May 20, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness: Greater Than Gatsby, But Not by Much

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Is Star Trek Into Darkness too cool not to like?

It’s a weird thing to say, isn’t it? Credit the young and handsome cast or director J.J. Abrams’ handheld, lens flare-happy style, because Trekkie fan service is not filling millions of seats around the world. Abrams and the trio of screenwriters (Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof) know hard sci-fi — with its obsessive fandom and, you know, darn philosophical questions — doesn’t sell but action-adventure with a sleek space coating does. The result entertains a diverse swath of moviegoers and appeals enough to critics: At press time, Star Trek Into Darkness sits atop a very positive 87 percent Rotten Tomatoes score and a (drastically inflated) 8.3 on the Internet Movie Database, which ranks it at No. 157 on the site’s “Top 250 Movies” list.

So, it must be good, right? By blockbuster standards, sure — it beats Iron Man 3 and The Great Gatsby. From the opening scene, where hero Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and the wise-cracking Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban) sprint through a red, spiny forest chased by black-eyed, albino natives (who look an awful like the aliens in last year’s Prometheus, also co-written by Lindelof), the film declares allegiance more with Star Wars and, rather blatantly, Raiders of the Lost Ark than with its slower source material. That’s all well and good, really, even if it raises the question of how Abrams will differentiate between this franchise and the upcoming Star Wars sequels he will direct.

But Star Trek Into Darkness, with its silly title (“Trek” is a verb now? Like Fire Walk With Me?), just goes through the motions. Orci, Kurtzman and Lindelof structure their script competently enough but don’t know how to bring it to life. The action barrels forward, scene-to-scene, without building suspense or much sympathy for the characters. Sure, Spock (Zachary Quinto) will tell Kirk of the statistical impossibility of launching some attack and Kirk will wink and do it anyway, but what about the larger stakes regarding the maniacal Übermensch, John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch)? Actually, Harrison narrates his life story and the reason for the terrorist attacks that set into motion the events of the film to Kirk, all from behind the glass pane of one classy looking jail cell. He even cries. When you break it down, the plot is an interchangeable parade of Starfleet officers — Bones, Spock, Lt. Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood), Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) — yelling at Kirk about how unwise, hotheaded, thoughtlessly daring, etc., he is. Each shred of advice reflects the ‘specialty’ of the character giving it (Uhura worries about Kirk, Pike scolds him like a son), but they all communicate conflict that could have been incorporated into the CGI set pieces or some other non-verbal, less heavy-handed means.

The dialogue, often shouted in red-faced fits, at least allows for the actors to steal the show. Once again, Chris Pine cushions a painful Shatner impression with a fast-talking drawl more likened to Christian Slater. Kirk must own up to the reckless reputation he has built for himself, so what appears like flimsy acting in a scene where he barks at John Harrison from outside of that jail cell makes sense when you realize that Pine is playing a guy who is only coming to terms with the power his position holds. “I have no idea what I’m supposed to do; I only know what I can do,” he declares. Like George W. Bush, he rules by the gut (now there’s a Slate blog post I’d like to see).

Peter Weller finds himself on screen for a surprising wealth of time, growling at Kirk as a seedy Starfleet Admiral who makes up for a lack of depth by being played by Weller, a.k.a. Robocop, a.k.a. Buckaroo Banzai. His daughter (Alice Eve), a Starfleet weapons specialist, does little besides stirring sexual tension that goes nowhere. In one scene, Abrams places her in the background, out-of-focus, where she just stands there and bites her lip while Kirk and Scotty inspect a powerful WMD. They never notice her, either, which makes the whole pose that much better, and awkward. Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and Sulu (John Cho) barely speak at all, save for the latter’s menacing words of warning to Harrison, which prompts Bones to deadpan, “Sulu, remind me to never piss you off.” Karl Urban should enact Dredd-like justice for his character’s insignificance this time around, considering how perfectly he channels DeForest Kelley. The filmmakers presume you already know these characters from the 2009 installment and keep most of them static because, goddammit, there are sequels to be made and a franchise has no room for change.

Benedict Cumberbatch chews the scenery as Harrison, an old-school bad guy with new parallels to Kirk and 21st century terrorism. At one point, he levels dozens of skyscrapers with a huge spaceship. Like Shane Black in Iron Man 3, Abrams co-opts 9/11 imagery to exploit existing audience emotions while refusing to elaborate on them further. But Star Trek Into Darkness does not stoop to Iron Man 3’s level of offense because the theme of terrorism holds no more weight than those of health care, eugenics and Faustian pacts. You can detect them all, but they are threadbare — divorced from most, if not all, of the characters, action scenes and funny jokes. Basically, what we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is a bad script. As for the movie, with its pretty actors, relentless pacing and 23rd century lighting, it does its job well enough. It’s cool, man. Just turn off your mind for the duration, which must be sad advice for Trekkies indeed.


Original Author: Zachary Zahos