Wrestling With Darkness

The only serious standout element in JJ AbramsStar Trek Into Darkness, the only thing that makes you sit up and go “whoa, wait…this is good,” is the lead villain performance by Benedict Cumberbatch. The poor guy has a somewhat oddly shaped face and weird demon-cat eyes so he’ll never play the good guy, but he’s a serious world-class actor with a kind of young Richard Burton quality and an energy field that just grabs hold and lifts all boats.

Cumberbatch is playing an impassioned, duplicitous intellectual-terrorist-with-feelings named John Harrison (there’s more, actually, but this all that I can divulge), and of course he has to end up vanquished, but he’s so volcanically vital and charismatic that I wish he wasn’t stuck having to fulfill the fate of a baddy-waddy. I wish the rule book could have been thrown out in his case.

On top of which Cumberbatch’s hair has been cut with such elegance and is moussed so exquisitely that it falls in perfect curly tangles all over his forehead, and in a way that triggered admiration if not envy. I don’t know why this aspect got to me. I only know that about halfway into the film I began muttering to myself, “Wow, he’s a werewolf Werewolf of London, this guy.”

I was okay with Star Trek Into Darkness for the most part. I was feeling reasonably engaged but not enthralled and certainly not moved. I just kept wishing there was some way to believe more in what I was seeing. My mind kept rejecting the scale and the pitch of it, you see. The largeness and the intensity of the action and the outlandish physics, that cranked-to-the-max, pushed-to-the-last-second cliffhangerness of it all, became a problem. Nobody wants to believe in smart, crafty, well-engineered excitement than I. But if you tromp too hard on the pedal and make the situations seem too improbable and fantastical then it half-deflates.

This factor doesn’t kill Star Trek Into Darkness, but it certainly mitigates its effect.

Abrams is a highly skilled director — he always gives you the feeling that a smart and confident captain is manning the controls. And I respect those who are into this kind of hyper action aesthetic. They’re not idiots. I just don’t find this aesthetic the least bit convincing. It is therefore not involving, much less arresting.

I can’t roll with two guys being chased by white-faced natives and then jumping off a steep cliff and falling a distance that’s at least as high as the Golden Gate bridge before splashing into the ocean. Tony Scott killed himself by jumping off a bridge this high in Long Beach, but the Star Trek guys can leap from any height and it’s all cool. They can jump off moving space ships and drop into infinity and it’s still cool because another ship will come along at the last instant and they can reach out with one arm and hang on. You can’t stand for minutes on end on top of a large boulder that’s immersed in a sea of bubbling volcanic lava and not suffer and probably die from the heat…but you can if you’re a Star Trek guy. Anybody can do anything, man.

We grew up with video games and we believe in cool shit for cool shit’s sake!

Peter Jackson does the same kind of thing. Crank up the danger levels, push it to the max, make it seem as if doom is totally inevitable…and then save everyone and everything with some improbable last-ditch maneuver at the very last second.

This is what I was going through as I sat through the 7:30 pm show last night at Berlin’s Sony plex. My complaints don’t matter, of course. I’m a bit of a crabhead when it comes to this franchise. So much so that I even felt a tiny bit dissatisfied by Nicholas Meyer‘s two efforts — Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (’82) and Star Trek IV: The Undiscovered Country — and these are considered to be the best of the Shatner-Nimoy cycle. I never got the show — not really. I’ve always hated those fucking mustard and crimson-colored Adidas tunics that some of the Enterprise crew has to wear.

I could have probably enjoyed Abrams film a bit more (i.e., found greater levels of tolerance) if the running time had been closer to 105 or 110 minutes instead of 130-something. But at the same time I have to give Abrams credit for delivering a hell of a third act. It keeps going and going, becoming more and more stupendous. None of it is remotely believable, of course, but that’s what high-throttle CG action cinema is about these days. Anything can happen, throw physics out the window, throw software at any script problem, nobody cares, make sure Kirk punches someone every 20 minutes, sell the popcorn, the worldwide grosses will be tremendous, etc.

I generally agree with Todd McCarthy‘s statement that Star Trek Into Darkness “has been engineered rather than directed, calibrated to deliver sensation on cue and stocked with just enough new character twists to keep fans rapt. At its core an intergalactic manhunt tale about a traitor to the cause, the production gives the impression of a massive machine cranked up for two hours of full output; it efficiently delivers what it’s built to do, but without style or personality.”

Except it does have style and persoality when Cumberbatch is on-screen. So there’s that at least.

  • Monroe_Bouchet

    Cumberbatch plays Sherlock Holmes in the highly successful BBC series. Pretty sure he’s a good guy…

    • MovieSquad

      Maybe Sherlock is evil in the Wells alternate universe?

    • Actually

      That’s on TV, right?


    • Cumberpatch’s Sherlock is the “good guy” but he’s a complete sociopath which is only helped by the characteristics that Jeff is describing.

    • RoyBatty Returns

      Yeah, if you are calling Cumberbatch’s Holmes a “good guy” I’m guessing you haven’t seen the show.

      Which is bloody brillant, btw. Can’t wait for series 3 this fall.

      • Monroe_Bouchet

        Yes he’s a highly functioning sociopath. He’s an arrogant, self-centered, pain-in-the-ass genius. And a bit of a dick. But he’s still a good guy.

        • Mechanical Shark

          No he isn’t. I think part of the essential character of Holmes is that, were it not for his fascination with solving things, bringing things to a resolution, he could easily end up like Moriarty. Nearly every good iteration of Holmes has had a terrifying, but mostly buried capacity for darkness. Holmes is an anti-hero.

  • Meyer directed Star Trek 2 and 6 — the undiscovered country (the one chris plummer quotes shakespeare a lot). Nimoy directed the Voyage Home

  • Awardsdaily

    “The poor guy has a somewhat oddly shaped face and weird demon-cat eyes so he’ll never play the good guy” Monroe beat me to it – and you’re wrong. BC is already a heartthrob — he was also great in Parade’s End where he played the good guy. His star is on the rise and he will get every kind of part you can imagine.

    • Kat

      Lots of women think Cumberbatch is sexy. I’m one of them. He’s definitely not conventionally handsome; but intelligence, wit and presence he has in abundance.

      • Awardsdaily

        He’s dreamy.

        • Yes, my wife like him a lot, I think is the only reason she watches Sherlock with me.

  • “Abrams is a highly skilled director — he always gives you the feeling that a smart and confident captain is manning the controls” – Sorry, what? Based on…shooting and staging scenes like a ten year old kid whose just been given the family video camera for the first time, or maybe the inane comedy, or the awful editing because nothing cuts together. He’s a dump truck director, and, as this article shows, a company man to the core: http://www.thewrap.com/movies/article/star-trek-darkness-heading-where-no-trek-has-gone-foreign-profitablity-89981

  • Correcting Jeff

    Thank you Jeff for not spoiling anything. I know that you feel we’re all whiners about that, but genuinely, sincerely, we all do appreciate it.

    We’ll all see the movie in a week or two, we’ll enjoy what (few) surprises these sort of movies have, then we can talk at length about those surprises if they’re worth talking about at all.

    “Event” movies are like Christmas presents: half the fun is in the anticipation and unwrapping. Sometimes, ALL of the fun is in that (once opened, the gift often sucks).

    Thank you for not ruining Christmas!

    • Krazyeyes

      Jeff didn’t ruin anything but “The Discriminator” sure did.

      • Mr. F.

        SPOILER: Cumberbatch’s real identity in the movie is the classic TOS villain “The Discriminator.”

      • How did the Discriminator spoil anything? He said Cumberbatch is better than (shock!) Montalban, Pine, and Quinto.

  • Cumberbatch was a good guy in Amazing Grace and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. But point taken. It’ll be a while for him to be a good guy in a film with nine numbers in its budget.

  • BromanBrolanski

    Kudos to Jeff for being able to stomach some of that geeked out fanboy swill he so loves to look down on.

  • Bobby Cooper

    Nomi Malone: It doesn’t suck.

  • DavidF

    The third paragraph from last is kind of funny since one of the first things Meyer did was ditch the “fucking mustard and crimson-colored Adidas tunics.” If you don’t like what he did AND you don’t like the kitchy 60s aspects…I don’t know what there is to like.

    I’ll also second Correcting Jeff in thanking you for writing a straight-up, spoiler free review.

  • Saddened that you only know Cumberbatch from this which means you’ve missed Sherlock and his Frankenstein (National Theater) performance.

    I totally agree with you about the bullshit physics in these films, and I’m really tired of Abrams having the characters performing ridiculous jumps in both films.

    Who the hell gets excited over spectacular jumping? It’s a Star Trek film. Put these people in ships and have them fly around doing aerial acrobatics. No one is paying to watch them punch each other when the title is Star (go into space) Trek (on a voyage in space preferably.)

  • Zed75

    As has been noted, Cumberbatch probably has more fan-gifs made of him than any British actor save (perhaps) Tom Hiddleston or whoever is playing Doctor Who.

    Great review, though. It’s extended pieces of sharp writing like this that keep me coming back to your blog.

  • Talent wins out over physical characteristics provided the actor in question lands strong roles. Look at Walken; he’s played bad guys, good guys, and strange guys. Dennis Hopper did Blue Velvet and Hoosiers the same year. Nicholson has the arched eyebrows but knows how to use them in a variety of ways. Cumberbatch has that level of talent.

  • RoyBatty Returns

    Fantasy genre hating Jeff is writing reviews of said films – is it summer already?

    Well, there is some use to these things, as anything Jeff should rave about really does deserve to be looked for defying the odds alone. But better get them while they’re hot – should one of those films get TOO much praise he is bound to take back his earlier praise (KING KONG anyone?)….

  • David Slovakia

    “I’ve always hated those fucking
    mustard and crimson-colored Adidas tunics that some of the Enterprise
    crew has to wear.”

    – Fucking LOL. Wells at his best.

  • Too bad you are too blind to get the political undercurrent, the rather obvious criticism of Obamas drone war, of starting wars with people for the sake of having a use for ones military might, etc.

    • Sport, how could you MISS the politics? But so what? “Star Trek II: Where’s the Fun?”

  • You’re really reaching when you have to talk about the villain’s hair to find something nice to say about the movie. Some of us are going to prefer Montalban’s mane, among other things, from the original.

  • Julia Mae

    “so he’ll never play the good guy”

    Were you drunk when you wrote this? Didn’t have 30 seconds to Google Benedict Cumberbatch?

    This is an immensely talented and stunningly beautiful actor who has played heroes all his career: Christopher Tietjens, William Pitt the Younger, Stephen Ezard, the courageous Stephen Hawking at Cambridge, war heroes and sweet older brothers, and he’s been voted the sexiest man in Great Britain two years in a row. He is the king of Tumblr, extraordinarily photogenic and those eyes are … oh man, those eyes. That Voice.

    You know, you gotta keep up. All the actors of importance are not in Hollywood. Google is your friend. Srsly, you couldn’t check IMDb?