Confession time: I have seen, with the exception of the animated series, every Star Trek film and every episode of every television series. This is a franchise that’s in my blood and has been since early childhood. There’s a large number of old-school Trekkies out there who loathe JJ Abrams’ take on the franchise with a passion usually reserved for war criminals, but I think Trek ’09 was the adrenaline shot to the testicles the franchise sorely needed. It was fast, it was shiny, and above all, it was fun, something Star Trek had not been on the big screen in at least a decade. Can JJ strike gold twice? It depends.
We open with the crew dicking around down on some backwater planet, running through the jungle away from a gaggle of primitive, tribal aliens who are in serious need of some moisturizer. Spock’s aboard a shuttle trying to remind Kirk that whatever he did to piss the natives off, it’s a violation of the Prime Directive to interfere with pre-warp civilizations. This isn’t anything new, the Prime Directive had many, many episodes dedicated to exploring the concept, but that’s the basic gist. Fair enough.
Then, not ten seconds later, we learn that Spock’s shuttle is heading for an active volcano in the hopes of neutralizing it before it wipes out the indigenous population. Uhm, Spock? Isn’t that interfering, too? I’m pretty sure that’s interfering.
Hell, even after the shuttle gets all fucked up because of the volcano fumes, and Spock’s stranded there to die when the anti-volcano bomb goes off, he’s still chewing out Kirk for raising Enterprise from the ocean floor right in front of the natives to come beam him out. All throughout the movie it’s stressed that Spock’s inflexibility and unwillingness to break the rules can sometimes limit his effectiveness. Cool. “The Galileo Seven” from the original series covered similar territory and that’s a fine episode. What bugs me is that every character in the movie basically ignores that Spock was interfering already in a serious way so maybe he should shut up and stop being a hypocrite.
Then, we cut to a couple with a sick little girl. Benedict Cumberbatch ambles over to offer a cure in exchange for a favor. The father, played by Doctor Who‘s very own Noel Clarke, agrees. The daughter is cured, and
Ricky Mickey blows himself up real good in a Starfleet library that’s actually a super-secret mystery base.
The Starfleet muckity mucks want John Harrison (Cumberbatch) found, so they all gather to have a great big meeting about it, where they are promptly shot to pieces by The Cumberbatch. Scotty manages to track Harrison’s escape to the Klingon homeworld, Qo’noS (not “Kronos” as the movie subtitles would have you believe) and Admiral Marcus loads up Enterprise with special super torpedoes and sends ‘em off to get him.
The moment I saw that Admiral Marcus played by Peter Weller, I knew immediately he was behind everything. I think I even blurted out, a little too loudly, “Oh, Peter Weller did it.” And, of course, I was right. Peter Weller did do it. He wanted to hoodwink the Klingons into starting a war with Starfleet so he could militarize the organization and defend the earth instead of waiting for the Klingons to make the first move. Which is kinda the same thing Admiral Leyton tried to do in “Homefront” and “Paradise Lost” from Deep Space Nine, if you swap out the Klingons for the Dominion.
Hell, Peter Weller himself has already been a Star Trek bad guy in the Enterprise story “Demons”/”Terra Prime,” as John Paxton, a xenophobic extremist who thought that any and all alien life was a threat to humanity and that friendly or not, they were not welcome in our star system. And while his future descendant (or whatever) Marcus might have gotten a great big ship, Paxton got a moon base and a Mars base. So there.
Yep, it was all a set up. Marcus built himself a secret warship out in the orbit of Jupiter, sent Enterprise to collect Harrison, then sabotaged the warp core to strand them in Klingon space and get that conflict he so desperately wants. Harrison is captured, reveals himself to be Khan, the genetically engineered superman who spearheaded the Eugenics wars three centuries prior. Surprisingly, he assists the crew against Marcus.
Of course, Khan being Khan, he kills Marcus and takes the warship for himself, blowing a bunch of fiery holes in Enterprise, whose shields have seemingly taken a sick day. Khan wants the torpedoes, or rather what’s inside them: his subordinates, frozen in cryotubes.
So, Khan. Khan, Khan, Khan. As soon as Benedict Cumberbatch swooped in to beat up a whole platoon of Klingons by himself I started to get worried. Having Khan in this movie is exactly what I didn’t want. It’s not Cumberbatch’s fault. He turns in a lovely performance, and that voice. Mmm. He’s got both the charisma and the dangerous edge Khan needs, and he carries both wonderfully.
On the BluRay commentary for Trek 09 JJ n’ pals said that one of the main reasons behind making their Star Trek a reboot was to free future writers and themselves from the constraints of forty years of continuity. To allow them to take the familiar elements of the Star Trek universe and tell new stories around them.
It’s a great idea. I mean, Doctor Who didn’t have to jettison the previous 26 seasons when it was revived, but, hey, if it works. And what does Abrams do, given this vast, rich science fiction universe in which to tell any story you could dream up? He does the same goddamn thing over again. Of course! Fantastic. Now, I’m not one of the old, curmudgeonly Star Trek fans who cling to their original series 2 episode VHS tapes like life itself. I’m perfectly fine with JJ’s new timeline. But I want new stories. The possibilities are almost endless. Instead, we’re boldy going nowhere except in circles.
I mean, stagnation is what killed the franchise for a while in the first place. Viewers in the late 90s and early oughts turned away from Voyager and the first half of Enterprise because they were relying too much on established formula and getting repetitive. Television had changed, and Star Trek didn’t change with it.
Here we are again, nearly ten years later and we’ve already spiraled back into this recursive loop. Star Trek 09 was one of the best of the lot, and it successfully launched an entire new universe to play in, building off of the old one but telling a unique story and taking risks. It’s just so disappointing that we’re limping back to old territory so quickly. There’s nothing wrong with making a new film that explores themes similar to those found in Wrath of Khan, like the Next Generation films did with First Contact and then tried and failed to do in Nemesis.I get that even in this timeline there’s going to be returning villains but did we really need TWO Star Trek IIs about Khan? I’m sure it will be a monetary success, but in a way, it’s a failure of imagination.
Admiral Marcus alone was a compelling enough villain to carry the film by himself. Had you stripped Khan out of the story, you could have been left an interesting, tight political thriller with a focus on Klingon politics and on the upper echelons of Starfleet. That sounds fascinating, and it’s the kind of Star Trek story that never really made it to the big screen, with the exception of The Undiscovered Country. Deep Space Nine was particularly adept at that kind of tale. Articles of the Federation is probably one of the greatest Trek novels ever written and it’s more or less The West Wing in space.
Hell, if they really wanted to keep Cumberbatch, (and let’s face it, who wouldn’t?) why not just stick to the initial explanation that he was a Section 31 operative? He didn’t need to be an ubermensch to be a threat. When Section 31 was introduced on Deep Space Nine, they were an intriguing idea. They operated in the shadows with impunity. They did the amoral and extreme things that extreme circumstances required, completely unknown to the Federation at large, who got to keep their high-minded humanist morals and sleep soundly at night. Utopia has a cost. You could do multiple films on that concept alone. Again, it’s like this little seed of a potentially great story that wasn’t allowed to grow in favor of aping Nicholas Meyer’s masterpiece of a movie and the original series episode that preceded it.
I’m of two minds on Spock calling up Spock Prime to ask about Khan. I definitely smiled as soon as Nimoy appeared on the viewscreen to be all wise and shit up in this piece. On the other hand, I really don’t want this to become a regular, once-a-movie thing of There is a Big Problem Let’s Ask Nimoy. If JJ’s Trek truly wants to stand on its own, then they need to stop going back to the Prime universe well to push their plots forward.
On top of that, it’s a bit of a leap of logic for Spock to think to ask Spock Prime about Khan in the first place. I mean, Spock Prime didn’t mention anything about him in the previous movie, and in fact he specifically pointed out that since the timeline has now changed, he doesn’t have any idea how things are going to play out. I can’t think of much reason for Spock to assume that his Nimoy self would know more about it than he would.
That said, Nimoy’s reaction to Spock mentioning Khan’s name is absolutely delicious. He plays the moment expertly, never dropping Spock Prime’s Vulcan composure, but still conveying utter dread.
Enterprise takes quite a beating in this movie, and the final sequence where Khan’s assumed control of Marcus’ ship and is blowing the poor girl to pieces is truly a sight to behold. It’s definitely in the running to be the most spectacular effects sequence the franchise has ever seen, along with the battles from DS9: “Sacrifice of Angels” and ENT: “Azati Prime.”
I did roll my eyes a little, though; now that we’ve strip-mined Wrath of Khan, let’s skip ahead and take the Enterprise destruction sequence from Search for Spock. This annoyance quickly melted away, since Into Darkness executed this idea far better than the prior film did. And really, if Enterprise is going to go down in flames I’d rather it be because of CumberKhan than because of Christopher Lloyd wearing silly makeup.
Kirk’s “death” scene with Spock was an interesting replay of Spock’s own death in Wrath of Khan with the roles reversed. Appearances to the contrary, I like the idea of there being echoes, if you will, of the Prime timeline, certain recurring moments – not plots, but moments – happening slightly differently. I was even pretty pleased with the repetition of the ship….out of danger? line from Spock’s death, this time coming from Kirk’s lips. Then Abrams and pals made me grumble again with Quinto letting rip with a KHAAAAAAAAAAN!!! Really? There’s a difference between homage and slight recurrences and just quoting a previous film for the sake of it.
Even angry, I have a hard time buying that Spock would duplicate Shatner’s infamous scream. Sure, Vulcan rage is a scary thing, but come on, now. The only reason this is in the movie is so JJ can make the audience feel good about remembering that YouTube poop they saw one time.
Not to mention, none of this ended up mattering anyway because of Khan’s magic healing blood. Just pop a vial of that shit into Kirk’s IV and bingo! he’s right as rain. I hate, hate, HATE this sort of plot device. I don’t care how early in the movie it was set up. It’s cheap. It allows writers to do “shocking” things and then not have to live with the consequences because they can just take it back and wave it away. This is the kind of shit that help to tank shows like Heroes. It makes the previous scene Kirk had with Spock retroactively not matter. In fact, it makes much of the peril Kirk was in throughout the film not matter.
At least in Wrath of Khan, Spock had the good graces to remain dead until the end of the movie, leaving some audience members unsure of whether he’d come back or not, and leaving the rest certain he wouldn’t. If only they’d known to inject him with Ricardo Montalban’s magic pec-juice. Ah, well. At least this Kirk’s death was better than the Prime version’s.
Goddamn you, Malcom McDowell.
Seriously, though, that’s one of my biggest problems with the repetition of moments from Wrath of Khan. Khan was a film about revenge, and loss, and coping with the aging process. It paralleled literary sources like Paradise Lost and Moby Dick. Khan’s conflict with Kirk was one of wit and tactics. Into Darkness aspires to none of these things. The film feels at times like writers going down a checklist to make sure they’ve redone the prior film’s highlight reel. It’s hollow.
That’s not to say the movie is awful. I hate that they made a beeline for Khan so quickly, but he’s played well by a fine actor and he’s given a lot of interesting scenes, and events play out just differently enough that it’s not a total retread. Into Darkness, despite logical and plot problems is enjoyable and pretty well constructed, drawing the audience expertly from one point to the next.
That’s what a Star Trek film needs to be. Trek on television can often dialog heavy and philosophical. Oh, there’s plenty of action and warfare to be had as well, but stories about diplomacy and exploration don’t really sell to a blockbuster audience. You need to have set pieces and a brisk pace on top of a strong story. Otherwise, you get Star Trek: The Motion Picture which was like twice as slow as 2001 and not even half as interesting.
There is plenty about Into Darkness to like, despite the facepalm-inducing elements on display. I liked the inclusion of Carol Marcus, Kirk’s baby-mama from Wrath of Khan. They slipped her in subtly, and making her Peter Weller’s daughter was a nice touch. The Section 31 mention made me squee, as did the model of Captain Archer’s NX-01 Enterprise from, uh….Enterprise seen in Admiral Marcus’ office. I loved the winks to the audience about a five-year mission, and the use of the original series theme music over the end credits.
I like that Into Darkness goes down some bleaker, more intense paths than JJ’s first film did. Star Trek‘s future has often been presented as a pristine society where everyone is wonderful, so it’s always interesting to see how humanity’s darker nature operates in such a scenario. Usually with terrible results for everyone involved.
The cast is, pardon the awful space pun, stellar. Almost everyone turns in good to great performances. Zachary Quinto in particular just gets the role of Spock better than I ever thought someone other than Nimoy would. His Spock retains the original Khan‘s battle of wits ideas more than most, managing to outwit Khan with a clever ruse.
The main cast seems to have developed a nice comfort level with each other and with their characters. The weak link for me was Karl Urban as McCoy. Other actors, like Quinto, or Chris Pine as Kirk manage to convey the familiar mannerisms of their characters and still feel completely natural. Urban, I felt, didn’t pull this off as well as they did and at times seemed to be playing DeForest Kelley rather than McCoy, if that makes any sense.
Whoever was in charge of art design for this movie needs to go back to school or hang up their pencils for good. Enterprise looks awful in this film. At the risk of growing a neckbeard even as I type this, the warp nacelles are way too close to the saucer section. Which is fine, I guess, if it’s Picard’s Enterprise-D, where the nacelles are wee little nubbins, but both the original series Enterprise and the movies 1-6 Enterprise were these long, swan-shaped models. Into Darkness‘ Enterprise just looks oddly squashed. I’m okay with JJ’s Trekverse aesthetically smacking of Mass Effect, but ya don’t screw up the Enterprise.
Then there’s the Klingon makeup. Oy vey. Don’t get me wrong, they don’t have to precisely replicate the original series’ Fu-Manchu sporting space pirates or everything else’s bumpy foreheaded viking people, but damn. I’m not sure if they were going for some halfway between the two styles or simply trying to come up with their own look, but whatever it was, it doesn’t work. They don’t really look or feel like Klingons. They look like a bunch of shitty orcs.
The 3D effect isn’t obtrusive, but it’s entirely unnecessary, seeing as nothing specifically 3D is thrown at you. It just adds some depth to the frame, and more often than not you’ll forget its there. Aside from the aforementioned design issues, Into Darkness is a visual treat.
JJ Abrams may not be the greatest auteur ever to sit behind the camera, but he has a dynamic style that makes it very easy to get sucked in and taken on the ride he’s constructed. If all you want is an action spectacle that rockets along at a good clip, with good performances and amazing set pieces, you won’t be disappointed. If you want something unique or have a larger knowledge of the Star Trek franchise you’re going to be cringing more than once.
In Theaters: May 17, 2013
Runtime: 132 min
Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence
Director: JJ Abrams
Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch
Genre: Science Fiction, Action/Adventure
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Official Site: www.startrekmovie.com