, blowing up Vulcan and turning Spock and Uhura into a long-term couple.
But Abrams' second outing plays it safe, instead of capitalizing on this legacy. Star Trek Into Darkness tries to give fans exactly what they expect, in exactly the right quantities with the right packaging. The result is somewhat insulting to actual Star Trek fans, because nobody enjoys inept pandering. And it falls short of being a good action movie, because it actively lowers the stakes over and over, instead of raising them.
This is a film that's simultaneously trying too hard and aiming too low. In parts, it's ridiculously fun and there are some crackerjack sequences that work astonishingly well. (Along with some sequences that fall terribly flat.) Simon Pegg nearly steals the thing. Benedict Cumberbatch is mostly great. But the film is let down by its nonsensical plot and pulled punches.
I'm trying to avoid major spoilers here, but suffice to say that nothing in Star Trek Into Darkness makes sense. At all. These aren't the sort of plot holes that you notice in the parking lot after you walk out of the movie theater, but rather the sort that jump out at you while you're actually watching the movie. The first half of the movie sets up a genuinely interesting storyline, and lays the groundwork for what could have been a really good film — and then the movie throws all of that potential away on fan-service and villain multiball.
Star Trek Into Darkness, in particular, lacks a big climax, like Nero trying to destroy Earth in the first movie — this time around, the final act of the movie just feels like more middle.
Often, when a film falls apart the way Star Trek Into Darkness does, it's because the film-makers didn't know what story they were trying to tell. This time around, they had a clear story in mind... and it's one that apparently doesn't have room for a good villain, or an interesting story.
The Kirk Problem
All of the marketing for this film has been built around the idea that it has a really strong villain, stronger than the one-note Nero from the first movie. But in fact, that's not the case — there are a couple of villains in Star Trek Into Darkness, and neither of them is particularly strong in the sense of posing a major challenge. Both villains are utterly reactive, flailing around in response to plot developments.
And this movie is not at all driven by either of its villains, whose identity I won't give away. Instead, it's all about Kirk, and his unfitness for command.
The biggest flaw in the first Abrams Trek movie is James Kirk's "failing upwards" trajectory, which leads to him becoming captain an hour after flunking out of Starfleet Academy. Kirk is also working the "immature frat-boy" vibe a little too hard, making it hard to believe anyone would trust him with hundreds of lives.
So Star Trek Into Darkness' main goal is to rehabilitate Kirk and turn him into a fit captain. Plot and storytelling logic are completely subsumed to that goal, and all of the major character development revolves around that — even the Spock/Uhura romance is turned into an extension of Kirk's relationship with Spock. In fact, even the Kirk/Spock friendship is submerged in the story of Kirk becoming a good captain at long last, which means that some key scenes towards the end are lacking the emotional depth they're probably supposed to have.
The good news is, Chris Pine is way better this time around. He actually seems sort of like a starship captain, instead of a kid trying on his dad's clothes. He's gotten some gravitas from somewhere, maybe from hanging out with Benedict Cumberbatch.
And some of the best moments in the middle of the film involve Kirk making a few genuinely wise decisions, which show that he's listening to his subordinates instead of just doing whatever he feels like. There was a bit, about halfway through the film, where I really thought this movie was going someplace cool, because we do see Kirk becoming a better leader and thinking on his feet a bit.
But the movie tosses all of that out the shuttlebay, in favor of a cheap ending that tries to show Kirk learning a really dumb non-lesson. There's something kind of wack about building a whole movie around the notion that your hero is unworthy of the mantle you gave him the first time around — but if that's the arc you're going with, at least do it justice.
And meanwhile, the movie dissolves into mindless fan-service, at the expense of not just logic, but fun or excitement.
The final reel of Star Trek Into Darkness basically makes sense only as fan-service. The movie essentially abdicates trying to tell a new story at some point, and turns into a jumble of stuff from stories you've seen before, slightly rearranged or turned on its head. This is sort of the kiss of death for a movie that's trying to breathe new life into a universe as venerable as Trek.
Abrams' first Star Trek movie took a somewhat more restrained approach to fan-service — the story was more or less new, and the movie took some huge liberties, but then Abrams and friends threw some bones to the fans. Like, we saw Kirk take the Kobayashi Maru test, we saw a Tribble, there were lots of little shout-outs. But the fan-service never took over the film, to the point of derailing the actual story.
And that's really the problem — this time, the fanservice becomes the movie — and meanwhile, as I mentioned, the movie also works hard to reduce the stakes, instead of raising them. (There's one huge shoe in particular that you're told over and over is going to drop, and it never does.)
This movie makes a strong case that Star Trek has nowhere to go that it hasn't already gone, and nothing to say that it hasn't already said, and that's really too bad.
Star Trek was always about exploring new shit. It's even in Kirk's opening monologue: to seek out strange new shit and new civilizations. So it's bad enough that Trek has been stuck in the land of prequels and reboots since Voyager ended — but at least, the justification for doing the fancy reboot of Kirk and Spock was to have a vehicle to tell brand new stories about them. Nostalgia is the poison for any long-running series, but it's especially bad for Star Trek, which is supposed to be all about looking forward.
In defense of fun
Star Trek Into Darkness has almost all the ingredients of a fun movie.
As I mentioned, Simon Pegg steals every scene he's in. J.J. Abrams has a great visual style, and really gives you a sense of what it's like to be aboard a frickin starship in some of the scenes aboard the Enterprise. Almost every member of the cast is charming. Benedict Cumberbatch brings a certain lovely dignity to his performance (although he is forced to declaim large amounts of exposition that make almost no sense.) And there are more fun "going on a crazy away mission" sequences like the "drill attack" sequence in the first movie.
In fact, and probably the best you can say about Star Trek Into Darkness is that it is fun, if you can turn your brain all the way off. To the point of near-brain death, basically.
But this movie never quite gets crazy enough, or commits to the "holy shit" action enough, to be really, truly fun. There's no huge final battle, no "all almighty fuck breaks loose" crescendo, no knock-down-drag-out hero moment. Instead, the movie gets more and more ponderous, even as it bends over backwards to give you maximum fan-service and Kirk validation.
It wouldn't matter nearly as much that nothing in this movie makes a lick of sense, if it was more bonkers and exciting. Instead, this movie doles out action sequences, some of them terrific and some of them underwhelming, as if they were field rations. It's like nobody's told J.J. Abrams that action scenes can just flow, come out of nowhere and hit you on the head.
I came out of this movie wishing that Abrams had sat down and watched the movie he produced a while back, Brad Bird's Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, before filming Trek 2. Lord knows MI4 isn't a smart movie either, but it's fully committed to the action and to keeping you on your toes.
And in addition to the agendas I already mentioned, Into Darkness also has a message about terrorism and 9/11 that really, really wants to be taken seriously and... yeesh. At the end, when the movie spells out its grand message, I slapped my forehead hard enough to leave a palm-mark.
It doesn't help that I saw Star Trek Into Darkness less than a day after watching Iron Man 3, which has a lot of the same themes, ideas and even story beats — but handles them infinitely better. Neither STID nor Iron Man 3 are perfect movies, but Iron Man 3 is a lot wittier, cleverer and more actually fun than STID. It's like watching Fred Astaire and a drunken child do the same dance routine, back to back.
So, like I said at the start, Star Trek Into Darkness isn't a bad movie — and if I'd walked out of the film halfway through, I might even have thought it was a good movie. But it's also a new poster-child for sequel mistakes — focusing too much on honoring what came before, and giving out some "topical" message. And not focusing enough on kicking your ass and giving you a great fucking popcorn movie.