Star Trek Into Darkness

It's only the middle of June, but if there is, this year, another moment of unintentional comedy as richly hilarious as the putative climax of J.J. Abrams's Star Trek Into Darkness, I will be very surprised.  Going into the movie, I didn't expect that I'd find it funny.  Abrams's 2009 reboot of the Star Trek franchise left me genuinely outraged, and its sequel seemed to promise more of the same.  Perhaps because the film has opened so late in Israel, however, I've had the time to realize that more of the same isn't so bad.  It means that I knew what to expect (and what to steel myself against): a barely coherent plot, some fun but ridiculous action scenes, an approach to the original series and its appeal that runs the gamut from incomprehension to outright contempt, a vehement need to undermine and dismantle Vulcans despite the fact that the two films' best character, Zachary Quinto's Spock, is one, a borderline erotic fixation with Chris Pine's Kirk despite the writers' (and, I am beginning to suspect, the actor's) inability to imbue him with anything resembling gravitas, authority, or indeed a basic competence at his job, and a lot of lens flares.  Going in so forewarned, it was easier to appreciate the humor in a film that bills itself as a reinvention and modernization of a venerable but antiquated franchise, but turns out to have so little of its own to say that it resorts to slavish recreations of its source material's high points.

My ability to take Into Darkness a lot less seriously than I did its predecessor (which might still be a little more seriously than it deserves) is bolstered by the difference in the two film's reception.  Where Star Trek's success was taken as an indication that Abrams had restored the franchise to relevance (by, it was grumbled by me and people like me, stripping it of everything that made it what it was) four years later we can see that that hasn't been the case.  As successful as the reboot was, it did not confer upon Star Trek the kind of cultural currency that Christopher Nolan's Batman films, or the Marvel superhero movies, have delivered for their source material, and at least from where I'm standing, the film doesn't seem to have amassed the kind of fandom that those franchises have developed, made up of people who only know their world and characters from the movies.  Four years ago we were all so stunned by a film with Star Trek in its title opening at the top of the box office chart that we seemed to come to a collective agreement not to say what was plainly obvious--that far from revitalizing the franchise, Abrams was merely writing Star Wars fanfic in another show's universe because he didn't think he'd ever get hold of the real thing.  Now that he has, Into Darkness feels like an afterthought--a fact that is reflected in the film's lukewarm critical and financial reception.  Whatever the future holds for Star Trek, J.J. Abrams and his "vision" are probably not going to be a part of it, which makes it easier to view Into Darkness dispassionately, and makes its blunders--and nowhere does the film blunder more heavily than when it tries to pay homage to its source material--seem more funny than outrageous. 

Into Darkness is a remake--sometimes a straight one, and sometimes a mirror image--of Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan.  If you have any familiarity with that movie, you'll know right away what a dubious proposition that is.  Though arguably the best of the original series films, The Wrath of Khan is, fundamentally and unalterably, a film about old men--Kirk, who after a lifetime of joyously breaking the rules is finally realizing that even when you get away with it, you don't really get away with it, and that no matter who many times you cheat death it'll always be waiting for you just where you least expect it; Spock, who has spent his life in the shadow of a perpetual child; and Khan, so incapable of accepting that his superior nature did not guarantee him the bright future he set out on at the end of "Space Seed" that he chooses to blame, and take revenge on, the whole universe.  It's a film about old soldiers, who have nothing in their lives except revenge and duty, perhaps because they've never been able to truly love anything else, and perhaps because age, and time, and death, have taken everything else away.

If Abrams's Star Trek films were the best they could possibly be, they wouldn't have been able to tackle this story, not with their cast of fresh-faced youngsters who never miss an opportunity to mention that their adventures are just beginning.  But of course, Abrams's films are not the best they could be, and instead of trying to make the story of The Wrath of Khan its own and suit it to its setting, Into Darkness veers between slavish, lifeless fan-service--the predictable "Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!" is intended as a crowning moment of pathos but comes off, as I wrote at the beginning of this review, as simply ridiculous--and, when it tries to strike out on its own, utter thematic incoherence.  Kirk starts the film being told that he needs to learn humility, as the older Kirk did in The Wrath of Khan.  But in fact there is no such lesson in Into Darkness.  Instead, and just as in Star Trek, it's everyone around Kirk who has to learn that, despite his lack of experience, his self-confessed incompetence, his complete lack of interest in showing leadership or encouraging teamwork, his conviction that being a captain means running off on your own and expecting everyone under your command to back your play--despite, in short, being utterly unsuited for the job, Kirk is not only the stuff that great captains are made of, but has an inalienable right to the captain's chair.  In The Wrath of Khan, Kirk learns humility when he puts his ship into a situation that can only be gotten out of by his best friend laying down his life; in Into Darkness, it's Kirk who lays down his life, thus proving that he has no need for humility, and that his flaws as a captain don't matter because he Really Cares.  (Not to worry: the next film won't be The Search for Kirk.  His death is rolled back in a way that is so heavily signposted that it's only through Quinto's best efforts that Kirk's self-sacrifice has even the slightest bit of emotional effect.)

Into Darkness's broader themes are equally muddled.  At different points, it has Kirk express disdain for Federation values (as he did in Star Trek), defend them against those who would militarize Starfleet and foment war with the Klingons (something that Kirk, as established until that point, might reasonably have been expected to be in favor of), and lecture others about how it's important not to relinquish our cherished beliefs in the face of evil, with little in the way of an arc to support these shifts except for a 9/11 allegory that would have seemed trite and over-obvious in 2004.  (Not helping matters is the fact that the film seems rather vague on what Federation values actually are--this is a movie that very forcefully informs us that killing a suspected terrorist without trial is wrong, but doesn't expect us to have any problem with Kirk or Spock beating that suspected terrorist after he's surrendered or been incapacitated.)  Similarly confusing is the film's choice to draw a parallel between Kirk and Khan by giving them the same motivation--protecting the people under their command--since it appears completely ignorant of how deep that parallel runs, and what its implications are.  The way that Khan sees himself, as a superior being who by rights shouldn't be bound by conventions and the laws of other people, is exactly the way that Abrams's Star Trek films want us to see Kirk, so if Khan and Kirk have the same motivation, why is one of them the bad guy and the other the hero? 

For a while it seems as if the film itself is reaching for the same conclusion, since in its middle segments Khan is actually a sympathetic figure.  His terrorist attacks on Earth turn out to have been at the behest of the film's other villain, who was holding Khan's people hostage.  He helps Kirk save the Enterprise, and it's Kirk who betrays Khan once that goal is achieved, not the other way around (though Khan turns out to have been ready for betrayal and responds to it ruthlessly).  The reboot format has given Abrams the opportunity to play with some of the franchise's holy cows; just as the first act of Star Trek seemed to suggest that the film might end with Spock as captain of the Enterprise and Kirk as his first officer, during the middle segments of Into Darkness it seems likely that Khan will end the film as Kirk's ally or at least a chaotic neutral, allowed to make his own future as he was at the end of "Space Seed."  But just like Star Trek, Into Darkness views the letter of the franchise as far more important than its spirit.  The canonical order is restored precisely because the representative of canon, Leonard Nimoy's old Spock, demands it.  No sooner has he told his young counterpart that Khan is evil than Khan obliges, suddenly announcing an intent to eradicate all "inferior" life that had gone completely unmentioned until fifteen minutes from the film's end.  (Aside from the opportunity to play with the canon, making Khan an ally might have gone some way towards explaining the unconvincing prevarications, and finally outright lies, about who the film's villain would be.  As it stands, I'm somewhat persuaded by this argument, that the filmmakers declared Khan's identity a spoiler--despite having released trailer upon trailer that virtually crowed it--because they wanted to forestall the outrage over having cast the lily-white Benedict Cumberbatch as a character called Khan Noonien Singh.)

Even the things that work about Into Darkness--as in Star Trek, the actors, the characters, and their relationships--are warped by its hagiographic take on Kirk.  It's fun to watch Pine, Quinto, and Zoe Saldana's Uhura snipe at each other and emerge as the rebooted franchise's equivalent of the Kirk-Spock-McCoy trio (though again, their college kid antics only reinforce the sense that these characters would be much more believable as junior officers on their first assignment out of the Academy than they are as the senior staff of Starfleet's flagship).  But the emphasis the film places on Kirk's need for Spock to admit that they are friends--a motivation so powerful that there's a compelling reading of the film in which he steps into the irradiated reactor chamber merely in order to secure a declaration of emotional attachment, which is in fact what he gets--finally has the effect of making the trio seem like they're in a three-way relationship in which Uhura is by far the least important member.  More successful are the film's attempt to give Uhura a more prominent role in the plot, and along with her, Simon Pegg's Scotty and John Cho's Sulu.  (Anton Yelchin's Chekov remains a bad accent in search of a personality.)  There's never been anything to say against the casting of the reboot's main crew, but this only serves to make Into Darkness's fascination with Kirk seems less plausible--why are we paying attention to this whiny, daddy-issues-riddled man-child when there are all these more interesting characters (who are played by better actors) in the background?

Into Darkness ends with the Enterprise embarking on the five year mission that gave the original series its impetus.  The sudden shift to exploration feels unearned in a series that has had so little time for the concept in its first two installments, but nevertheless it's hard not to feel a little hopeful at its even being mentioned.  With Abrams gone over to Star Wars (and possibly, hopefully, taking Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman with him), is it possible that the next film in the rebooted franchise will be Star Trek in more than just name?  That it will try to capture the essence of the series, and not just deliver hollow recreations of its greatest hits?  That it will finally allow its lead character to start growing towards the man we know Kirk to be?  I know, it's not very likely--as much as I like to blame Abrams for everything, the fact is that his version of Star Trek is merely a particularly ham-fisted expression of preoccupations that can be found all over Hollywood's blockbuster movies--a craving for Great Men, a disdain for intellect, vulnerability, and empathy, a need for lead characters to be cool that is so powerful that it drowns out any trait that might actually earn these characters that epithet.  And the truth is, I can live with the Star Trek films being little more than unintentional comedy.  But deep down, I am still a Star Trek fan, and I would dearly love for that series to once again be about boldly going where no one has gone before.


Anonymous said…
One thing I've found myself thinking more than once as I've read various reviews is whether I'd have liked this film better if it had been a Star Wars movie. I think I might, because Star Wars has a fundamentally different worldview to Star Trek and I think this story might have suited it better.

More to the point of what you wrote here, the apparent unevenness of Kirk's (and by extension, the Federation's and even the movie's) expressed values might explain why it felt to me like the movie never gained any real momentum, for all the racing vehicles and things blowing up. It never felt to me as though it developed any sort of sustained arc. And making Khan indisputably Bad after that middle section of apparently sympathy felt like a cheap shot. A story where Khan didn't turn out to be mustache-twirlingly evil would have been a lot more interesting.
Anonymous said…
Well, that's depressing to hear... though not really unexpected. You sum it up perfectly in the last paragraph. Any high-budget movie you see these days is extremely likely to have a douchebag protagonist who does whatever he likes and is generally worthless but who we are supposed to love because he's got a lot of feelings about it and because gee, he's just so rebellious.

I miss Voyager. Yes, I said it. That was my incarnation of Star Trek, as I get the impression that TNG was yours, and I miss it. Yes, it was stupid, but at the end of the day it was about a bunch of idiosyncratic people trying to work together and hold on to an ideal in the face of a difficult situation. And if they solved problems with technobabble, there was at least the conceit that within the show's universe, they were clever scientists prevailing through superior education and wit.

The new Kirk sounds like Neelix with the ability to kick ass. Now that thought's just horrifying...
Anonymous said…
Aw, I'm with you, baeraad. Though I'd say he's more like an undeconstructed Tom Paris.

I think that, at the very least, if you set this story in the Star Wars universe, you'd be rid of the apparatus of Starfleet, the Enterprise, and even most of the main crew, all of which hobble Abrams's Star Trek films because his vision can't accommodate Kirk giving a damn about any of them. He wants Kirk to be Luke Skywalker - the young man touched by destiny - and Han Solo - the cool maverick who doesn't play by the rules - rolled into one, and neither of these characters are the sort who would be any good at captaining a Starfleet vessel, with the responsibilities that entails.

It never felt to me as though it developed any sort of sustained arc.

Well, no, the only arc the film has is the same one as the first Star Trek - everyone thinks Kirk is a bad captain, and then he shows them (with a secondary arc being "Kirk wants Spock to say I love you"). The problem is, Kirk is a bad captain, and the film's attempt to persuade us that stepping into the reactor chamber makes him a good one is yet another indication that its writers may have watched The Wrath of Khan, but they have no idea what it's actually about.


Any high-budget movie you see these days is extremely likely to have a douchebag protagonist who does whatever he likes and is generally worthless but who we are supposed to love because he's got a lot of feelings about it and because gee, he's just so rebellious.

I've been thinking about it some more since I posted this piece (and I'm not the first person to make this comparison), but it's really interesting to look at Into Darkness in comparison with Iron Man 3, which seems to come from the same template - douchebag hero who is cool because he thinks the rules don't apply to him and is rude and unpleasant to everyone - but deals with it so much better. The two films' handling of their villains are practically mirror images, with IM3 dismantling the problems with the Mandarin in a wonderful, decisive way, and arguably the crux of the entire Iron Man trio of films is to deconstruct Tony Stark's arrogance and self-absorption (he spends the third film having panic attacks, for crying out loud). I don't want to overpraise any of the Iron Man films, which are certainly not without their problems, but especially with Into Darkness and IM3 coming so close together, the comparison is instructive.

On Voyager: you're right that TNG was my introduction to Trek, but my favorite series is DS9, and my main problem with Voyager is how unconvincingly it smooths away what should have been rich seams of character conflict. Obviously that sort of thing could be taken too far, but alongside the story about competent people working together towards a common goal, I think there's room to acknowledge that even under the best circumstances, there will be conflict. So in principle the concept of Abrams's Star Trek films should have worked for me - as I say in this review, in both films there's an opportunity to overturn the conventions of the original series in a way that could have been more interesting and more realistically human than the original. But that's not the story Abrams wants to tell, so in the end I think you may be right that even Voyager is better than this.


"Undeconstructed Tom Paris" is perfect. As I say above, I'm far from the world's biggest Voyager fan, but I will give that show credit for recognizing that being a hotshot flyboy with zero maturity doesn't qualify you for anything above a lieutenant's rank.
Anonymous said…
I haven't seen Iron Man 3 yet, but I agree that in the two movies I have seen, Tony Stark is a little more complicated in his portrayal than your average douchy movie protagonist. Maybe it's the feeling that his good qualities excuses his man-child tendencies, as opposed to his man-child tendencies being part of his good qualities?

Heh, I will be the first to admit that Voyager half-assed a great number of things that would have been cool if someone had developed them in a halfway competent way. And certainly it could have learned something from the way that DS9 demonstrated that people could work together for a common goal while still having very different perspectives and priorities.

I still prefer Voyager to DS9, but after having typed several paragraphs about why, I realised that I have rather too much to say about it and that if I really want to talk about it I should dig up your posts on DS9 and comment on those instead of derailing this discussion further... ^_^;
Gordon B said…
What I loved about the whole TWoK ripoff was how pointless Kirk's sacrifice really was. At one point, Spock orders an emergency evacuation, which makes a lot of sense given that the crew can simply beam/shuttle to safety on Earth's surface. This was not an option in TWoK as there was nowhere to beam/shuttle to outside the destructive radius of the Genesis device. Of course, in an attempt to maintain the high stakes of the original scene, they write the crew as idiotically refusing this command.

At this point in the movie it was indeed a glorious farce. I fondly remember Kirk repairing the warp core via trapeze act and some cartoonishly rendered CGI of the Enterprise falling through some clouds, in which the rapid wobbling of the ship made it look like some sort of marionette... (I was reminded of the scene in Galaxy Quest that poked fun at TOS' low budget -- in which the strings holding up the ship model were visible). Honestly, I wouldn't be surprised if these movies were Abrams et. al's attempts at trolling Trek fandom...

And speaking of Galaxy Quest, I've come to the opinion that in terms of originality/wit/fun, that movie was probably the best "Star Trek" movie of at least the past 15 years, heh. It certainly integrated the fan service that Orci and Kurtzman so obsess over a lot more organically into the story. Heck, in the broad strokes it's probably the best TWoK revisit made (aging crew faces peril inadvertently caused by their past actions, meeting this challenge and returning reinvigorated for more adventures).
Gordon B:

I think you could argue Kirk's motive was to protect the people on the ground - at best, they were facing the prospect of another ship crashing into San Franciso; at worst, whatever happens when a warp core breaches inside a planet's atmosphere. But of course, that's just me fanwanking - the film doesn't even suggest that this should be a consideration, which is typical for its approach that the only thing that truly matters is the Enterprise (and goes some way towards explaining why a film in which Kirk for the most part fails to achieve any of the goals he sets himself ends on such a note of triumph).

On the other hand, my sense during that scene was that the crew wasn't refusing Spock's order to evacuate the ship (apart from the bridge crew, that is) so much as failing to get to the evacuation points because of the damage and chaos on the ship. Which would seem to suggest that despite Kirk's sacrifice, the Enterprise still suffered massive fatalities (and that's not even including the crewmembers who are so graphically blown into space a few scenes earlier). So again, the note of triumph is entirely unearned.

On Galaxy Quest as the best Star Trek film of the last fifteen years: agreed absolutely. That film gets everything about Star Trek that these films miss, and manages to be a loving yet pointed homage without descending to the slavish farce of Into Darkness.
Anonymous said…
Another difference between this film and IM3 you touched on is that both films lied about their villain. But while Ben Kingsley strolling out the loo in his cockney accent was genuinely shocking to me, the reveal that Cumberbath was playing Khan was kind of an 'of course' moment.

That said, I saw the film differently to you in that I think Abrams & co are far more interested in Spock than Kirk. It's Spock who has all the character growth (or what passes for it), all the meaty dramatic scenes that don't go to Cumberbatch and gets the most opportunity after Cumberbatch to show off his acting chops. Kirk is...just there, punching things. I find it very hard to believe that the writers don't realise that Spock is the most interesting character in the films considering how much effort they are investing in keeping it that way.

I wasn't exactly surprised by the revelation about the villain in IM3 - I guessed several scenes in advance - but I did find it incredibly satisfying and well done, not just for how it changed the movie but for how it reflected on some of the more problematic core ideas of the franchise. The revelation in Into Darkness, on the other hand, isn't just obvious, it's badly delivered. As it couldn't help but be, because no one in the movie, except old Spock, has any associations with the name Khan. It's a scene pitched entirely at the audience, bypassing the characters as well as plot logic (see also, as previous commenters have noted, the whole sequence leading up to Kirk's death).

I find it very hard to believe that the writers don't realise that Spock is the most interesting character in the films considering how much effort they are investing in keeping it that way.

I don't know. These are the same writers who not only expect us to root for Kirk, but to believe that he is a great captain. I don't have any problem believing that they don't realize who their best character is - especially since Spock doesn't really have a character arc of his own in this film. His development is all about gratifying Kirk's need to know that he cares.
Anonymous said…
Re: Federation values -- What irritated me was that, for all the movie's praise for the concept of putting Khan on trial, in the end they just put him back on ice. Kinda undermines all the talk about preserving Federation values when they send Khan to indefinite confinement at Gitmo.

Since they did "Khan," I'm guessing the next movie will riff on either 'Amok Time' or the Mirror Universe. 'City on the Edge of Forever' is one of the other equally iconic pieces of TOS lore, but Harlan Ellison's hands are neither cold nor dead yet.

After the TOS trilogy's done, I'd brace myself for the TNG reboot. It's coming. DS9 is safe. Not popular enough, and the story's too complex to adapt. Voyager would actually convert to movie format pretty easily, having a good built-in premise for a trilogy, but like DS9 it's not popular enough.
Anonymous said…
I'd argue that as long as he's not conscious while frozen it might be kinder to put Khan back in stasis until they can work out what to do with him than to stick him in prison and cut him off from his people.

I'm also not sure they'd reboot the TNG movies considering that three out of four of the originals sucked and the last one bombed. At least the TOS films had five commercial successes out of six.

Don't rule out some use of the Naked Time virus either.
Does the movie say that Khan has been put back on ice? I suppose it doesn't matter since his people are still frozen, but either way this seems like solving the problem by refusing to address it - since the only options otherwise are to kill Khan and his people or to jail them (both of which carry significant legal complications - execution is presumably illegal in the Federation, and jailing people for something they might do is even more so - and the latter involves serious risks given how much damage one genetically engineered person was able to do). I can sort of understand the Federation choosing to make this some future era's problem. Of all the egregious and unethical choices in the film, this one strikes me as the least objectionable.

I'd say the only chance of a TNG reboot is if the current franchise is allowed to die (which it might since the films, while successful, are nowhere near as successful as Paramount would like) and some time in the future someone decides to take another crack at bringing Star Trek to the movies. If nothing else, filling Patrick Stewart's uniform will, I think, prove more difficult than William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy's, and some more time might be needed for people to forget about his Captain Picard.
Anonymous said…
I think you see him in his stasis capsule during Kirk's speech about the importance of not giving in to hate etc.

It would be far better if someone were to take a crack at bringing Trek back to the small screen where it more naturally belongs. I think it was on that someone pointed out what a pity it is that in the golden age of niche television Trek, one of the earliest examples of a niche television show, is being passed by.
Anonymous said…
You might check out "Friday Night Lights". When you get past the premise of young adult sports drama that does not cater to many Sci-fi fans it's a very well done show with Kyle Chandler as a stellar lead - an all around realistic portrayal of a male leader who is competent and empathetic. Not to mention that Connie Britton provides him with an equally strong female counterpart - they're probably one of TVs best married couples I've ever seen.

Most male leading characters in TV and even moreso in cinema are either treated as superheroes or as idiots, sometimes idiot savants if they get really lucky. I can't think of many other TV roles in recent years that might provide young guys with a realistic, achievable ideal to strive towards.

Most of the current iconic male roles like Walter White of Breaking Bad, Don Draper of Mad Men or Rick Grimes of Walking Dead certainly aren't it - they're broken men beyond redemption, at times very well written, but nonetheless unworthy of providing any kind of role model for a young man.

I'm surprised Abigail never gave the show a look, after all she read and enjoyed the novel it was based on. Like her, I don't care about football and am as far removed from life in a conservative small Texan town as possible, but if you get past the unfamiliar setting it's one hell of a show.
Unknown said…
Whilst watching this the other night, by the time I got to the quote unquote "emotional" "death" scene, I found myself pausing the movie to read this review of it instead. I'm not sure I can really add any more than that: at the supposed climax of the film, I was genuinely more interested in what Abigail had to say about just how bad it was than what was happening on screen.

The films plot, such as it was, was effectively resolved by the time Space Sherlock's plan to do whatever it was he was going to do (kill people for no reason? I forget) was foiled yet it insisted on trudging on for a good 30 minutes after the resolution with various pieces of false jeopardy and/or pointless action sequences. The film seems to have constructed by coming up with a list of scenes they wanted to put in front of the audience (most of which were homages to the source material), with plot the simply being an vehicle to get us from scene to scene with theme, characterisation and basic logic being a distant third in terms of characterisation.

About the only thing the film and the rebooted franchise adds to the world is visual; I like updated look of the Star Trek universe: feels both futuristic and yet also like a real place, unlike the rather sterile look of the TV series, I liked the way the alien planet at the start looked both habitable and genuinely alien and I liked little touches like the way the architecture of Space London mixes both the old and futuristic- we don't tear down perfectly serviceable buildings because they're a few hundred years old and I doubt they'll start doing it in the future either. It feels like the only part of the film that had any thought or real passion put into it. I hope someone takes that world and writes some good stories in it.
Dowlphin said…
Excellent review. Very long, but it kept me reading because it so well expresses my thoughts that I'm not motivated to write down at such length.

Abrams failed to learn humility. He's a child-mind fooling around believing that to be exceptional, confusing shallow self-image for actual character depth. Could the reboot Kirk be a bit of a Mary Sue Abrams?
I found the first movie moderately enjoyable as an action movie in a phase where I was very forgiving and feeling blue, but when I turned my brain on, read reviews and watched it a second time, I was disgusted at how ridiculously haphazard and shallow it is, and also suddenly heavily annoyed by all the lens flares that I realized might serve as a kind of hypnosis technique to disable the critical mind. (Flickering lights.)
When I read about the plot of the second movie, I knew I wouldn't have to torture myself watching it, for I knew I could expect more of the first movie's mediocrity, absurdity and mockery of the name Star Trek, plus tons of Murica porn.

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