My Take by Jim Carl - June 11, 2013

I can'’t believe I'’m about to write this, but I hated Star Trek into Darkness, and that'’s not an easy thing for me to confess.  I’'ve spent the majority of my life watching Star Trek movies.  I have seen every single feature film in a theatre and can remember where I was when each was released.  My Aunt Eva is to blame for introducing me to the Trek universe because, growing up in West Texas, it was one of her favorite TV shows when we were kids.  (In other words, I had no choice other than watch Star Trek because it was the 1970s and my grandparent’s television didn'’t have a remote.  I drew the line at Baretta.)  She cried when Spock died in Star Trek II and later told me that it wasn'’t his death that hurt so bad but those damn bagpipes that played "Amazing Grace" during his funeral.  After she told me this, I found myself tearing up almost every time I heard "Amazing Grace."  If I had my way, every movie would have at least one scene that includes "Amazing Grace."

Alas, Star Trek into Darkness hasn'’t a single scene that includes "Amazing Grace."  What it does have is a pertinacious determination to not be Star Trek II.  Except when it wants to be.  If you haven'’t heard already, this is pretty much a remake of The Wrath of Khan, albeit without that film’s humor and pathos. They'’ve changed it just enough to avoid a direct comparison from the uninitiated, but not enough for purists such as myself to not quibble.  And because J.J. Abrams and crew have chosen to tinker with not just any Trek movie but with the Holy Grail of Trek movies, I think it’s just as fair for me to compare this version against the other, regardless if it'’s an exact carbon copy or not, because I have been watching these on-going missions for 40+ years now and have earned the right to disagree.  So here it is:  Watching Star Trek into Darkness was like watching a graffiti artist spray-paint a set of dentures on the Mona Lisa.

I sat in the theatre growing angrier and crankier as the plot cartwheeled from one overproduced set-piece to another.  At some point around the 90-minute mark, I gave-up the comparisons---what worked and what should have been left the hell alone---and instead focused on the images.  Darkness is shot using a color spectrum that starts with silver, bleeds to grey, and surrenders the ghost at yellow with an incidental splash of red in the background whenever sirens flash danger.  What is this modern propensity to make science fiction movies look as grimy and lived-in as the toilet of a decommissioned battleship?  I started noticing this trend around the time of District 9.  You know a movie is in trouble when you don'’t enjoy the act of watching it.  There was so much dust, smoke, fog and dirt swirling across the frame, I had an urge to climb out of my seat and wipe the screen with a Sani-Cloth. 

Here'’s a shot I'’ve come to recognize in recent years that needs to be retired: The Out-of-Focus Close-up.  You'’ve seen this shot a thousand times.  Usually set during an action scene, the shot begins as a character barks some terse line of dialogue (“It’s gonna blow!”) while shuffling toward the camera to hit their mark.  The cinematographer makes a conscious decision to keep the character out-of-focus until the grip pulls the focus ring, usually around the same time the terse line is delivered, as if to punctuate it.  I have no clue what this shot is supposed to signify except that it exudes lazy filmmaking, as if the crew was so very busy doing other important stuff on the set---like arguing over union minimums----that they couldn'’t be bothered to properly rehearse the scene.  I am so very, very tired of this technique and Star Trek into Darkness is seemingly comprised out of hundreds of these infernal shots.  Here’s a better technique:  Keep the whole movie in focus and hire a better puller.

Moreso watching this Star Trek, I was reminded of Doug Liman’s advice to Matt Damon while making the Bourne movies.  His advice to Mr. Damon was “Butcher and more intense!”  I imagine J.J. Abrams barking these same words of wisdom to Benedict Cumberbatch, whose villain’s true identity I would not dream of revealing on this blog.  Mr. Cumberbatch'’s performance consists almost entirely of heavy brooding and over-articulation with as little facial exercise as possible, and I suppose that’'s to make him appear oh-so menacing, like Darth Vader, but only serves to underline his inability to not act British, like John Cleese.  In scene after scene, he stares at some fixed point, usually off-screen toward the horizon as characters angrily surround him while pointing phasers at his chest, and practices being a butch baritone.  I long for the days when actors chewed the scenery rather than glared at it.  Ricardo Montalban knew this in 1982, and no one seemed surprised when his name was mentioned as a possible Oscar contender that same year because of it.  I doubt anyone mentions Mr. Cumberbatch next January, except possibly for a Razzie.  (No, I have not seen Sherlock, and based on his performance here, I’'m not feeling explorative.)    

This brings me to the Big CGI Elephant in Darkness: According to the logic of its own story, Mr. Cumberbatch’'s blood has the ability to raise the dead.  Think about this: Starfleet has just discovered the secret of eternal life.  This is a miraculous, amazing discovery.  With all that talk about violating the Prime Directive in the first act, you’d think this would be big news in the third.  Certainly it brings to light a juicy morale dilemma, the kind of question that Gene Roddenberry used to love.  Wars have erupted in the Trek universe for lesser things.  Races would fairly trip upon races to possess this knowledge.  But in Star Trek into Darkness, the discovery of the secret of resurrection is never even addressed.  The plot ignores its own revelation, all for the purpose of backtracking on itself to serve a homage that should have never been attempted in the first place.  Did no one on the writing staff think about this?  If you'’ve seen the movie, ask yourself: Would Mr. Cumberbatch'’s final scene have been the same if this question had been honestly raised?  The answer is no.  His final scene would have taken place in a vivisection lab.    

Overall, I would rank this Star Trek movie just a notch above 2002'’s awful Nemesis.  Maybe my opinion will change over the years once I’'ve had the chance to view the film with less disappointment.  Don’t get me wrong:  I like Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban and all the others.  They do the best they can with what'’s been given to them.  The script isn’'t worthy of their efforts. I walked into the theatre really wanting to like this movie as much as I had liked 2009'’s reboot.  I wasn'’t at all prepared to write a review like this one.    


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