So I just got back from seeing STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS — no, the title does not possess a colon — and as I write this I have a disc of The Original Series playing as a soothing bit of background ambience. There's a lot to cover here but one cannot really discuss the film without giving away the plot particulars, so allow me to state in short that the film, while not boring, gives the audience absolutely nothing new and comes off as a catalog of STAR TREK tropes enacted by simulacrums of the beloved characters for an audience that just wants the 'splodey action and pretty CGI effects candy while providing the mind and soul with little or nothing in terms of narrative meat. If you want a hollow amusement park ride spawned from one of the most seminal and influential science-fiction franchises in pop culture history, then this movie will likely please you immensely. If you are a fan of old school STAR TREK, the kind of space-set stories that were about people and examination of the human spirit within a futurist galaxyscape, then you will probably find a lot to grouse about and are advised to wait for cable airings. Unlike some of my peers whose opinions on STAR TREK I hold in considerable esteem, I did not think STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS was an outright piece of celluloid trash, but in no way did I come away from the film satisfied. In fact, if truth be told, I kind of checked out during the second half.
But what, you may ask, was it that did not turn me on about the latest trip into the void with the Enterprise crew? Allow me to answer that query in detail — a certain amount of familiarity with the lore of The Original Series is required — and before I do that, it's only fair to give the following caveat:
WARNING!!! HERE THERE BE SPOILERS!!! STOP READING RIGHT NOW IF YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW EXACTLY WHAT THIS MOVIE IS ABOUT!!!
Are we good? Ready to continue? Okay, here's the skinny:
It's about a year after the events seen in the 2009 franchise reboot film (simply entitled STAR TREK, which I liked a lot) and Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) violates the Prime Directive during an exploratory mission to a planet whose natives are still very much in a paleolithic state of development. Called on the carpet by Starfleet Command, Kirk finds the Enterprise returned to its original commanding officer, Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) and himself demoted to its first officer after Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto) unintentionally finks him out by telling the full truth about what happened in his mission report (which Kirk made no mention of in his submitted version). But Kirk's demotion proves to be a pointless plot beat because he's almost immediately reinstated as Captain of the Enterprise when Pike is killed during an attack at Starfleet headquarters in San Francisco by a mysterious terrorist named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) who apparently has Starfleet ties. Having already launched a devastating attack on the heart of London, Harrison flees Earth to hide out in a deserted section on the Klingon homeworld, Kronos, a planet Starfleet dares not risk voyaging to because their presence could launch all-out war with the already-hostile and encroaching Klingons. Motivated by desire to avenge his friend and mentor, Kirk begs Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) to let him take the Enterprise on the search-and-destroy mission against Harrison that the Admiral has set in motion. Soon enough, our heroes end up on Kronos, loaded for bear with a compliment of 72 photon torpedoes of a design and purported destructive yield well advanced beyond anything in Starfleet's current arsenal. After an encounter with some Klingons that goes badly, the away team of Kirk, Spock, and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) are rescued by the very terrorist they came looking for, who promptly surrenders after hearing about the quantity of the aforementioned photon torpedoes. Once aboard the Enterprise, the true identity of Harrison is revealed, Starfleet proves to be less squeaky-clean than we had been led to believe, and it all culminates in lots of shootouts and 'splodey stuff.
Rather than explore the plot any further, I'll just get to the individual points of note:
- John Harrison turns out to be none other than Khan, the reboot-verse's iteration of the villainous genetic superman from The Original Series series and the classic film STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN (1982), and that revelation holds no weight in context with the reboot's timeline since Kirk and crew had never encountered him before. Khan and his fellow supermen were cryogenically frozen and set adrift in space (a la The Original Series entry "Space Seed") after they proved to be war criminals who sought the genocide of any and all who they deemed not as awesome as themselves. All of this is explained in the most elementary of ways and reminded me of how "Space Seed" would have read if scripted by a ten-year-old. It is also stated that Khan was found, unfrozen, and pressed into service by Admiral Marcus as the head designer of armaments and such for a secret branch of Starfleet that's meant to be a ruthless defense force for the Earth and other Federation worlds when hostile aliens come a-knockin'.
- Scotty (Simon Pegg) is kicked off the ship early on, in a move that allows him to more or less save the day when the duplicitous Admiral Marcus reveals himself to be the king of the preemptive strike, what with his sabotaging the Enterprise to strand it after it inadvertently let loose Khan's 72 superhuman colleagues (whose cryo-tubes had been hidden inside the ersatz photon torpedoes) on the Klingon homeworld, where they would presumably kill the planet's entire populace. That's all good in theory, but Khan has proven to be incredibly intelligent and physically powerful, so it stands to reason that his frozen fellows would be as well, so after they wiped out the Klingons, what would stop them from taking the Klingons' space vessels and beginning a campaign of galactic conquest? Yeah, the admiral has at his disposal the massive and super-powerful dreadnought-class U.S.S. Vengeance (which was designed by Khan, so you know it's one bad bitch), but was he planning on hanging around in orbit of Kronos for however long it took for the augments to destroy the Klingon race? And what about those Klingon forces that were off-world, out and about in the galaxy conquering and enslaving worlds? Maybe I missed the finer points of that being explained as I retrieved a dropped cell phone from the theater's flypaper-sticky floor and returned it to its grateful owner, but none of that sounds feasible to me.
- The Spock/Uhura romance is given a bit of attention, but overall it adds nothing whatsoever to the narrative. I thought giving Spock a romantic interest could have opened up some interesting possibilities for character exploration/development, but what scraps the ADD-riddled script by Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof (he of PROMETHEUS infamy) doles out fails to provide any emotional resonance in that department, nor does it spark anything other than cursory and soon-forgotten interest.
- The new design for the Klingons, both the people themselves and their spacecraft, is generic and boring. Utterly void of personality. I will be very surprised if I see anyone cosplaying as them when the NY Comic Con rolls around this Fall.
- The film is a shameless rehashing/re-imagining of stories and story elements from earlier installments in the franchise, and considering how the reboot could have given us something new and freshly-imaginative, what we get instead amounts to a roadshow version of the specific classics that got cherry-picked from. There's a laundry list of rehashed elements that I could cite but instead I'll spare you that and simply state that STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS can best be summed up as a half-assed remake of THE WRATH OF KHAN, dumbed-down for an undemanding audience that's content simply to see the familiar characters and situations once more trotted out like empty-calorie fast food and accented with 'splodey "BOOM" pyrotechnics designed for the 3D format. (I saw it in 2D and it was okay as such.)
- The WRATH OF KHAN remake/re-imagining factor was frankly galling to me in its superfluousness. While not as egregious and un-creatively-insane as Gus Van Sant's almost-shot-for-shot remake of PSYCHO (1998), STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS unnecessarily retells the 1982 classic — the sole TREK film that really earned that descriptor — and juggles a number of its pieces to no real narrative purpose. The character of Carol Marcus (played by Alice Eve), who is a dead ringer for The Original Series' Nurse Christine Chapel, is reintroduced for no real reason and apparently ends up as the latest addition to the crew. (She also gets what may be the single most gratuitous underwear shot in motion picture history.) WRATH's saving the ship via fatally-irradiated self-sacrifice is re-staged, this time with the Kirk and Spock roles reversed, a switch that I'm guessing was made to poignantly stress how Kirk's attitude that he could never lose was utterly wrongheaded, but that lesson learned during his agonized death is proven narratively moot when he is revived and cured by an infusion of Khan's magic superman blood (which I guarantee will conveniently never be brought up again), which also renders Spock's grokking of the concept of taking one for the team equally moot while simultaneously cheapening the truly tragic emotional gravitas found in WRATH's climax (provided one has seen that film in the first place).
- Upon Kirk's death, Spock cribs Shatner's famous apoplectic roar of "KHAAAAAAAN!!!" but it lacked the intensity of the original iteration and actually elicited laughter from the audience I saw it with. The scene is intended to be the polar opposite of camp, yet here it became unintentional camp.
- The characterizations of Kirk and Spock adhered to some of the traits that make the characters identifiable as such, but again I found them to be simulacrums who seemed more than just a bit "off." Chris Pine's Kirk is pretty much a dick and Zachary Quinto's Spock is at times overly emotional and even savagely violent in one notable instance. (Spock in a fistfight is a truly disheartening sight.) Of the Enterprise's "big three," the only one who came out smelling like roses was Dr. McCoy, once more played with eerily De Forest Kelley-esque gusto and grouchiness by Karl Urban. Spock fared okay (aside from his ludicrous brawl with Khan) but I didn't care for Kirk at all in this installment. All of the character's interesting and admirable traits were swapped out in favor of attempting to turn him into a blatant Han Solo clone — complete with Millennium Falcon knockoff spaceship — and I blame that squarely on the script and director J.J. Abrams' disinterest in STAR TREK, which is a matter of public record. At heart, he's a STAR WARS kid and after seeing this film I believe he's much better suited for handling the STAR WARS universe's brain-optional chapter play thrills (which is not to say that there are not good STAR WARS films) than he is at handling a science-fiction franchise that wears its interest in and exploration of basic humanity, be it Terran or extra-terrestrial, on its sleeve. Which is all for the good since he's ditched the TREK franchise to helm the new STAR WARS movies for Disney. I just hope whoever is tapped to take the wheel for TREK once Abrams has fucked off is someone who actually gives a damn about STAR TREK and what made it unique, enduring, and endearing.
"Captain, exactly who are we? You certainly are NOT James T. Kirk, and I sure as fuck am NOT Spock."
As previously stated, I did not hate STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS but I could not care less about seeing the filmmakers haul out stories we've already seen and that have become iconic in the annals of cinematic science-fiction. Yeah, they probably went in that direction thanks to focus group testing (never a good idea) or due to a perception that WRATH OF KHAN needed to be re-jiggered — like how PROMETHEUS treated the ALIEN franchise, only nowhere near as nonsensically — for the audience of the twenty-teens, but I say fuck that shit. If people want to see THE WRATH OF KHAN, that's what Netflix and cable are for. The STAR TREK concept is first and foremost supposed to be about seeking out new life and new civilizations, with the accent on "new," and there's a whole galaxy out there that at this point in the reset timeline has yet to be charted. A galaxy is big. I mean really fucking ginormously BIG, so how about a film of the Enterprise actually getting started on its five-year mission and actually doing some fucking exploration? The story possibilities are limitless! The new film ends with that supposedly being where it's all going but I'll believe it when I see it in narrative action. I just hope the next film doesn't turn out to be about a war with the Klingons.
BOTTOM LINE: It's a fast-moving way to spend two hours and twelve minutes, but STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS is a TREK film for undemanding audiences who just want the pretty CGI and 'splodey stuff, and for longtime fans who by this point are so brainwashed that they no longer care what the studio gives them, just as long as it bears the STAR TREK brand. Wait for cable.