Star Trek Into Darkness Is Alright, But Broken. Spoilers Follow
I know, I know–this review is crazy late and Star Trek Into Darkness has been out for ages.. I’ve been super swamped the past few weeks trying to complete a statistics class, graduate with three little degrees and get my ducks in a row to transfer to UCLA in the fall, so hopefully I can be forgiven for not taking time out to see the latest nerdy movie when it first arrived.
So, with that out of the way, shall we begin? I’m going to warn you right now: once we go past the break, there will be spoilers. This is necessary, I believe, to really convey a proper review of the film and let you know what I thought, as well as incite some discussion on the issue. Without further ado, let’s head on past the break, shall we? Last warning: SPOILERS FOLLOW.
Update: You should read below first, but I’ve just completed a re-watching of both “Star Trek”‘s season one episode “Space Seed” and its followup, “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”. Doing so clarified something for me that I couldn’t quite put my finger on when I was writing this review: what the writers do wrong with Into Darkness is that, while it grabs scenes and snippits of those earlier stories, which in this continuity have not happened and apparently never will, it doesn’t layer them together in the meaningful way that they were in “Wrath of Khan” or even “Space Seed”. For example, in “Space Seed”, Kirk and Khan are playing a game of strategy throughout the episode, both trying to figure out what the other is up to and engaging in a sometimes subtle, sometimes full-frontal assault battle of wits. And yet, each esteems the other and holds his opponent in respect. Kirk even chides Spock–who doesn’t get it–that it’s possible to abhor what the man stands for while admiring him at the same time. “Illogical,” Spock says; “Totally,” Kirk replies.
In “Wrath of Khan”, meanwhile, Spock’s sacrifice at the film’s conclusion is the story coming full circle, returning to the “No win scenario” of the Kobayashi Maru test, which isn’t even mentioned in “Into Darkness”, and thus the entire scene (now swapped with Kirk, no less) loses all of its meaning. Further, whereas the original film established layers of Kirk’s sense of being old, pining for “the road not taken,” questioning and regretting the choices he’s made in his career, which it then resolved by giving Kirk his son, teaching him the cost of trying to cheat his way out of death to avoid the “no win scenario.” All of those themes are utterly absent from this film, and because the movie takes place so long before those events in the original even occurred, they’re less meaningful for Kirk himself because he’s still not the strategic mastermind or the patient, deliberate warrior he was even as far back as Space Seed, much less Wrath of Khan.
So let’s get the elephant in the room acknowledged right away: yes, Benedict Cumberbatch is Khan. No, that doesn’t make sense, given that he’s completely the wrong ethnicity, nationality and just about everything else, but in fairness to the actor, he does a really good job with the role as it is written. For that matter, all of the actors do great jobs of capturing their originals and extrapolating something new at the same time; whatever else there is to dislike about the new Star Trek, the core team’s casting isn’t on that list. But regarding Cumberbatch: it’s anyone’s guess why they called this character Khan. He’s NOTHING like Khan.
So let’s get down to the things worth liking and disliking about Star Trek Into Darkness.
Things I Liked
First, the thing I enjoyed right off the bat was Kirk promptly getting his ass handed to him by Pike, and ousted from the Captain’s chair for lying in his captain’s log and violating the prime directive. One of the things fundamentally wrong with Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek was the idea that Kirk found himself promoted to captain of the Enterprise before he’d even graduated the damned academy, and Into Darkness does a good job of showing that yes, that really was a super stupid mistake, and Kirk simply was not ready for command. Unfortunately, the weight of this fact was promptly lost when half of Starfleet’s top brass was wiped out five minutes later and Kirk got the Enterprise back. So much for having to earn it back.
Second, I actually enjoyed a lot of the nods to the original series, which included mention of “The Mudd incident,” referencing Harry Mudd, of course; a tribble playing a small but important role, old Spock making a brief appearance (which I think is a tad dangerous, frankly, and not something the writers should be relying upon–the characters need to earn their knowledge, not just have it handed to them by a time traveler from an alternate universe), and of course, the inclusion of the genetically modified despot and his cryogenically frozen minions. Those are all good, fun things to include in this new retelling of the Star Trek story, and the fact that they were willing to use these things in new and different ways was a strength of the film.
Third, I really liked the reversal of the Kirk/Spock death scene, and watching Kirk die was really sad in spite of the fact that they’d made it so ridiculously obvious that Khan’s blood would bring Kirk back from the dead ten minutes later. As he lay there dying, I don’t think anyone in the (by now, small) audience believed he was going to stay dead.
Fourth, Scotty and his fierce determination to stand up to Kirk on principle, knowing he was right, even to the point where he resigned his post about the Enterprise over the matter, was great. I wish the film had more of this, because it’s a classic Trek sort of thing. Though this, too, was fairly obvious in its goal: to put an inside-engineer on the enemy ship later on so he could “stop up the plumbing,” a la Scotty’s being assigned as chief engineer of the Excelsior in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.
Fifth, speaking of Spock, I liked that they spent some time highlighting Spock’s conflicted human/Vulcan inner turmoil, something which was always a staple of 1960’s Trek. His exchange with Uhura, explaining to her that his need to set aside emotion and focus on logic was not a sign that he didn’t care, but a consequence of the fact that he does, really captured something of the essence of Spock’s character and the nature of why Vulcan’s choose to repress emotion in the way they do.
Finally, the main thrust of the movie was exactly as the producers described it: Kirk earning his place as captain of the Enterprise. Just about everything that happens in this movie kicks the living shit out of James T. Kirk and backs him into a corner out of which he is powerless to escape on his own, and this was important. First, because this Kirk is much younger than the Kirk we met in the original Star Trek, he’s far more immature, overconfident and just plain arrogant. Yes, Kirk has always been the “space cowboy,” but Abrams’ Kirk lacks even the nuance of 1960’s Kirk, much less the measured tactician we came to know in Star Trek I-VI. But that’s a kind of character development that can only happen on a journey where the character takes some hits and experiences loss, betrayal and watches disasters made from his own hubris. We get to see that here, something we never saw of the original Kirk because by the time we’d met him, he’d already gone through his own trials, served on other ships in Starfleet, learned from his experiences, their captains, etc; this Kirk needed that same experience but had missed the opportunity because his life leapt from cadet to captain far too fast.
Things I Didn’t Like
I did not like that Benedict Cumberbatch was cast as Khan, nor even that Khan was one of the film’s antagonists. The first reason, I’ve already mentioned, is that they got his ethnicity and nationality completely wrong. If this Star Trek had been a total reboot, that might be okay, but it isn’t–it’s a reboot only from the day of James T. Kirk’s birth onward. As such, all previous Star Trek history should be the same up to that event. Anything afterward is fair game, but there’s simply no reason why Khan should go from being a genetically engineered dictator from India, who once ruled over much of Earth during the Eugenics wars of the 1990’s, to a white British guy. People who get angry about ethnic characters getting “whitewashed,” this is exactly what they’re bitching about. In fairness, even Ricardo Montalban was the wrong ethnicity, but at least he had some ethnicity other than British. I’m tired of British villains.
I don’t mind the change in history about Khan’s rediscovery and reawakening–as they explain, in the aftermath of Vulcan’s destruction, a lot more exploration has been going on, and it is perfectly reasonable that some other ship might have discovered the SS Botany Bay earlier in the timeline. However, I didn’t really feel like it made sense for Cumberbatch to be Khan, for a few reasons. First, his mischaracterization was just bizarre: can anyone who saw the original representations of this character seriously buy the notion that he’d let some dickhead militant admiral blackmail him into designing a bunch of weapons for years? Or that his 200+ year out of date technical knowledge would be up to the task? Sure, Khan’s super smart, but 200+ years of technology development is a lot to catch up on, much less do it all in the space of the year or two the film alludes to AND develop new tech based on that learning.
Second, I also didn’t like all the nods to the original series. They were great for the fans, but for the non-fans they were basically throwaways. That’s a real shame, because a lot of those pieces, including Mudd’s Women and The Trouble with Tribbles, are great pieces of Trek lore that deserved to be, if not explored more thoroughly, at least just not brought up. After all, the Enterprise still hasn’t gone on its five year mission yet; nobody would be surprised if those events simply hadn’t happened yet, and you know, maybe those stories could be told a little better in a two hour movie rather than the 50 minutes they had back when original Trek aired. Guess we’ll never know.
Third, I didn’t like that they killed Pike pretty much at all. I actually think he had a lot more utility as a mentor to Kirk, and let’s face it: this Kirk needs mentoring pretty damn bad. On top of that, they’ve basically tossed out Pike’s thoughtful and poignant end in the original series, from the two part episode “The Menagerie”. That’s a shame, because it was a thought provoking development.
Fourth, there was just too much goddamned running. I swear, half the movie involved people running from one end of a ship to the other. Guys, we get it–it’s a big ship and people really need to tell things to other people, in person, right fucking now. Apparently communicators don’t work in emergencies, and despite being able to now magically teleport from one end of the galaxy to the other, obviating the need for spaceships at all, they can’t beam people a few hundred yards. Yeah, makes total sense. On the bright side, I suppose, there was only one big, dumb, Star Wars-esque monster scene (well, two if you count the fish swimming by while the Enterprise was under water. Oh, right: the Enterprise under water was STUPID AS FUCK).
Finally, much of the plot construction was just ham-handed, lacking any kind of subtlety or dexterity whatsoever. Yes, the beats were there: character development, conflict, bad guys with layered motives, etc–but none of it was well constructed. It’s great if you’re building a house to have all the materials you need, but it doesn’t take an architect to tell you that how you build it is just as important as what you build it from.
In Star Trek‘s original Khan episode, Space Seed, it doesn’t take long before a little research on the ship’s computer tells Kirk and crew exactly who Khan is: a deposed, genetically engineered dictator who went into exile along with a bunch of his genetically engineered followers. Even knowing this, Kirk continues to treat Khan with respect, until Khan tries to steal the Enterprise, yet in the end he still gives Khan what he wants: a world over which he can rule. Both men come to respect each other and something is gained on both sides.
In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the movie with which Star Trek Into Darkness will most obviously be compared, Kirk is a man lost–out of his element, separated from the youth he so loved, pining for “the road not taken” when he’s confronted with ex lover Carol Marcus and their 20-something son, David.
His friendship with Spock and McCoy is deep, symbolized by the gifts each gives Kirk for his birthday: from Spock, a copy of “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens, its message of friendship and sacrifice foreshadowing Spock’s willingness to die for his friend. From Bones, a set of reading glasses, long out of contemporary usage, which allow Kirk to see (Kirk is far sighted–he sees the big picture but struggles to see the details right under his nose), especially to read the book Spock gave him. Khan is, of course, the vengeful Captain Ahab from Melville’s “Moby Dick”, and the Enterprise herself “the Great white whale” for which he hunts, while the Genesis device represents birth from death, or renewal from stagnation–the very transformation Kirk undergoes in that film. All those layers play off each other to form a cohesive whole that Into Darkness never reaches–not because it couldn’t, but because the writing was just too concerned with being “in your face.” Whereas Wrath of Khan aspired to, and achieved, literary level storytelling, Into Darkness is a box full of the same parts, randomly assembled.
What I’d Have Done Differently
Aside from cutting down all the “running away from” or “running towards” scenes, I probably would have kept Cumberbatch but not had him be Khan. I think it would have been much more interesting if he’d been Joachim, Khan’s most loyal follower in both Space Seed and Wrath of Khan. That character, also a genetically engineered “superman,” also possessed great strength and a keen intellect, but unlike Khan, who was rather aggressive about getting what he wanted, when he wanted it, Joachim displayed patience and subtlety, a willingness to bide his time and play “the long game.” That character, I think, would have been a better fit for the storyline offered in Into Darkness, both for those reasons and for motivation: if Khan were one of the frozen people, Joachim certainly have played along with whatever he had to in order to eventually free the man to whom he’d sworn loyalty more than 200 years before.
Beyond that, I’d have probably not had the gratuitous scene with Carol Marcus in her underwear, nor Kirk having the threesome. Yes, Kirk’s always been a lady’s man and that’s fun to play with, but come on–we can do a better job of showing that than having him make a muff dive for every woman who crosses his path. We’re supposed to believe this man is destined for greatness; I don’t begrudge anyone their promiscuity, but it’s really tough to believe Kirk could accomplish anything at all if the blood rushes away from his brain every time a female enters the room. Not to mention, this is the 23rd century; have a little decorum.
The Final Verdict
I liked Star Trek Into Darkness partially for what it is: a fun movie with a great cast who really do play well off each other. I also dislike it partially for what else it is: a movie that could have been so much more. It had all the pieces, it really did–it just wasn’t built very well. JJ Abrams is a smart guy with a lot of great sensibilities when it comes to making a popular genre picture, but the problem is that he doesn’t quite get Star Trek, and he’s so focused on building the “Summer tentpole” movie that he didn’t pay enough attention to the kind of nuance that makes the best parts of Star Trek truly great. What I do think he gets, correctly, is that Star Trek, done well, is less about the technobabble than it is about the relationships of the characters, and the way their human traits play off each other to create drama, bonding and good character development.
What he clearly does not get is the deep thematic sensibilities of the stories off of which he’s riffing. He doesn’t understand the cat-and-mouse game Kirk and Khan played in Space Seed, and he definitely doesn’t get the depth of Wrath of Khan‘s thematic design, from its invoking of Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” to Melville’s “Moby Dick”. The new stewards of Star Trek simply don’t understand how a thematically rich story is built, and how its end returns to the beginning with its characters changed.
Should you see it if you liked the 2009 movie but weren’t a fan of the original series? Absolutely, you’ll have a great time. After that, you should go home, login to Netflix and watch the original series episode Space Seed, followed by Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Both are better movies than Star Trek Into Darkness.
Should you see it if you hated the 2009 movie? Eh, probably not. But if you liked the movie for what it was, an attempt to make Star Trek relevant again, then yes, you’ll probably enjoy Into Darkness as well. It’s a decent movie, but not a great one, and title aside, it definitely isn’t Star Trek.