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Review: 'Star Trek Into Darkness' Often Thrills, But Undone By An Underwritten Villain & Thin Story

by Oliver Lyttelton
May 3, 2013 5:44 PM
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Cast your mind back four years or so, to stardate early May 2009, and remember a time when J.J Abrams wasn't yet the anointed savior of Hollywood. He had an ever-growing fanbase, and had already been behind at least one bona-fide small screen pop culture phenomenon. But his influence on the big-screen up to that point only extended to a few screenwriting credits, mostly forgotten, a producing credit on disposable sleeper hit "Cloverfield," and directing "Mission: Impossible III," an enjoyable, but somewhat interchangeable entry to the Tom Cruise spy franchise.

Now, he's a genuine household name, anointed by Spielberg, the subject of not just magazine covers, but entire magazines, and the man charged with reviving the fortunes of arguably the most beloved geek franchise, as the chosen director for "Star Wars: Episode VII." And much of this was down to "Star Trek," his reboot of the space-going franchise that had lain dormant. The series had been increasingly tired both on TV and in the movies, but despite a writers strike which rushed the script, Abrams (with the help of an ingenious time-travel conceit that meant he could throw out the bathwater but keep the baby) delivered something fresh, fun and energetic, where excellent casting and his increasingly strong directorial skills managed to get the film past whatever difficulties it had on the page. Now, Abrams is back on the Enterprise, and while much of what made the original so entertaining remains intact, it's all a little more hollow the second time around.

"Star Trek Into Darkness" picks up an indeterminate amount of time after the original, kicking off with the crew of the Enterprise on a mission to stop a volcano from wiping out a primitive race. They pull it off, but Kirk (Chris Pine) violates the Prime Directive (which states that less-than-advanced civilizations shouldn't be exposed to technology beyond their means) in the process of saving the life of his first officer Spock (Zachary Quinto), who thanks him by reporting him to Starfleet Command, with Kirk relieved of his ship as a result. But disciplinary measures take the backseat after Starfleet are attacked by one of their own, the shadowy John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). And so Kirk, Spock, Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Bones (Karl Urban), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Sulu (John Cho), Chekov (Anton Yelchin) are reunited to bring him down.

And for much of the first half of the movie (running the requisite two hours plus, though never coming close to dragging), it seems like it might be a fitting sequel to the previous movie. The cast step back into their roles like they just hung up their uniforms the day before, with Pine and Quinto again proving to be strong co-leads, and displaying excellent, sometimes even moving chemistry (the decision to center these movies so heavily on their bromance continues to perhaps be the masterstroke, when it comes to engaging audiences who weren't fans of the original incarnation). The film is as attractive and lens-flare-y as before (though the color palette's gone the requisite orange and teal, which makes the film feel less visually distinctive this time around). There's a veneer of seriousness, but also still a sense of lightness and fun, and Abrams continues to impress as a director; the pace rattles along, the action's crisp and clear and the tone generally nicely modulated.

There are new elements to like, as well. Abrams (and writers Damon Lindelof, Bob Orci and Alex Kurtzman) take the opportunity to expand the universe further, both in space and at home, and the worlds feel lived in, imaginative, and true to classic 'Trek' while still being updated for the actual 21st century. And among the (relatively few) cast additions, Alice Eve fits right at home as the Enterprise's new science officer, bringing plenty of texture to a role that didn't necessarily need it (she arguably makes more of an impression than Zoe Saldana, who gets short shrift this time out), while genre veteran Peter Weller has fun with a meaty supporting part too.

And yet the film's biggest downfall turns out to be with the element that's been the focus of the advance marketing, in the shape of Benedict Cumberbatch's shadowy villain. The actor is as commanding a presence as he ever is, and proves to be surprisingly adept at the badassery too. But he's kept at the fringes of the film for the first half, and by the time he comes to the forefront, there's less to him than promised. Frankly, the part's underwritten and undermotivated, the writers hoping that fans will fill in the blanks from earlier movies and only loosely sketching out his backstory, at least for newcomers to the franchise, and never making it especially clear what he actually wants to achieve. Cumberbatch does his best to add a level of nuance, and even empathy, to Harrison, but the script shies away from the more interesting paths, and end up making him a motiveless maniac (if it sounds like we're being vague, we are a little, in an attempt to avoid spoilers).

And the result, ultimately, is a film that feels, if anything, smaller in scope and scale than the original. And while focusing in on the characters in what's essentially a stripped-down revenge story is in theory admirable, it's less successful in practice if it fails to take those characters to particularly new places, and while Pine and Quinto do strong work, their arcs are fairly similar to what we saw in the first installment. (Simon Pegg perhaps fares the best among the original second-string crew, his role much expanded this time out, while Anton Yelchin comes off worst, the filmmakers continuing to give the impression that they forgot about his character, and tacked him on as an afterthought).

As you might expect from Abrams, the action sequences (barring the climax) are thrilling, especially an "Inception"-indebted freefall sequence that sees the crew negotiating gravity-shifting practical sets. And for the first hour or so, it's just as enjoyable as the original, but by the time the credits roll, there's a sense that you're undernourished and unsatisfied; you've been on a decent ride, but not one that really adds up to anything by the time you're done. "Star Trek Into Darkness" is a long, long way from a disaster, but it's hard not to feel that Abrams' mystery box turned out to be a bit empty this time out. [C+]

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  • Alan B | May 9, 2013 11:38 AMReply

    The Giacchino track 'London Calling' (great title) is incredible. That whole sequence is so cinematic, and Noel Clarke is surprisingly affecting in his mostly-silent role. More broadly, I was only let down by one reference (which completely takes you outside of a powerful scene) and the underwritten female characters: THAT's the mother of Kirk's son? Maybe the filmmakers wanted to save some material for the next film, but you need to do something, anything, with such an important character in Kirk's existence(s).

  • Alan B | May 11, 2013 11:58 PM

    Keri Russell is killed in 'Mission: Impossible 3', Monaghan is the love interest, the mother is killed offscreen in 'Super 8'. OK, I can see your point, however I thought that the Uhura character was well defined in the first film. Yeah, Uhura shows her bra ... BUT KIRK IS SHIRTLESS IN THE EXACT SAME SCENE. She performs a similar function to Bones, actually: she's the straight one ALWAYS calling Kirk on his shit and her opinion carries some dramatic weight ("I sure hope you know what you're doing, Captain"). In this film, she's less of a foil to Kirk as she is to her partner Spock, which diminishes the importance of her role on the ship. Yeah, and there is no explanation for Carol's role as a military brat other than plot convenience.

  • jay | May 10, 2013 10:22 PM

    @Alan B

    Abrams ALWAYS underwrites/undermines the female characters. In the first film he killed off Spock's mom and turned Urhuru into a love interest who also likes to show her bra off to people.

    I think he even killed off Kirk's mom during childbirth; I don't remember. But it does not matter; whether she lived or died, she was deemed so unmemorable, filmmakers refused to even talk much about her since the opening scene.

  • GREAT SCOTT! | May 6, 2013 8:38 AMReply

    "Ingenious" time travel conceit? Star Trek 2009 was your first Trek outing (or sci-fi, even) then, I take it? Welcome to the fold, you've got a lot of watching to do.

  • Steve | May 6, 2013 8:20 AMReply

    J J Abrams is renowned for cr@p story lines and big explosions and special effects to keep the thick masses occupied.

  • Jeff | May 5, 2013 10:54 AMReply

    Focusing on the bromance between Kirk and Spock isn't such a "masterstroke" when you consider that the original series focused on the same thing, albeit with McCoy in the picture a little more. Abrams and co. were simply following the same formula.

  • SPOCK JUMPED HIS BONES | May 6, 2013 8:35 AM

    The original "bromance", if there was one, was between bickering, might-as-well-be-married McCoy and Spock. McCoy, the compassionate doctor, represented every down to earth American's emotional sensibilities of the day, and Spock the logically calculating antithesis. Kirk was merely the marriage counselor (who also liked a good fist fight and one night stand) - a prototypical futuristic moralist who could listen to both sides of that argument and pull out enough compromised truth to solve the problem of the week. In all the episodes I can recall, and god help me I've seen them all as boring as most are, Spock and Kirk were never at fisticuffs unless under the influence of chemical imbalance... It was always Spock and Bones who were at each others' throats. Just another way JJ throws out tradition and thins things down to fit a 2 hour action spectacle framework...throwing Bones only one or two bones as a quip man.

  • Steve | May 6, 2013 8:21 AM

    And doing it a lot worse.

  • Paris | May 4, 2013 6:13 PMReply

    Saw it in Paris with J.J. Abrams few days ago, and I have to say I'm glad to read I'm not the only one to think it's not that great - actually it's kind of messy, noisy, and the characters are really, really bad written for a sequel.

  • Steve | May 6, 2013 8:21 AM

    Not that the first remake was any good, that was equally as sh1t.

  • DG | May 3, 2013 11:58 PMReply

    I second oogle monster here, Super 8 is totally amazing. Other than that I don't see what the big deal is about this guy

  • Steve | May 6, 2013 8:22 AM

    He's made a complete dumbed down mess of Star Trek, that's for sure.

  • Oogle monster | May 3, 2013 9:43 PMReply

    I feel like Super 8 is truly one of Abrams' best films. It gets a lot of crap, but boy did he not only cast it well but it brings me to tears every time.

  • Lui | May 3, 2013 7:39 PMReply

    I was bit concerned when the first batch of reviews came out indicating that the tone of this movie is quite light and star-trekier than the ST09, as the marketing has been focusing on the dark side, and there's gonna be a relatively big gap between the audience's anticipation of what the movie is like and what it really is; looks like my concern is right. Not a die-hard trek fan and summer popcorn movies are usually not my thing; this one becomes a must-see for me because Cumberbatch is an exciting actor based on his back catalogue; still going to watch it but won't expect too much. How ironic that JJ and his writers are trying to make trek fans happy judging by what reviews indicated, but as far as I know, some of TNS trek fans are actually not happy about it.

  • Alan B | May 4, 2013 8:05 PM

    I implied that a character that was rumored MIGHT be the villain. I didn't know who the villain is, and I only heard rumors. Lui flat out SAID who the villain is: that's the difference. And even if I did know, it's not up to me or anyone else to reveal such spoilers in such an open forum as a comments section of a review.

  • Michael | May 4, 2013 2:07 PM

    @ Alan B -

    I don't understand why you made such a big complaint about *SPOILERS* in Guy Smiley's comment since you seemed to have already been well aware of the true identity of Cumberbatch's character (along with everyone else who has ever paid even the least bit of attention to the marketing of the film, regardless of what the cast and crew said in interviews) in your comment below about TDK. Your last sentence below alludes to your (subconcious, or otherwise) knowledge of what was going to happen in this film, so I don't see why you've decided that Guy Smiley needs to Grow Up, when he didn't really reveal anything that you hadn't already assumed yourself anyway.

    "Coincidentally enough (or maybe not, I haven't seen Star Trek Into Darkness), The Wrath of Khan is another blockbuster in which this idea is fleshed out. Hmm ..."

    How did he spoil the movie for you when you've already made that connection yourself?

  • Alan B | May 4, 2013 11:38 AM

    Hey buddy, this film hasn't been released so ease up on the spoilers.


    Putting *BIG SPOILERS* doesn't mean a hell of a lot when you put a WALL OF TEXT in a comments section. Who cares if your not happy about some changes, considering that you don't respect others enough to WAIT until a film has been released to post major spoilers. And who gives a shit if people lied? What is their job? To hand out film scripts to any idiot interviewer who demands spoilers? As if they are entitled?

    However, this issue isn't the MORALITY of a film crew not revealing plot points. It's about your selfishness. Grow up.

  • Guy Smiley | May 4, 2013 11:24 AM


    As a life-long Trek fan, I can tell you that I am NOT happy about who Cumberbatch is playing. Abrams, Damon Lies-a-lot, and even ubergeek Simon Pegg all lied about it. Worse still, it's apparent that Abrams and those hacky writers were unable to come up with a good original story that's worthy of Trek at its best. Instead, they've decided to rip-off 30 year movie that's not only considered the best Trek movie, but also just one of the great sci-fi movies ever. All the way down to repeating key lines and re-enacting key scenes. But bigger, louder, and more 'splosions of course. What's the point?

    Also, Abrams & Co. are apparently going to continue keeping the characters a cliche. Because, apparently, the only thing that defines Kirk is his reputation from the TV show as a lothario. How to top banging a green-skinned woman in the first movie? Give him a three-way two alien women this time! Charming. Say what you want about Shatner, but his Kirk was a more complex character (especially in the original ST II) than Chris Pine's Kirk will ever be allowed.

    I held off watching Abrams 2009 Trek until it made it to TV and I wasn't sorry about that. It had some fun moments, but the best part of the movie was the first 10 minutes. After that, we got a lame-brained plot that most people gave a pass because there were enough bright, shiny things (not to mention lens flares) to keep them distracted from how lousy the actual story was. Sounds like this new movie will be darker, and less shiny bright, but will continue to try to keep viewers diverted from thinking about the plot much. "Hey, wait! Was that a Tribble?"

    They should just call this movie Star Trek 2 - The Wrath of CON.

  • Mark | May 3, 2013 6:18 PMReply

    Abrams 'mystery box' is always empty. He's a cynical marketer, not a filmmaker. How on Earth making Mission Impossible 3, Star Trek and Super 8 make him the new Spielberg is utterly beyond me. Unless you've never seen a Spielberg film of course.

  • Shane | May 6, 2013 3:59 PM

    Orson Welles once said, "a film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet." As you say, Abrams head is just full of dollar signs, so his films will never be any good and will fade quickly from the pop culture bubble from which they were birthed.

  • Guy Smiley | May 4, 2013 11:30 AM

    Super 8 got so many Spielberg-ian elements right, and it is a fun movie (the reveal of the alien is a bit disappointing, but not a deal-breaker), but that was so clearly an homage. Nothing else in his canon makes me feel like he's an heir apparent to Spielberg. After seeing his first Star Trek, he strikes me more as a latter-day George Lucas. That is not a compliment.

    I can only hope he'll serve his beloved Star Wars better than he has Star Trek, and make a movie that's worthy of the original ST trilogy.

  • rodie | May 3, 2013 6:03 PMReply

    I'll definitely see this opening night, but it seems like the influence on The Dark Knight and Inception are so heavy on this....or at least the marketing of this movie. Maybe they thought Cumberbatch could be a Joker like terrorist character who doesn't need any back story and not all that much screen time to make an impact? If so, what a terrible gamble, because the Joker is the Joker and Cumberbatch plays who again???

  • Juvenile Cinephile | May 4, 2013 9:29 AM

    Why does the Joker need a back-story for The Dark Knight? Nothing in Nolan's filmography has him independently delving into character back-story until the characters are thinking about it or talking about it. Frankly, it suits The Joker to not only give no back-story but constantly change his story every time when talking to a different person. His motivations are not what matters in the movie but how Batman and Gotham react and get so ethically, morally compromised because of The Joker. The Joker is a terrorist. Nolan dealt with post-9/11 psyche but basically pointing out nobody really cares about a terrorist like Usama bin Laden's motivations (because of how politicized and muddled that gets for every single person) but how people react to those actions.

    The Joker is not a lead. The movie puts Batman off-kilter, losing his grip of control on the city, and failing Gotham and the people he cared about. That's why The Joker feels so front and center in the TDK, because there is this ceding of control. Don't think that was not on purpose.

  • Alan B | May 4, 2013 7:24 AM

    So many things to cipher through ... you criticize TDK for featuring the Joker as "the lead", but also not delving into his "backstory". Here's a thought: The Joker is NOT THE LEAD, so he doesn't need to have his backstory fleshed out in the respect that a main character does. I have heard that characters other than Batman is the protagonist, but that's bull. The story is Bruce's rebirth, and he's the sole lead character, not the Joker, not even Harvey Dent. Dent is a plot device. Yes, he has an arc. Yes, he is one of the most sympathetic characters in the story. However, his function is that of a living MacGuffin: early on, Harvey must be saved to help Gotham, whilst his image must be protected to help Gotham in the end. Moreover, The Joker is the ANTAGONIST. He causes CHAOS and PAIN to the heroes. Many blockbusters have tried to copy TDK by also presenting a trickster antagonist but ALL have fallen short because the characters' motivations do not challenge the hero IDEOLOGICALLY: for all their talk of bringing TRUTH and RETRIBUTION to the heroes, they ultimately represent a physical antagonism, not a moral one. This is why The Joker is a great villain: he CHALLENGES the hero by forcing him to make impossible moral choices. In order to defend his city, Bruce must do a lot more than simply wreck a train: "you didn't think I'd risk losing the battle for Gotham's soul in a fist fight with you? " Bruce Wayne wants normality, but he learns over the film is that he can't throw away his problems and hope someone else will deal with them (TDKR inverts this concept, by suggesting that Bruce cannot deal with every problem and that he needs to trust others too, a sentiment justified by finally discovering a worthy successor in John Blake). Unlike most blockbusters in which the hero gets his want (hey, Kirk got respect and leadership) and need (but he also learnt humility), The Joker forces the hero to give up one element or the other. That's Bruce's story, not The Joker's: The Joker is simply a means of telling a story about a guy sacrificing his dreams. Coincidentally enough (or maybe not, I haven't seen Star Trek Into Darkness), The Wrath of Khan is another blockbuster in which this idea is fleshed out. Hmm ...

  • Lui | May 3, 2013 8:11 PM

    TDK's tone is very dark, and to be honest Joker is pretty much the lead in that movie instead of Batman, that and the fact that this incarnation of Joker doesn't have a backstory and his motivation is quite thin are my issues with TDK; that movie is just the second act, but what JJ Abrams is trying to do is to make STID a stand-alone movie and as the result, it seems that the highly promoted threat is not flashed-out enough for non die hard Trek fans and the tone of this movie remains light to be an action-packed thrilling adventure like the 09 one. So far Cumberbatch mostly has been receiving rave reviews on his performances, even in those less-keen reviews; The Playlist review also indicates that he has the commanding presence.

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