Warning! Major spoilers ahead! Read at your own risk!
Earlier today I wrote that I felt a sense of dread as the minutes ticked down to the start of Star Trek Into Darkness. I was certain I was going to hate it. I didn’t hate it, but out of the twelve Star Trek films we’ve had to date I would rate in the lower six. I plan do to a post later where I have fun nitpicking it. Here I’d like to focus on the bigger picture aspects of the movie.
The gist of the movie is that a rogue Starfleet operative named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) coerces a fellow officer to blow up a covert facility in London as a ruse to get some of Starfleet’s top brass together so he can assassinate them. He succeeds in killing many of them including Admiral Christopher Pike. Kirk and the Enterprise set off after him.
I really need to watch the movie a couple more times because I found parts of the plot extremely confusing. But basically it turns out that Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) is out to start a war with the Klingons. Harrison is actually Khan (yes, that Khan). In this timeline Section 31, a covert Starfleet organization led by Marcus (first introduced in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) discovered Khan’s ship and revived him from cryo-sleep to exploit his genetically enhanced intellect, strength, and savagery. Khan eventually went rogue to protect his crew from Marcus. Also, he’s Khan, so he wants to go on trying to seek total power.
At this point I should mention that Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan is my favorite Star Trek movie. Ask any Trekkie and most of them probably have it at least in their top three. In my opinion it’s a near flawless movie. It’s also a movie that seems to loom large over the writers and directors of subsequent Star Trek movies because in two instances (prior to Abrams) it’s been ripped off by other Star Trek movies. In First Contact Picard took on the Khan role in his mad thirst for vengeance against the Borg. They even have him quoting Moby Dick like Khan did in Star Trek II. In Star Trek Nemesis we had a villain seeking vengeance and even a starship battle in a nebula that rendered their tactical systems useless, just like in Star Trek II.
In some ways it was a gutsy move for J. J. Abrams to do a Khan story because any way you re-introduce Khan is going to cause people to draw comparisons to Star Trek II. I’ve been on record as saying I didn’t want to see Khan brought back to screen. I did mention I might tolerate it as long as they brought some original twist to the story. And that they did. And while I wasn’t thrilled at seeing Benedict Cumberbatch (who I greatly admire as an actor) walk in Ricardo Montalbahn’s shoes, I found myself doing a pretty good job of letting the movie take me along for the ride. Right up until the movie came to what Bryan Bishop of The Verge refers to appropriately as “The Scene.”
At the end of Wrath Of Khan, Spock restores main power to the Enterprise just in time to save the ship. In doing so he’s exposed to a lethal dose of radiation and slowly dies while having a touching last moment with his friend Jim Kirk, separated from him by a pane of glass (or transparent aluminum, whatever). It’s an iconic and extremely powerful scene. In Star Trek Into Darkness it’s Kirk that gets exposed to a lethal dose of radiation while getting main power back online. Kirk and Spock have a tearful goodbye, again separated by glass, before Kirk dies. My guess is that the J. J. and the writers see this as a clever twist or even an homage to Star Trek II. There are even lines spoken by characters lifted word for word from Star Trek II.
J. J.’s first Star Trek movie had a scene that delightfully payed homage to Star Trek II: the Kobayashi Maru/bite of the apple scene. That seemed very tasteful to me. The Kirk death scene in Into Darkness struck me as a tasteless ripoff that simply tried to be clever by reversing roles. That’s where the movie totally lost me. And then, right after Kirk died, Spock yelled, “Khhhaaannnnn!!!” That disgusted me so much that I actually blurted out, “J. J., you hack!” (We were at the drive-in, so it was ok.) That moment was as eye rolling to me as the scene at the end of Revenge Of The Sith where Vader screams, “Noooooo!!!”
That scene worked so well in Wrath Of Khan because of the audience’s familiarity with the characters. There had already been three seasons of a TV show and one movie to establish the close friendship these two men had. Not to mention the incredible performances from Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner. You felt it when Spock died. With the new Trek we’ve only had one previous movie, and in both movies the two characters spent more time being adversarial towards one another than being friends. The scene in Wrath Of Khan also worked better because Spock stayed dead at the end of the movie, not to return as the Spock we know until the end of the following movie. In Into Darkness, Kirk is back on his feet about ten minutes after he’s pronounced dead. Not only that, but they had already telegraphed to the audience exactly how McCoy was going to bring him back earlier in the movie. Again, given how the inclusion of that scene was sure to draw these types of comparisons to Star Trek II, I’m kind of shocked that J. J. went for it here.
There were also a couple of other scenes that reminded me unpleasantly of the Star Wars prequels. One was the scene in which Khan and Spock are leaping off of buildings onto swiftly passing flying vehicles. It was a little too much like Anakin and the bounty hunter in Episode II. The other was the scene in which Kirk was fixing the warp core. Rather than the clean futuristic environment we’ve always had in Star Trek it looked like something out of that factory scene in Attack Of The Clones. Or maybe Galaxy Quest.
I was also disappointed that we still don’t have a Kirk that resembles the Kirk from the TV show. TV show Kirk would have told the truth in his report to Starfleet about violating the Prime Directive. He would have taken responsibility for his actions. I get that he’s supposed to be younger and less mature in these movies, but Kirk remains the one character in the J. J.-verse that doesn’t resemble his TV show counterpart, except in occasional flashes.
Since Abrams has forced me to draw comparisons with Star Trek II, it’s also fair to point out that Kirk’s character arc in Into Darkness was handled much more clumsily than in Wrath Of Khan. The earlier film was about Kirk feeling old and useless, but also very much about how Kirk had never had to face a no-win scenario, never had to face death. That’s another thing that made Spock’s death so impactful. In Into Darkness they tried to give Kirk an arc by having Pike chide him for being reckless and thinking he was invincible, only to have him meet his own death later in the film. However, this was handled so clumsily (not the least bit because of the fact that he was only dead for a few minutes) that it was hard to get the sense that he’d changed at all over the course of the film.
Ok, now for some things I actually liked about the film:
I liked that most of the characters had clearly established a closer friendship. I liked how they made the Klingons seem even more alien than ever before while still making them recognizable. I thought Khan’s method of killing people by crushing their skulls was a nice touch. It showed off his enhanced strength and his innate savagery. I liked Benedict Cumberbatch, even if he had a thankless job of playing an iconic role. The only thing he lacked was the swagger that Ricardo Montalbahn brought to the role.
I also thought the overall message of the film was a very good one. It was a message about avoiding war, not letting emotion get in the way of giving a person a fair trial, and that Starfleet should be about exploration, not militarism. Good stuff, that.
I’m really curious to hear what other Trekkies think about this movie. From my perspective it was deeply flawed, but I suspect that non-Trekkies will love it.