I’m posting this review now because I assume that by this point, everyone who really wants to see the movie has seen it, and anyone who hasn’t seen it (a) doesn’t care about spoilers, (b) more than likely is not reading this post anyway because they don’t like Star Trek, or worse (c) thinks this post is about those movies with wookies and Jedis, an offense punishable by perpetual and ritualistic scorn from both sides of that nerd-canyon, dooming you to forever wonder what you’re missing out on and to question the very purpose of your life.
Let’s get this out of the way: I’m a pretty big Star Trek fan. Almost always have been. I grew up on Star Trek: The Next Generation. I built little starships out of my Legos. I had Star Trek action figures, toy props, and board games. I checked out the Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual from the library and read it cover to cover when I was 9. I was Commander Riker for Halloween in 2nd grade, minus the facial hair, height, and never-ending parade of exotic women. I dreamed of the day I’d be able to issue voice commands to my computer and have it respond to my every whim. Now that Siri is here…I’m still dreaming.
Let’s be clear: I’m only admitting to things that everyone else did too, they just won’t fess up to it. Right?…Hello?
I bring this up to appropriately contextualize my opinion of Star Trek Into Darkness. Depending on your perspective, you probably think that as a “Trekkie” I am either:
- Unapologetically enthusiastic about the movie and worshipping at J.J. Abrams’ feet for making anything with the words “Star Trek” in the title, or
- Hateful of the new movies because they aren’t “canon” and stray a bit far from the original vision that made Star Trek great in the first place.
The truth is, certainly when I consider Into Darkness, somewhere in the middle. So, neither.
I liked the first Star Trek reboot movie in 2009 quite a lot. It was exciting and action-packed, but because it had to introduce this whole old-yet-new world and cast, it also had a good amount of character development and texture (except for the villain, I thought that part of the story was a bit flat). It was familiar yet different, in a way that respected the nearly half-century of Trek history while simultaneously saying, “OK, we’re taking our own direction now and we’re not going to apologize for it.”
That balance was not there in Into Darkness; it pandered too much to the old fans by trying to directly recycle stuff from the earlier movies, while simultaneously pissing them off by not doing it very well. My favorite (least favorite? most hated?) example of this is one of the scenes near the end — the death scene. The premise was fantastic — in both a nod and a twist from the “old” Star Trek universe, this new, more emotionally-connected Kirk sacrifies himself for his ship, with Spock watching helplessly as his friend dies.
The problem with this is the way the concept was executed: it’s not just a “nod” to Wrath of Khan, but more of a violent head-jerk, because the scene is nearly exactly the same. There are so many ways Kirk could have sacrificed himself for the ship without doing a carbon copy of Khan, and I guarantee you the fans would have still gotten the parallel. Instead of being completely bought-in to the emotional power of the scene, I was distracted by mentally ticking comparison boxes with the Khan film. Spock even screams, “Khaaaaaaan!” By that point, I was just angry, not amused.
And where it was a little bit different, it was worse: you’re telling me that the way to fix what may be the most advanced and important piece of technology on the ship (the warp core) is to kick it??? The noble action by which Kirk saves the ship and sacrifices his life is to kick the engine back into whack? There are funny parts of the movie, but this was not supposed to be one of them; I almost laughed when he was doing that.
In addition to the heavy-handed references to Khan, there was also the other extreme: introducing completely new things so ludicrous that even in this alternate universe you can’t take them seriously. There’s plenty of this too, but the shining example is the evil Starfleet admiral (played by Peter Weller, which was nice) and his ridiculously enormous and completely preposterous dreadnaught/killer starship.
First of all, it takes no imagination whatsoever to think: “Hey, we need an advanced, powerful vehicle for this bad guy. Let’s take the good guy’s ship (Enterprise), scale it up, and paint it black.” Come on, guys, the Voyager series did better than that and they were on a TV budget.
More than that, though, is asking the audience to accept that not only was this insane new ship with tons of advanced technology developed and built in such complete secrecy that virtually no one in Starfleet knew it existed, but to also accept that when the admiral pulled it out to kick the Enterprise’s ass near Earth, the planet’s population and the rest of Starfleet — upon seeing this strange and unknown vessel battling a friendly ship nearby — did…nothing?
That’s like an enormous battleship, five times the size of anything we have and not known to 99.999% of the population, showing up and firing on a US Navy ship just outside of Norfolk while the military looks on and goes, “Hmm, that’s odd.”
It may seem like I’m belaboring a detail that only a Trekkie would care about — logic and continuity — but the relative realism of political/military relationships and even scientific/technological capabilities (notice I said “relative”) within the framework of Trek is what keeps it relatable. Once you start doing things like pulling giant-ass ships out of nowhere just as a crutch to make the bad guy seem more evil/undefeatable, you’ve dismantled the substance of Star Trek and, indeed, the need for a solid plot.
Possibly the most significant complaint I have, which intertwines several of these themes, is the reveal of Khan. When “John Harrison” has been captured by Kirk and is expositionally spilling his guts for the audience’s benefit, I realized there were some very clear parallels with Khan (rather than just a couple similar themes). I leaned over to my wife and said, “He’s just like Khan.” Not 2 seconds after I made that statement, Harrison reveals his real name is…Khan.
I was stunned by this, that the movie’s writers were literally making this guy Khan, not just someone with similar beefs. The camera cut to Kirk, and his reaction to this shattering revelation was…
OK, not literally, but it might as well have been. The name had no meaning to Kirk (or virtually anyone else in the story). This could have been a great moment, if Khan had been some sort of well-known historical antagonist in Kirk’s universe, like Hitler or Stalin are to us. Instead, it meant nothing. Except to the audience.
There was virtually no point, as far as the plot went, in having him be called “John Harrison” at first. It was just a cheap stunt so the audience wouldn’t find out his real name from the trailers, but it could have been so much more. Think of how much more depth the story would have had, and how much more difficult Kirk’s decisions would have been, if Khan had had that historical significance and notoriety. The dynamic between Kirk and Khan that made the original movie so great did not exist here, because Khan had little meaning to Kirk in this film.
That moment, I think, exemplified the theme I see in the movie: squandered opportunity.
Kirk could have nobly died for his crew without making it so distractingly similar to The Wrath of Khan. The admiral could have played the conniving, militaristic foil to Kirk’s idealism without the crutch of a ridiculously overpowered ship. And having the cahones to actually name the character Khan, one of the most well-known movie villains of the past 40 years, the writers could at least have made it mean something.
At a higher level, Into Darkness committed these offenses while wrapping everything in so much action that the characters (with a couple exceptions) mostly just feel like props. There wasn’t a ton of substance to the story; what made Star Trek great was that it used to be so cerebral, intertwining questions of science and morality and destiny. Sure there was plenty of hokiness and poor writing too, but there were those flashes of brilliance — things that really made you think about your future, humanity’s future, what’s right and wrong — that usually came about not during action sequences, but during character dialog.
Into Darkness left almost no room for that. I’m not saying we should go back to the talky-talk of the old Trek (particularly some of the original series’ movies, Star Treks 1-6; I fully acknowledge some of those get a bit boring in spots). But, as is all too common these days, it feels like Hollywood is too obsessed with doing insane amounts of impressive special effects that they write the story around scenes that offer such opportunities, rather than letting them occur naturally (or at least more sparingly) in a well-rounded story. And in the interest of serving these back-to-back action scenes, you’re left with plot holes big enough to drive that damn admiral’s oversized starship through. (Why couldn’t they just grab one of the other genetically engineered guys’ blood to save Kirk? Why did they have to go get Khan’s? Oh, because they had to have a fight sequence on top of a flying vehicle.)
It may sound like I completely hated the movie. I didn’t; I just didn’t think it lived up to its potential, which is almost more frustrating than when something’s just plain bad. I found it entertaining despite all of these issues. There were a lot of good themes in there to play with — oppression of those who don’t fit the “norm” can have nasty consequences, power and paranoia are rarely a good combination, and the exploration of bonds of friendship so deep they cannot be described in words.
I’m hoping that the next movie is better, and the producers spend more of their attention building a quality story rather than just flashy special effects. Given the direction Hollywood tends to go with these big-brand movies, though, I must unfortunately admit that isn’t a very likely possibility.
Maybe I can at least hope that no one has to kick the Enterprise to fix it at a critical point in the story. That, I suppose, would be progress.