Star Trek Into Darkness
To be clear, right up front: I have been and always shall be a Star Trek fan. Wars can be fun, but Trek gives real sustenance. I come by this love honestly; my grandfather, an engineer, watched the original series regularly, and when The Next Generation came around it was what our family did together, every week. Ironically, this actually makes me a little more inclined to forgive Star Trek Into Darkness. See, I don’t think there’s really been any truly great Trek in about twenty years, so I don’t expect much from this rebooted movie series in the first place.
Yes, we all know by now that J.J. Abrams went on The Daily Show and admitted — with a certain perverse pride — that he never liked Star Trek growing up. It felt “too philosophical” to him, which strikes me as odd because the ideas were always integral to Roddenberry’s point in making the series. Sure, it wasn’t always the most nuanced — the way they skewered racism in “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” feels ridiculous to look back on it now — but it’s one of the few places where idea-driven science fiction ever flourished in television or movies. Some people are scandalized that Abrams wanted to “make a movie for movie-goers, not just for Star Trek fans”, but that’s kinda what already happened; the last three television series were all soap operas with latex facial prosthetics compared to the first two, and the movies were action-adventure romps long before Abrams came on the scene.
So I go into Into Darkness with no illusions that this will even try to be the Trek that I love. All they want to present is another space-based action flick with a Trek-ish feel — big-budget Star Trek fan-fiction, if you will. And on this count, they actually do a pretty good job.
Of course we’ve got all the familiar core cast in place: Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), Bones (Karl Urban), Uhura (Zoe Saldaña), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Sulu (John Cho), and Chekov (Anton Yelchin). Abrams and company seem to have gotten most of the prequelish name-dropping out of their system last time around, with the exception of an offhand reference to Nurse Chapel, though this is far from the only reference to the original timeline on display.
The story kicks off with a bang as a massive explosion destroys a Starfleet data archive in London. Then when Starfleet commanders meet to discuss a response as per their protocol that meeting is itself attacked, dispatching Kirk’s mentor, Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood).
The head of Starfleet, Adm. Alexander Marcus (Peter Weller), sends Kirk and crew with a bunch of advanced photon torpedoes to take out the mastermind, hiding alone in an uninhabited region of Kronos, the Klingon homeworld. They’ll park on the edge of the neutral zone, fire the torpedoes, and skedaddle home. If this sounds suspiciously like real-world drone strikes, you’re right, and the ethics of such tactics are raised just enough to convince Kirk to actually land on Kronos and take the man into custody.
Now, Abrams has been treating what I’m about to say like it’s a spoiler, but it’s really not. Everyone guessed the truth long ago, and Abrams is only maintaining an aura of secrecy on the basis of his “Mystery Box” marketing rhetoric, which Bob Chipman effectively dismantled. And besides, selling the movie should actually be easier if this is revealed, but if you’re really spoiler-phobic, stop now.
The fugitive they’re seeking is Khan Noonien Singh (Benedict Cumberbatch), the leader of the troupe of genetically engineered super-soldiers fired into deep space after the Eugenics Wars, when they tried to wipe out everyone not as superior as they were. And, to be honest, this version of Khan is far more interesting than the original version portrayed by Ricardo Montalbán. Montalbán gave us a thug of a warlord infused with almost campy levels of bravado, but he still came off like a pretty regular guy, all told. Cumberbatch offers a cold, calculating, megalomaniacal criminal mastermind. And this time he gets to show off his physical superiority: if he just stood there and let you punch him in the face over and over, your arm would get tired long before he actually got hurt, at which point he’d probably throw you through a wall. Whatever else can be said about the movie, this is a far better treatment of Khan than the original, and I cannot fathom why the filmmakers are not pushing this point.
This is not to say there are not surprises, and one of the bigger ones is that Abrams may not be as allergic to ideas in his Trek as he has claimed. In addition to the drone-strike ethics we get a pretty blatant skewering of post-9/11 militarism and the drive for pre-ordained, preëmptive war. Is it particularly subtle or nuanced? no, but like I said, the original series wasn’t always exactly subtle itself.
The production looks great. The Enterprise is wonderfully clean and glossy; the smashy bits are spectacular; the Klingons new head-junk looks pretty nifty; and the warp drive seems to employ a kind of stereographic adaptation of the Vertigo shot. If you just want a rollicking action-adventure yarn, there’s plenty of that, from fights between people and between starships to more interesting set-pieces like a high-speed flight through a debris field.
Like a lot of fan-fiction authors, writers Roberto Ori, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof seem to want to throw in more and bigger whenever they can, and Abrams’ production at least can deliver on what they ask for. But with this enthusiasm comes a lack of restraint, which can get silly. New technology is deployed like magic to get the writers around any pesky little limitations that might prevent them from doing whatever they want. But nobody stops to ask questions like, if the super-teleporter Scotty introduced last time can send stuff directly from Earth to Kronos, why wage a war with starships at all?
So while there are some great points — the new Khan being chief among them — and there’s even some smattering of social commentary, there’s also a lot of big, dumb action-adventure movie stuff. Just don’t go into it expecting real Trek and it should be perfectly satisfactory as a summer blockbuster.
Worth It: yeah, more or less.
Bechdel Test: fail.