Every summer, there are a handful of films that not only hit with audiences, but genuinely garner a rather solid response from the critics and bloggers. Take a look at the starter of this summer’s slate, Iron Man 3. Now officially part of that billion dollar club, the film was a step up from the last entrant into that franchise and also one of the biggest opening weekend grossing pictures to ever blow up the box office. And now, we’ve got a brand new picture from the man who has been given the keys to one of film’s all-time greatest franchises in Star Wars, J.J. Abrams.
Following 2009’s revival of the Star Trek franchise from the acclaimed director/producer, Abrams took his time, four ears exactly, to bring us a new film within that universe. With the full cast from the ’09 film back in toe and an added villain in the form of Benedict Cumberbatch’s long talked and rumored bad guy, Star Trek Into Darkness is one of 2013’s most anticipated blockbusters.
And if this film is any inclination as to where Abrams is going as a director, then things are looking decidedly down for anything and everything he touches going forward, because we haven’t seen a film this disappointing in a very long time.
The plot here is kind of simple, and easily the film’s biggest issue. To summarize, the film finds our Enterprise crew in turmoil as a terrorist known as John Harrison has taken to attacking the Starfleet hierarchy, and in one series of events, throwing the entire Starfleet into a downward spiral. Saying much more would be leading into spoiler territory, but that in and of itself is the inherent flaw within this picture and it is as simple as this idea:
Nothing that happens in this film holds any increment of weight narratively, dramatically or thematically.
One of the major flaws within the 2009 Trek picture (among the many) is that it is inherently and inarguably forgettable. The action is lazy, the drama is fine but ultimately underwhelming and while the chemistry is serviceable, Pike’s arch only superficially holds any weight. Into Darkness loses all of that, dropping in its place a shocking lack of interest in having any sort of strength in the actions that it takes. With various sequences of the film undone seconds later (I’m thinking, first, of the entire third act or the demotion of Pike only to have him given a new gig on the same ship in the very next scene), this film is disturbingly lifeless and quite possibly the most dramatically inert blockbuster we’ve seen in quite some time.
And what’s worse, is that the only sense of a beating heart within this film is due to the assumption that the viewer has previous nostalgia for not only this franchise, but certain things that occur in previous films that hit generations ago. There is one major reveal here that, for those unfamiliar with the franchise outside of the ’09 film, will fall flat on its face. With performances that are one note and entirely flat (save for Benedict Cumberbatch who himself feels ripped out of an entirely different, and vastly superior, picture), the film relies entirely on nostalgia to bring with it any sense of stakes or drama.
But is that shocking in today’s blockbuster world? In big studio projects from top tier talent like Abrams, yes. Look at last year’s The Avengers. While it’s big, bombastic action that is admittedly quite ugly, just like this oddly muddled and poorly-directed project, everything feels like it ultimately matters. Repercussions feel like they will be felt going forward in all of Marvel’s pictures, and there were various truly great character beats within the picture. Even Michael Bay, who released Pain And Gain this year, has a better track record crafting pictures with higher stakes and more drama that the lifeless piece of celluloid that Star Trek Into Darkness truly is.
While it’s not fitting to say that director J.J. Abrams is going to have a tough time going forward trying to break whatever it is he broke in his craft while making this film, it’s quite upsetting. Some of the blame needs to be laid on the shoulders of writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof (the former pair being two of today’s least interesting scribes), the lack of visual intrigue is entirely on Abrams. It’s a turgid motion picture that is ostensibly stuck in mud the entire two-hour-plus runtime, and the themes are even less interesting. A limp-wristed meditation on modern American foreign policy and where we as humans stand in a post 9/11 world, Star Trek Into Darkness is not just one of this year’s biggest disappointments, but it’s also simply one of the worst films that we’ve seen now five months into 2013.