Jun 2, 2020
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
Star Trek (2009) was a pretty dumb movie, but it at least seemed to be the result of a deliberate choice to dumb things down, and make it clear that Star Trek isn’t just for geeks anymore. Call me a hopeless optimist, but there was still every reason to believe that the sequel would be a little bit smarter.
In the future, I’ll be careful what I wish for, because in their attempt to craft a less stupid follow-up, director J.J. Abrams and crew have given us a film so convoluted as to be nonsensical. I doubt the filmmakers themselves fully understand the movie they made. Star Trek Into Darkness is a film that desperately wants to fight above its intellectual weight class, but only ends up getting caught in the ropes.
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Into Darkness was released in the same month as Iron Man 3, and it’s uncanny how the two movies share all the same failings: A plot that’s too complicated for its own good. Forced attempts to be more grim, dark, and violent than its predecessor. A villain with opaque motivations. I don’t think any of this is a coincidence; I think we’re seeing the full impact of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy on the summer blockbuster movie season, with every popcorn franchise trying to outdo each other in being “darker and edgier”. The latest Star Trek installment even has “Darkness” in the title; How much more obvious could they get?
And more “darkness” seems to go hand in hand with making the villains’ schemes as muddled as possible. I think the intention was to position the bad guys in a morally gray area, instead of making them outright evil. But we spend so much time trying to grasp the villains’ backstory and objectives that we never get a chance to be swept up in the story. By the time Into Darkness gets to an admittedly impressive final action sequence, we’re too disengaged to care.
Years ago, Abrams gave a now-infamous TED talk where he literally pulled out a Mystery Box to illustrate his love of mystery as a storytelling device. And as his body of work proves, he values having mysteries much more than actually providing satisfying answers to those mysteries.
In Star Trek Into Darkness, Abrams has stuffed Trek into his Mystery Box, whether it needs to be in there or not. And much like with Cloverfield and Lost (both made with his creative stamp of approval), when he finally opens up the box, one can only wonder why he bothered with all the secrecy in the first place. Perhaps in the near future, Abrams will realize that it’s perfectly acceptable for a character to be who he says he is, and to be doing things for clearly stated reasons.
Our tortuous tale begins with the Enterprise on a primitive planet of red flora and chalk-faced inhabitants living a stone age existence. Kirk and McCoy are currently being pursued by these aliens because Kirk (displaying Captain Archer levels of idiocy) has made off with one of their sacred artifacts.
They dive off a cliff and swim to the Enterprise. Yes, they swim to the Enterprise. For no particular reason, the ship is staying out of sight by parking itself underwater. (Well, the reason is obvious: it’s to provide a trailer-worthy shot of the Enterprise coming up out of the ocean later.)
Meanwhile, Spock is using a “cold fusion” device to keep a nearby volcano from erupting and wiping out the natives (helpful hint: just because something has “cold” in the name doesn’t mean it can freeze lava). But the Enterprise can only beam Spock out of the volcano at close range, meaning the ship will have to rise from the depths and reveal itself to a primitive race, in a clear violation of Starfleet’s Prime Directive.
Spock is willing to die to preserve the Prime Directive, stating that the “needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” the first of many obnoxious callbacks to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. (To be fair, an episode of Enterprise established this as a Vulcan proverb. But what are the odds the screenwriters knew that?)
The ship emerges from the water and they rescue Spock from certain death, but he’s mostly annoyed that they disobeyed regulations. Except, just a few minutes ago, Spock plainly said he was stopping the volcano from erupting to save the planet’s inhabitants. I’m pretty sure that’s a far worse violation of the Prime Directive. (But again, to be fair, an episode of TOS did feature the Enterprise attempting to divert an asteroid to save a primitive species.)
Back at Starfleet HQ, Kirk gets chewed out by Admiral Pike. He’s having second thoughts about promoting Kirk to captain, and entertaining the notion that maybe he wasn’t ready. Really. Do tell. I’m pretty sure this is exactly what happens when you take a guy who’s a week out of the Academy and hand him the keys to a starship.
Starfleet actually wants to send Kirk back to the Academy, which I find to be a simply hilarious punishment, but Pike convinces them to instead demote Kirk to first officer of the Enterprise, with Pike returning as captain.
Meanwhile, there’s a terrorist attack in London. An enigmatic figure named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) has blackmailed a Starfleet officer into carrying out a suicide bombing at a records depot.
In accordance with protocol, there’s an emergency meeting of all starship captains and their first officers (how does this work, exactly? Would all captains currently out in deep space really be called back for one meeting? You’d think by the 23rd Century they’d have the hang of teleconferencing). And this meeting just happens to be held right in front of some huge windows. Hmm…
Kirk is the first one to figure out that Harrison bombed the depot as a pretense for getting all the captains in one place. Sure enough, the meeting is suddenly attacked by a shuttle piloted by Harrison. As various extras are blown away, Kirk is the only person who even attempts to stop the assault. We do briefly see some armed guards arrive on the scene, but of course they have to be totally useless so that Kirk can save the day.
Harrison’s shuttle is damaged, and Kirk watches him beam away. And then Kirk gets a big emotional moment when he learns Pike was killed in the attack.
He later finds out that Harrison used Scotty’s “transwarp beaming” formula from the previous movie to transport himself directly to Kronos, the Klingon homeworld. Kirk lobbies the head of Starfleet, Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) for the opportunity to personally go after him.
Admiral Marcus reveals that the “records depot” was really the headquarters of Section 31, Starfleet’s covert operations branch (as well as an organization that keeps popping up in Star Trek despite not being a terribly interesting concept). Marcus explains that Harrison is actually a top Section 31 agent who went rogue. So wait, blowing up that building wasn’t just a pretense for getting all the captains together in one place? Or it was?
Marcus gives Kirk the go-ahead to take command of the Enterprise (meaning that “demotion” lasted all of a day and a half) and go after Harrison. But he can’t enter Klingon space because that could be seen as an act of war. So in a transparent jab at the current government’s use of drones, Marcus orders the Enterprise to stay at the edge of the Neutral Zone and fire special, long-range torpedoes at Harrison that the Klingons won’t be able to detect. And while this isn’t the first time Trek writers forgot that the Neutral Zone separates the Federation from the Romulans, not the Klingons, this may be the first appearance of a “neutral zone” between two governments with no actual diplomatic relations.
Scotty doesn’t like the idea of going on a military operation, or taking on mysterious weapons with classified contents, so he dramatically resigns. And so Chekov, of all people, becomes the new Chief Engineer.
Along with the new fancy torpedoes, the Enterprise also a gets a new science officer, Carol Wallace (Alice Eve). For a pointless twist, she’s eventually revealed to be Carol Marcus, Kirk’s future baby mama (per Wrath of Khan) and daughter of Admiral Marcus. I’m not spoiling anything here; The inclusion of Carol Marcus was announced early on, so I guess this mystery wasn’t worthy of the box.
On the way to Kronos, the Enterprise breaks down for unknown reasons. Meanwhile, the whole crew has shamed Kirk out of the plan to take out Harrison from afar, so he decides to head up a landing party and pilot a shuttlecraft to personally apprehend him.
They get to the planet and are soon confronted by Klingons. This is the first time Klingons have appeared in the reboot series, and they look suitably intimidating. But more importantly, they have forehead ridges, which gives hope that the silly “smooth head virus” from Enterprise will never be spoken of again.
The Klingons attack and Kirk and the gang are vastly outnumbered, but Harrison appears and saves them all. It turns out he’s such a boss that he can singlehandedly defeat dozens of Klingons and destroy multiple warbirds with one big-ass gun.
He demands to know how many of those special torpedoes they have on the Enterprise. When he learns the answer is 72, he quickly surrenders. Which immediately prompts the question: They needed 72 torpedoes to kill one guy?
They put Harrison in the brig, where he gives up a set of coordinates, and also tells them to take a look inside the torpedoes. Kirk calls up Scotty back on Earth, and has him travel to those coordinates. Scotty takes a ship to Jupiter, where he discovers… the Monolith! Actually, he discovers a secret shipbuilding facility that’s frightfully easy for him to sneak into.
Meanwhile, Carol Marcus and Dr. McCoy open up a torpedo, and inside they find… a person, cryogenically frozen.
Lots of mysterious goings-on so far, right? You’re intrigued, yes? Well, here comes the big payoff! Stand back, because J.J. is opening up his box…
Spoilers follow (obviously)…
Harrison reveals his name is really Khan. He’s the genetically enhanced superman who once ruled over a quarter of the Earth’s population, but then fled in a sleeper ship sometime in the early 1990s. I’m just going by the backstory given on TOS, by the way, because none of this is mentioned in the film. When he says his name is “Khan”, no one has the slightest idea what he’s talking about, and Spock has to get on the horn to New Vulcan so that Old Spock can fill him in.
I have no idea why they felt compelled to bring Leonard Nimoy back for another cameo. Seriously, they couldn’t just look up Khan in the ship’s computer? In 2013, I can type “Cumberbatch” into Google and find out his dog’s name within two minutes. And not one person on the ship is familiar enough with 20th Century history to recognize the name? I mean, Picard once mentioned Khan in the same breath as Hitler! If some German dude with a tiny mustache came aboard the ship and said, “Mein name… is Adolf,” would everybody just stand there looking confused?
The movie then piles on the exposition: Following the destruction of Vulcan in the first movie, Admiral Marcus began aggressively scanning Federation space. He found the Botany Bay, and apparently champing at the bit for a war with the Klingons to bring about a more militarized Starfleet, Marcus revived Khan and put him to work building advanced weaponry. You read that right: he brought in a guy from the 20th Century to help build weapons more advanced than the ones invented hundreds of years later.
Marcus forced Khan to help by holding the other 72 members of his crew hostage, but Khan was able to secretly hide them inside torpedoes he was building (and now we know why there are 72 torpedoes—72 is the number of surviving crewmen on the Botany Bay, straight from “Space Seed”). Admiral Marcus got hold of these torpedoes and put them aboard the Enterprise, somehow knowing the Enterprise would fire all of them at Khan, killing two birds with one stone. Or rather, killing one bird with 72 stones.
And it seems Marcus also sabotaged the Enterprise so that it would be stranded in Klingon space. The idea was that after firing torpedoes at Kronos, they would be discovered by the Klingons, who would then destroy the Enterprise and thus provide a pretext to war.
Which raises another question: Why did Khan transport himself to the Klingon homeworld in the first place? This would seem to imply he was still going along with Admiral Marcus’ plan to start a war with the Klingons. But he transported there just moments after trying to kill Marcus.
And why did Khan hide his people inside torpedoes, instead of, I don’t know, waking them up so they could help him fight back against Marcus?
Eventually, Admiral Marcus himself shows up in the big ship Khan helped him build, called the USS Vengeance. Now that Kirk is onto the plan, Marcus intends to destroy the Enterprise himself and blame it on the Klingons.
Is everybody following all this? Maybe it’s just me, but this seems like a ridiculous number of hoops to jump through to start a war. Can’t he just pretend the Klingons had something to do with 9/11? (As a point of fact, one of the screenwriters is a 9/11 “truther”, so one doesn’t have to look far to find the origins of the conspiratorial aspects of this story.)
But before Marcus can destroy the Enterprise, it turns out Scotty snuck aboard the Vengeance and sabotaged it, which may be a callback to Scotty sabotaging the Excelsior in Search for Spock (if so, it’s an unusually subtle homage for this series). Soon, both ships end up back near Earth, and Kirk and Khan must space-skydive over to the Vengeance.
Khan kills Marcus and takes over the Vengeance. He intends to destroy the Enterprise, but Spock beams all the torpedoes over to Khan’s ship and detonates them. Both ships are now badly damaged and plummeting towards Earth. The Enterprise’s warp drive can’t start because the spark plugs are out of alignment or something, so Kirk takes it upon himself to kick them back into place, even though doing this exposes him to a lethal dose of radiation.
The ship is saved, but Kirk is now “dying”, and he has a moment with Spock where they say goodbye from opposite sides of a glass door. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a word-for-word, beat-for-beat remake of Spock’s death scene in Wrath of Khan, only with Spock and Kirk’s roles reversed. And at the end, Shatner’s ridiculous “KHHHAAAAANN” yell gets reassigned to Spock.
Is this really what Abrams thinks his audience wants? A copy of another scene they liked in a different movie, only with all emotion and meaning drained from it? The original version was moving because it played out between two men who had spent decades forging a loyal friendship, whereas this version of Kirk and Spock hardly know each other.
Nevertheless, Kirk’s “death” awakens Spock’s bloodlust. He beams down to Earth to apprehend Khan, and very nearly kills him, until he finds out Khan’s blood has special properties that can bring Kirk back to life. This was set up earlier, in a painfully obvious bit of foreshadowing. McCoy essentially interrupted the movie to tell everyone in the audience that he was injecting Khan’s blood into a dead tribble. The tribble comes back to life, and whatever works on a tribble must also work on a human, right?
And so, Kirk is brought back from the dead. Which means his big “sacrifice” ends up being more of a minor inconvenience. This also means that, sadly for the writers, they won’t be able to make the next movie The Search for Kirk. And as many others have noted, this also means Dr. McCoy has just invented the cure for death.
And then we get a generally upbeat finale, even though we just witnessed Khan causing the equivalent of about a dozen 9/11s by ramming the USS Vengeance into San Francisco. But hey, since they already cured death, bringing all those victims back should be a snap!
And in the closing moments, we learn that the famous “Space: the final frontier, these are the yadda yadda” opening credits spiel heard on TOS and TNG is actually Starfleet’s official “Captain’s Oath”. Get out of here with that nonsense.
This would be a great film, if films were judged solely by how much emotion is expressed onscreen. In this movie, Kirk cries, Spock cries, Khan cries—when Jim Kirk die, people gonna cry! But despite the cast’s best attempts to sell you on the gravity of this story, it never comes close to making sense. And the more one tries to peel back the layers of the plot, the less sense it makes. The last Trek movie to provoke this reaction in me was Insurrection, which is definitely not something any film should aspire to.
At no point does Khan feel like the same character we saw in “Space Seed” and Wrath of Khan. Cumberbatch is a good actor, but there’s no trace of Montalban’s raw animal magnetism in this Khan. And casting a pasty Englishman as an Indian Sikh certainly doesn’t help matters.
I know some view this as another example of Hollywood whitewashing, but it’s hard to get too outraged, considering this particular Sikh was originally played by a Mexican-born Spaniard. Do I wish Abrams would have tried a little harder to find an Indian actor to play Khan? Absolutely. Because then everyone would have easily guessed the villain’s identity ahead of time and Abrams would have had to ditch the mystery angle completely.
There was no real reason to put Carol Marcus in this, other than as another heavy-handed allusion to Wrath of Khan. She’s only useful in one scene, where she defuses a torpedo by… pulling the thing off the thing. Even her being Admiral Marcus’ daughter turns out to have no impact on the story. And they even contradict what little we know about the character: In Wrath of Khan, Carol Marcus was horrified at the prospect of the Genesis Device being used as a weapon; She sure as heck was not a weapons expert.
Well, I do know another reason they put Carol Marcus in this, and it seems to come down to a three-second shot where she changes clothes and Kirk sneaks a peek at her in her underwear. It’s a sleazy bit, not because of the bare flesh on display (especially considering some of the lingerie-like outfits worn by guest actresses on TOS), but rather the awkward way it’s forced in, and the awkward way she’s posed. She doesn’t look like someone who’s been caught unawares; she looks like an actress who’s been told by the director to put ‘em on the glass.
The Uhura/Spock relationship, mostly played for laughs in the previous film, is now front and center, and the movie suffers because of it. I’m reminded of how early on in TOS, they considered making Yeoman Rand into Kirk’s girlfriend. This movie reveals what a drag that would have been. Every time Kirk got himself into a dicey situation or joined a landing party, he’d have gotten yelled at for not “thinking about us”. Risk is their business, and Uhura should be enough of a professional to know that.
Okay, fine, I don’t blame Uhura for getting upset, but having a “talk” while on a dangerous mission in enemy territory is petty and ridiculous. They even had to lampshade it with Kirk saying how ridiculous it was for them to be arguing over relationship issues at that particular moment.
Chris Pine is… well, he is what he is. He’s toned down a lot of his frat-bro mannerisms from the first movie, and you can’t blame him for the awful lines he’s asked to say (I’m still trying to wrap my mind around “Sometimes, I want to rip the bangs off his head”), but there’s still a captain-shaped hole at the center of this film. Unfortunately, having spent two movies charting his alleged growth into a mature leader, there’s no getting rid of him now. So instead of complaining, I’ll simply keep with the whole War on Terror theme and paraphrase Rummy and say that you don’t go to a Star Trek movie to see the cast you wish it had.
In the Self-Defeating Easter Egg Department, we get a scene where Admiral Marcus walks past scale models in his office of important ships in the history of star flight, in a callback to Decker showing V’ger-Ilia all the ships named Enterprise. There’s a variety of prominent vessels here: the Wright Brothers’ plane, the Space Shuttle, the Phoenix, the NX-01, and… the USS Vengeance? It appears Marcus is openly displaying a replica of the top secret Section 31 ship that Khan built for him. What does he say to people who ask him about it?
Remember how Star Trek Nemesis tried to remake Wrath of Khan, and they totally missed the point of the Kirk/Khan dynamic by giving us a Khan-surrogate with no personal history with Picard? Incredibly, Into Darkness has made the exact same mistake with the actual Khan character, by bringing him in long before he has a reason to hate Kirk. What I’m getting here is that everyone in charge of this franchise for the last 10 or 20 years has been fully aware that Wrath of Khan is the most beloved Star Trek movie, but none of them have ever figured out why.
But hey, maybe comparing this movie to Wrath of Khan is unfair. Given the prequel timeline, this is actually more of a remake of “Space Seed”. But even “Space Seed” worked better, because it gave us a glimpse into future Earth history, and we got to meet a villain partly responsible for World War III. Into Darkness completely glosses over that backstory.
Khan has two big defining events in his history: One, he was part of the Eugenics Wars (never mentioned here) and two, he was stranded on a dead planet for 15 years, driving him to an insane quest for revenge against Kirk (doesn’t apply here). Remove those two events, and there’s absolutely nothing that distinguishes Khan from any other villain, like, say, rogue Starfleet officer John Harrison. Can we open up Abrams’ Mystery Box and find out why he bothered to bring back Khan in the first place?
The problem with the first two movies in this reboot series is that they seem to have been primarily a business decision by J.J. Abrams to take over a big budget tentpole franchise, thus raising his profile (and salary). And it seems to have worked; he just landed his dream job of directing the next Star Wars film. Congrats to J.J.! Here’s hoping that the studio replaces him with someone who actually gets Star Trek, and is interested in doing something more than reimagining moments from the franchise’s glory days.
Ah, who am I kidding? Get ready for the Borg to show up in the next one.