Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
After the last film's rock-solid reinvention of the storied Star Trek franchise, Star Trek Into Darkness feels like a misstep. Its plot meanders and relies too much on fanservice, its characters are shallow, a crucial moment near the end of the film felt like a cop-out, and I had trouble getting invested in the goings-on. However, the stunning special effects and visuals here went a good way to redeeming this film, making this worth a matinee.
Note: there is no way I'm going to be able to discuss this film without getting into some serious spoiler territory, so if you're interested in seeing this film, I recommend scrolling straight to the bottom right now and looking at my overall score. However, if you've been keeping up on the hype surrounding this film, then you probably already know one of the worst-kept secrets of summer 2013.
I'll get it out of the way right now: Benedict Cumberbatch's character, John Harrison, is actually Khan, the same guy who served as the villain in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan more than thirty years ago. There's no way to talk about the film without revealing that big twist, especially because it's the source of many of this film's story problems. While Cumberbatch does a good job in the role, the writing undercuts his Khan at every opportunity, constantly changing motivations and personality. At times, he's presented as a brilliant psychopath like the Joker, yet he doesn't see the obvious trick that Captain Kirk uses to defeat him. At other times, he's just a rampaging force of destruction. The character receives no development and only a thin framework of a backstory, possibly assuming that people could just watch The Wrath of Khan for that, even though much of this film's target audience hadn't been born when that film (whose plot is hardly common knowledge the same way Star Wars is) came out. I myself didn't know what the Eugenics Wars were until I looked up this guy's backstory. And now? I want to watch The Wrath of Khan.
The rest of the plot is more straightforward, but I had trouble staying interested in it for very long. The general gist of it is that Admiral Marcus (played by Peter Weller) is trying to start a war with the Klingons, the famous Soviet Union-meets-Roman Empire allegory that typically serves as one of the Star Trek franchise's chief go-to bad guys, and he has released Khan, an ancient super-soldier, super-genius, and super-psycho who was cryogenically frozen a couple hundred years ago, to design weapons for him to fight this war. Marcus uses Khan's 72 crew-mates, also frozen, as bargaining chips to get Khan to build his weapons, while Khan plots to get his crew back from Marcus. This is the type of big-idea storyline that Star Trek has typically specialized in, even if a movie about a warmongering political leader coming a few years after Dick Cheney left the Vice Presidency isn't the most timely idea, and a Star Trek film about a three-way fight between the crew of the Enterprise, Marcus, and Khan could've been a great time at the movies. And for the first hour or so, it is. Unfortunately, once Marcus is out of the picture, Khan is reduced to a one-note nutjob, the highlights of the rest of the film being the action scenes and the winking nods to The Wrath of Khan rather than the story. The ending in particular undid what could have been some serious stakes and a major shift in JJ Abrams' new Star Trek universe, and came off as cowardly.
That's not to say I didn't have a good time, mind you. Ripping off some of The Wrath of Khan's most famous scenes may have been a bit lazy on the part of Abrams and co., but it was still enjoyable to hear that epic "KHAAAAANNNNN!!!" in this film. The starship battles and mano-a-mano fights looked and felt awesome, especially in 3D, even if the lens flare was a bit much. Whatever one may say about Abrams' storytelling, he is a very good film stylist, and knows how to shoot CG-filled action and make every shot look glamorous. Particularly notable is the opening scene, with its chase through the woods, the volcano, and the character interactions that all felt like classic Star Trek on a modern blockbuster budget. Michael Giacchino's score only pumped up the action scenes and made everything feel that much more epic. The camaraderie between the Enterprise crew felt natural and real, once again doing justice to the original series' crew and standing on their own two feet as characters. Special mention goes to Zachary Quinto and Zoe Saldana as Spock and Uhura, who were among the most interesting characters in the film even if they didn't receive much development over its course. I would've liked more than just a passing mention of what had happened to Vulcan in the first film; the writers missed a potentially amazing story arc by having Spock, normally so emotionally repressed, still coming to terms with the aftermath of losing his homeworld.
Score: 3 out of 5
A pretty mediocre entry in the Star Trek franchise that is saved by its thrilling action and solid production values. It's definitely worth a matinee if you're a fan of Star Trek, action, or sci-fi, but there are so many ways that this could've been better. I fear that the old Star Trek Movie Curse may well be reasserting itself.