"Tell me what you did wrong. What's the lesson to be learned here?"
When J.J. Abrams took on the daunting task of rebooting 'Star Trek' in 2009, the results of his efforts excited and inspired a new generation of viewers almost as much as they pissed off many longtime existing fans, who were none too pleased with the way the director messed around with five decades of franchise canon and continuity. Despite that (or perhaps even because of it), the movie was a big hit that made 'Star Trek' feel fresh and relevant again – something that seemed almost impossible at the time, a period during which 'Trek' had sunken to one of its lowest ebbs. Naturally, a sequel had to follow. The question, of course, was whether Abrams could maintain his momentum. Unfortunately, his follow-up falls victim to the ills that plague so many sequels. It's bigger, louder and more expensive than the last one, but also duller and dumber, with all the same weaknesses and few of the strengths.
Problems start with the title: 'Star Trek into Darkness'. What a stupid, hackneyed, godawful title that is! I can't imagine what Abrams or his writers were thinking with that. Then again, these are the same screenwriters (Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci) responsible for the blitheringly idiotic 'Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen'. Brought on board this time to polish their work is Abrams' buddy Damon Lindelof, professional franchise killer. Immediately, red flags spring up.
'Star Trek into Darkness' opens with a goofy scene that couldn't possibly be less dark. It's entirely bright sunshine and day-glo colors as young Captain Kirk (Chris Pine), Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) and Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto) attempt to save a planet full of borderline-offensive racial stereotypes from a volcano. In defense of the sequence, Abrams has said that he intended it as a call-back to some of the fun Away Team missions that the old crew used to have on 'Star Trek: The Original Series', which suggests to me that he's never actually seen the original series, as episodes of that show very rarely involved so much pointless running or shouting: "Go go go! Run run run! Move move move! Now now now!!"
Even if you can get past that, the details of the mission make no sense at all. Why would Mr. Spock need to lower himself into the volcano to plant an ice bomb? With all the technology these characters have in the 23rd Century (especially considering what we see them use later in the movie), couldn't (or shouldn't) they just beam the bomb into the volcano from orbit? Just a couple scenes later, we'll see a character beam all the way across the universe in a millisecond (effectively negating the need for starships, a point that Abrams doesn't bother to address). The real, original Capt. Kirk would certainly have tried the most direct, obvious solution before needlessly putting his crew in danger. Then, with transporters and shuttlecraft available, why does the Enterprise not only enter the planet's atmosphere (which starships are not designed to do), but park under the ocean? What's the point of that? Kirk (and Abrams) brush questions like this off with an implied, "Because it's cool. That's why." But it's not really that cool. It's just dumb.
The outcome of this mission finds Kirk violating Starfleet's Prime Directive, because he finds it inconvenient and doesn't think it should apply to him. For this, he's reprimanded with a demotion down to First Officer. This would appear to be a Big Import Character Defining Moment, until the movie forgets all about it five minutes later when Kirk is re-promoted and put back in charge of the Enterprise as if nothing had happened. This entire storyline really has no relevance to the rest of the movie, but it sets up a pattern that will recur throughout, in which young Kirk behaves like a petulant, irresponsible brat, and kind of a prick. Almost every single decision he makes in the movie from beginning to end is wrong. A better film would make a theme out of this, and establish a character arc whereby Kirk must suffer consequences and learn from his mistakes to become a better leader. Instead, 'Star Trek into Darkness' continually reinforces Kirk's behavior by having him repeatedly succeed through blind luck, never learning anything.
I've probably wasted too much time talking about the beginning of the movie, but these scenes are emblematic of scripting problems that run through the whole thing. The main narrative concerns nefarious villain John Harrison ('Sherlock' star Benedict Cumberbatch), who it turns out is not really John Harrison, but has a secret identity that the studio's publicists coyly tried to keep hidden until release day. The cat's out of the bag at this point, and even the Blu-ray case outright states his true identity, so I don't feel too guilty about revealing that Harrison is really Khan Noonien Singh, the genetically-enhanced super warrior who was the original Kirk's greatest, most memorable nemesis, formerly played by a buff Ricardo Mantalban in 'Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan', and here essayed by a scrawny white British guy.
It's here that Abrams' clever attempt to tether his reboot to the original franchise in the 2009 film fails him. If this new 'Trek' timeline is meant to branch off from the original only at the point of James Kirk's birth, then there can be no rational explanation for how Khan (who is hundreds of years older than Kirk) has suddenly changed race, nationality and, well, everything about him. To this, Abrams declares: "Whatever. I don't care. Suck it, fanboys!" (OK, maybe he didn't actually say that… in public. But that's the gist of his defense for the casting.)
If J.J. Abrams wants to reboot the 'Star Trek' franchise, then he should have really rebooted the franchise and broken all ties with the original. As it is, he tries to have it both ways, and doesn't even play by the rules that he himself established. He got away with it in the first movie, but he pushes things too far this time. "Transwarp beaming" and the seemingly instantaneous travel to even far reaches of the galaxy are complete BS even by 'Trek' pseudoscience standards. That's to say nothing of the starship battle at warp speed. If the ships are traveling faster than the speed of light, how can they fire phasers from one to the other? Plus, if one ship steers even slightly at warp speed, wouldn't it be hundreds of thousands of miles away from the other in a mere second?
I fear that I'm starting to sound like a jilted Trekkie here. Honestly, I liked Abrams' 2009 'Star Trek' reboot. I wouldn't feel the need to harp on story continuity issues if only 'Star Trek into Darkness' were a better movie. Unfortunately, it quickly devolves into a string of increasingly dumb plot points, deus ex machina contrivances, and videogame-y action sequences that feel like Abrams' audition reel for his upcoming 'Star Wars' gig. It has almost none of the character development or emotionally gripping drama that Abrams managed to infuse into his prior 'Trek' movie.
Instead, the director shamelessly apes the climax of 'Wrath of Khan' as if he could duplicate the emotional power of that scene just by regurgitating it. The problem is that the characters have simply not earned that moment. The end of 'Wrath of Khan' had profound resonance because the men were lifelong friends who'd been through hell and back together numerous times over, and we'd taken that journey with them. Here, the characters barely know each other and are only starting to become friends. There's no depth to any of the relationships in the film. It's all surface level shallowness. And it's particularly galling given the way Abrams will unwrite what he just did a couple scenes later.
Mostly, I'm disappointed that Abrams is so bereft of imagination that he had to recycle old characters and plots so soon into his reboot. Did Cumberbatch really need to be Khan? Will the next movie be about the Genesis Device, and the one after that about saving whales? I can't wait until Abrams' crew goes searching for god at Sha Ka Ree.
When I first saw 'Star Trek into Darkness' in the theater, I enjoyed it while watching it, but the more I thought about it afterwards, the more its sloppy construction bothered me. I've had a lot of time to think about it since then, and many of its issues feel insurmountable. Watching it again on Blu-ray, however, I was able to lower my expectations and focus on the elements that do work, such as the cast's entertaining rapport and the film's terrific visual design (except for the ridiculous Enterprise brewery, which makes a return appearance for some reason). I have to say, I even enjoyed the deliberately ugly Starfleet uniforms, which are a very amusing call-back to 'Star Trek: The Motion Picture'. With a second viewing, I also picked up the way that one of the dumbest story points (Khan's magic blood) is set up much earlier in the movie than I remembered, which makes it somewhat more tolerable, even if still incredibly lame.
Even with all of its problems, 'Star Trek into Darkness' certainly isn't the worst 'Trek' film. It's still a rung or two above 'The Final Frontier' or 'Insurrection'. While that may not be saying much, the franchise has suffered worse and will survive this folly, though it may require someone other than J.J. Abrams to take over and right the ship.
To the frustration of fans everywhere, Paramount Home Entertainment has chosen to release 'Star Trek into Darkness' on Blu-ray in multiple configurations, each with unique packaging and/or bonus features, spread out across a host of retailer exclusives. The two standard editions that should be available everywhere come in either a 2-disc set (Blu-ray + DVD + redemption code for an UltraViolet Digital Copy) or a 3-disc set (Blu-ray 3D + Blu-ray + DVD + UltraViolet code, with a lenticular slipcover). From what I've been able to ascertain, here are some of the other options:
Other international retailers may offer variations of this content, or other exclusive content, but details are unconfirmed at the time of this writing. For example, the listing at Australian retailer Big W claims to have "Deleted Scenes," "Bloopers," "Easter Eggs," and a "Roundtable." Whether that will turn out to be true is unknown as I write this.
Once you finally choose which edition you want to buy, both the 2D and 3D Blu-rays will annoyingly stream several forced trailers before the disc menu if your Blu-ray player has an active internet connection. The menu itself is the same on both discs, but 2D on one copy and 3D on the other. It plays action footage from the movie in a very short, repetitive loop.
The 3-disc Blu-ray edition of 'Star Trek into Darkness' contains both 2D and 3D copies of the movie. I reviewed the 2D disc separately, and will direct you there for my thoughts on the picture quality of that transfer. This review will focus specifically on the 3D version, and the star rating reflects the quality of only that disc.
All of 'Star Trek into Darkness' was shot on film in 2D and then converted to 3D in post-production. I seem to recall J.J. Abrams making statements that he initially resisted 3D and only changed his mind about it later, but I don't have a source for that. As far as conversions go, this one is pretty decent, perhaps better than average. The movie consistently exhibits at least some depth, which is more than I can say for a lot of conversions.
The opening scene, in which Kirk and McCoy run through a jungle, is pretty aggressive with layering between the trees and in the background. A gag involving spears thrown toward the camera is presumably intended as a jokey reference to old 3D movies. When the characters jump off a cliff, the distance down to the water is greatly emphasized in 3D, thus enhancing the sense of their peril. Selected effects, such as the starship jumping to warp speed, are obviously designed with 3D in mind. The best scene for 3D occurs when Kirk and Khan fly from ship to ship, dodging space debris in their path.
On the other hand, Abrams' shooting style, which consists of many tight close-ups, shaky-cam action sequences and rapid-fire editing, is rarely conducive to 3D. As James Cameron taught us with 'Avatar', good 3D requires a completely different cinema language than 2D. The best filmmakers understand this, but Abrams hasn't learned that lesson yet. (Ironically, however, his lens flares actually look pretty good in 3D.)
The majority of the film is very conservative in its use of depth. Although you can see some separation between foreground and background if you look for it, you could easily forget that you're watching 3D at all. The movie repeatedly fails to take advantage of clear opportunities for pop-out effects. The end credits animation, for example, seems primed for the planets and credit text to leap forward into your face, but they never break the plane of the screen. Some viewers claim to prefer subtle, unnoticeable 3D like this, but I don't see the point of it. Why force the audience to wear 3D glasses if the movie's barely in 3D? I watched the entirety of the film in 2D first before switching to 3D, and frankly I didn't feel that I missed anything essential.
I should also point out that the 1080p/MVC MPEG-4 transfer for the 3D edition is significantly less grainy than the 2D version of the movie. It has clearly undergone some grain removal processing as part of the 3D conversion, which will also compromise detail and texture. Whether traditional aspects of picture quality like that are meaningful in 3D (where viewers typically focus on the "3D-ness" of the image to the exclusion of other factors) is the subject of much debate.
When I reviewed the 2009 'Star Trek' Blu-ray, I specifically commented on how well balanced I found its sound mix between moments of quiet and moments of action bombast. Both that film and this one had sound design by the legendary Ben Burtt, who worked on all of the 'Star Wars' and 'Indiana Jones' movies, among many others. Perhaps I expected too much, or perhaps Burtt merely responded to the nature of the material that Abrams gave him this time, but I'm a little disappointed that 'Star Trek into Darkness' is all bombast, all the time.
The Dolby TrueHD 7.1 soundtrack is very, very loud, and very aggressive with directional surround activity. Pretty much every scene has a million sound effects ping-ponging through every speaker in the room. Action scenes have plenty of rumbly bass, but it rarely hits the deepest registers. Dynamic range of the track sounds compressed to my ears, as if it has been mastered to sound good through small home-theater-in-a-box speakers. It reminds me of the current state of the music industry, which values loudness over fidelity. That's not to say that fidelity of this track is bad, per se, but highs can be a touch shrill and I never felt the musical score embrace me in its warmth or auditory depth, as the best soundtracks do.
Either the mix gets better as it goes, or I'd just settled in and gotten used to it, but my impression of the sound quality improved as the movie went on. Stinger sound effects genuinely jolted me out of my chair on more than one occasion.
I'm not the type of reviewer who hands out 5-star scores easily, because I believe that rating should be reserved for the very best of the best. Even though I'm sure most viewers will find this soundtrack perfectly satisfying, it falls a little short of greatness for me.
As mentioned earlier in this review, the supplement package on 'Star Trek into Darkness' is hugely disappointing. Paramount has split up many of the bonus features it produced among retailer exclusive releases for the film.
Under review here is the general retail edition of the movie. All bonus features are found on the 2D Blu-ray disc. Neither the DVD nor the Blu-ray 3D disc has any features. I'm saddened to report that all of the featurettes on this disc are insubstantial Electronic Press Kit fluff and barely worth watching.
Since I cannot review content that I haven't seen, I can't comment on the quality of the features offered by Best Buy or Target. However, something tells me that they're just more of the same promotional filler. I would personally not go out of my way to collect them. You may feel differently.
The Blu-ray release of 'Star Trek into Darkness' is disappointing on many levels. The movie itself is a big misstep from director J.J. Abrams, and Paramount's decision to divide the bonus features up among several retailers is extremely unfriendly to consumers. On the other hand, it's certainly not the worst 'Trek' film ('The Final Frontier' still has that dishonor), and the other technical aspects of the Blu-ray are pretty good. I hesitate to recommend the disc, but as a 'Trek' completist, I don't not recommend it either, if that makes sense.
I understand that some fans may be so incensed by the bonus features issue that they'll choose to boycott this release. I admire their conviction, even if I can't personally get myself worked up over a bunch of worthless promotional featurettes that I wouldn't want to watch anyway.