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Star Trek Into Darkness: Trekking into darkness?

May 19, 2013

On Friday, I was able to catch a showing of JJ Abrams’ Star Trek Into Darkness.

As many of you know, I’m a pretty big fan of the Star Trek franchise. I grew up with it, and it definitely helped shape me in some ways. I believe in the future, and science, and mankind’s ability to do great things. In part I believe that because of Star Trek. Most importantly though, I know I’m not alone in feeling that way about what is to most of the world just a dumb collection of nerdy television shows and movies.

I think it’s also safe to say that JJ Abrams isn’t in the same camp as me and many other fans I know.

Of course, understanding something or even being a big fan of something isn’t what licenses you to make a reboot. Hell, if that were the case Michael Bay would have made several less movies in the past decade. Not being a fan also doesn’t mean you’ll make a bad movie.

I still think Star Trek… the Star Trek in 2009 was a pretty fun movie. It was fast paced, it had some good character moments, and it really did have fun little winks and nods toward the old show. Amazingly it was also able to reference Enterprise once without making most of the audience set fire to theaters.

When thinking about that first film, I’m solidly in line with Mr. Plinkett. No one asked for this Star Trek movie, and it’s in many ways unnecessary. It is also not the Trek we all grew up with and loved. However, it was a good action movie and at the very least we can enjoy that. What matters is that the action is good and the movie is exciting. Ultimately, it just needs to succeed on its own.

So, Star Trek Into Darkness.

I have to say I’m having a lot of trouble with this movie.

The positive thing about it in my mind is this: it’s fun.

I can’t ever say that I didn’t enjoy watching this movie. No amount of thoughts I had in the theater or thoughts I’ve had afterward, will ever take away from some nice tight action sequences, good performances, and slick visuals. Sure, there was Abrams’ Gods awful lens flare but even that seemed toned down in comparison to the first one. It’s good action propelled forward by a somewhat hamfisted political plot, and each character shows up just enough to make us smile.

Though in my opinion the whole Chekov ‘nuclear wessels,’ joke-accent gets tiring by the end of the second act.

Before I dig any deeper, I’ll offer this. If you like action movies, or special effects, or just enjoy having a good time without much thought: Watch the movie. I wouldn’t say wait for it come to ‘home video,’ because it’s definitely worth watching for the spectacle and spectacle is best on the big screen. If you’re a diehard Star Trek fan, you’ve probably already seen this movie and well… we’ll address this movie in another paragraph or two, for those uninterested in spoilers.

The first stumbling block can be addressed without digging into the spoilers of this movie. In the first act, there’s this big political plot being set up. There’s talk of terrorists, and going into foreign territory to get terrorists. People argue about militarism and morality and long-range strike capability. Characters like Scotty and Spock and Bones start bringing up serious ethical quandaries. For a brief moment, you will be sitting in your seat asking yourself, “Holy shit, did all these guys pull it off? Are we about to have a Trek film where there’s serious political and ethical questions alongside awesome explosions and lasers?!” You might even think to yourself that it’s a little heavy handed, but you’ll take any thinking over no thinking.

Then the movie just moves along, with the ethical questions dropped to the wayside. The political statements becoming more of a box on the checklist for Liberal Hollywood Screenwriters than an actual attempt to explore the ability of science fiction to critique our society. It’s hard to believe that this is the same franchise where nearly every captain or first officer has given a monologue on the nature of society and war, when they come so close to doing it and then veer off at the last second.

Don’t just think that this is a problem with me being a Star Trek fan. Anyone will look at this and feel like the movie has a chance to do and say something more. It has the chance to push the content further than the last film and elevate itself to real discussion. The writing team just chose not to do that, because well… they had other things they needed to get done.

Bringing us to the spoilers.

Trust me, when I say there are spoilers for this movie. I mean big ones. Frankly, there’s a part of me that thinks people should read past this warning because they wouldn’t be able to get away with this shit if anyone had known about it before hand. Of course, I suppose I should at least compliment the whole staff for not letting something like this leak.

Spoilers after the break.

*****************************************************************************

Let’s just get this right out of the way.

Benedict Cumberbatch is Khan.

Yeah, that’s right, it’s fucking Khan.

The thing that we all sort of questioned they would do, and we all sort of hoped they wouldn’t but at the same time kind of thought they might do anyway. Yeah, it’s that. It was a rumor, it was true, and you get drawn into the latter acts of this film on the question of who Cumberbatch is really playing just so it can be Khan.

I would really have hoped that if we were going to do Khan Noonien Singh in the modern age that we would at least get a blasted Indian actor to play him. Of course, the only Indian actor that Hollywood will employ is the kid from Slumdog Millionaire and Kal Penn. So not old enough, and too comedic.

I’ll get back to Khan because his appearance is a larger problem for this film and a lot of JJ Abrams recent work in general that I want to talk about. He also is part of a larger problem this movie has that comes out of the first stumbling block.

As I said, the first stumbling block for this film is all of the things that indicate this is going to be a more politically driven movie with cool commentary. These are little references that Trek fans will get, and even people barely familiar with the series might pick up on.

Section 31, the black ops arm of Starfleet that provided so many great moral quandaries in the politically charged Deep Space Nine, gets brought up early on. A rogue Section 31 agent is a great plot device, entrenched in later Trek lore, and a really cool new character not reliant on cheap references. He defects to the Klingons. So cool! We get to go to the Klingon homeworld… which looks more like Cybertron for some reason (Praxis looks like its been destroyed, fun little homage). The Klingon redesign is kind of bland but I’m not flipping out.

References get peppered in the film, and you keep thinking its building to something more but it’s not. They’re just references. They’re just there to show us that the screenwriters can look things up on Memory Alpha. It’s just a reference. That’s the joke.

Which brings us back to Khan.

Khan is just a reference that allows them to make more references, and reference away they do.

This is really just an excuse to have a scene where a character dies, and another character shouts, “Khaaaaaaan!” Except those characters are flipped now, because it’s an alternate universe. So, yeah.

Now we reach the real big stumbling block of this movie.

It instantly invites comparisons to Wrath of Khan, which is a terrible idea for a Star Trek movie, and really for any movie in general. Is it just because Wrath of Khan is some thing that Trek fans hold in such high regard?

No, it’s because it’s actually a good movie. Probably the only good movie that actually has the Star Trek name attached to it. It’s like if Empire Strikes Back were still Empire, and the rest of the Star Wars movies were the same level of quality as the prequels. Wrath of Khan is just a good movie.

Why?

It knows its characters, its audience, and it has a really great plot driven by a great villain. The movie shows us a character having to deal with growing older, something we rarely see with grace in any film. The film forces Kirk to grapple with choices from his past, and how his choices shall affect his future. It presents not only a personal threat to the Enterprise but a wider threat to the whole universe. A threat that requires a noble sacrifice from a character we know and love. Wrath of Khan is also built on the back of a larger series. As an audience we were coming in with way more invested into these characters than we are with the rebooted crew, most of whom barely seem to do anything more than remind us they exist in this film.

Finally, it just has more interesting tension and action.

Abrams lifts plenty from Space Seed (Khan’s first appearance), and from Wrath of Khan, except of course for the actually interesting action sequences. When Khan does square off in a fist fight against other named characters in Into Darkness, it doesn’t showcase his near super-strength or enhanced reflexes. It’s just a fight.

The space battle doesn’t occur in a nebula where their sensors are jammed and both ships are damaged. Remember, in Wrath of Khan, Khan is flying around in an older barely functional starship against the USS Enterprise, the flagship of Starfleet. He needs to use his superior intellect and cunning just to get on equal ground. Kirk outwits him because Khan doesn’t have the experience to fight in space. Furthermore, they never have to appear on the other ship to fist fight or save the day. They communicate through their view screens. Every conversation between them is intense. You can feel Khan’s burning hatred in every word.

Into Darkness has a bad plot device to give the Enterprise armor against Khan’s vastly superior vessel. Also, this battle takes place right outside of Earth. After an awesome and terrifying attack at warp speed, the Enterprise (whose warp core is already unstable) is dropped into the void. Sulu shouts out how far they are from Earth, not in light years or parsecs but… kilometers.

They’re in front of the fucking Moon.

Where’s the rest of Starfleet? Why is no one jumping in to defend one of their most advanced ships from what is clearly an enemy vessel (since it’s so super-secret that no one knew about it)?

The point is, the instant I start to compare this movie to Wrath of Khan it starts to fail.

The characters are barely present and barely invested. Cumberbatch does steal every scene he’s in, but that might also just be because of his jarringly deep voice. When you think about his actual portrayal, it’s very wooden. He talks about his passion, but it’s very controlled and tight. It lacks the fiery nature of Ricardo Montalban’s performances.

The plot is sort of weak, and muddled. Hamfisted politics that don’t really seem to affect anything at the end of the day. Sure, they’re probably still at war with the Klingons I guess but that’s not really confirmed? And if it is, isn’t it bad that I can’t remember that two days later?

I can’t help but think that JJ Abrams wants me to look at this movie, compare it to Wrath of Khan and decide that Into Darkness is better. He wants us to look at his work and tell him that he really is the next phase of awesome directors. Hence the Spielberg “homage,” Super 8. I don’t get why he’d invite that comparison when he doesn’t need it. He’s JJ fucking Abrams, he’s made several phenomenal television shows that went on for many seasons, he’s made great movies, and he clearly is a fine director. Plus, he surrounds himself with stellar talent to improve his already good work. Why rip off Khan? Why shoot yourself in the foot like that?

I don’t get it and I don’t think I ever will.

When I try to pull away from this whole comparison and tell myself that this movie needs to be judged on its own merits, I fall back to the first stumbling block. This movie could have elevated the rebooted franchise by raising the brow a little bit. It could have been used to introduce cool Klingon characters to set up a big war movie for the third installment or well, done anything to set up another movie. Even done more with Khan or Section 31 or that planet they visit at the beginning.

It stands alone and it doesn’t stand alone well.

When the characters we know and love are present on the screen they’re pretty much static. No one’s really dealing with new issues, and even the one or two new characters don’t get enough screen time to really be… interesting. We don’t even see a real development of the Spock-Kirk duality, it’s more of the same. There’s no attempt to introduce McCoy into that mix, because there’s no real time when more than two characters are talking unless it’s in rapid fire succession while trying to solve a problem they all know the answer to except for Kirk.

I’d have to rewatch the first movie before I decided which is better, but I’m not sure things look good for Star Trek Into Darkness.

Like I said, if you’re looking for spectacle and you’re not interested in thinking, this is a fun movie. Most of what I’ve said is stuff I thought about after the movie, after I ate lunch, while I was walking home. I did have fun while watching this movie because it’s a fancy show of light and sound. I think Star Trek should be more than that, and I think this movie easily could have been more than that. Finally, I think it’s arrogant and insulting to try and stand yourself next to Wrath of Khan for no other reason than to make a couple of references.

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One Comment
  1. Practical Dailey permalink

    I think this is the only correctly argued review of STID I’ve seen.

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