Here’s the deal, readers. SPOILERS follow. Lots and lots of spoilers follow. I don’t hold anything back, so don’t read forward if you don’t want to read a full discussion. One last time, SPOILERS AHEAD.
For the love of Odin, will someone give Captain Kirk a man hug?
Because if no one gives him a hug, he’s likely to steal an object of worship from a non-industrialized society, drop his first officer into a volcano, violate the Prime Directive to save said first officer, file a false report, get demoted, get almost instantly promoted, fire his Chief of Engineering, almost start a war with the Klingons, side with a war criminal, put his damaged ship on a collision course with Earth, and then commit certain suicide by sacrificing himself to save said ship just so his best friend in the whole world will confess his bro love for him.
It’s exhausting and Star Trek Into Darkness gets a bit exhausting in the final act; this is a film that is both highly enjoyable and oddly frustrating, a film that encourages you to not think by giving you a headache whenever you do. It comes from the JJ Abrams/ Damon Lindelof/ Robert Orci/ Kurtzman stable and it feels more like a Lindelof film in that narrative logic is sacrificed at the altar of emotional logic. Such a process can work beautifully, but it is storytelling as the mechanism of grand illusion and Damon Lindelof is its Grand Master.
I’m pretty sure you could write the entire screenplay of this movie in an afternoon. This is a film with big CGI pieces, a bit of yelling, and very little story. One of the things I loved about Abrams' first Trek was how it felt like everyone had a purpose for being there, that every character was a person in their own right. I found this to be an immense improvement over the old days, which I have chided for being The Adventures of Kirk, Spock, and the People Who Push Buttons.
Unfortunately, we’re right back to the old days. This is a movie about the bromance between Kirk and Spock and the People Who Say 4 Things Apiece. Bones, Uhura, Chekov, and Sulu are here either to further the Kirk/Spock bro issues or handle the plot things that Kirk and Spock can’t do in that moment, like handling an engineering crisis or talking to the bad guys on the viewscreen phone or flirting with a new female officer. Only Scotty feels like an other character, which has nothing to do with the importance of Scotty and everything to do with the importance of being Simon Pegg.
Lindelof seems to care little for the narrative logic of his stories, and so this has little narrative logic. When it’s revealed that the bad guy isn’t actually a guy named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) but a guy named Khan, Spock’s “logical” decision isn’t to check the Enterprise’s data banks, but to call Original Spock (Leonard Nimoy) just to ask him if he’s ever heard of a guy named Khan.
Just so we’re all clear: the Enterprise doesn’t have the internet but it does have a direct line to Spock’s secret hideout.
Just so we’re all clear #2: to get information, Spock’s decision is to call a dude from ANOTHER TIMELINE.
Lindelof’s scripts (and whatever the actual breakdown of writing credit, this feels most like a Lindelof script) tend to favor the emotional logic (and yes, those terms are often at cross purposes). All of this madness and chaos and destruction is a result of Kirk wanting Spock to admit he is, and will always be, his bro. And let me be clear – I know it sounds like I’m dogging Lindelof, but I usually enjoy the movies created around his stories quite a bit. I like Into Darkness, but it’s not a smart movie and it’s not a strong screenplay.
Compare Into Darkness against Joss Whedon’s Avengers, and Lindelof comes off like a guy in danger of failing Whedon’s film class. Whedon gave every Avenger an arc in the movie – not huge arcs, necessarily, but everyone had a beginning, middle, and end that was separate from the film’s beginning, middle, and end. Lindelof either isn’t smart enough to do that or doesn’t care to do that or is working for people who don’t want him to do that. Whatever the case, those individual arcs don’t make it into the script. How is Uhura or Scotty or Sulu or Chekov or Bones different at the end of the film than they were at the beginning? They have experiences and they perform admirably, but they are all secondary to Kirk and Spock’s evolving friendship.
James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) love each other deeply, but while Kirk is willing to commit to Spock, Spock keeps getting cold feet. He loves Kirk back, but he loves him so much that he can’t allow himself to love him or else he might hurt his wittle feewings. (This is the way I feel about Hostess Fruit Pies.) What we have in this movie is two immature dudes involved in a serious enough bromance that they prove their bro love to each other by adopting the other’s main attribute: the emotional bro (Kirk) is willing to think logically and the logical bro (Spock) is compelled to act emotionally: Kirk’s act of bro love is to not fire any of the Enterprise‘s 72 missiles in order to kill one dude, while Spock’s act of devotion is to try and kill that same dude all by himself. For Kirk and Spock to come to a mutually contented location of bro love, all we have to experience is lots and lots of mass destruction.
To the disappointment of slashers and shippers everywhere, Kirk and Spock’s relationship contains none of the homoerotic playfulness of Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law’s Sherlock and Watson. It’s just an actual, if emotionally disconnected friendship. In the service of telling this story, however, the women in their lives are pushed to the background. While Kirk is shown in bed with a pair of “cat women,” he shows nothing more than a passing interest in Dr. Carol Marcus (Alice Eve). I don’t know which is the bigger surprise, that Kirk barely looks at her when she strips down to her undies or that he completely misses the fact she bluffs her way onto the ship for the uber-important mission to kill John Harrison, who’s hiding out on a Klingon planet.
That’s right. On a hugely important mission, Carol Marcus sneaks aboard the Enterprise by calling herself Carol Wallace and hitching a ride in Kirk and Spock’s shuttle. Later, Spock realizes this but doesn’t say anything because in a Lindelof script, even the most logical of characters is a filking moron forced to adhere to the needs to the script.
Carol is a new character and the script gives her some things to do, and there’s no reason why it has to put her and Kirk into a flirtatious relationship, but she doesn’t do much of anything else, either. Her whole reason for being here is the “big” reveal that she’s the daughter of Starfleet Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller). She gets a nice scene with Bones (Karl Urban) but that’s what this movie does instead of giving people an actual arc – they get a scene so people leave the theater going, “Oh yes, Carol had a scene with Bones and the missle and Sulu got to sit in the captain’s chair and Chekov said funny words in engineering and Bones did a, "I’m a Doctor" line and Uhura got emotional over Spock 17 times.” But little of it means anything.
It’s a grand illusion – there’s little story, little movement, little nuance. It's bright and loud and fun and the cast gives great performances in nothing roles. Everyone, in fact, is good at their job: the cast, the crew, the effects people, the director, and even the writers, but the sum of their talents is far inferior to their last effort with the Star Trek franchise.
If the goal is to give you two hours of fun at the movie theater, they succeeded, but almost all of it (and definitely everything non-Kirk and Spock related) is just done to hit you in the eyeballs and then move on to the next thing: Kirk disobeys the Prime Directive! Kirk is demoted! Robocop! Pike is killed! Kirk is promoted! Mickey! Sherlock! Kirk is going to kill Harrison! Tribble! Harrison is Khan! Nimoy! Super Big Enterprise painted black! Spock yells, “Khan!” instead of Kirk! Kirk dies instead of Spock!
When Khan is Harrison, he’s psychologically interesting. When Khan is Khan, he just punches and kicks people. Blah.
If I think about this movie as a story, it’s a wreck, but if I just want escapism, it’s a pretty good time. But just pretty good. It’s not a great time because so many of the character moments that I loved about the first movie are completely missing here. The best parts of Into Darkness are the small moments when Kirk and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) commiserating over Spock. I would understand (but not agree) with the decision to make this the Kirk and Spock Bromance Show if Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto had become major stars over the past few years. But they have not. They’re no more famous than Pegg or Saldana, and for my money Karl Urban is the best acting/star combo on the Enterprise, but his great performance is wasted because it’s so small and so insignificant. I like Chris Pine and he does a great job playing the bullheaded Jim Kirk, but put Urban in that role and there’s way more nuance and complexity to the character.
Nuance and complexity … two things that aren’t welcome in Star Trek Into Darkness.
Contrary to what it may sound like, I had a good time. I even went and bought a $4 commemorative cup after the movie, even though I had already bought a $4 commemorative cup for the superior Iron Man 3. I watched it at a drive-in, I had good popcorn, and I was entertained, although the drive-in experience, the popcorn, and the film all deteriorated as they went. About 30 minutes into the film I was already trying to figure out when I could see it again, but by the time the Super Big Enterprise appeared and Spock calls Spock on the phone … I was ready for the movie to be over.
That’s the thing about illusions – they’re showy and they’re fun, but their entertainment value is brief and fleeting and I end up appreciating the skill in pulling it off more than the illusion itself.