Start Wreckin’: Searching for the Shallow Under the Shiny

It’s my hope that the below won’t read like a rant, but it probably will. So, spoilers ahoy!

Mark Kermode, a critic I have a lot of time for, expressed his enjoyment of Star Trek Into Darkness recently. In praising it though, he sounded a few notes of caution, primary among them the point that the film moves fast in an effort to stop viewers pausing to realise just how little sense it all makes.

Sadly, it doesn’t move fast enough to succeed. Light doesn’t move that fast.

It’s curious that Kermode ignored one of his own theories in praising Star Trek: the notion that modern Hollywood cinema has lowered our expectations to the point where anything sufficiently shiny and thrilling will serve as a two-hour antidote to the grind of everyday life. Star Trek is certainly shiny (the lens flare, it burns!) and thrilling (rarely pausing to take a breath), but the writing is just about as bad as I’ve seen in recent years.

Okay, sure, I’m a snob when it comes to writing in movies. I tend to require a coherent plot, two-dimensional (at a minimum) characters and some degree of internal consistency. A nod towards realism helps, but if it’s science-fiction, I’m not going to be too picky.

The first J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie was pretty awful. A jerkish James Kirk, nonsensical science and plot twists and a villain who existed solely to move the plot along. The new one at least begins well, with a thrilling volcanic set-piece, but it’s not too long before writers Orci, Kurtzman and Lindelof begin a film-long habit of ditching every element of substance in pursuit of the shiny surface.

(Was there any reason why the Enterprise was under water? No. But didn’t it look impressive emerging from the waves?)

Simon Pegg is the most appealing part of the whole affair, treating it with the lack of seriousness that it deserves and throwing himself at a truly atrocious Scottish accent. Karl Urban, whose ‘Bones’ McCoy was the best part of the first film, is here given nothing more to do than spout metaphors at Kirk. To add insult to injury, the writers have Kirk lampshade this in return for a cheap laugh.

As for Benedict Cumberbatch, the film’s antagonist, he’s a talented actor who seems in danger of being typecast as a supercilious Brit. (We’ll skip over, for the sake of brevity, his casting as SPOILER! a character with a distinctly Asian name.) He’s at his best when being in calmly superior to everyone around him, but the script, inevitably, pushes him towards histrionics and stupidity. Why? More big explosions, of course.

You can write intelligent science fiction (Moon, 2001). You can even write intelligent, thrilling science fiction (Blade Runner, Serenity, Inception). But you’re not going to do either if you ditch any efforts at building a solid story before you think about the special effects. Orci, Kurtzman and Lindelof are at the modern vanguard of Hollywood storytelling: shallow on a galactic scale.

I could keep on criticising—let’s be honest, this has been a rant for a while now. Luckily for Paramount, the demand for quality writing doesn’t seem to be a widespread one: Star Trek Into Darkness will probably make hundreds of millions.

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