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Note: This review will contain spoilers, specifically the true identity of a certain character. This spoiler is more or less general knowledge now, including notations on the film’s official site (from where I have taken my opening synopsis) and imdb.com page. It is also the subject of some of this disc’s extras. If you really, really, really don’t want to know, please stop reading this review now.

When a ruthless mastermind known as Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) declares a one-man war on the Federation, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), and the daring crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise set out on their most explosive manhunt yet. It will take everything in their arsenal to defend Earth and eliminate Khan’s deadly threat. (again, from Paramount’s official synopsis)

Star Trek Into Darkness
J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot was a fascinating exercise in style and charm over narrative substance. This restructured Trek was shallow and not necessarily in keeping with the thematic roots set forth by the likes of creator Gene Roddenberry or Nicholas Meyer, the writer/director who redefined the series for the big screen, but it was exactly what was needed, following a swift downfall in the early ‘00s when Star Trek: Nemesis and the Enterprise TV show exasperated even its most vehement supporters. Despite breaking almost every law in the screenwriting handbook, Star Trek ‘09 made a sour franchise seem fresh, then ended with the promise of further adventures not tethered by the burden of introductions. This is the same promise made by most franchise sequels these days. Superhero films, like Hellboy, X-Men, and especially Batman Begins, have all worked best as introductions to future adventures and opened the doors to significantly improved sequels. In fact, it’s generally accepted that adventure/action/sci-fi franchise sequels will improve upon their predecessors. Movies like Iron Man 2 and Quantum of Solace disappoint so thoroughly, because they break the expected contract, not to mention the precedent set by previous Star Trek sequels (i.e.: the even-numbered ones are the best ones).

Perhaps it is the burden of expectations that makes the rebootquel, Star Trek Into Darkness, such a painful disappointment. It wasn’t difficult to assume that many of Star Trek ‘09’s biggest problems were a mix of growing pains (Abrams admitted discomfort with the series during original interviews) and the arduous process of getting introductions out of the way. After all, the majority of that film revolved around reacquainting the audience with a rather sizable cadre of colourful characters. The burden of multiple character origins was so crushing that Star Trek 2009 barely had a discernible plot. The whole film hinged on a series of increasingly ridiculous coincidences – Kirk happens to get in a barroom brawl in front of Pike, Nero happens to arrive back in time 25 years before Spock Prime, Sulu happens to mess up during take-off and avoid certain death in a brutal battle, Spock happens to maroon Kirk on a planet that both Spock Prime and Scotty also happen to be stranded on, et cetera, et cetera. But, as an audience, we’re (mostly) willing to go along with these coincidences, because the alternative is a four-hour long trudge through the personal stories of at least seven protagonists and one antagonist.

Star Trek Into Darkness
Both of Abrams’ Star Trek films were written by Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman. Orci & Kurtzman began their Hollywood career on television before moving on to passable, derivative entertainment, like Michael Bay’s The Island and Abrams’ Mission Impossible III, but, around the time they wrote Transformers for Bay, they also apparently abandoned all interest in logic and storytelling structure. Apparently, Abrams wasn’t entirely satisfied with Orci & Kurtzman’s work on the first Star Trek, so he brought co-producer and Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof onto Star Trek Into Darkness as a third writer. Those of us that weren’t awed by Lost will probably remember Lindelof as the guy that co-‘wrote’ Cowboys & Aliens with four other people (including Orci & Kurtzman) and the guy that Ridley Scott hired to ruin Jon Spaihts’ perfectly good Prometheus screenplay. This melding of talent, which I now dub ‘Orcutzmanof,’ produces exactly what one would expect, based on the down-turning quality trajectory of their recent output. Like the Transformers films, Star Trek Into Darkness stretches my suspension of disbelief until it snaps, which I think is a significant point, because I’m a massive devotee of Italian horror movies and will defend similarly ridiculous movies if I’m enjoying them on a visual/visceral level, including even Lindelof’s dopey sci-fi folly, Prometheus.

Star Trek Into Darkness appears to have been constructed around a bullet-point presentation of ‘cool stuff,’ not around any kind of real narrative structure or character-based storytelling. Unlike the previous film, this one has too much plot. The ‘cool stuff’ is pretty cool and Abrams slams them together in a briskly-paced, visually pleasing manner, so it’s pretty easy to ignore logical lapses within the structure of these bullet-point set-pieces as standalone sequences. But, each time the writers introduce one of their bullet-points, they create discord in the fidelity of the greater story and are forced to cover their tracks. Even if they were able to correct their trajectory, Abrams’ breakneck pacing doesn’t allow the script the time required to fix any of the problems (which, I suppose, implies that it’s okay to structure a narrative this haphazardly). This compounds the logical lapses as the bullet-points pile up into a wriggling mass of formless, random plot twists. It’s exhausting.

Star Trek Into Darkness
The film opens with a bang-up pre-credit sequence that sets the stage without having much of an effect on the rest of the movie. This, in itself, is not a problem and even recalls the James Bond movies’ tradition of a pre-credit action piece. This sequence has issues with internal logic and doesn’t really jibe with all of the franchise’s prevailing concepts, but I believe we’re expected to take these films as part of their own confined universe (more on that later…) and think the philosophical/thematic discrepancies are really beyond the scope of this review. As a stand-alone sequence, the opening is a good sampling of what Abrams brings to the series as a director – strong visual trademarks, breathlessly paced action sequences, and a solid sense of spatial movement/physical impact. Unfortunately, just after Abrams proves himself with this rousing mini-adventure, the bad writing rears its ugly head – due to his actions during the pre-titles, Kirk is fired as captain of the Enterprise. I suppose this is meant to come as a shock, but it’s really just annoying, because it means the main character is struggling to get back into the position he’d already achieved in the last film. It’s only the second movie and they’re already repeating themselves.

But, wait a minute, it turns out the problem is actually even worse, because Kirk’s firing serves almost zero purpose for the remainder of the story, outside of possibly reminding us that he is a stereotypically-defined action movie rebel. A simple scolding would’ve sufficed. Pike (Bruce Greenwood) is put back in the captain’s chair, which also doesn’t matter, because he is killed in the film’s first scene, giving Kirk and Spock a convenient reason to take the whole thing personally. Because, apparently, pulp heroes aren’t allowed to just be heroes anymore. But, to make sure Kirk is present for Pike’s death, Orcutzmanof has to backtrack and specify that the meeting of captains includes commanders and that Pike has gone to great lengths to secure Kirk as his first officer, instead of simply beginning with a meeting of captains/commanders, which Kirk and Spock both would’ve attended without any questions. This early example of Abrams and Orcutzmanof backpedaling on a seemingly important plot-point sets a storytelling pattern that will plague the entire film, right up to its jaw-droppingly incompetent climax.

Star Trek Into Darkness
Now, I could continue to break down the film’s various violations of story structure and waste your time with a laundry list of plot holes and inconsistencies (which I initially did), but that wouldn’t be a review – that would be incessant belly-aching. And the truth is that even the summer movies I enjoyed this year ( Iron Man 3 and Pacific Rim, for example) can be pretty easily deconstructed in a similar manner. In this case, it is the barrage of nonsensical twists and surprises coupled with the lack of a basic, rooted narrative that makes Star Trek Into Darkness such a painful experience. This is where the blame can be shifted back towards Abrams, who decided to build his Star Trek sequel around irrelevant secrets, ala Lost and Cloverfield (both of which he produced). It turned out that Cloverfield’s secrets were mostly confined to its advertising, but Lost is a perfect example of Abrams and Lindelof painting themselves into a corner of unanswerable questions. Here, Abrams buries what should be a simple morality tale within his beloved ‘mystery box’ for no other reason than he seems to think clouding simple facts in arduous riddles equals sophisticated filmmaking. Why are there men and women frozen inside the missiles? Because the image itself poses an awfully provocative question. Besides, in a Orcutzmanof film, the villain always requires a MacGuffin for motivation. To hell with a provocative answer, though, because this train has left the station and it isn’t going to stop for anything. Aside from further unanswerable questions, of course.

Nothing squanders the value of the ‘mystery box’ more than the manufactured secrecy surrounding the main villain’s identity. Khan spends the first part of the movie under the alias ‘John Harrison,’ because, theoretically, the name Khan Noonien Sing carries terrifying significance throughout the galaxy. But the scene in which he finally reveals his true identity to Kirk and company is a hilariously miscalculated shock moment. Cumberbatch hisses and spits out the name like it’s a poison that will send shivers through the crew, but he’s met with blank stares because no one has ever heard of him. Like a has-been rock star from a one-hit-wonder band, Khan is forced to explain who he is. The name reveal doesn’t serve the story or characters, who, sub-villain Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) aside, don’t have any frame of reference. This means that the pseudonym is included exclusively for the audience’s benefit, which assumes that non-fandom audiences care who Khan is. Based on my anecdotal theatrical experience, where ‘My name…is Khan!’ was greeted by dumbfounded silence, it appears that general audiences don’t have much more context than the people in the movie did. In this disc’s extras Lindelof marks the revelation as the entire film’s central moment, which is further evidence of the team’s backwards approach to screenwriting. The luke-warm audience response (or angry, depending on the Trekiness of any given audience) also sort of verifies that they failed.

Star Trek Into Darkness
The use of Khan as a major antagonist also feeds into the new series’ ongoing problems with its thematic identity. For Star Trek ‘09, Abrams’ little gang set themselves the difficult task of ‘soft-rebooting’ the franchise with an alternate timeline, instead of an entirely separate cinematic universe. This concept undermines the director’s efforts to create a new version of Star Trek, because, if the alternate timeline theory holds, the vast philosophical differences between his films and the originals become a talking point for logic-obsessed fans. It would’ve made more sense to just start from scratch. By the end of Star Trek ‘09, it was easy enough to ignore the paradox and leave the door open to future installments that were no longer tied to decades of Roddenberry’s ideals. The possibilities for sequel stories were limited only by the human imagination, since there aren’t any terrestrial, physical, or even chronological restrictions in the Star Trek universe. Instead of exploring the realms of possibility, this creative team decided to adapt the single most popular story in the franchise’s history, opening themselves up to unfavourable comparisons and accusations of creative bankruptcy. It doesn’t make sense to me at all.

The folly of setting the new films in an alternate timeline is compounded by bringing Spock Prime (Leonard Nimoy) into back into the story, undermining the promise from the previous film that he would not interfere with the new timeline and providing the writing team with the deus ex machina moment they needed to fix the fact that they wrote characters that aren’t smart enough to deal with their own dilemmas. That’s right, Kirk and Spock aren’t capable of stopping Khan – they require a character from a different movie to step in and solve the problem. It is only after Spock Prime explains how Kirk Prime stopped Khan Prime (who is a very different character than Cumberbatch’s Khan) that current Spock is able to construct a plan that finally brings the movie to a close.

…except it doesn’t. Star Trek Into Darkness just keeps going and that’s when the bad screenwriting really kicks into overdrive. In the film’s defense, no summer blockbuster this year had a satisfying climax, but few were as extravagantly bumbled as this one. The extended coda marks the point that Orcutzmanof is finally able to shove the film toward Transformers sequel-levels of idiocy. This begins with a moment of gratuitous destruction porn, where Khan lays waste to probably tens of thousands of innocent lives, which (a practice Lindelof himself blames on you, the viewer in this interview). Then there is the revelation that Khan’s unrefined blood is a cure-all for everything, including death. Assuming this little factoid holds in future (likely Abrams-less) installments, nothing short of vaporization will be able to kill any of these characters. This is, of course, only a minor problem in comparison to the implications of an earlier scene where Khan casually beams himself from Earth all the way across the galaxy to the Klingon planet, Kronos. Again, assuming this holds, the Federation’s spaceships are rendered moot and Star Trek should probably change its name to Star Beam.

Star Trek Into Darkness

Video


Star Trek Into Darkness was shot using a collection of formats, including anamorphic 35mm film, IMAX 70mm, Iwerks 65mm, and even Red Epic HD digital for a few unspecified shots. Then, the whole thing was post-converted into 3D. When presented in IMAX, some scenes were reframed at a format-friendly 1.66:1, but this 1080p, 2D Blu-ray release is constantly framed at 2.40:1. I can criticize the script and Abrams’ tastes all day long, but I cannot deny that this is a good-looking movie and that this transfer is slicker than a greased pig. Despite the multi-media approach (and I have no idea how much of the movie is shot in whatever format), the bulk of the film has a relatively consistent look. A few scenes feature a bit more grain than others, but the general appearance is clean without looking weird and smoothed over, like some Red Epic-shot films tend to look. The textures are limited by the sterile production design and returning cinematographer Dan Mindel’s tight focus pulling, but the finer foreground details are plenty sharp without any notable halo effects. The pre-title sequence sets the tone for the palette with vibrant primary colours that are sharply contrasted against each other without any major bleeding or compression effects. Every planet has a colour coding all its own and all of these colours are similarly vibrant. The dynamic colour ranges extend to the interiors of the Enterprise, where the super-clean whites are slightly tealed and set against the reds, yellows, and blues of the staff uniforms (hues which are repeated throughout the ship’s production design). This higher contrast includes some blacks that are deep and pure without flattening all of the details in the darker moments. And, as the title suggests, this is a significantly darker film than the last one.

Star Trek Into Darkness

Audio


The 2009 Star Trek Blu-ray is still one of the best sounding lossless mixes in my entire collection, so it is not surprising that the sequel’s 7.1 TrueHD track, which was mixed with the new Dolby Atmos system in mind, exceeds expectations. Star Wars and WALL-E’s superstar sound designer Ben Burtt has returned so that he may continue to redefine the Star Trek universe on an aural level. The first film opened with abstract noise, but Abrams and Burtt open this one with a hyper-dynamic action sequence that rattles the speakers with screaming aliens, zipping space transports, a rumbling volcano, and tops things off with a crackling, volcano stopping device that wraps the entire speaker set with sound. The spaceship chases/battles are extremely derivative of their Star Wars equivalents, but, Burtt is clearly not content to directly repeat himself and creates a whole cadre of new and exciting engine and laser beam noises to fill the channels with (I particularly enjoyed the biplane engine sound of the USS Vengeance while it chases The Enterprise through warp). Burtt also isn’t satisfied with generic explosions, he wants to augment the LFE shattering boom with jittering stereo effects. Burtt’s gift for sound design is then multiplied by a mix that doesn’t overwhelm the system with noise. Like most TrueHD tracks, this one has a minor issues with losing its centered dialogue during the louder action moments, but I only found myself reaching for the volume control a couple of times. Composer Michael Giacchino continues to earn his place alongside Star Trek musical royalty Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner with another beautiful score that runs the gamut from bombastic strings to delicate piano motifs.

Star Trek Into Darkness

Extras


Here’s the part in the review where even the people that loved Star Trek Into Darkness will probably agree with me. Most of you probably already know that Paramount has spread the extras over retailer-exclusive releases. Target store’s version is toted to feature a second disc with ‘over 70 minutes of special features, including 30 minutes of exclusive content,’ while Best Buy’s release will feature 30 more minutes of supposedly different exclusive material. Those that want to see the picture-in-picture visual commentary track will have to buy a digital copy of the film from iTunes at full price. If you’re into collectable boxes and props, Amazon and Wal-Mart have you covered, though those releases only feature the basic set of extras. There are even rumours that an Australian release will have deleted scenes and that a German version will have the 1.66:1 or 1.78:1 IMAX footage. This isn’t particularly surprising – CBS and Paramount have been squeezing money out of Star Trek fans for decades with various home video re-releases – but I’m not sure if supplemental material has ever been divided among this many simultaneous releases.

Star Trek Into Darkness
This ‘basic edition’ release’s extras are limited to a series of relatively brief, but entertaining featurettes (about 42:10 total runtime):
  • Creating the Red Planet (8:30, HD) – A look at the opening sequence, from location scouting, to production/costume/make-up design, and pyrotechnic effects.
  • Attack on Starfleet (5:30, HD) – A look at the design, stunts, and physical effects of the captain/commander meeting slaughter.
  • The Klingon Home World (7:30, HD) – A look at the redesigned Klingon elements, including the physicality of planet Kronos, the costumes, and the make-up. This section also covers the Klingon language, which has not changed.
  • The Enemy of My Enemy (7:00, HD) – On reinventing Khan and creating Admiral Marcus as the second film’s villains. This section is a pretty fascinating look into the convoluted behind-the-scenes process. Lindelof marks the reveal as the film’s key moment and the one that separates fans from the general audiences. Right…
  • Ship to Ship (6:00, HD) – A look at the pre-visualization, filming, and digital effects processes used for the scene where Kirk and Khan fly between spaceships.
  • Brawl by the Bay (5:40, HD) – On the film’s climax, including its tacky, 9/11-inspired ship crash (a choice that is vaguely attributed to Abrams, not Lindelof) and Quinto & Cumberbatch’s fist fight.
  • Continuing the Mission (2:00, HD) – A quick look at the use of ‘The Mission Continues’ veterans for the final scene. The extras are completed with an ad for ‘The Mission Continues’ (1:30, HD), narrated by Chris Pine.


Interviews throughout the featurettes include Abrams, Kurtzman, Lindelof, Orci, producers Jeffery Chernov and Bryan Burk, art director Lauren Polizzi, creature make-up designer Neville Page, production designer Chuck Chambliss, production manager Tommy Harper, art director Andrew E.W. Murdock, pyro foreperson William Aldridge, first assistant photographer Serge Nofield, costume designer Michael Kaplan, stuntmen Daniel Stevens and Mike Massa, visual effects supervisor/second unit director Roger Guyett, dimmer operator Joshua Thatcher, make-up effects artist Jamie Kelman, language consultants Britton Watkins and Mark Ocrand, pre-vis supervisor Bradley Alexander, VFX supervisor Ron Ames, first assistant director Tommy Gormley, fight choreographer Marcus Young, and cast members Karl Urban, Jeremy Raymond, Zachary Quinto, Bruce Greenwood, Chris Pine, Zoe Saldana, Sean Blakeman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Simon Pegg, and Peter Weller.

Update: Anecdotal evidence has arisen that claims you can, indeed, get the video commentary if you use the included code to download the digital copy from iTunes. I've actually sent the disc to Matt, so he'll have to verify this for me

Star Trek Into Darkness

Overall


I want to be clear that I don’t hate Star Trek Into Darkness as a series fan. I appreciate that these films represent a new version of the franchise and still think the first one was exactly the movie Star Trek needed, following some depressingly bland Next Generation movies ( First Contact notwithstanding). I believe that Star Trek Into Darkness is a beautifully crafted and terribly written film that doesn’t work on its own merits or on the merits of Star Trek ‘09. It isn’t the worst Star Trek movie of all time, as it was recently voted by angry fans (there’s no defending those boring Next Gen movies), nor is it the worst film of 2013, but it was a deeply disappointing follow-up to a very promising reboot. It squanders the talents of its actors (most of whom are very good), the charms of its interesting characters, and the promise of a new lease on the franchise. But, hey, it was compelling enough to get me to write 3,000-plus words on the subject. I suppose that a passionate response is better than a disinterested one. This Blu-ray release is similarly problematic – the video quality is great and the Dolby TrueHD sound is spectacular, but most of the extras have been reserved for retailer-exclusive releases.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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