May 15, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

After an away mission goes terribly wrong, James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) finds himself temporarily demoted from captaining the USS Enterprise. Then a terrorist attack in London brings him back into the fold, and commanding the Enterprise once again on a trek... into darkness.

It's such a silly title. It doesn't even have a colon: it's not Star Trek: Into Darkness. There is no sub-title here, it's just one sentence, like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Star Trek Into Darkness. It makes me think they just need to turn the lights on. Then again, it's yet another Hollywood film retro-fitted into 3D, so given the dimming effect of those polarised 3D glasses, Star Trek Into Darkness is weirdly appropriate.

This is a mostly great film dragged back by a few elements of monumental stupidity. The stupid bits aren't easy to discuss without revealing key elements of the plot, so we'll put the rest of this review under a cut.

The first thing to say is that all of the elements that made Star Trek (the last film, not the series) such a success are still in place. The lead cast do a marvellous job, the dialogue is snappy and amusing, and the action is exciting and dramatic. The film is littered with continuity references to please the hardcore (Klingons, Section 31, a tribble, Christine Chapel, et al), while the plot is likely clear enough to entertain a mainstream audience at the same time. There are some very weird choices regarding costuming (seriously: when did the Federation start dressing up as Star Wars' Empire?) but design-wise it's mostly great as well.

It was nice to see the film get a second female lead in Carol Marcus (another neat nod to the fans, since the character previously/later appears in The Wrath of Khan, love child in tow), although her inclusion was marred somewhat by a bizarrely gratuitous shot of the character in her underwear.

Then we get to the film's villain.

Rumours were circulating around this movie pretty much from when it was announced, all of them indicating that classic Trek villain Khan Noonien Singh would be appearing. I didn't believe these rumours could possibly be true: (a) it would be remarkably trite and obvious to feature Khan as a villain, (b) Ricardo Montalban's performance in "Space Seed" and Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan was so iconic that it would be foolish to make a different actor reprise the role, (c) Khan was from the 1990s, which was the future in the original series but is of course now nearly 20 years into the past and therefore a bit farcical, and (d) given that English actor Benedict Cumberbatch had been announced as the villain it would seem borderline offensive to replace a Hispanic actor playing a character with an Indian name with a white English guy.

So, as you are probably aware, Cumberbatch is indeed playing everybody's favourite intergalactic Hispanic/Indian psychopath, only posher and whiter, and still from 20 years in the audience's past. Somehow. To be honest nothing about his inclusion in the film makes a lick of sense. Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) explains that Khan was found in deep space and revived to help prepare for an inevitable Federation-Klingon war, however on the basis of what's demonstrated on screen all Khan did was recommend Marcus build a really large starship with lots of guns. You have to ask how much valuable strategic advice a 20th century psychopath could give a 23rd century admiral anyway.

Marcus' massive battleship causes another problem for Star Trek Into Darkness, since it marks the third Trek film in a row in which the climax involves the Enterprise getting shot to pieces by a massive battleship. We already saw this fight four years ago in Star Trek, with Nero's mega-mining ship, and before that we saw Tom Hardy's uber-Romulan cruiser take on Captain Picard. As Scotty once said, 'Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me,' and as Grant says right now, 'Fool me three times, okay I'm bored now.'

Most egregious among the climax's faults - and it's a very long, Cameron-esque climax - is the revisitation of the climax to The Wrath of Khan, only with Kirk sacrificing his life in a radioactive chamber and Spock screaming "Khan!". It's a dreadful scene: ill-thought out in concept and awfully trite in execution. It takes a critical scene from the best of the Star Trek movies and makes a deliberate mockery of it, sacrificing drama or nuance for a chance to nudge and wink at the hardcore fanbase, whispering 'See? You see what we did there? Get it?' For one thing the Wrath of Khan climax worked because it actually killed Spock. The Into Darkness climax leaves you drumming your fingers waiting for Kirk to be magically brought back to life.

So in the end this is basically two-thirds of a great action flick married to one-third of a bang-your-head-against-the-wall-until-unconscious insult to its audience. It's not quite as satisfying as its predecessor, although its best bits are likely better than the best bits of that film. It's a shame they revisited Khan in the manner that they did: if nothing else I think Benedict Cumberbatch deserved a villain of his own.


  1. Hmmm, hmmmm, agree that B.C. really could have been his own villain, no need to tack him onto Kahn.

    That said, I think for new audiences unfamiliar with the original, the only thing that will bother them is that the name really does not seem to match up with white English guy.

    While the Kirk-dying scene did feel like a "see what we did there" I did still enjoy it. It has been a very long time since I last saw the original series/movies so perhaps the vague memories meant I didn't compare the scenes and characters as much as I might have otherwise.

    I also just got a kick out of Spock flipping out. Always enjoy watching The Quiet Controlled Ones flip out :P

    Playing spot-the-Sept-11-metaphor was actually not irritating here... it certainly wasn't subtle, but then I think the US is going to need to continue to reflect on their response to that event for decades more, same way games and film are still exploring the World Wars. The acknowledgement that perhaps hanging out in enemy space with a bunch of weapons, "undetectable" observation of enemy space (drones), etc had some interesting "we didn't think this through" messages. And I liked that the whole point of the movie's after-school special was basically "we should be doing more science and exploration, less attacking and defending".

    I continue to enjoy how they're handling Uhura and Spock's relationship. Hollywood movie relationships usually just make me angry/nauseated. Glad they didn't do a "hurr hurr Uhura in her undies for no reason" shot like they did with Carol. Leave the nonsensical gratuitous stuff for the fan artists. Although Kirk with the cat girls - totally fine, because it made sense to include that scene as an establishing moment for people unfamiliar with Kirk.

  2. I really enjoyed the film and even immensely enjoyed the Spock/Kirk reversal (until Spock screamed out Khaaan! Which kinda made me feel awkwardly embarrassed for him). I do have to agree that it had no real emotional impact though, since it was already heavily foreshadowed that Khan's blood had zombie powers. Then it was followed by 'the tribble of ultimate subtlety' which just seemed like poor directing to me.

    The Khan character seemed to fall apart in the end too now that I think about it--his motivation was both believable and interesting to begin with, then he seemed to change his mind and just want to kill stuff in the end.

    But I reiterate that overall I really enjoyed it :)

  3. I enjoyed the film but found its plot twists a little too obvious and I found the Khan character a poor shadow of his 1990's self.

    He started out extraordinarily well though. I loved how he surrendered once he knew that his crew were on board the Enterprise. And I thought his emotional explanation of his motivations and his appeal to Kirk well done and then... he just sort of lost it.

    There was an appeal about Khan's original character - a sort of reservedness and reasonableness that just wasn't there. I kind of had Khan pegged as seeing himself as a benevolent dictator - who protected his flock as long as they were loyal to him - and saw himself as sort of father figure to nations during the Eugenics Wars in Star Trek's 1990s. The original Kirk admired Khan and wasn't afraid of saying so in Space Seed. And he was prepared to give Khan a Second Chance... despite his crimes.

    There were only hints of this in the new movie. Cumberbatch often just seemed smug. And the no-holds barred Khan of Wrath of Khan is in a headspace that derives from 20 long years of suffering and abandoment. Every spec of reasonableness has been stripped away from him. This Khan just didn't seem to have suffered enough to have become as ruthless as he was.

    But by far the most annoying character in the whole film was Peter Weller's Admiral Marcus - another "ends justify the means" character like the wealthy industrialist and racist leader of Terra Prime that he played in Enterpise, John Paxton. He seemed to exist simply to give Khan a ship he could fly on his own without a crew.

  4. Good point Grailchaser - I enjoyed the new Kahn far more when he had understandable motivation fir what he did. Whereas at the end where he just went axe-crazy he lost what had been an enjoyable sense of depth.

  5. I'm with Grant on the inevitable Kirk resurrection. I'm sitting there all through the omg he's dying so tragic scene tapping my fingers on my thigh going yes, yes, very moving, blah blah, then Bones will resurrect him with the magical resurrection blood, GET ON WITH IT

    Then Spock yelled KHAN and like sajbrfem I just felt kind of embarrassed for him.

    One moment of slightly wanky self-indulgent plot hole justification though: as we left I was thinking "why did they do that entire reshoot of the climax of Wrath of Khan? That was a dumb idea since there was no suspense involved." Then I started thinking about Spock having Old Spock on speed dial for instant advice and the thought occurs that the Star Trek approach to time travel is probably similar to that of Doctor Who, that there are some things that have to happen. Minor details may be different but the event has to take place.

    So, for example, someone has to go into the warp core to fix things and then die. Kirk or Spock, whichever, but causality insists it has to happen.

    On the other hand I am just handwaving away some sorta lazy scriptwriting.

    Admiral Robocop was basically 2-D, so he was pretty yawnworthy. And, yeah, Cumberbatch really deserved a villain of his own, rather than a straight-up rehash.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.