In my recent review of Star Trek Into Darkness, I mentioned that that the “lack of true consequences is what is the most annoying aspect of [the film].” This remark did not sit well with fellow film blogger Andrew Robinson who runs the great site gmanReviews. As his comments often do, Andrew’s response sparked something in me that could not easily fit in the regular comments section of this site.
As a result, I have opted to give my response a post of its own as to not spoil anything for those who have not yet seen Star Trek Into Darkness. While I will be mindful not to reveal key points from J.J. Abrams latest film, there may be a few spoilers for other iconic blockbusters of the past. Though I am sure most of you have already seen many of the films I will reference below, considered yourself warned nonetheless.
Before I get to my response, here is the comment from Andrew that inspired today’s discussion:
While I don’t deny that this (as many other action vehicles), when you look on a wholistic view, seems to never have consequences because the good guy always wins and the bad guy dies/is captured. It’s like that speech in NETWORK “Don’t worry by the end of the program all will be fine”, and it’s hard not to have that in mind while watching movies like this. However, I think this movie does well in putting a lot of those roller coaster jumps in for us to be excited and scared for our characters as we see Spock in the volcano ready to die, Harrison & Kirk narrowly making the jump and even Spock taking on Harrison in that kind of awesome final fight scene. Even the great sequence you mention of Cumberbatch vs. Klignons… it’s great.
What I’m saying here is … I get you, but you’re completely wrong. This movie isn’t the heady Star Trek you knew (not sure if you were/are a fan of those things)… it’s a straight up action vehicle and is to be met with those terms. If you felt this badly about Star Trek I can’t imagine how you ended up liking Iron Man 3 is all I can say.
First off, I highly disagree that action vehicles never seem to have consequences because the good guy will always win. Just look at the film in which Star Trek Into Darkness is based on for proof of this. A prominent character is taken from that film in a way that highlights how even the “good guys” suffer greatly when they win. That particular film ends on both a heroic and somber note unlike most blockbusters of its era, or today for that matter. Star Trek Into Darkness tries to echo this, but does not have the stones to toy with the idea for more than twenty minutes tops. While you do not necessarily have to kill off a main character to establish consequence, a film should still create excitement and fear for the characters well-being.
Sure the scene with Spock in the volcano was nice visually, but did anyone honestly worry that they would kill him off in the opening ten minutes? Same goes for the Kirk/Harrison space jump. While cool to look at, I thought there was more tension in the scene where Bones’ arm was trapped than the space jump scene. Again, there are ways that you can make blockbusters in which the good guy wins, but the audience is still afraid that the hero may not overcome a particular obstacle.
Take the grandfather of summer blockbusters, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, for example. It is a classic man versus beast tale in which Spielberg not only keeps the audience on the edge of their seat the entire time, but is also not afraid to kill off Robert Shaw’s Quint. This allows the film to reinforce the notion that no one is safe from peril.
Establishing a good sense of danger is a key element in many of the truly memorable summer blockbusters. Speed works because you are worried that the bomb can go off at any moment. Terminator 2: Judgment Day had that pesky T-1000 who will stop at nothing, including killing John Connor’s adoptive parents, until the job was done. In Die Hard, the lives of both John McClane and his wife were in constant danger. Even The Dark Knight managed to keep viewers on the edge of their seats by presenting an unpredictable villain, The Joker, and forcing its hero into a memorable no win situation. Of course I am referring to moment when Batman is forced to choose between saving the woman he loves or the man who can help him rid Gotham of crime one and for all.
Sure you can look at Star Trek Into Darkness as nothing more than a popcorn roller coaster style ride. However, does it have the sense of thrills or dread that a fellow popcorn film Jurassic Park had? Does Spock barely hanging on a moving vehicle evoke the same fear as seeing Jurassic Park’s Dr. Grant and Tim Murphy trying to outrace a Jeep falling from a tree? I still get shivers just thinking about the Raptors figuring out how to open up the kitchen door.
By no means am I trying to knock those, and there are many, who enjoyed Star Trek Into Darkness as I have no real allegiances to the franchise. I am far from a die-hard Star Trek fan, in fact my wife is the Trek buff in the household, but I have watched all of the films to date. Perhaps my knowledge of the previous films may have impacted my judgment, but at no point did I think that any of the main characters would not survive in this latest edition. Yes the action sequences, especially Harrison versus the Klingons, were “cool”, but they were nothing more than pretty images with no resonating connection.
In regards to the comment about Iron Man 3, another of this summer’s big action flicks, that film works for two reasons. The first one being that Shane Black offered a truly unique take on the villain and did not feel compelled to stick with established lore like Abrams. The second reason, and more pertinent to this discussion, is that Tony Stark spends the bulk of the film outside of his Iron Man suit. This, added to his post traumatic stress disorder, made him a more vulnerable character. Sure we expect the hero to be triumphant in the end. However, we are genuinely scared at several points that Stark might not be able to beat the Extremis soldiers while stuck in the small town without his suit.
The question I have for fans of Star Trek Into Darkness is this: which character(s) did you truly fear for at any point? Uhura? Bones? Scotty? Chekov? Sulu? Carol Marcus? When a key scene happens in the last act, was your first thought “the dead animal” or was it “oh my gosh, might they actually get rid of…?” Chances are good it was “the dead animal” as Abrams makes a point to remove any remote sense of dread you may have that things will not be fine in the end. Without a sense of tension or consequence, there is little that makes Star Trek Into Darkness interesting my opinion. Considering the political commentary that the film makes, and the pedigree behind the lens, it is hard for me to simply call Star Trek Into Darkness a mindless summer action film. It is a film that wants to achieve more than that, albeit by reducing the overall stakes in the process.