This is probably the most difficult review I’ve written so far.
Well, half an hour just passed and I’m only now writing a second line, so you see what I mean.
See, I’ve been a Star Trek fan more or less my entire life. The odd thing is that being a fan of something seems to automatically invalidate one’s opinion when you find fault in the direction it chooses to take. That being the case I’m going to have to work very hard to make a clear distinction between what I see as shortcomings as a story and shortcomings as a piece of a franchise in J.J Abrams second Trek-reboot film.
That having been said, Star Trek: Into Darkness is a load of piffle.
In the 23rd Century, the crew of the Enterprise are threatened with being disbanded, but just as Kirk loses his captain’s position, Starfleet suffers a massacre of its top brass by Khan, a genetically engineered terrorist left over from Earth’s war-torn past who then flees to the Klingon homeworld, sending Kirk and crew in pursuit, risking war with the Klingons. Kirk, Spock and company begin to notice some inconsistencies in their mission which leads to a conspiracy within Starfleet to militarize itself in response to the aggression of the Klingon Empire and a blood-soaked coverup resulting therefrom.
Believe it or not I actually caught myself enjoying Into Darkness every so often. Kirk shows signs of a character arc: he wakes up to the fact that Starfleet isn’t about revenge, even if he has a personal stake; there’s balancing between Spock’s by-the-book logic and Kirk’s screw-the-rules-I’m doing-what’s-right and the acting isn’t too bad. Zachary Quinto seems to have studied Leonard Nimoy’s performance very carefully. I thought that Simon Pegg did well, despite the fact that I usually can‘t stand him. And I was pleasantly surprised that in this whiz-bang explodey action flick it was considered acceptable for male characters to cry or say they’re scared without it being comical. Intentionally, anyway.
The Original Star Trek was very progressive in the 60s but has noticeably dated since then, so a lot of scrutiny was placed on its ability to get with the times. Zoe Saldana’s performance as Uhura is a major sticking point. Uhura’s mere presence on the original Enterprise was a huge deal in its day, but she never got a day in the limelight. She certainly does now, but the writers display a lack of boldness in choosing ways of involving her. She’s a love interest – for Spock, no less – and most of her role is representing Spock’s human half. That is, her character is defined by the man in her life. And, though this was in the previous movie, we were apparently required to see her in her underwear at some point. It happens again in Into Darkness with Alice Eve’s character, where for no particular reason we have to see Kirk ogling her in her undies.
It bespeaks a lack of confidence in the characterization, and apart from issues of female objectification, It’s insulting that Abrams and co.’s opinion of us as sci-fi fans is so low that they think this has to be in here just to make us watch the movie.
I got excited when the crew were confronted with a team of Klingon commandos and it fell to Uhura (a linguistics expert) to talk their way out of it, which would have shown her agency in the crew and been a very ‘Star Trek‘ thing to do. Except it doesn’t work. The Klingons just decide to attack anyway and then Benedict Cumberbatch swans in and starts shooting things.
Which reminds me: Cumberbatch as Khan Noonien Singh, who was of course the villain of the Original Series episode “Space Seed” and the film Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan. Abrams claimed for a while he was playing someone named ‘John Harrison’ but I can’t believe anyone fell for that, because what kind of name for a villain is ‘John Harrison,‘ honestly?
Anyway, I was all prepared to get angry about the fact that we’ve regressed from casting Mexican Ricardo Montablan as Khan and passing him off as Indian to Khan being played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who is even whiter than I am (no small feat, since we’re both redheads) but it turns out I was wrong: Benedict Cumberbatch is not playing Khan. He’s playing Benedict Cumberbatch. Or rather, the fan girl ideal of him.
Seriously, I am not at all convinced that Abrams cast him because he was the best for the role; it’s because he wanted to showcase him. He fights like Jason Bourne, Space Marine, he monologues in that hypnotic voice of his, sheds manly tears and stares intensely at the camera with his big beautiful eyes. And I swear this is true: his ‘game on’ moment is him donning a swishy black coat with a turned-up collar. At that point I lost all decorum and cried, “Ye gods, Abrams, you’re not even trying, are you?”
Which segues nicely into the biggest problem with Into Darkness’s storytelling. There’s plenty of action, dramatic moments and twists, which is fine. A good story uses those elements to build a compelling plot and characters. A bad story, which I submit this is, is one which uses the plot as an excuse to stitch together a lot of action and mawkish drama scenes. Taken in context only with themselves, there are some excellent scenes in the film, but in the larger story they don’t work because I don’t have a feeling of them having been earned by anything previous.
Kirk suffers a lot for this: in some scenes he’s principled, sometimes he’s a jackass, at others he’s a bad boy, and others he’s an action hero. The character development does happen, but it’s very stilted and abrupt. Spock’s human vs. Vulcan conflict isn’t so much middle ground as it is flipping a switch back and forth as the plot demands. Khan, despite how he’s played up, is utterly two-dimensional.
There was something about Kirk’s arc that didn’t add up to me: this journey of growth and learning might have worked if he wasn’t already the commander of a ship. These are the struggles of someone working to earn a position of power and responsibility, not someone who already has it, or indeed expects to keep it. Again, Abrams couldn’t make the things he wanted to happen happen if Kirk wasn’t the captain so he had to snap the willing suspension of disbelief to bits to get him there.
All of this, I believe, is visible whether or not you are an initiate of Star Trek. Now I want to make a point as a fan. This is a fun movie of action, adventure and suspense. But the problem is: it’s not Star Trek at all.
I think I’m an unusual case as fans of the Original Series go because I don’t embrace the cheesiness. I’ve been a Trekkie for about as long as I’ve been able to walk so by the time I was old enough to notice the camp I just rolled with it. I actually find calling attention to it quite irritating because I want to engage with the stories and constantly calling it out it is like kicking the back of my seat.
I bring this up because even by 60’s standards the dialogue is mind-numbingly corny. The climax is in the tender life-or-death moment between Kirk and Spock that ends with a line that makes the “NOOO!” at the end of Revenge of the Sith seem like Shakespeare.
I said earlier that the actors are actually quite adept but nothing could save the lines they have to deliver. Relegating Dr. McCoy to the support cast in favour of Uhura was an understandable choice to break up the all-boys club, but what shocks me is that McCoy, Scotty and Chekhov aren’t new takes on the characters or glimpses into their early days. Every word they say is a parody of their characters. Chekhov’s accent, McCoy’s contrariness, and Scotty’s hysteria are played for cheap laughs every step of the way. The continuing presence of Leonard Nimoy’s alternate-Spock as an exposition dispenser is at once shameless pandering to the fans and a convenience to keep the plot moving where it has no business doing so.
While action was never forbidden in Star Trek, it was never the point, and it was always used sparingly, while ideas and friendships were the main forces behind the story. It’s bewildering that both movies end with the famous “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations,” because the characters are never shown doing that, and Kirk isn’t characterized as the kind of person who would aspire to it. Peace, learning, new horizons and the enriching spirit the Federation was meant to idealize isn’t evident.
The action itself is frequent and thus cheap, and Abrams’ continuing love affair with bloom and lens flare means I have trouble seeing most of it anyway.
I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve misunderstood what Abrams is doing. I thought the idea was to refresh and reboot Trek for a new generation, but there’s so much callback to the Original Series, including, at points, ripping off Wrath of Khan literally word for word, taking for granted we know who the Klingons are and parodying old standbys like McCoy’s “Dammit Jim!” that wouldn’t make sense unless you’re already a fan. And there’s so much he could have fixed about the Original Series: the corny dialogue, the sexy fan service, the plot-convenient technical failures, but they’re all still here while the idealism, intelligence and character depth are what’s been removed! And it disturbs me that newcomers to the franchise might look at this and read it as saying, “Laugh at this stupid, stupid show we all used to watch!”
To my friends who enjoyed it, I see where you’re coming from. It falls under the heading of what my Dad calls ‘fun movies;’ light but exciting flicks in the vein of Alien vs. Predator or Van Helsing, and as a Trekkie, I’d love for you to come play with us, I just feel this is the wrong first impression.
To my fellow Trekkies who liked it, because at least the franchise is carrying on and that it is fun and exciting, I understand 100% where you’re coming from, but is this really all you want? There are constellations of action sci-fi movies out there, indeed a whole six films devoted to Wars among the Stars. What is the point of calling this Star Trek if it takes out everything that made Star Trek unique and solves none of its problems?
In summary, then, Star Trek: Into Darkness is a movie that has glimpses of good ideas and is fun, but all the good is stitched together in a disjointed patchwork that carries no weight and is washed out by excessive explosions. The characters belong on a college campus, not a ship’s bridge. The contrived melodrama, half-stolen plot and over-the-top action is like – no, is – the very dorkiest of fan fiction. And calling it Star Trek is meaningless if we’re not going to maintain the franchise’s mission statement:
“To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life forms and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before…”