Sunday, April 28, 2013

Revamping In The Darkness Is Less Than We Might Hope For With Star Trek Into Darkness

The Good: Pacing, Acting, Moments of Character
The Bad: Familiar feeling plot reversals, Lack of genuine character development
The Basics: Star Trek Into Darkness is an action-packed science fiction adventure that lacks the deeper character conflict of Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan.

Star Trek Into Darkness is a film that has any number of reasonable comparison points to Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan (reviewed here!) and the episode of Star Trek that spawned it, “Space Seed” (reviewed here!). For all its greatness, Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan put the Star Trek film franchise into a rut from which it has not (yet) recovered. That rut forces the studio to produce unfortunately interchangeable “kill the villain” science fiction epics, a trend that since Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan was a massive fan and box-office success was only challenged once, with Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (reviewed here!). Otherwise, regardless of the set-up, the Star Trek films have all degenerated into “kill the villain” action adventure movies. With each subsequent Trek film, the standard to pass, however, has always been Khan.

With the reboot of Star Trek with J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek (reviewed here!), the franchise had its most direct attempt to capitalize on the popularity and success of Khan and Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, which is what Star Trek Into Darkness tries to do. Sadly, the follow up to the 2009 Star Trek was never going to be Star Trek Machinations Of Doomsday (check out that concept here!), a film which would have told a character-driven story other than a “kill the villain” story that would have shown real respect for the original Star Trek. Star Trek Into Darkness takes a different tact, though it – like the Machinations Of Doomsday concept – tries to utilize elements from the original Star Trek to tell a story that rewrites the Star Trek universe. And Star Trek Into Darkness generously rewrites the Trek universe . . . with only window dressing of creating a truly new film. Like the previous film, Star Trek Into Darkness is preceded by a graphic novel, Countdown To Darkness (reviewed here!.

To get to my issue with Star Trek Into Darkness, it lacks the truly compelling character elements that made Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan and its sequel so good. Khan was such an interesting villain in the cinematic rendition because he, despite being genetically enhanced and better in many ways than Captain Kirk, was still ruled by human emotion. At his core, Khan was a man suffering from the loss of his loved one and he, rather reasonably, blamed James T. Kirk for the death of his wife and most of his crew when the planet he was stranded by Kirk upon became a horrible and inhospitable wasteland. For more than fifteen years, he stewed angrily so that when the first chance of escape came, he took it and began a hunt for James T. Kirk that was, in its truest form, epic. Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan is a deeply personal conflict between a man feeling his age and second guessing his past decisions and a superhuman who is passionately furious about his loss.

Star Trek Into Darkness is not that.

Instead, Star Trek Into Darkness is a young man at the beginning of his career learning his limitations and abilities (and those of his crew) when he responds to a crisis that threatens his home. It is, for the contemplative fans who like smart cinema, hardly a fair trade. And it hinges on a ridiculous premise in relation to the villain, one that completely guts the purpose and character-driven angst of Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan.

After the Enterprise works to save a primitive alien planet from an environmental catastrophe (an exercise whose purpose seems to be to illustrate both Kirk and Spock’s resolve and to show how well the Enterprise crew has gelled since Star Trek, as well as illustrate Kirk’s ability to think three-dimensionally), the ship is recalled to Earth. There, Kirk is dressed down for violating the Prime Directive and Pike is returned to command of the Enterprise, with Kirk as his first officer (Spock is reassigned to another ship). In the wake of a bombing in London and an attack on the Admiralty of StarFleet Command, the Enterprise crew begins a hunt for John Harrison, an operative working for StarFleet outside the official chain of command. Working for Section 31, Harrison is a fugitive and when Admiral Marcus assigns Kirk to hunt Harrison to the death, Spock has serious reservations. When the ship is armed with a new style of photon torpedo, one which Scotty cannot scan, Scotty resigns in protest and Chekov is made Chief Engineer.

In trying to apprehend the fugitive Harrison from Klingon space, Kirk and Spock learn that Harrison is a pawn, resentful of how he and his people have been used by Admiral Marcus in an escalating series of conflicts with the Klingon Empire. On Kronos, when Harrison is cornered, he surrenders when he learns about the torpedoes and that makes Kirk wary. Harrison soon reveals his true identity as Khan and in an unlikely turn of events, Kirk and Khan team up to attempt to arrest Admiral Marcus and stop his massively powerful warship he has built.

Star Trek Into Darkness puts familiar pieces into play in ways that initially seem new and the most problematic of them are the ones that die-hard fans are likely to care about the most. Spock Prime, for example, defies logic by being more reticent than giving. As my concept Machinations Of Doomsday illustrated; the Star Trek universe has already been fundamentally altered as the results of Star Trek. Spock Prime, then, has an ethical duty to save as many lives as possible using his foreknowledge of the universe as events unfold. As a result, he can save Deneva, all the planets the Doomsday Machine and Nomad destroyed . . . and he could have prevented the Botany Bay’s crew from ever getting reanimated. That, alas, is not the way Star Trek Into Darkness unfolds. Instead, the cameo with Spock Prime is woefully underwhelming.

That said, there is some imagination in Star Trek Into Darkness and the new look of the Klingon ships is interesting. However, the appearance of the Klingons in the film makes no real sense given how Star Trek Enterprise eventually explained why Klingons looked human in the original series, but not in the subsequent entries into the franchise (that series of events would not have been altered by the events of Star Trek). Abrams and his team do not quite land the new look, but they make a transition Klingon that works well enough. Moreover, the fact that the Klingon moon is shown destroyed in Star Trek Into Darkness makes no sense as the destruction of Praxis would not have happened for at least forty more years!

The action sequences are good, but they feel very Star Wars as opposed to Star Trek and the reliance upon the action adventure sequences as opposed to anything more cerebral is a bit disappointing. In fact, the special effects are gutted by the speed at which they appear. As the old adage goes, if you're going to make a special effects movie, the least you can do is let people see the effects! In IMAX the 3-D was particularly underwhelming with it being very obvious (to those who enjoy films) that the effects were done in post-production.

On the character front, Star Trek Into Darkness continues to move the crew of the Enterprise toward the more familiar Star Trek dynamic. As a result, Kirk and Spock are the featured characters, with the rest of the crew (plus the plucky Carol Marcus) and the villain along as supporting quippers. This is not a Chekov movie or one that makes one think that Sulu is ever going to grow into an influential StarFleet captain. Kirk and Spock continue to develop trust and grow together throughout Star Trek Into Darkness and, despite the continued romance between Uhura and Spock, there are the insinuations in this film that the Kirk and Spock relationship will be their most significant one.

As for the acting, Zachary Quinto is great as Spock. He has the emotionless thing down pat and he plays logical and commanding in a way that is different enough from his portrayal of Sylar in Heroes as to be entirely convincing and a great actor. And when Spock breaks, Quinto sells it . . . though there is really nothing that sells a Spock uppercut. The rest of the supporting cast is good, but not given enough to do to truly shine with their talents.

That brings us to Benedict Cumberbatch. Cumberbatch is the best example of shit casting in modern times that I can come up with. Director J.J. Abrams had a serious problem with Star Trek Into Darkness and that was that Benicio Del Toro famously turned down the role of the villain in the film. The problem with even allowing Benicio Del Toro’s name to be leaked in association with the film is that, for all its diversity, the Star Trek franchise is exceptionally low on Latinos. Outside Khan, the only significant Latino in the franchise is B’Elanna Torres from Star Trek: Voyager and her half-Klingon heritage trumped anything human or Latina in her culture for the entire series. Unless Del Toro was being cast to play someone new, the only logical character for him to be was Khan. Sadly, casting the British “it boy” (he’s filling the same niche now that Ryan Gosling had two years ago) as John Harrison, the alias used by Khan for most of the film, is a huge mistake. In “Space Seed,” Khan was painted historically as a fairly dark Indian, and was deeply tanned. Cumberbatch is pretty pale. Writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof, apparently did not believe they had the skill between them to make the viewers of Star Trek Into Darkness believe credibly that any of the seventy other genetically engineered individuals on the Botany Bay could become as villainous as Khan. Cumberbatch does what he can and he is a very physical villain, but he never seems credibly passionate enough or his character truly invested enough to buy.

On the flip side, Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk is plenty emotive and Pine plays him exceptionally well. Chris Pine – who is the focus of most of the screentime of Star Trek Into Darkness that has a camera pointed on a person as opposed to a planetscape, starship or external chase/battle scene – is magnetic and expressive as Captain Kirk. In the early scenes with Pine playing opposite Bruce Greenwood's Pike, he says more with the look in his eyes than most actors do with pages of dialog. The few moments of humor he is given are delivered with characteristic charm and as his Kirk pursues Khan, he has a determined fa├žade which is very convincingly rendered.

The balance of Star Trek Into Darkness, though, is a very average-feeling chase/defeat the villain movie and when the hype for the film fades, one suspects it will not only be the fans who find themselves wishing for more.

For other films with Alice Eve, please check out my reviews of:
Men In Black 3
Sex And The City 2
She's Out Of My League


For other film reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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  1. So he is Khan...

    I can just predict it: This movie will be a hit, and many a younger fan- with their 'new rocks, old sucks!' mentality, not to mention the big Benedict Cumberbatch fanclub- will fire all critical torpedoes at ST2: WoK, hating & ridiculing everything about it, especially Ricardo, because Cumberbatch IS the one and only Khan!!!


    1. Yeah, it was pretty bad. This is one of those films that, the more one considers it, the worse it holds up.

      Thanks for reading and thanks for the comment!

  2. Making the villain of this piece Khan was the huge mistake - not necessarily Cumberbatch.

    Seriously...this version of Starfleet found a ship that held one of the men who caused WWIII and his followers. Rather than lock them up or other logical options their bright idea is to turn them loose on the Universe by making them secret operatives with all the access to classified information that infers and just hope that one or more of them doesn't decide to set themselves up as a dictator again or cause other trouble?

    Yeah...what could possibly go wrong with that idea?

    No matter who they cast in the role that's still an Idiot Plot.

    I'm still seeing the movie to root for Khan because he's right...this version of Starfleet SHOULD be destroyed!

    1. Yeah, I agree. I mean, I even like the concept of Section 31 and its involvement in the movie, but the overall idea is just terrible.

      Consider this: How did anyone die on Ceti Alpha V? Because, it Khan knew his blood's ability, then he let his people there die? Or, if it is Admiral Marcus who discovered Khan's magic blood, the viewer is forced to believe that the Admiral is so very stupid that he TOLD Khan about it! And he was so incredibly stupid to discover Khan's magic blood and reanimate Khan instead of keeping the Augments in suspended animation, exsanguinating them and using the Augment blood for battlefield trauma kits on every starship in a war with the Klingons.

      Anyway . . . thanks for reading and thanks for the comments!