When J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek hit theaters a few years ago it reinvigorated the moribund franchise by appealing to both Trek fans and casual filmgoers alike. And if you’re one of those casual filmgoers looking for a repeat experience in the sequel, then you’re in luck. Star Trek Into Darkness is a highly entertaining and enjoyable Sci-Fi action thriller, and you’ll leave the theater satisfied. That’s really all a non-Trek fan needs to know.
But if you are a Star Trek fan, your reaction to Star Trek Into Darkness will range from bemused shrug to full-blown apoplectic fit, depending on how seriously you take J.J. Abrams’ rebooted Trekverse. And if you’re looking to avoid spoilers, now’s the time to punch out. You’ve been warned.
Put simply, Star Trek Into Darkness is what happens when a reheated ST: Enterprise story arc collides with Elseworlds Wrath of Khan fan fiction—a funhouse mirror mashup of events that Trek fans have seen before, and which many will take as an affront rather than the homage they were meant to be.
To recap the overstuffed plot:
A terrorist attack on Starfleet prompts Admiral Alexander Marcus (Peter Weller), to send Kirk (Chris Pine) and the Enterprise crew on a covert mission to kill the perpetrator, rogue Starfleet intelligence officer John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), who has escaped to Qo’noS. En route, a warp core breach strands the Enterprise deep within Klingon territory. Kirk proceeds to Qo’noS to capture Harrison, and they kill a number of Klingons in the process. Imprisoned aboard the Enterprise, Harrison reveals that he’s Khan. Marcus discovered and reawakened him in order to gain access to his superior military strategies. Khan also helped Marcus and Section 31 design a dreadnought-style warship, before they had the falling out that led Khan to go rogue and attack Starfleet. Kirk’s mission to kill Khan was actually a ploy by Marcus to instigate war with the Klingon Empire. Plot revealed, Marcus comes gunning for the Enterprise, and Kirk and Khan team up to retake the dreadnought and thwart Marcus’s plans.
Got all that? Of course, we might ask why Khan would beam to Qo’noS if he wanted to derail Marcus’s scheme. Surely it wasn’t just an excuse for Abrams to reveal his horrendously reimagined Klingons? But it doesn’t seem to bother screenwriters Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof, so why should it bother us? Besides, at this point they’re busy moving the story into phase two, which is a ham-fisted Wrath of Khan remake.
Once Admiral Marcus is defeated, it’s clear that Khan was just using Kirk and the Enterprise to commandeer the dreadnought and reawaken his sleeping crewmates—who happen to be aboard the Enterprise thanks to a convoluted side plot involving missiles and Carol Marcus. Khan attacks and disables the Enterprise, putting it on a collision course for Earth.
So that’s when nuKirk steps up and pulls a Spock Prime, manually realigning the engines, saving the ship, and getting a lethal dose of radiation in the process. And that’s when nuSpock goes all Kirk Prime and yells “KHHHHAAAAANNNNNNN!” Then, with the help of a Deus Ex Spockina, nuSpock defeats Khan; and thanks to some unrelated medical experiments with a dead tribble that just happens to be lying around sickbay, McCoy develops a magic serum from Khan’s superblood that brings Kirk back from the dead. Kirk goes on to recite the Green Lantern Oath and the Enterprise embarks on its five year mission. The end. Or, more accurately, the beginning.
As I said, your reaction to this film will vary depending on where J.J. Abrams’ reboot fits into your own personal sphere of Trek. So let’s focus on what works and what doesn’t.
Weller indisputably nails the role of Marcus—as well he should, since he’s just rehashing his character John Frederic Paxton, the xenophobic politician who builds a superweapon to destroy Starfleet in the Enterprise two-parter Demons/Terra Prime. The roles are so similar that there’s little doubt that Lindelof, Kurtzman and Orci had Weller in mind when creating Marcus. And Weller delivers, shifting effortlessly from credible Starfleet admiral to bellicose renegade warmonger.
Simon Pegg is wonderful as Scotty, the only Enterprise crew member besides Kirk and Spock given more than a token role in the film. And Bruce Greenwood delivers a fine final performance as Christopher Pike, even though his sole function in the film is to die so Kirk has a credible motivation for wanting to kill Harrison/Khan.
Which brings us to what doesn’t work. Kirk is the most glaring problem with Star Trek Into Darkness. Regardless of how you feel about William Shatner, his Kirk was always centered and directed. That focus gave him the confidence and charisma to be a great starship captain, and inspired devotion and loyalty in his crew. Pine’s Kirk has absolutely no center and is completely directionless. His crew second-guesses him throughout the film, as well they should.
You might say that the writers did this deliberately to give nuKirk a more compelling story arc, allowing him to grow into the legendary icon we’re all familiar with. And I might even buy that—if Kirk did even the slightest thing to drive the story; but instead, the story completely drives him. His path is 100 percent reactionary and at no time in the film does he snatch the reins and turn the tables on his foes. Which is why his eventual grand sacrifice feels like such a hollow gesture. He goes from zero to martyr in the blink of an eye, telling Spock, “I don’t know what to do. I only know what I can do.” In effect, he hasn’t grown at all. He’s the same cavalier dope who’s completely out of his depth, once again grasping for the most obvious solution. This one just happens to be fatal.
And Cumberbatch is equally lackluster as Khan, lapsing into screen-chewing over-enunciation in a failed attempt to covey the menace that Ricardo Montalban could evoke with a wry smirk. In fact, Khan was the least fleshed out of all the characters, with the screenwriters relying entirely on the audience’s prior knowledge of him. When he finally reveals his name in breathy, dramatic fashion—complete with ominous musical sting—Kirk and Spock look on in awe. But why would they? They don’t know Khan from a hole in the ground. And if you didn’t either, you’d have a hard time picking up on his backstory, which is given the most cursory of nods.
And that’s another key area where Star Trek Into Darkness falls down. It’s kind of a non-remake remake, rife with giant, knowing winks and clunky fan service. Look, a tribble! The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one! Starfleet brass convenes at the Daystrom Institute! Kirk goes to Qo’noS in a ship commandeered during the “Mudd incident” last month! And he banged Christine Chapel! Lindelof, Kurtzman and Orci are practically screaming, “See? We know our Trek!”
But to what end? If you’re so intent on including tortured callbacks to Original Series continuity, then why did you jump through such hoops in the first film to establish an alternate, independent timeline? If you want to have your cake and eat it too, then find a way to do so with more finesse, and at least make an attempt to give us something more than a big screen clip show.
But that’s not going to happen, and here’s why. Despite all of the extremely valid criticisms I raise here, they amount to little more than hardcore fan nits. When all is said and done, Star Trek Into Darkness works like gangbusters. It’s a fast-paced thrill ride with lots of humor, lots of big action sequences and an upbeat ending that promises more to come. I have purposely not read any reviews of the film yet, since I didn’t want them to influence my reaction. But the only reviewers that seem to be trashing the film are lifelong Trek geeks like me. General audiences love it.
And while I didn’t love it, I did really like it—and not in spite of myself. I saw it twice in two days. It all goes back to what I said earlier about the weight you give to Abrams’ new brand of Star Trek. To me, it just is, and nothing he does can detract from the original, or affect my love and reverence for it. There’s a guy running around onscreen called Kirk, but he’s not Kirk. There’s this seemingly perpetually irritated Vulcan up there called Spock, but I know better. So put me in the bemused shrug category.
Bring on Garth of Izar and Trelane for the threequel. Throw Captain Koloth in too and make it an homage to William Campbell, just for kicks.
Because in the end, I look at new Star Trek like I do the Die Hard franchise. I like the characters and central premise, so as long as I’m entertained, I’m willing to overlook some details (i.e. reality). But if you want to conveniently explain away how Zefram Cochrane is suddenly from Earth and not Alpha Centauri, or defend how the crew of the Voyager can time travel to a 1996 where the Eugenics Wars apparently never happened, then I’ll be spoiling for a fight.
Until then, live long and prosper.