“Star Trek Into Darkness”
2 hours, 12 minutes
I unabashedly loved J.J. Abrams’ reboot of “Star Trek.” When that movie came out four years ago, it completely revitalized a tired series that was limping along, desperately clinging to long lost glory days. Abrams and crew pulled off what almost amounted to a spectacular magic trick. They gave us back the characters we loved, this time as recent Starfleet Academy graduates, but due to a conveniently disruptive time-traveling Romulan, were able to completely restart the entire story from scratch, with no connection or responsibility to the preceding 40 years of continuity.
It was brilliant. From that moment on, every story could be brand new, every adventure fresh, and you could walk into a “Star Trek” movie and have absolutely no idea what was going to happen. It was a perfect way to give these classic characters to a new generation without angering the legions of Trekkies who would otherwise raise the roof, shouting “That’s not how it happened!!” every time some element of the new differed from the canon.
So what happened with this second Abrams outing? To answer that, I’m going to have to do something I almost never do. I’m going to have to discuss some spoilers. I’m not going to reveal everything, but to explain what my problems with this movie are, I’m going to have to talk about elements of the story you might wish to be surprised at when you see the movie for yourself.
With that in mind, I’ll give you my takeaway and the grade right up front. “Star Trek Into Darkness” is certainly entertaining and a fun summer popcorn flick, but not nearly as good as its energetic predecessor and, compared to my expectations, a big disappointment.
OK, consider yourself warned. “Star Trek Into Darkness” starts out promising enough, with Kirk and the gang on a far flung planet, trying their best not to break the Prime Directive, which states in no uncertain terms that it is forbidden to interfere with or influence the development of any primitive species, all the while attempting to extinguish a massive volcanic eruption that will most certainly wipe out just such a primitive species.
We have a tense moment where it looks like Spock has had it, and he utters a phrase that set warning bells off in my head. “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.”
“Uh oh,” I thought. For those who don’t recognize that phrase, it’s the one Spock mutters to Kirk just before he dies in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” In one fell swoop, I could see all that fabulous freedom afforded the new crew of the Enterprise from the first film utterly washed away in a misguided effort to embrace the past. There had been rumors that the villain of this next “Star Trek” would be the dastardly Khan Noonen Singh, first made famous by Ricardo Montalban, and while that bothered me a little, I tried to imagine all the cool new directions they could take the characters.
Unfortunately, I could see in that one line that the writers had decided to stick with what works.
“Star Trek Into Darkness” isn’t a direct remake of “Wrath of Khan,” but there are enough callbacks and mirrored scenes that it might as well be. When a smooth talking terrorist by the name of John Harrison, played coolly by Benedict Cumberbatch, first blows up a Starfleet archives and then attacks a meeting of Starfleet brass, it’s pretty obvious who he’s going to turn out to be.
For a good portion of the film, actually, the screenwriters manage to keep the story going in, if not unexpected, at least different directions. Whereas “Wrath of Khan” was about an aging Kirk gaining humility and coming to terms with his mortality, this new one is about young Kirk gaining humility and coming to terms with his mortality.
Snarkiness aside, “Into Darkness” does overlay a fairly biting criticism of the war on terror and the way people are willing to accept militarism in return for a sense of security. We are treated to our first new look at Klingons, as war is definitely brewing. Simon Pegg’s Scotty and John Cho’s Sulu get their moments to shine, as do the main cast members, Spock, Kirk and Uhura. There are a few good space battles, some great special effects, and lots of good action.
But underlying it all is a kind of breathless adoration of the previous “Khan” movie, certain scenes all but announcing the way the whole thing was going to wrap up. When it comes time for the climactic tear-jerker moment, and if you’ve seen the original you’ll know what I’m talking about, Abrams seems like he’s trying to do a shot for shot recreation. Rather than remind me of a movie I dearly love, all this succeeded in doing was irritate me, as does a scene where Spock literally asks questions about the events of “Wrath of Khan,” a poorly conceived moment that I won’t spoil further because it involves another major “surprise” cameo.
Aside from the fact that I felt the best thing about this new “Star Trek” series was its ability to boldly go off in brand new directions, the problem with aligning this latest “Trek” so closely to the original “Khan,” is that it invites comparison. “The Wrath of Khan” is one of the best loved science fiction movies of all time, and is consistently listed as the best “Star Trek” by a wide margin.
At every moment that “Into Darkness” attempts to redo “Khan,” and does it poorly, it just makes it all the more glaring. And worst of all, when it’s all said and done, Abrams and crew don’t even have the guts to carry it all the way out, pulling away from “Khan’s” tragic, poignant finale at the last second using a ridiculous “magic bullet.”
In the end, using Khan as a villain wasn’t the fatal flaw, it’s just that the original character is so good, the writers couldn’t help but try and remain in his powerful orbit. That was the mistake, and it’s fans like me that are going to really take the hit. If you go in to the movie without a lot of baggage, just looking for another good summer blockbuster, you’ll find it. But if you go in looking for a continuation of the brilliance of Abrams first outing, you’re in for a bumpy ride.
“Star Trek Into Darkness” is rated PG-13 for space violence, brief language, and one silly cheesecake scene.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.