“Star Trek Into Darkness”: Another Misstep For Director J. J. Abrams

J.J. Abrams again shows why he should stay away from the director’s chair & stick to doing what he does best: marketing. Into Darkness threatens to entertain but ultimately fails to deliver…

star_trek_into_darkness_poster_cumberbatchI’m not J.J. Abrams biggest fan. Far from it. He has a talent for tantalising the taste buds with movie concepts that inspire anticipation and make for great, often enigmatic, movie posters, billboards and, of course, teaser trailers. But it’s all a marketing gimmick. Underneath it all are films that are probably punching above their weight. This isn’t about polishing turds, we’re not in that category, but Abrams masterful art of manipulation in his ability to tell you about his movies is not mirrored in his ability to make them.

Thus, Abrams biggest strength is spending lots and lots of money on developing popular appeal before audiences have had a chance to sample the goods. His Star Trek movie, a prequel of sorts to Gene Roddenberry’s 1966 original television series, is a great example because it draws on a pop culture legacy that goes back decades (and across many mediums, whether that be television and film, or children’s toys and memorabilia). As a new movie, it instantly emerges as something that is simultaneously recognisable and yet unique. It draws its appeal from established audiences while sticking to mainstream convention to entice new ones. There’s nothing inherently wrong in that, and broadly speaking, Abrams re-imagination of Star Trek is a winner (just look at the box office receipts). But it is hardly groundbreaking. Indeed, it may actually be a glitzy, stylish example of treading water. Ultimately, what we get from Abrams as a director are films that are average at best.

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“…Abrams masterful art of manipulation in his ability to tell you about his movies is not mirrored in his ability to make them…”

Unsurprisingly then, Star Trek Into Darkness, the sequel to Abrams’ 2009 film, has lots of elements that work very well yet, while it satisfies our thirst for early Captain Kirk and First Office Spock adventure, it isn’t wholly memorable. I couldn’t help thinking, not least because Abrams is so adamant about referencing it, that Into Darkness fails to leave such a devastating, heart-wrenching, edge-of-your-seat mark, as Nicolas Meyer’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

The film from 1982 is where Into Darkness draws much of its inspiration as Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) set off in search of a young Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) after he attacks and kills key members of Starfleet following a bomb attack on London. There’s some interesting themes in the story, not least Kirk and Spock’s developing friendship, while Khan’s growing presence throws up a number of twists and turns that easily delight. But there’s too much dead wood dragging at the narrative like a lead weight. A romance between Spock and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) is too artificial, there to join the dots (a desperate attempt to appeal to one and all), while the unexpected arrival of new crew member Dr. Carol Markus (Alice Eve) is a far too convenient device to paper over the creaking walls of a convoluted plot. You’ll emit a disappointed sigh each and every time Markus surfaces to “save the day”.

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“…There’s some interesting themes in the story, not least Kirk and Spock’s developing friendship, while Khan’s growing presence throws up a number of twists and turns that easily delight. But there’s too much dead wood dragging at the narrative like a lead weight…”

It would be far too harsh of me to ignore some excellent action set pieces – the vertigo inducing height and imaginative backdrop to Spock’s mad-dash pursuit of Khan through a futuristic San Francisco, as well as Kirk and Khan’s human-rocket flight through space, is spectacular action cinema. But it is criminal that Abrams fails to get the best out of Cumberbatch (one of the best actors on the scene today), whose performance as Khan is, dare I say, wooden. There isn’t the menace behind Khan that Ricardo Montalbán achieved in the 1982 movie, so this new version fails to get under the skin. I’m not sure what direction Abrams was giving – maybe he gave Cumberbatch The Terminator to watch before filming because his performance is as robotic and one-dimensional.

Abrams simply isn’t as good a director as he is a marketer. Whether it is Into Darkness’ indistinct tone (the lacklustre effort to provide levity usually only works when it is delivered by Simon Pegg’s Scotty, while any sense of romance between the crew should have been thrown out at the draft stage), heavy-handed direction (Abrams knows nothing about subtlety), or complications arising from an out-of-control plot, the film fails to rise above mediocrity. Star Trek Into Darkness would score more points from me if Abrams didn’t ramp up expectation so high. He’s a man that promises so much yet delivers so little.

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Written by Dan Stephens

star_trek_into_darkness_poster_cumberbatchDirected by: J. J. Abrams
Written by: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch

Released: 2013 / Genre: Science-Fiction / Country: USA / IMDB

More reviews: Latest | Archive

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. James Brogan Reply

    Yes I think Star Trek : Into Darkness was one of the worst Star Trek films I saw along side with Star Trek : Nemesis, I think “Into Darkness” was bad because it undermined what was good about Star Treks 2-4 of the original era by having the characters make the same quotes out of context or weight from the original era and also continuing with a save the Earth philosophy that is also bringing the series down when it could eventually explore the Star Trek mantra of going “Where No One Has Gone Before” and possibly bring something new to the Franchise otherwise it is just younger actors playing at Star Trek.

    • Dan Reply

      I agree James. It’s fine to try something different but Into Darkness simply wasn’t good enough which only makes you think about how great the original films were (especially Wrath of Khan, Search For Spock, Voyage Home and Undiscovered Country).

  2. jjames36 Reply

    We’re in the minority on this one, but I quite agree. The plot is riddled with holes, and the attempts at emotion are a bit manipulative. I don’t think it a bad film, by any stretch, but nor do I think it nearly as great as many.

    Good review.

    • Dan Reply

      Cheers J James. I’m a little surprised by how high Into Darkness rates on Imdb to be honest. Whatever qualities people see in it certainly weren’t witnessed by me. Maybe others are more forgiving of the film’s flaws.

  3. sidekickreviews Reply

    I enjoyed Into Darkness but I think you rightly point out some of the flaws. Khan had much more potential, he could have been a truly devastating arch nemesis if given a better script. The Spock/Uhura romance doesn’t work for either. The human-rocket flight is awesome as you mentioned. Nice review Dan.

    • Dan Reply

      I agree about the human-rocket sequence of course (and the Spock/Khan chase sequence was great too) so perhaps those that enjoyed the film more than me gave those sequences more plaudits, glossing over the flaws. But things like the poorly-scripted romance, and Abrams failing to get the best out of Cumberbatch, or indeed, the character of Khan, are problems that plague the film.

  4. Ted S. Reply

    I’m not the biggest fan of Abrams either, he’s one of the most overrated filmmakers in the business today, like you said he’s good at marketing but not at making good films. I didn’t care for his take on the Mission: Impossible franchise, Super 8 was good in the first half but once the monster made an appearance, it went down hill fast. But I thought his first Star Trek reboot was pretty great and so I was looking forward to seeing this one. Well I was quite disappointed with it too, I did enjoyed it but there were so many things wrong with the script that I couldn’t give it a past.

    I went to see it at an IMAX theater since Abrams shot some scenes with IMAX cameras but it wasn’t worth it. Abrams didn’t know how to integrate the IMAX sequences into the film properly and it’s quite distracting watching it on the huge screen.

    • Ted S. Reply

      Oops! Meant to say “I couldn’t give it a pass”, not past.

    • Dan Reply

      Thanks Ted. I thought I was in the minority being one of those who didn’t like Super 8 – one of the biggest reasons I began to turn away from Abrams (although I still attest his biggest crime to cinema is Cloverfield but I’ll keep mentions to that to a minimum since we are talking about the films he’s directed).

      I agree that his best effort so far is Star Trek but even that shows he’s way overrated as a film-maker. Perhaps he could be likened to George Lucas – full of ideas, astute media marketer and merchandiser, access to huge stacks of money, BUT a weak feature-film director, whose overflowing imagination belittles story and character.

  5. Dan Heaton Reply

    I think it’s easy to hate Abrams, but I’ve actually liked most of his work. I love Alias, especially the early seasons when he was more involved. The Lost pilot is great, and I also had fun with Super 8 and MI:3. The 2009 Star Trek was also a lot of fun.

    That said, I did have big issues with Star Trek Into Darkness. It’s very messy despite some great sequences. The worst part is the final act, which is basically destruction porn and uses 9/11 imagery in the worst way possible. It’s totally a mess, and Khan’s ultimate motivation doesn’t really work either.

    • Dan Reply

      Very interesting Dan given that you obviously have a lot of time for Abrams yet find more problems with Into Darkness than me. I can’t give any credit to Abrams for his TV work – he could be the best television director of all time, but I’m basing my criticisms on him solely on his film work which has been exceptional in its mediocrity.

  6. Evan Crean Reply

    Dan I’m with you that often Abrams is a better marketer than a director. All of the secrecy surrounding this film was completely unnecessary (and a total letdown) given that it borrows so heavily from Wrath of Khan. I hated how much this movie stole from Khan or just reversed Kirk and Spock’s storylines. A friend of mine said it best when he told me that he was tired of Star Trek films about revenge. This one was just another in a line started during the Next Gen series dealing with the subject. Can’t we explore one of the many other themes touched upon in the show and original films? That would be nice for a change.

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