Some Thoughts on… Star Trek: Into Darkness


Remember Enterprise? It was the black sheep of the Star Trek franchise, never really being able to click with its audience. It also had thegall of being set before Star Trek: The Original Series, which was considered by many “trekkies” to be an original sin. It didn’t do much to help itself earn the viewers’ trust, either, doing everything from trying to force a downright dumb “temporal cold war” story arc, to using the soft rock ballad “Faith of the Heart” as their intro theme, to the inexplicably bad decision to not call it Star Trek for the first season. Now, it’s worth noting that the fourth season of Enterprise was legitimately fantastic, with some of the best Trek stories since Deep Space 9’s sixth season.

…you’re probably wondering why I’m talking about Enterprise in a blog post about Star Trek Into Darkness. Don’t worry, I promise that there’s a point to be made.

When Enterprise was cancelled, I was of two minds. On one hand, the show had just gotten good – really good. On the other hand, Nemesis, the under-appreciated feature film starring the fossilized remains of The Next Generation crew, bombed at the box office a couple of years prior and it was obvious that there was Trek burnout going around. The series needed a breather, and needed a fresh set of eyes to guide it into the future.

Enter J.J. Abrams.

I’m by no means consider myself a “fan” of J.J. Abrams. I didn’t watch Alias, I’m still pissed off about the last ten minutes of Lost, and… hell, the man wrote Gone Fishin’ for Christ’s sake. But there’s no denying that he wound up being the man that Star Trek needed, as the 2009 “reboot” (which, canonically speaking, it isn’t) was a legitimately fun and generally light-hearted romp of a sci-fi action flick that didn’t so much “reboot” the franchise as it “refreshed” it for a new generation of movie-goers. It also stayed true to the characters of Star Trek: The Original Series, for the most part. Sure, Uhura and Spock never had a thing on The Original Series, but I can hardly argue with them doing it.

Star Trek (2009) was a decent movie, and with Star Trek Into Darkness I think the refreshed franchise has done something which it desperately needed to do: separate itself from the past 40-plus years of Star Trek.

THIS IS WHERE I WARN YOU ABOUT SPOILERS! Underneath the rather sexy image of the USS Enterprise is where I start talking, almost immediately, about major spoilers from Star Trek Into Darkness. If you don’t want the movie spoiled, stop reading this right now. If you wind up reading what I have below and wind up being spoiled, don’t come bitchin’ to me because I warned you.

Non-Spoiler Review: Go see it. It’s a decent sci-fi romp.

 

Say what you will about the movies, but if you say the new Enterprise isn't sexy I'll have to ask you to step outside.

Say what you will about the movies, but if you say the new Enterprise isn’t sexy I’ll have to ask you to step outside.

Benedict Cumberbatch is Khan Noonien Singh. There. It’s out there, and I’ll deal with that in a moment. But before I get to that, as well as the things about the movie that didn’t quite sit right with me, I do want to reinforce the fact that Star Trek Into Darkness is still a fairly decent sci-fi romp that’s well worth the two-plus hours of your life that it’ll take.

A brief plot synopsis (of the first act because, c’mon, if you want the whole thing spoiled there’s always Wikipedia): James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) loses command of the USS Enterprise after violating the prime directive to save Spock (Zachary Quinto) from being incinerated inside an active volcano. However, after two terrorist attacks which destroy a Section 31 installation underneath London and leave Admiral Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) dead, Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) returns the Enterprise to Kirk and gives him the task of hunting down and killing renegade Section 31 operative “John Harrison” aka Khan Noonien Singh (Benedict Cumberbatch).

I Khan’t Believe It

Let’s start with the fact that Benedict Cumberbatch is playing Khan, shall we? It’s one of the worst-hidden reveals I’ve seen come out of a J.J. Abrams production, as the big secret is more-or-less given away in the first few minutes of the film. In fact, I feel like the attempt by the filmmakers to hide Khan’s identity for so long wound up backfiring, making the actual reveal in the movie feel somewhat anticlimactic.

Cumberbatch, regardless, was fantastic as Khan. He brought a raw emotional presence that Montalban’s Khan lacked in favor of a more suave, cool, controlled despot. In watching Cumberbatch’s performance, you can sense the hatred and rage bubbling just below the surface, and once the third act kicks in you see him unleash it – mostly on an unfortunate Peter Weller.

The fact that Cumberbatch is Khan is also what, for me, made the whole damn movie fall apart. You see, by including Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness J.J. Abrams and his crew have invited the comparisons to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which is never, ever, ever a smart thing to do. After all, The Wrath of Khan is considered to be one of the best science fiction films everStar Trek Into Darkness, while good, is not The Wrath of Khan. But what makes these comparisons worse, and in fact what almost turns Into Darkness into an outright bad remake of The Wrath of Khan is the fact that late in the film a primary character sacrifices themselves to restore power to the Enterprise moments before certain doom.

Yes, this is the scene I’m talking about.

[lightbox_video title=”KHAAAAAAAAAN!” url=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Ymcq7BNgiI”]

The big twist with Into Darkness is that the roles are reversed: Kirk is the one who sacrifices himself to save the ship. What made this scene make so much of a damn impact in The Wrath of Khan was that, yes, you were watching a beloved character die, but you were also watching two men who had grown together over twenty years say their final goodbyes. By the time of The Wrath of Khan, Kirk and Spock had already served together for years and had become like brothers.

This is why it doesn’t work in Into Darkness. While the opening sequence implies that they’ve been jumping around the galaxy for a little while since the end of the previous movie, we haven’t seen that character growth. We’re just meant to believe that they’re now best friends – even if they don’t exactly act like it in the movie. So when Kirk dies and Spock loses his emotional bearings, it simply doesn’t have the same weight – even though both Pine and Quinto are fantastic in that scene. The scene is further ruined by…

KHAAAAAAAN!

Yes, the infamous scream is repeated in the movie. This time it’s by Quinto, and A.) Zachary Quinto doesn’t have the voice to pull that scream off, making it sound… silly. Both times I’ve seen it in theaters, the audience laughed. B.) It’s so painfully obviously misplaced. The proper time to use the “KHAAAAAN!” yell would have been shortly after Kirk’s death, when Harrison is escaping through the streets of San Francisco and Spock is transported to the surface to give chase. When Spock beams down to the planet and sees Khan running, that is when Spock should’ve let his “KHAAAAAAAAN!” fly.

“But Khan is supposed to be from India!”

StarTrek-Khanberbatch

While I’m sure I could come up with something lore-based that could explain the discrepancies, such as Khan’s men being ordered to identify themselves as Khan in the event that they are awoken before him in order to protect their leader or use the klout associated with his name as a means to open the other pods and release his other followers, but it’s just easier to say shut the hell up because Ricardo Montalban was Mexican (as in, he was born and raised in Mexico).

Also, India had a heavy European population until well into the 1960s following the nation’s independence from British and French control so suck it.

was dead, but I got better.

Another thing that detracts from the weight of Kirk’s death, at least after the first viewing, is that he doesn’t stay dead. As it turns out, Khan’s blood has the ability to essentially cure death. After learning of Khan’s Lazarus blood, Kirk’s corpse is injected with the stuff and he’s miraculously revived at the end of the movie.

This is some bullshit.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that you kill off James T. Kirk and make Hikaru Sulu captain (although I’d watch that, too). I’m saying that you use Kirk’s death as the central story for the next movie. Unlike The Wrath of Khan, most people would keep the comparisons toThe Search for Spock to a minimum since there’s no Genesis planet to explore.

How I wish Star Trek Into Darkness had ended: Kirk dies and you end the film on a sour, sad, down note. You hear Spock – Quinto Spock – opine about life and loss and new beginnings before reciting the “These are the voyages…” speech. Either as Quinto is talking or as a post-credits sequence, you pan a camera across an empty sickbay, eventually coming to a stop on McCoy’s desk with the dead triblble. The camera stays on the tribble for only a brief moment, and just as you hear the tribble purr the screen cuts to black.

Not only do you set up the next movie, you give the audience hope that Kirk isn’t dead.

The Elephant in the Room

Deep down, we all know why Khan is in Into Darkness. It’s because they more or less had to do it, just so they could break away from the old movies and be allowed to do something new. If you don’t believe me, then think on this: how many times in 2009, even before the release of the last Star Trek movie, did you say or hear someone say “well they have to do Khan in the sequel.” If you say “none,” you’re a damn liar. Everybody was thinking that Khan would be in the Star Trek (2009) sequel, and so by just biting the bullet and doing it, they were able to free themselves from that burden for the future.

Plus, judging by the end of Into Darkness, they can always bring Khan back a couple more sequels down the road, only with an actual goddamn motive to want to kill Kirk this time!

Everybody has a job to do!

One of the biggest gripes – and only gripes, to be fair – I had with the previous movie was that there wasn’t a whole lot for some of the characters to do. With Into Darkness, thankfully, everybody is keeping busy. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy continue to have their three-way passive-aggressive bromance, of course, but the rest of the crew have a chance to stand out as well. Sulu briefly takes the Captain’ Chair and delivers the most badass monologue in the movie. Uhura serves a purpose besides being Spock’s girlfriend, and Zoe Saldana steals the show whenever she’s on screen. Scotty, who loses his post as Chief Engineer for much of the film, plays a very vital role. Hell, even that borscht-munching waste of space Chekov is given something of substance, becoming the Chief Engineer in Scotty’s absence.

That’s not a knock against Anton Yelchin, either. He’s fantastic as a young and eager Chekov – the problem is it’s Chekov. I couldn’t stand him on The Original Series, I couldn’t stand him in the original Star Trek movies, I couldn’t stand him as Dr. McCoy’s stand-in in Star Trek Generations, and I couldn’t stand him in Star Trek (2009), either. I like Anton Yelchin as an actor. I like Walter Koenig as an actor. I just… fuck Chekov.

Carol Wallace/Marcus

StarTrek-CarolMarcus
SPOILER: She totally has Kirk’s kid.

Why are you here? I mean, I know why you’re here, but honestly – why are you here? Spock asks Marcus more or less the same question in the movie, which I found to be quite funny in hindsight. I like Alice Eve as an actress (watch The Raven – she’s so good in that), but apart from one scene where we see her in her underwear for no reason other than to have Alice Eve in her underwear, she doesn’t really serve a purpose. I hope they do something with her in the third Star Trek film – perhaps give her a subplot about dealing with the grief over losing her father, while also dealing with the guilt that her father was a genocidal madman who almost(?) tricked the Federation into open war against the Klingon Empire.

Speaking of Klingons…

They look awesome. I’m sure somebody is writing up a four-thousand word blog post explaining why the Klingons having their ridges in Kirk’s time period goes against the established canon, but I really don’t care. The fact that Klingons didn’t look like Klingons until the movies was because of budget concerns, not story concerns.

Everyone is entitled to their own nostalgia.

If you, like me, are a huge fan of the Star Trek of old then you’ll be happy about many of the Easter eggs in the movie. Some of them, like tribbles and Section 31, tie directly into the plot. But there are other things as well – sound effects are lifted from The Original Series, including the communicator chime and other computer sounds. Admiral Marcus has models of previous space vessels on his desk, including the Phoenix from Star Trek: First Contact and the Enterprise NX-01 from the aforementioned Enterprise.

In short, J.J. and company attempt to give tons of surface-level fan service to longtime trekkies. My only concern is that the crowd that these Easter eggs appeal to are already lost because this Star Trek isn’t their Star Trek.

So, is Star Trek Into Darkness any good?

That depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re after a popcorn sci-fi/action flick that you can turn your brain off for a couple of hours and enjoy, while also being given enough of a plot that keeps you interested then… yeah. At it’s core it’s a movie with a decent script, being performed by excellent actors with good direction, buffered by beautiful CGI and a moving, bombastic, downright phenomenal musical score.

If, on the other hand, you’re looking for something that is more deep and intellectual that examines the human condition, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait. I’ve seen a lot of people talk about the interview that J.J. gave on The Daily Show, where he talked about how he, as a kid, didn’t like how philosophical Star Trek was. What people fail to acknowledge is that he followed that up by saying that as an adult he has a new love and appreciation for the franchise, but that’s not important to my point, which is that when you’re spending $200 million on a movie, you want to appeal to kids like ten-year-old J.J. Abrams while still pulling in the wider audience with a popcorn action/sci-fi movie.

That’s not to say that I don’t get what Trekkies want. I do – hell, I’m one of them. I’m also one of those Trekkies who wants to see it done justice, and realize that a two-hour chunk of time every three-to-five years isn’t the right medium for it. In order to get those kinds of stories, Star Trek needs a new TV series.

And now, one more gratuitous shot of the Enterprise.

Enterprise02
Goddamn that is one sexy ship…