I’m not sure what it is about Star Trek exactly that makes it so enthralling. The 28 seasons of television and, now, 12 movies hold a place front and centre in the realm of visual science fiction, on a pedestal shared only by Star Wars. The common themes of exploration and discovery, the looks at how humanity fares and transforms among the stars, the complexity of the universe presented, it all combines to create this experience that has captivated so many. This is perhaps why someone like J.J. Abrams can come in, radically alter the way the Star Trek story is created and presented, and yet still bring me along with him on a journey “to seek out new life and new civilisations” and hope that, by the end of two hours, I will have gone, in some way, “where no one has gone before”.
I suppose it is hard to put into words what Star Trek has done to me. I liked J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot of the universe a lot and I had high hopes heading into his second shot at recreating the voyages of the NCC-1701. Those hopes have only been partially met however. Writing this review has helped me understand that the positives far outweigh the negatives, altering my initial perspective, but while there is much to like about Star Trek Into Darkness on a variety of fronts, it’s still seriously lacking in a number of key areas, and makes a dual set of blunders towards its conclusion that nearly destroys the effort entirely.
A few years have passed since James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) were given control of the Enterprise. Now, along with the usual crew, most notably whinging Doctor “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban), helmsmen Sulu (John Cho) Chief Engineer Scotty (Simon Pegg) and Comms expert Uhura (Zoe Saldana), they have to try and track down rogue Starfleet agent “John Harrison” (Benedict Cumberbatch) for Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) before he causes more mayhem on Earth.
I think I can safely say that I generally appreciated the story that Abrams had to offer. As with 2009, it isn’t really traditional Star Trek in most respects, but it still contains a large core of the themes and ideas that Roddenberry held dear. It’s a action packed blockbuster, as is a requirement for any summer sci-fi movie, but it does have some depth and intelligence to it, and attempts to take a closer look at some ideas, ideas like proportionate responses, revenge and where it takes you, the limits of friendships. It also works, as “TOS” did, as a character study through the focus on Jim Kirk, Spock, and the defining interaction between the two of them. Abrams manages to hit all of these bases. He doesn’t spend enough time on any of them unfortunately, but he still includes all of them, wrapping things around an engaging and thrilling action-orientated plot. He manages to make this is a Star Trek story (I loves me some Section 31 references) while still adding his own elements.
If I had to compare Into Darkness with another Star Trek movie, it would probably be A Search For Spock or maybe Generations. Both of these movies were forgettable enough fare that had a duality between two characters as the main focus while including some half-decent action sequences to spice things up a little, as opposed to other movies which went full sci-fi (The Motion Picture, The Final Frontier) or full action (First Contact, Nemesis).
What Into Darkness is not is The Wrath of Khan, no matter how much it might want to be (little bit of “homage-ing” to “In The Pale Moonlight” at points too). Khan is the best Star Trek movie by a country mile and is bested only in the overall Star Trek canon by a handful of TV episodes. Abrams has gone into this movie clearly having Khan in mind, but he has failed to recreate that experience.
I’ll get into the problems of his performance later, but for now it is enough to say that Cumberbatch as Khan is an effective enough villain here, dangerous, capable, certainly a threat. You get occasional glimpses of the character who so dominated the screen three decades ago. There is a little bit of space combat, some limited back and forth between Kirk and Khan, an underlying theme of facing death and the “no-win” scenario. Abrams reaches back into the past through the cameo of Leonard Nimoy to try and institute a callback approach to the final resolution with Khan, using what he wants – in 1982, his revenge wish on Kirk, here his obsession with saving his fellow augments – against him, using it as a method to undo his plans and beat his superior intellect. That is the kind of thing I like, picking and choosing some of the basic continuity of the saga to keep, and adapting it to fit a more modern production.
But in so many other ways Into Darkness is failing to be a modern equivalent to Khan. The space combat portions, so critical to the tension of Khan, are limited and rather anti-climactic here. The Khan character is so different as to barely warrant the name. Abrams is able to beat up the Enterprise, but can’t bring himself to actually kill off crewmembers to add to the emotional weight of the story as Khan did.
And just an overall sense of an underwhelming production, something that certainly wasn’t a problem with Khan. I think Abrams wanted this to be his Wrath of Khan, but his story seems to drift from set-piece to set-piece, genre to genre. It’s a movie about friendship, about geo-political relations with the Klingons, about military morality, about revenge but it’s never one of those things for very long, which is one of the biggest flaws. Abrams can’t decide what he wants to do here, and ends up leaving an unsatisfying taste in the mouth because of it. Khan knew what it was doing from the start, it was always about Kirk facing death in the form of this personal enmity with the title character, along with intelligent and meaningful explorations of deception, obsession, retirement, tension and the dangers of scientific advancement. Into Darkness can’t match that, and its attempts to do so are lacklustre.
That’s not to make out the film to be a write-off. Those set-pieces are good, with one or two exceptions, and the plot in between isn’t bad either. This is a film that, like the 2009 predecessor, is paced very well, with the appropriate blend of action, exposition and everything else, all found in a seamless equal measure. The opening sequences moves into basic plot elaboration and an outlying of the threat that John Harrison represents. The rest is largely just the Enterprise on its own against the universe, but breaks that up with trips to Qo’noS (that’s how it’s spelled damn it!) and cutbacks to Scotty on Earth. I think that, in terms of pacing, Abrams has found the right balance between wordplay and exciting visuals. It’s not that much different to the way that the 2009 film was set-up – as a friend pointed out to me, it even has a dive bar scene at the exact same point as the last film, and the action beats are all structured in much the same way.
I think in a way Into Darkness is playing things way too safe. As mentioned, there is a balance found, but it may have been better to use one aspect to a greater degree, whichever aspect that would be. I would have chosen either to go full on with the focus on Khan and his possible duel with the Enterprise or maybe engage with the briefly important commentary on contemporary political/military affairs.
That political commentary is one of the moments when Into Darkness threatens to actually dive headfirst into some intelligent surroundings. It doesn’t take a genius to see just where Spock is getting his ideas from when he questions the morality of using their tech to kill someone thousands of miles away without a second thought, or the general pondering on the safety and proportionality of the weapons the Enterprise is tasked with carrying towards the Klingon homeworld. I don’t mind political commentary in films if it is done in a smart way, and I think that is the case here, they just didn’t do enough with it. Kirk wrestles with his own conscience for all of five minutes before deciding not to use said weapons, and that prevarication seemed simply as an easy way to get Scotty off the ship.
Many fans would claim that TOS was about, primarily, the trinity of Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Abrams has taken the decision to shave that down to just the first two, with Pine and Quinto sharing the lion’s share of screentime and actual stuff to do. As in 2009, the comparison and contrast between the two is a major mover of the plot, from the opening dilemma about breaching the “Prime Directive” in order to save the Vulcan right down to Spock forcing himself to hold back when he has Khan on the ropes just so he can save Kirk. I think that back-and-forth between Kirk and Spock has come on in leaps and bounds since 2009, and there is a good sense of the evolution that has occurred in between their friendship beginning at the conclusion of the first outing and the closer relationship that they share in 2013’s outing. The dialogue between the two is one of the big draws of the franchise, insofar as it keeps things going and provides moments as memorable as a film of this nature is likely to offer up.
A big problem with the plot here is that the villains – Weller’s admiral and Cumberbatch’s Khan – are weak. I’ll go into greater detail on my thoughts in a just a bit, but it is pertinent to say that Star Trek has, throughout its history, had a problem coming up with really good, memorable villains, especially in the movies, which seriously hampers its hopes to be considered as a higher class of story. Admiral Marcus is just a cookie-cutter style warmonger whose plot seems excessive and over the top while Khan, well, Khan has his own problems, one of which is that it takes a very long amount of time for him to actually become an out and out villain as opposed to a mystery to be investigated and then briefly an ally of Kirk’s.
It is good at this point to state categorically that I enjoyed the first 90 or so minutes of Star Trek Into Darkness, and that even if the ending was of the most generic sort, I still would have come out of the cinema happy enough. It had a decent plot, some good characterization and added to the new mythos that Abrams is making. But then I saw the actual last 20 or so minutes.
Now I come to the big problems, a set of blunders that had me rather surprised at the screening I saw. There has been a lot of hours put into the Star Trek franchise and of all those 28 TV seasons and 12 movies, one scene stands a lot taller than many of the others. Spock’s death scene in The Wrath of Kahn is an incredibly well scripted, paced and visualised moment, one of the bests scenes I’ve ever seen generally, not just in Star Trek. It’s a poignant, bitter-sweet sequence, which expertly ties in all of Khan’s themes and ideas, while adding the heaviest emotional weight to proceedings.
For J.J. Abrams to try and recreate this scene is baffling to me. He’s clearly no “Trekky” – he isn’t required to be, for the record – but you don’t have to be to understand why this is a terrible idea. Nothing is sacrosanct in fiction, but that doesn’t make taking one of the most famous and well-regarded moments in visual science fiction history and re-doing it with the characters flipped around a good idea. It’s tactless, it’s somewhat dumb and it seriously damages Into Darkness as an experience. It gets worse when you realise that the scripting put into the moment is unmemorable, or that it is put just ahead of the final conclusion as opposed to behind, damaging the pace and flow of the final act. Then, the last insult: re-doing the iconic “KHAAAAAN!” outburst, only putting it in Spock’s mouth. I suppose the only redeeming thing is that it points to the closeness of the relationship between Kirk and Spock, that down through the universes and time differences they’re still willing to die for the other, but such a concept could have been shown without resort to imitation.
I said before that Abrams appears to want this to be his Wrath of Khan, and this whole part of the movie is what convinced me of that more than anything. But Abrams isn’t Nicholas Meyer, and writers Orci, Kurtzman and Lindelof aren’t Bennet, Sowards and Peeples. What they tried to do here is an embarrassing travesty, a childish copy of something far superior. Abrams is taking the reins of Star Wars soon, can we expect Luke Skywalker to be the one saying “No, I am your father” this time?
But the thing is, that all would have been ok, dismissible as a crude process to get to a point worth getting to. Because, just for a brief shining moment, Abrams had killed off Kirk.
I don’t dislike Kirk. He’s not the best character Star Trek ever came up with (Cough, Sisko, Cough), but he’s still iconic. Killing him off would have annoyed a whole lot of people, and brought much “fanboy” rage directed at Abrams. But I can tell you that I would have been one of those throwing myself in front of the director to shield him if it happened.
Because, regardless of whether Kirk is a good or liked character or not, killing him off would have been the ballsiest move since, well, killing Spock off in 1982. As stupid as it was, it would have been a better way to do it than the way they killed Kirk off in Generations.
I like ballsy. I like it when long-entrenched franchises take risks, go off in new directions, and the adventures of the USS Enterprise minus one Jim Kirk would have been a hell of a new direction, a chance to freshen things up, break out of archetypes, let other cast members have time to shine. Let’s see Spock try to come to terms with the guilt and his new command, let’s see someone like Sulu step into the role of first officer, let’s see what the TOS era can do when they don’t have Jim Kirk to fall back on to make the hardcore fanbase swoon. As much as I disliked the method of getting there, killing Kirk off would have been a move that, in story terms, I would have applauded.
It was not to be. Abrams had already set the wheels in motion for the resurrection of Kirk with a clumsily inserted scene earlier in the film featuring a tribble of all things (and an opening featuring Noel Clarke from Doctor Who), so lo and behold, Khan’s blood, now with near magical healing properties apparently, manages to fix Kirk right up.
It’s a shocking blunder in plot terms. It’s the final insult to the original scene in Khan (yes, they brought Spock back in the next one, but at least they didn’t do it instantly, they made his resurrection the point of the whole sequel), and it absolutely cripples any emotional weight Into Darkness had. When you magic up such an easy solution to cheat death, you cheapen whatever art you’re trying to create. Kirk’s sacrifice, Spock’s anger over it, it all meant nothing because Khan’s magic blood will save the day. Take no risks, play it safe, maintain the status quo. A very, very disappointing conclusion to the while thing, that mars any good feelings I had about the rest of the production.
I sure hope they’ve taken a few vials of Khan’s magic blood on that five year mission anyway. Might come in handy whenever legitimate danger threatens and tension dares to be created.
The finale then goes into some underwhelming territory – the destruction of a large part of what I think is San Francisco, an impressive but garish special effect that would be more at home in a Michael Bay disaster movie, and a fistfight on top of a moving car. I’ll discuss my delight in the variety of action sequences below, but that doesn’t change the fact that a movie trying to have this much scope should probably try and do a bit more for its very last confrontation.
I suppose I can’t wind up my thoughts on the general plot without mentioning that Into Darkness at least sets things up for a potential third instalment in a good enough way. Looking back into the set-up of TOS for inspiration, Into Darkness closes on the Enterprise and its crew embarking on its “Five Year Mission” to explore the depths of uncharted space. If Abrams can actually take the decision to stay with that idea and investigate how the Enterprise fares on its own in the cold dark of the universe without back up or fallbacks much as TOS did, then that is a movie that I am interested in seeing. I’d more worry that #3 will open at the conclusion of that mission and feature another action-orientated plot with a disappointing villain, but at least Abrams has, for now, piqued my interest in a sequel.
Moving on to acting, one of the reason I was enjoying the first 90 minutes of Into Darkness was because it is certainly, overall, one of the better acted instalments of the Star Trek franchises. The cast has a lot of good, young actors and actresses involved, and Abrams isn’t bad at getting people to emote.
Chris Pine is as effective and endearing as he was four years ago. His Kirk is both alike and unlike that of William Shatner. He has the same boyishness, the same outward expression of ever-lasting confidence, the same serious demeanour when things get tough. But Pine is able to show vulnerability far better than Shatner, is able to far better play a man with the world on his shoulders. When Kirk breaks down at the sight of Christopher Pike dead before him, we know it means something, that Pike was important. I loved that moment, as Kirk faces into the death of the man who has acted, essentially, as a surrogate for the father he never knew. This fuels much of the rest of Pine’s performance, as he reacts in an almost childish manner with an insistence on retribution, but allows the actions and advice of others to calm down those fires and lead to a more balanced outcome.
I mean, Kirk is supposed to Captain Fantastic. It’s ok for him to have a little bit of Zapp Brannigan in him, he’s supposed to be a sort-of playboy/charmer. But I commend Pine and Abrams from making him a bit more three dimensional insofar as he actually has more than one side to his personality. His reckless streak is easily illustrated from the opening sequence with the volcano, his fear of death but later embrace of what it means is shown up starkly (if executed in a ridiculous manner onscreen) and by the end of proceedings you get the essence of a character who has grown up just a little, who can maintain in the swashbuckling nature that makes him who he is but balanced it with another half, a half that has seen and experienced death but somehow lived to tell the tale and apply the lessons that it brought.
Zachary Quinto is also doing a fine job as Commander Spock, continuing on from his equally fine work in 2009, where he was easily the best one on screen, an award I’d give to him again here. Quinto’s Spock isn’t the same as Nimoy’s, he’s more willing to tap into that half-human side of the character and express himself a bit more, most plainly in his scenes with Uhura, a masterstroke of a sub-plot. The conflict between logic and emotion is central to Spock, and Quinto carries it off really well throughout, struggling to articulate just why he must reject emotions at times, only for his full-blooded embrace of them at times, such as in the closing foot race to stop Khan, to be all the more memorable.
He’s an excellent “Lancer” to Kirk’s “Hero”, different enough for them to play off the other in an entertaining way and for conflict to be created, yet similar enough in many ways for their friendship to be believable and pivotal to the plot. He’s full of the subtle kind of wit that Nimoy was famous for, bringing more laughs with a carefully considered observation than anything involving Scotty’s alien midget. Quinto is one of those actors who should probably be in more top class things than he is, he’s certainly good enough, but he’s carved out a good niche for himself with his portrayal of everyone’s favourite Vulcan.
Then there’s Benedict Cumberbatch, the guy whose one of the most highly-rated actors going these days. His casting here obviously turned heads, seeing as how he’s wowed so many in Sherlock and is bound to be doing the same in his dual roles as Smaug and the Necromancer in The Hobbit trilogy.
But unfortunately it sort of falls flat because he isn’t Khan Noonien Singh. If he really had been playing a Starfleet agent called “John Harrison” I probably would have been more praising, but the revelation that he was playing Khan was all the more surprising because he was acting nothing like Khan.
I mean Khan, as portrayed in such memorable fashion by Ricardo Montalban in “Space Seed” and The Wrath of Khan is a pretentious, over the top, condescending arrogant individual, but one who never leaves you with anything other than the sense that he is fully capable and extremely dangerous. He chews the scenery in a wonderful way, spits literary quotations, always has to be seen as the better man, the smarter man, the one with the superhuman intellect. To pull a quote from Cumberbatch’s most famous role before this, he’s the kind of man who would “live forever just to get the last word on God”. One of my favourite lines in Star Trek history is a dying Khan spitting “No Kirk, the game’s not over…” near the conclusion of Khan, with the sort of genuine venom you see so rarely in villains.
And Cumberbatch just is not that character. He’s intense, he’s steely, he’s serious, and he’s tight-lipped. But he isn’t over the top, he isn’t arrogant, he isn’t theatrical like Khan is supposed to be. There is nothing that can really explain this change other than Abrams simply not wanting his Khan to match the last one. Only when he crushes Marcus’s skull with his bare hands (“You should have let me sleep!”) did I get the genuine feeling that I was watching Khan Noonien Singh, and not some pisspoor imitation. The problem is that Abrams’ version is boring and unimpressive as a character. Sure he can slaughter Klingons by the bucketload with his bare hands, but Khan was never about that kind of savagery in his appearances, he was about outsmarting his opponent – and being outsmarted in turn. If he was just John Harrison I would have marked him down as mildly threatening if a little underdeveloped and thought little more of it, but the decision to make him Khan, that iconic villain, means he gets greater scrutiny. And he doesn’t hold up, mores’ the pity.
The rest of the cast is largely subordinate to the previously mentioned three, but Abrams at least manages to give them all a moment in the sun as best he can.
Karl Urban is ever excellent as “Bones” McCoy, whining incessantly about the life he has chosen to lead in Starfleet while still doing his job with competence and skill. The gray hairs have merely added further to the wonderful impression of DeForest Kelly that Urban pulls off, that scintillating southern twang and arrogant sneer really making him worth watching.
Simon Pegg gets a bit more to do this time around, seeing himself placed front and centre for large parts of the finale. Obviously, he’s a bit of a vortex for comic relief elements – I really wish that weird alien character who follows him around would get sucked into space – but he has a serious side that he gets to show off on occasion, not least in a really memorable scene where he resigns his position on the Enterprise and the begs Kirk not to go through with his plans. Pegg is probably not quite the right man to have around for fight scenes or gun battles, and always seems on those occasions to be the wrong character in the wrong place, but he does add his own special something to the cast as the famous engineer.
Zoe Saldana has a role of lesser importance in this one, based almost entirely off her relationship with Spock. In 2009 she had the whole first act to show off on her own merits, here I can’t remember a scene she was in that didn’t include Spock or wasn’t based around him in some ways. That doesn’t mean it was a bad performance, the character has just become defined by the person she’s romantically involved with. She does have one glaringly impressive, tension filled moment on Qo’noS when trying to talk down the Klingon search party, but it was an endeavour she failed in; you can’t really say that Uhura is shown as a strong character in this one. Still, Saldana emotes really well in the scenes where she talks about Spock’s quiet resignation to death from the opening, which was really good, and even manages to get a glimpse in during the final fight between her better half and Khan.
Abrams treatment of female characters has never been truly stellar, and his reduced focus on Uhura is matched by the ridiculous nature of the Carol Marcus character. Seemingly some sort of slow boil love interest for Kirk, she seems to exist for no other reason than to make Admiral Marcus slightly less of a cardboard cut out. And for her looks. The scene where she takes off her clothes for Kirk to ogle her in her underwear was painfully immature and totally unnecessary, a truly embarrassing piece of exploitation that shouldn’t be attractive to anyone over the age of 15, the kind of thing that leaves a really bad taste in the mouth and serves to lower the general opinion of Abrams. Come to think of it, he had Saldana take her top off in 2009 for no reason either. Star Trek has routinely been at the forefront of creating better roles for women in science fiction – the very inclusion of a female officer in the TOS era, important figureheads like Beverly Crusher, Troi, Kira Nerys and Dax, the first female Captain in the form of Janeway – but Abrams has taken that gender positive approach and retarded it, something I think he should actually be a little ashamed of.
I suppose the Carol character has some potential. She’s a new face in a cast that has been set for decades, and it actually is about time that Kirk got to interact with someone in the romantic sense, a sense that doesn’t just mean a really odd scene of him in a ménage a troi with some cat people. Alice Eve isn’t great as Carol on the basis of what I saw in Into Darkness, but she could get better if she was written with a modicum of tact and subtlety.
Who else is there? Cho as Sulu has one really good moment to stand out where he takes temporary command of the Enterprise, a nice callback to his eventual future as a Captain in his own right. I like Cho even if he doesn’t get a whole lot to do, and I think he could have a bigger impact in future stories. As mentioned, Peter Weller as Admiral Marcus is uninspired and rather dreary, far from the conspiracy master mind he should be and given some cartoonishly evil stuff at times. Bruce Greenwood is back as an older Christopher Pike, and while he’s marked for death the moment he’s made Kirk’s direct superior again, I really liked his showing here, as the angry parent-stand in, who admonishes Kirk for his reckless behaviour and urges him to take “the rules” more seriously. Just as good is his death scene, one that you would not describe in typical heroic terms, but as a depiction of fear, loneliness and pain. Leonard Nimoy pops up for a fairly dull cameo, little more than “I promised not to tell you about the future but now I’m going to anyway”. The last one to mention is Anton Yelchin as Chekov, but he really is just comic relief in this flick, with next to nothing to make him more than just another red-shirt.
Visually, it’s a pretty gorgeous production. The CGI work is commendable and the team behind the scene has done their utmost to create a world and a universe that is expansive, that has a certain “lived-in” quality that previous Star Trek media has failed to really chive, largely through lack of budget and scenes set on Earth.
Yes, Abrams likes his slanty, almost “Dutch” angles when it comes to space shots. Yes he relies a bit too much on dangling off cliffs or high structures. But I always appreciated the way he tries to frame scene’s, to include as much detail as possible without overwhelming the viewer, whether it is the Enterprise’s bridge, the London skyline or the scrapyards of Qo’noS . There is a reduced emphasis on lens flare, thankfully, and a greater sense, in every shot of the Enterprise, of the ship being a vessel in a vast black sea, a feeling of emptiness in the surrounds that makes the actual ships and planets stand out even more than they already do.
The individual examples of CGI work are impressive. The Enterprise looks as awesome as it did four years ago, a sleek shiny ship of exploration, gliding around the universe with those electric energy trails. Its counterpart for this tale, the Vengeance, is a black behemoth, an ugly perversion of everything Starfleet is supposed to stand for. The space battle between the two ships is extremely limited however, and consists of little more than the bigger one blowing the hell out of the Enterprise. I suppose that fits with the general theme that Abrams was going for, but at times you wondered whether it might not have been more entertaining for the NCC-1701 to hold its own to a greater extent.
The two alien worlds visited – Nibiru and Qo’noS – are rendered really well, without enough down to make them seem truly alien in very different ways. Nibiru is a slightly warped tropical paradise, a simple inversion of Earth-like conditions to create something new, and the volcano sequence was very memorable. Qo’noS on the other hand is a menacing graveyard of ship parts and scrap, inhabited by hunter-like vessels that exhibit all of the traits you would associate with the Klingon Empire – toughness, steel and threat.
That all contrasts harpy with Earth of course. Some Londoners might take issue with the idea of their city becoming just another skyscraper filled metropolis, but it had a unique enough look to it to excuse the rampant Americanisation clearly going on. Little details, like cars, garbage trucks, fire extinguishers, all help in creating a Federation homeworld that is of far greater scope and variety than the place we were so rarely exposed to in the TV series’.
The action scenes are all interesting enough, with a nice variety to keep you interested. As I will discuss, one of the main themes with Into Darkness is the Enterprise’s drive to maintain itself as something other than a military vessel, so it works that so many of the action sequences actually lack direct violence. The volcano opener, the scrapyard chase, the spin through space by Kirk and Khan, they all work as tension raisers without a gun being fired or a fist being thrown.
That’s not to denigrate the more traditional action at all. Khan blasting through a horde of Klingon’s was a bit much, but I liked his ambush of Starfleet leadership, the Enterprise in freefall, the foot chase through San Francisco at the conclusion if not the dour fistfight that followed. Abrams mixed it up a little when it came to the actual action, which I appreciate. CGI is very important in sci-fi and the crew behind Into Darkness have pulled off a good effort.
The script is good. Abrams does good wordplay, whether it is Kirk being arrogant and brash towards Pike or McCoy complaining yet again about having to work in space. It’s kept fresh and doesn’t re-hash the script from the 2009 version too much. One of the things I really appreciated was the reduction in the amount of humour in Into Darkness in comparison with 2009, which went to pace/flow destroying proportions with the laughs at times. There are jokes and humour in Into Darkness, but enough to seriously detract from the more serious stuff going on.
Some excellent dialogue moments raise Into Darkness from the pit that so many science fiction offerings find themselves falling into. Spock explaining just why he was ready to face death in the volcano, Kirk pleading for his crews lives to Marcus or Uhura trying to get the Klingons to back off are all moments that stand out to illustrate the quality of the script. It’s fast-paced, breakneck even, but I think I like that for a movie of this kind. It’s supposed to be exciting, tension filled. No one, save for perhaps Carol Marcus and Khan to an extent, is given poor words to speak. While there is a total balls-up for the conclusion as I have previously mentioned, in general Into Darkness is doing decent work with words. Including “KHAAAAAAN!” was an awful mistake to be sure, one that really bothers me, but at least I can be praising of the rest of the script.
Musically, with the exception of Les Mis, Star Trek Into Darkness has the best soundtrack I’ve heard this year. It’s majestic when it has to be majestic, heart-thumping when it has to heart-thumping, understated when it has to be understated. The main theme is a sweeping triumph, that slowly-starting horn section evoking feelings of grandeur, as it runs into a more bombastic, triumphant ode to the stars. The individual character themes work wonderfully, not to mention the more rarely heard tunes, like the subtle violin melody for Vulcan and Vulcan moments. Perhaps it is a bit too loud at times, and the horns might get a tad too repetitive as the film enters its third act, but I think that a score is doing its job when it bests accompanies what’s onscreen at the time, and Michael Giacchino achieves that with his symphony for space.
Let’s talk about themes. I think an obvious one to focus on is vengeance and revenge in general. The entire plot is driven by Kirk’s desire to avenge himself on Khan for the death of Pike, a mission that ends up severely testing his and Starfleet’s moral centre. Khan wants revenge on Earth and Starfleet for the way they have treated him and for the way they keep threatening his “family”. At the end, Spock is hunting Khan down because he wants to avenge the death of Jim Kirk.
This all manifests itself in different ways. For Kirk it is a very childish thing, since Pike is his surrogate father. When Pike dies, Kirk transfers that feeling to Marcus, eagerly carrying out whatever orders the Admiral gives him, to the point of alienating his own friends and crew, putting his whole ship in danger. When he finally meets up with Khan, he proceeds to simply start beating him, or trying to, ending up looking like a rather pathetic youngster when his blows have no effect on the augmented villain. Kirk grows to accept that Khan’s villainy is not as clear cut as it seems and learns some self-control as he pleads with Marcus to call off his attack, but it is clear that the emotional journey he has gone on is one fuelled by immaturity and recklessness, sourced from a need to avenge his dead mentor.
Khan’s revenge gives from a similar instinct but is just a little more cloaked for much of Into Darkness. He’s willing to do anything to protect his Botany Bay crew, which adds a somewhat sympathetic element to his character, but that is cancelled out by the sheer rage on display when his crew and his whole motivation is threatened.
Spock’s revenge trip is instinctual and short-termed, one based very much on the illogical human side of his brain. I suppose the point with all three of these characters is to show different facets of revenge minded ideology, and how damaging it can be: Khan destroys a city, Kirk endangers his ship and Spock nearly murders the bad guy.
Then there is the theme of facing death, taken from The Wrath of Khan where the certainty of facing death in a “no-win scenario” was a critical part of the entire experience. Facing into the unknown is a big part of Star Trek, and there is no greater unknown than that facing someone when they leave this mortal coil. The fear of that and the emotion that comes with is a big part of the drama in both Khan and Into Darkness. Kirk and Spock both face death in an intimate fashion when Pike dies, though for Spock it is an even closer experience than that of Kirk, through the process of a mind-meld. The haunting description of a man’s thoughts as he faces his own termination is compelling, and adds something to the sub-plot of Spock’s shutdown of emotions when facing his finish, and then results in a slightly compelling turnaround when he gives in to his baser side when faced with the death of Kirk.
Kirk meanwhile, famous as the man who found a way out of the Kobayashi Maru test, reacts to death in obstinate manner, focusing his attention on finding the man responsible and ending him, perhaps thinking that this is as good a way to “win” when facing the death of a loved one as any other. Kirk is reckless and has no thoughts for his own personal safety, his crews safety or for Starfleet regulations – such thinking nearly results in catastrophe in the early sequence, and again when he faces into a showdown with Admiral Marcus. Of course, he had already set in motion the sub-plot featuring Scotty that ended up saving the Enterprise, so I suppose it is fair to say that Kirk found a way out of the no-win scenario yet again. Hell, Kirk even actually dies and lives to tell the tale, the kind of thing you might expect from a Shatner directed flick (like V, where Kirk takes on God…and wins).
Then we have friendship, or more specifically how far you would go for friendship. The whole dirivng issue between Kirk and Spock in Into Darkness comes from defining just how important their relationship is to one another. Kirk is willing to sacrifice every rule in the book to keep Spock from dying in the volcano and feels betrayed when Spock rats him out. Spock’s eventual realisation as to just what he did wrong, and how some rules are meant to be bent a little, is an important character moment for him and for his friendship with Kirk. By the end of the film Spock has come to realise just what such a friendship means, and is willing to kill in order to avenge its apparent demise.
We could take such a theme as far as the relationship with crew, who are a surrogate family. Kirk treats his crew initially like a plaything (his pleas that he had not lost a single crewman seemed to me like infantile bragging. “So what?” would be the correct response) but comes to understand what they mean to him when he faces the very real threat of the Enterprise’s destruction at the hands of the Vengeance. Khan’s entire raison d’être is to protect his crew, although such a motivation can be seen to suffer due to a certain lack of engagement – the Botany Bay crew are little more than frozen popsicles as it stands, while in Khan they were very real, critical characters. His rage at the end comes from the mistaken belief that they have all been killed, and it is a believable rage.
The last theme I’d like to touch on is militarisation. The Federation of Abrams’ movies was described in 2009 as “a peacekeeping armada”, a benign organisation focused on exploration, diplomacy and all round good things. Sure they had guns, but they never fired first.
Into Darkness, like any story that contains an inkling of Section 31, challenges that notion. A key source of conflict, especially between Kirk and Scotty, is the loading of advanced missile systems on the Enterprise. The Enterprise has the capacity to defend itself, but members of the crew are horrified at the thought of becoming a ship geared towards offence.
The rest of the movie sees a continuation of that conflict, of a peace-loving Enterprise whose crew just want to explore the galaxy facing off against the militarised dark side of the Federation in the form of Admiral Marcus and his gun-heavy Vengeance. Since the Enterprise crew are the good guys, I guess the point is that militarisation of the Federation is a bad thing, as is any deviation from their standard operating procedure, the kind of notion that Gene Roddenberry would surely approve of. The Vengeance is an ugly, dark vessel, all brawn and no heart. The Enterprise rallies to defeat it, not with phasers and missiles but by applying some good old fashioned Vulcan intelligence.
The Enterprise and its crew don’t launch torpedoes at distant targets, they don’t invade other places sovereignty, and they don’t consider themselves a military vessel. After all, it’s a five year exploratory mission that Kirk is interested in. Even when swept up with the emotional rush after Pike’s demise, he’s still able to drag himself back onto the correct course, and forgo the use of Marcus’ weapons, which are so abhorrent to what Starfleet is supposed to stand for. That sort of contempt for traditional values is what prompts Marcus to turn Khan loose after all, a decision that winds up costing both him and the Federation dearly.
I suppose I must turn to conclusions. I started out this review with a very negative opinion of Star Trek Into Darkness, but I realise in the writing of it that this was an unfair assessment, one coloured all too easily by the mistakes made in the final 20 minutes of the production which helped form much of my initial thoughts. These were bad mistakes, and were joined by a few other complaints, probably the most notable being the Carol Marcus characters stupid undressing.
But it has other parts that redeem it. Good performances from most of the cast. Decent dialogue, excellent CGI, well constructed action. And a story that is not entirely unworthy to join the Star Trek canon.
But I should not go too far into my praise, because I do also feel that there is a general sense of this film being unexceptional. The Wrath of Khan was full of memorable moments, stand-out scenes that you can remember years after viewing – Spock’s death, the Mutara Nebula showdown, the Kobayashi Maru test, Kirk talking to Khan in the cavern. It had that strength, having so many individual moments of the highest quality.
Into Darkness just does not have that. It has its good parts. It has glaring bad parts. But I certainly could not call it the sort of movie I will remember vividly in a decade, save perhaps for those bad parts. This is a failing that is unforgivable I suppose. Into Darkness is a decent watch, one that I would recommend to non-Trek fans (since I don’t need to recommend it to Trek fans, they’ve seen it). But you will not be placing it on any top ten lists, unless it’s a list of Star Trek movies.
(All images copyright of Paramount Pictures)