Star Trek Into Darkness
Nothing in Star Trek Into Darkness packs the punch of the the opening scene of the last Star Trek, in which Chris Hemsworth sacrifices himself to save his wife and baby Kirk. As manipulative as that scene is, there’s something primal about the drama underneath it. It’s exciting and tragic and beautiful and it wrecks me every time. The power of that scene echoes through the rest of the movie, and keeps you rooting for Kirk to fulfill his destiny no matter how much of an ass he is: His dad deserves that much, damn it!
In the second movie we have Kirk’s relationship with his father figure, Pike, and the Kirk/Spock bromance, and both play well enough, but neither really has the drama and grandeur to grab you and make you feel the big gushing emotions that make you lose yourself in a movie. Pike’s story should, but it’s too obvious what’s going to happen. And the Kirk/Spock conflict never aspires to be anything more than a mild spat. So the stakes are pretty low on the character front. It wouldn’t be that big a deal except that, for a blockbuster, Star Trek did an exceptional job of drawing you in emotionally, so the failure of Into Darkness to match that is disappointing.
What Into Darkness does have going for it is its cast. The iconic crew is in place, and while there is a lot of distracting reshuffling (when are we going to get to finally see these characters just do the jobs we’re used to seeing them do?), it all pays off nicely. As before, everyone is charismatic, and each member of the team gets a moment to shine (Sulu is, perhaps, a little shortchanged, despite a brief, uneventful stint in the captain’s chair). As in a heist movie, there is great joy in watching a crack team (and ensemble cast) fire on all cylinders, and that is a pleasure that carries over from the previous Trek to this one.
Another strength is Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays sinister exceedingly well (and makes you realize, if you hadn’t already, that he was already playing sinister on Sherlock). He’s terrific here, dominating scenes despite being the umpteenth super-competent, ten-steps ahead villain to use the “captured on purpose in the middle of the story” gambit. When he abruptly surrenders to the clearly outmatched Kirk and co., I groaned, embarrassed on behalf of the movie. There are five other girls at this party wearing that same dress. Do you think she knows? To make matters worse, the glass-walled cell looks exactly like Loki’s in The Avengers, adding to the deja vu. We need a parody of this bit already: I’d like to see an inept villain get himself captured as part of his grand plan, only to spend the rest of the movie stewing in his cell, struggling to use his misjudged powers of manipulation against his captors to no avail, swinging from smugness to frustration and despair. Trendy cliche aside, Cumberbatch’s character also suffers from getting less interesting as the movie goes along. His early scenes are compelling, but as big action bombast takes over, he no longer has anything interesting or distinctive to do. A man who started out fascinating becomes a guy who shoots and jumps and runs and punches, and everything that made him exciting to watch no longer matters.
The story follows a similar trajectory. There is mystery and intrigue and ambiguity, but once the cards are on the table, the story devolves into moving pieces around the board. You have things on your ship that I want and I have things that you want. You can’t have these things. Well now I have this thing that you want! Well, what if I do this? Well, what if I do that?! Some of it is clever, and come to think of it, a lot of Star Trek has always been guys barking chess moves at each other through a giant viewscreen, but after a while it starts to feel like the same beats over and over. When the game-winning move finally arrives, you’re like, okay. Wait, was that it? Was that the climax? Did they just win? Is this the end?
It isn’t, of course, and the movie knows it needs more. So it gives us more, and we get a few more climaxes of varying consequence. One is emotional, even overwrought, and already controversial for its evocation of a classic Trek moment. Personally I think it played better for me being familiar with said moment only by reputation. I knew enough to get it, but not enough to compare it. The next climax is about spectacular destruction, which is treated far too lightly considering the massive body count it implies. Finally, the fourth climax, as anticlimactic as its number would suggest, feels odd and small and rushed (especially considering it follows on the heels of 9/11 times a hundred) and carries dramatic stakes that, upon some thought, are less than they might seem. All this gives the story an odd shape. I don’t know, maybe I’m trying too hard to fit it into a screenwriting formula. Maybe I’m criticizing deviations from that formula when I should be praising the movie for avoiding a cookie-cutter structure. But the result is not as satisfying as the previous entry in the series.
So did they start a war with the Klingons or not?
(Edited to make my writing less sloppy.)