Josh Reviews Star Trek Into Darkness
I enjoyed J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot (click here for my review), though not nearly as much as most of the rest of the world seemed to. I loved seeing Star Trek brought to life, finally, under the big-budget it always deserved, and I was incredibly impressed by how successful they were at recasting the iconic roles, something which I had believed to be impossible. But the script was a mess, full of plot holes you could fly a Constitution class starship through.
Star Trek Into Darkness is more of the same. The film is gorgeous to look at, epic in scale and realized with extraordinary skill and craftsmanship. The cast is terrific, every single member of the ensemble is great, and getting to once again watch Spock and Bones bicker and a million other little moments of interaction between the members of the classic Enterprise crew is a delight.
Sadly though, this film’s story is even more nonsensical than the previous film’s was. It’s catastrophically bad. Star Trek Into Darkness is not only hugely inconsistent with Star Trek canon (even when you take into account the “alternate universe” setting of his rebooted film series), but it is also inconsistent with its own story-telling and narrative logic. Even when you forget all previously established Star Trek lore, and only consider this film’s story on its own, it is wildly inconsistent and contradictory.
I am not going to reveal every beat of the movie in this review, but I will be heavy with SPOILERS as I dig deep into the film’s problems. So if you’re going to see Star Trek Into Darkness, I suggest you hold off on reading this review until you’ve seen the film, then come back here and we can see where we agree or disagree.
The film’s opening sequence encapsulates much of what works and what fails in J.J. Abrams’ two Star Trek films. The Enterprise crew is attempting to contain a volcano explosion that threatens to wipe out the pre-industrial inhabitants of an alien planet. Things go wrong immediately, with Spock trapped inside the active volcano while Kirk and McCoy are being chased by the angry natives. Things quickly build to a classic Prime Directive conundrum in which the only way to save Spock is to break the Prime Directive and reveal the existence of the Enterprise to the natives. This is an extraordinary sequence, as beautifully realized a Star Trek action scene as I have ever seen. It’s incredibly fast-paced, as we bounce between the Kirk/McCoy chase scene to action inside the volcano with Spock and Sulu/Uhura on an Enterprise shuttlecraft. The visual effects are gorgeous, the action and suspense are compelling, and best of all we great a great, classic Star Trek moral dilemma.
So what’s bad about this opening? Let’s start with the total scientific impossibility of the USS Enterprise hiding underwater. Surely the pressures would be far more than the hull of a vessel-designed for space could ever withstand? Second, having the Enterprise underwater once again shows Mr. Abrams & co.’s total lack of understanding of the beauty of the classic Enterprise design — unlike almost every other sci-fi space-ship I can think of, the Enterprise was never meant to land on a planet (and, it has been established many times over the year that Federation starships cannot even enter a planet’s atmosphere). I hated the shot in 2009’s Star Trek when we saw the Enterprise (or an Enterprise-like starship) being built on Earth. The whole idea behind the design of the Enterprise was that it was built in space. I hate seeing that unique concept jettisoned. Thirdly, OK, let’s say I buy that the Enterprise hull is made out of magic sci-fi metal that can survive the incredibly pressures underwater. How the hell did the ship GET underwater? Wouldn’t the planet’s natives have seen the huge starship come down from the heavens and go underwater? OK, maybe the Enterprise landed at night. Well then wouldn’t the natives have noticed the HUGE displacement of water this enormous starship would have created? Wouldn’t someone have commented on the ocean’s waters having overflown all of the surrounding areas or something like that? Finally, why oh why would it ever be necessary for the Enterprise to hide on the planet’s surface in the first place? The Enterprise would be totally out of sight of the aliens up in orbit, and able to beam people up/down to/from the planet, and also launch shuttlecraft, with ease. I can’t think of one single reason why the ship would need to be concealed on the planet itself. That no one involved in the writing of the script or the making of this movie thought of any of that is troubling. Clearly all they cared about was having a cool shot of the Enterprise rising up from under the water.
Even more troubling is Kirk’s resolution to the Prime Directive dilemma. The preview of Star Trek Into Darkness that was shown a while back with Imax screenings of The Hobbit ended with Kirk realizing his dilemma. I’ve waited months to see how Kirk would get out of the seemingly impossible problem. The answer? He doesn’t come up with a clever solution at all. He just takes the Enterprise up and totally, completely breaks the Prime Directive. What lazy storytelling! Even worse, when Spock confronts him about it, Kirk’s reaction is “whatever, no big deal.” So not only is this lazy storytelling — the writers couldn’t have been bothered to come up for a cool way out of the seemingly no-win scenario — but it’s also a totally out-of-character action for Kirk, even this young, still-reckless version of Kirk. I can buy that Kirk would violate the Prime Directive when he felt he had no choice but to do so (lord knows he certainly did in plenty of classic Trek episodes) but it really bugged me to see him be so dismissive of the Prime Directive, with no apparent understanding of the seriousness and potential consequences of what he had done. (And the way he turns on Spock in later scenes, when he learns Spock has revealed his actions to Starfleet, is just ugly.)
So then Kirk gets busted down in rank and loses the Enterprise back to Christopher Pike. I was surprised but pleased to see that twist, even though it undermines the ending of the last movie by pointing out what I thought was obvious at the end of the last film, that despite Kirk’s proving his heroism he was still just a cadet who was so hugely not ready to command a starship it was laughable. But then, of course, five minutes after Kirk loses the Enterprise he gets her back again, thus totally undoing any interest or tension that plot twist might have generated. (Wouldn’t it have been interesting had Kirk actually spent this whole film as Pike’s first officer? Not only would that have given us a lot more of the Kirk-Pike relationship that was so great in the first film, but it would have been nice to see Kirk really have to work to EARN the Enterprise.) But no, instead Kirk’s problems are magically solved after five minutes, a sin the film’s screenwriters will be guilty of many, many more times before the end of the movie.
Moving on, what follows are two violent terrorist attacks masterminded by Benedict Cumberbatch’s character, “John Harrison,” and Kirk and co.’s desperate attempts to pursue him and bring him to justice. This whole first half of the film — really the whole first two-thirds, until Benedict Cumberbatch is revealed to be the villain we all knew he would be for the past year — is pretty enjoyable. Mr. Abrams really knows how to keep things moving, and we are sent rollicking from an attack on Starfleet HQ to an aerial chase on the Klingon Homeworld (spelled incorrectly on-screen as Kronos, how does that happen???) to a great three-way fire-fight between Kirk/Spock/Uhura and “John Harrison” and a platoon of Klingons, and then to the discovery of a huge, menacing super-ship. It’s all fun stuff, and man does Mr. Abrams know how to keep an audience engaged and buckled in for the roller coaster ride.
But once John Harrison is revealed as Khan Noonien Singh, everything falls apart. First of all, let me repeat what I have been writing on his site for well over a year. The whole silly charade of Mr. Abrams and his team’s denying and denying that Khan is in this film was so stupid. Why bring back the character who is arguably the single greatest Star Trek villain of all, and not tell the audience? Why weren’t they screaming to the heavens for the last six months that in this film we’d once again get to see Kirk versus Khan?? Remember how excited we all were for months and months before The Dark Knight, desperate to see that new interpretation of the Joker? But, whatever, forget the marketing. Let’s consider this film’s story and the incredible, jaw-dropping craziness of bringing back Khan but not letting him actually be the villain until the last 30 minutes of the movie. What a huge, colossal waste! The story of John Harrison, a starfleet officer gone rogue, could have been a great story for this movie. (And if they had just named him Garth of Izar, they would have not only made classic Star Trek fans super-happy, they would have introduced a great new villain character to most movie-going audiences. That would have been win-win. For non Trek fans reading this, let me explain that Garth was a villain from a classic Trek episode who was indeed a Starfleet captain gone rogue, one whose physical strength and tremendous intelligence made him a match for Kirk and Spock both. Exactly like “John Harrison”!!) But no, they had to throw Khan into the mix. But instead of giving us a great movie-length showdown between Kirk and Khan, most of the film’s run-time is focused on the rather uninteresting mystery of who John Harrison is. When we finally learn he’s Khan, no Trek fan is surprised, and then we only get 30-or-so minutes of Khan and the movie’s over. Lame.
And it’s when you start to consider the back-story given to John Harrison/Khan that things totally fall apart. In “Space Seed” Khan was woken from cryo-sleep and took over the Enterprise in about five minutes. Are we supposed to seriously believe that Khan, after being woken by Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller), allowed himself to be used by Marcus for over a year? Khan would have kicked his butt in two seconds. But, OK, let’s say I buy that Khan allowed himself to do Marcus’ bidding and built him his super-ship. What happened then? How did Khan wind up in London? Wasn’t there a more direct way he could have gotten vengeance on Marcus? He’s a super-human, able to wipe the floor with anyone he faces in the film. He could have just walked in the front door of Starfleet headquarters, for goodness’ sake! But, OK, let’s say I buy that Khan wanted to be methodical and use others to achieve his ends. Why did he allow himself to be captured by Kirk? Without the interference of Scotty, which there’s no way even Khan’s strategic mind could have forseen, the Enterprise would have been blown to bits by the Admiral’s super-ship. So Khan would have been allowing himself and his 72 other frozen super-humans to be obliterated while he sat in a cell. That was the best plan this master strategist could come up with? And speaking of those 72 frozen super-soldiers, what was the deal with them? Was it Khan or Marcus who put them in those torpedoes? Did Admiral Marcus know about them? Why would he give those torpedoes to the Enterprise to fire on the Klingon Homeworld? With people inside them instead of explosive packages, they wouldn’t do much damage! Plus wouldn’t Marcus want to keep control over those superhumans, rather than risk them getting loose or doing who-knows-what once they were out of his sight? The whole thing doesn’t make any sense.
And while I love Benedict Cumberbatch and I think he’s very solid in the movie, this is not Khan. This character may be called (eventually) Khan, but he bears no resemblance whatsoever to the Khan we saw in”Space Seed” or Star Trek II. He doesn’t look anything like Khan, and he doesn’t act anything like Khan. He’s a menacing villain, but this is not Khan. Khan was sophisticated, Khan was refined. This Khan is more of a thug.
Then Spock briefly gets Old Spock on the viewscreen, so Old Spock can tell him, and the audience, that despite what this movie has shown us to that point, Khan is the most dangerous villain the Enterprise crew has ever faced. I was delighted to see Leonard Nimoy’s cameo in this film — I was not at all expecting to see any reference to Old Spock in the film, let alone to actually see Leonard Nimoy on-screen. But the scene itself is, like so much of this film, a disappointment. The scene serves no purpose. Old Spock doesn’t tell young Spock anything of value. Wouldn’t it have been great had Old Spock actually given the Enterprise crew some helpful insight into Khan? Maybe Spock could have been the one to provide the key to saving Kirk, rather than McCoy’s random tribble experiment? (More on that in a minute, by the way.) Or maybe that conversation could have been held until after the “death” of Kirk, and we could have had a powerful scene of Old Spock grieving at the apparent loss of his friend. Any of those things would have been a lot better than what we got, in my opinion.
So then the Enterprise gets the snot kicked out of her (and I must say I was bummed not to see Enterprise put up a fight, or to see any attempt on the part of Kirk & co. to use tactics of any sort to try to escape/defeat the Admiral’s super-ship) and then we get a reversal of the end of Star Trek II in which this time it is Kirk, not Spock, who sacrifices himself to save the Enterprise. You know, I actually sort of liked that scene. It’s lame to try to re-do one of the best, most famous scenes from the original movies — and since you’re only going to fall short, why invite the comparison? But, since this is a Khan movie (sort of), I can get behind the idea of reversing that classic moment from Trek II. And I think both Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto sold the moment (though Spock’ crying was a bridge too far). But then they totally bungled it with Spock’s “Khaaaan!!” scream. I am OK with re-doing the iconic Trek II death scene. And I am OK with re-doing the “Khaaaan!!” scream. But doing them one after another was a huge mistake. Doing the scream — which plays as a laugh moment — right after the moment that was intended to be the most emotional moment in the whole film totally throws the audience right out of any emotional connection to Kirk’s death scene because we start laughing at the Khan scream. This was a completely tone-deaf moment on the part of the filmmakers, a real mis-step.
And the problem is that no matter how hard Mr. Pine and Mr. Quinto worked to make Kirk’s death emotionally affecting (and I have to say, I liked this death better than Kirk’s “actual” death in Star Trek: Generations!) — I particularly loved the moment of naked humanity when Kirk tells Spock that he is scared — the whole scene was hollow because, watching it, we already knew that Khan’s blood cured death. So there was no drama or tension whatsoever, because not only did we know Kirk obviously was going to be brought back to life, anyone paying attention already knew exactly how.
So the ending of the movie brings Kirk back to life, no problem, and even the Enterprise, which is almost completely demolished in the film’s action climax, is brought back exactly the way she was by the time the end credits rolled. Such easy, magical solutions in which everything is made exactly right again, undermine any and all drama the film’s story might have had. And as much of an enemy of future drama as the survival of Old Spock proved to be at the end of the last movie (wouldn’t he now tell Starfleet about all of his adventures, thus revealing all the enemies and problems Starfleet would face for the next hundred years, and how to solve all of those problems? Old Spock in this movie has a line where he says he swore not to tell young Spock anything that would disrupt his destiny, which is ridiculous because Old Spock knows the timeline has been completely changed, so there’s no history/destiny to protect via his non-interference), Khan’s death-curing-blood is an even bigger problem moving forward. Now that we know that Khan’s blood cures any illness or injury, and can even bring someone dead back to life, why is there any reason to believe these characters will be in any peril ever again? Someone killed in the line of duty? No problem, inject a little Khan blood, problem solved.
There are so many other problems with the film that I haven’t even addressed. These include:
The Klingons — It’s great to see some Klingons, and when one actually takes off his helmet, his look is pretty cool. But why the hell would the Klingons wear face-covering masks? Not only has it been well-established that the Klingons are extremely proud of their facial crests, but also that those crests are really strong and tough — they don’t need the extra protection of a helmet! I was so impressed by the design work in 2009’s Star Trek of Vulcan, extrapolating the little we’d seen of Vulcan into a look that was immensely cooler than what we’d seen before, but still faithful to the established designs. But our glimpses of the Klingon Homeworld look totally unlike what we’ve seen before, and their ships and the designs of the Klingons themselves (their costumes, those helmets) also are pretty much unrecognizable.
Where is the classic Star Trek theme? In 2009’s Star Trek, they made us wait until the very end to finally get the classic Trek theme. OK, I guess I could buy that they wanted to hold off on that until the Enterprise crew had all come together. Well why then is the theme totally absent from this film too, forcing us to again wait until the closing credits to hear it? (And am I crazy or is the musical arrangement and the visuals of the closing credits pretty much EXACTLY the same as they were in the last film? That’s weird and lazy, right?)
Why does Admiral Marcus have a statue of his secret huge super-starship clearly visible in his office (as seen early in the film)?
If Scotty has invented a super-transporter that can beam someone from one planet to another, why are starships necessary at all? Speaking of the transporter, why can’t they ever seem to lock onto anyone who is moving in this film, when we already saw Chekov lock onto Kirk and Sulu when they were falling at tremendous speeds in the last movie?
Why doesn’t the Klingon Homeworld seem to have any starships protecting it? Why don’t the Klingons react to the massacre of their men? Why don’t any Klingon ships come gunning for the Enterprise, dead in space only twenty minutes away from the Klingon Homeworld? On the other side of the coin, where is the rest of Starfleet throughout the film? Why don’t any other Federation ships detect and come running at the site of the Enterprise and a huge super-ship battling it out just outside of Earth’s orbit?
Why doesn’t anyone in the movie ever talk about Khan being genetically engineered, or refer to his past as a tyrant on Earth (except for one line at the very end)? Why doesn’t anyone seem to recognize his name once he reveals himself as Khan? Why does no one ever say the name Botany Bay in the film? Am I the only one bummed that we never got to see Joachim?
If genetically engineered blood is what McCoy desperately needs to save Kirk, why does he need Spock to capture Khan? What about the 72 other genetically engineered superhumans SITTING RIGHT THERE on the Enterprise?? Heck, McCoy has his nurses take one of the frozen superhumans out of his cryo-tube so he can put Kirk in there to preserve his brain-functions while Spock tries to chase down Khan. Hey, Bones, how about taking THAT superhuman’s blood?? He’s right there!!
Why the heck did McCoy inject Khan’s blood into a dead tribble in the first place???
At the end of the movie, Kirk says that he never took seriously the captain’s oath or pledge or whatever that Pike made him say when he first took command of the Enterprise. Kirk then launches into the familiar Star Trek opening monologue: “Space, the final frontier.” Except the very next line is “These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Her five-year mission…” Wait a minute! The Enterprise wasn’t on a five-year mission before! The whole big deal at the end of the movie is that they are finally starting the very first five-year mission. (That’s an aspect of the film’s ending that I really like, even though I feel like I just saw the whole “now the origin is wrapped up and the real adventures can begin” ending in Skyfall a few months ago…) So Pike couldn’t have had Kirk recite that phrase the year before! Like most of the problems in this film, this demonstrates a total lack of attention and, also, it is a problem that could have been so easily corrected. Just have Kirk deliver his eulogy on Earth, then cut to the shot of the Enterprise in space and have Kirk launch into the familiar monologue. That would have been awesome! There’s no need to over-explain it as the “captain’s oath” or whatever! Just cut into the classic “Space, the final frontier” line and we’d have all been happy!!
Sigh. OK, I’ve had enough, and you probably have as well. You might not know it from all of the bad things I’ve had to say about Star Trek Into Darkness, but I really did have a fun time seeing it in the theatre. I really love this cast, and I love seeing Star Trek stories told with a big budget, on a big canvas. I’m just disappointed that J.J. Abrams and co. (and I have to put a lot of the blame at the feet of screenwriters Robt Orci & Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindeloff) weren’t able to improve on the things that were weak about 2009’s Star Trek and, in fact, this time the script problems are even more frustrating and detrimental to the film. I would still love to see lots more big-screen Star Trek adventures with his cast, but I think that behind the camera it is time for some changes. I’d like someone with a better grasp of Star Trek lore at the helm, but even that isn’t really necessary. Leave the “Section 31” references out next time, and just find someone to write the script who can create compelling character drama and a sci-fi adventure story that makes some sense. Wonder what Nicholas Meyer is up to these days…?