“My crew is my family, Kirk. Is there anything you would not do for your family?”
The Scoop: 2013 PG-13, directed by J.J. Abrams and starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, and Zoe Saldana
Tagline: Beyond the darkness lies greatness.
Summary Capsule: The reboot movies provide their own action-packed version of Star Trek II. Nostalgia not included.
Al’s rating: I wouldn’t object to JJ Abrams being marooned for all eternity in the center of a dead planet… buried alive!
Al’s review: A while back, I wrote an impassioned defense of JJ Abrams’ first Star Trek movie. I argued that, despite the claims of shallowness and crummy science, it was a fast, fun, sexy reset button that brought Trek back to life. Three years and umpteen viewings later, I stand by that review. JJ’s Star Trek rocks and, more importantly, it sets the scene for a new series of films that are able to explore the Star Trek playground without being slavishly tied to canon. I’m in love with the way they handled this reboot, and that’s why it’s so hard for me to look at Star Trek Into Darkness and admit that it’s a massive disappointment.
This isn’t to say that the movie is a total failure. Beyond looking gorgeous and having great action sequences, I think it nails the characters maybe better than any of the prior films. The Kirk/Spock/Bones dynamic is rockin’, we get a glimpse of the deep steel in Sulu, and Scotty gets to show that he won’t be pushed around in his own engine room. Admittedly, Chekov is mostly wasted and Uhura seems demoted from ‘interesting, competent, strong female character’ to ‘squalling girlfriend who only exists to assist in Spock’s characterization’, but that’s not my point. There are lots of great character beats here and I don’t want to undersell that. The chemistry between this cast is unmistakable and I think it’s really clear that the writers of Into Darkness get these people.
What I can’t help feeling like they don’t get is Star Trek. That’s a bold statement, I know, but hear me out. When Gene Roddenberry created The Original Series, he created a galaxy where humans had advanced beyond materialism, petty squabbling and kneejerk violence. Humans weren’t perfect, but they don’t fight each other anymore. It was a very specific directive that forced the writers to be more creative and resulted in the most progressive science fiction that had ever been televised. The plot of Star Trek Into Darkness decides to forego all of that and (without getting too spoilery) centers its’ plot around Section 31—the “covert” branch of Starfleet from Deep Space Nine that engages in espionage, misinformation, and assassination. They are probably the most divisive creation in all of Trek lore and it is widely accepted they are something that Gene Roddenberry would have capital-H Hated. It stinks thematically, and, as the basis for a movie, Section 31 is the perfect excuse for the writers to shut down their brains and write sci-fi that is dumb, common, and uninspired.
As much as that bugs me, though, I have another complaint that I think is far more important: What, exactly, was this movie about? You can make an argument for “the importance of friendship”, I guess, but that’s pretty shaky. Personally, I don’t think it was about much of anything. Star Trek—good Star Trek, important Star Trek—always has a point. There is a message, an ethical dilemma, or an examination of some part of the human condition. Into Darkness starts off so promising in this category—Kirk doesn’t respect the chair; he doesn’t understand the Prime Directive; he won’t accept that he can’t change fate—and then spirals off into a different direction that happens to contain more explosions. Heck, there’s a moment in this movie is when one guy chases another guy with through the city streets with a gun and then gets into a fistfight on top of a moving truck, and it’s an important plot point! Does that sound like Star Trek to you? Or does it sound like someone who is out of ideas and is trying to make sure the audience doesn’t notice?
And the movie is so smug about it! It’s spattered with references to other Trek movies and episodes, and while a few of them mange to be short and fun and understated, most of them are so obnoxious that they overpower everything else in the scene. Even the damn climax feels like it should have a giant blinking signs reminding you that the writers have watched Star Trek before and begs us to pat them on the head and call them clever. I don’t know, maybe I’m being petty about this but URGH it just ticks me off.
I suppose that a lot of you reading this are shaking your heads and muttering that I’ve spun 180 degrees and now sound like the same schmoes that I was ragging on three years ago. You know what? You might be right. In my mind, though, part of the brilliance of the 2009 Star Trek is that it got people through the door. It got them to sit down, to have a good time, to become invested in the characters, and made them want to come back. Star Trek Into Darkness had the opportunity to take it to the next level and use that fast, funny, sexy exterior to not only show these people what Star Trek is really about but show them what makes Star Trek awesome–because when it’s done right, it is awesome. Unfortunately, Into Darkness isn’t Star Trek done right, its Star Trek done stupid. I still love the new Trek cast and I love the new Trek energy, but this franchise needs to be in the hands of someone who trusts it and it’s clear to me that these people don’t. JJ and Damon Lindelof have done a lot right, but it’s time for them to step out of the sandbox. With any luck, the next movie will bulldoze this one down and resurrect something that’s actually worth my time.
Justin’s rating: All systems nominal
Justin’s review: First things first: I was beyond relieved that Star Trek Into Darkness addressed a few of my biggest quibbles from the otherwise-excellent 2009 film. Instead of moving on, Into Darkness draws upon the events of the reboot to answer if it was really a good idea to hand a starship over to a Starfleet Academy student (answer: it wasn’t), if Kirk should be in charge if he hasn’t developed maturity (answer:nope), and how Nero’s reshaping of the galaxy has impacted the timeline (answer: it kind of made everyone paranoid). The film even remembered that Spock has a whole lot of future-specific information — and it doesn’t shy away from it.
Into Darkness isn’t a perfect film, but it is a darn OK one and one that I’m perfectly comfortable including in the Star Trek canon (as if I was being consulted). In fact, after hearing grumpy Trekkies going on and on about how J.J. Abrams is just outright destroying the Trek universe and how this movie represented blasphemy of the utmost kind, I was really expecting a mindless action flick that only used Trek as a set dressing. Instead, I watched a movie where continuity was grasped, where homages to the original series were made, and where countless references to established Trek lore and characters were pulled out just for that audience subset. So for those grousing that Star Trek has been taken away from them and given to the unwashed masses, I have to just throw my hands up and ask why Into Darkness even bothered to appeal to them at all.
I’m satisfied, though. That should be enough. The way I see it, Abrams’ Trek is an intriguing “what if?” scenario that doesn’t overwrite what came before it so much as steps to the side and shows an alternate universe’s take — much like the mirror universe of established Trek. You hate it and want to ignore it? The original timeline is still there, somewhere. But I think there’s room enough for both.
Into Darkness kicks off with two key developments: Kirk showing that he’s such a flyboy rulebreaker that he gets brought home for a proper spanking, and a sinister fellow named Harrison who starts targeting Starfleet for some unknown purposes. The former is far more interesting to me, because the first movie had a devil of a time getting me to root for Kirk. I don’t think I’d like this punk if I met him, because what his superiors say is completely true: he relies more on luck than wisdom, he thinks the rules don’t apply to him, and he’s probably going to get everyone in his command killed. So if the Star Trek reboot was about Kirk stumbling his way into the captain’s chair of the Enterprise, Into Darkness is about him actually earning it.
Another thing I appreciated? The whole crew gets a lot more time in the spotlight than you’d find in some of the previous Trek films. More McCoy, more Chekov, more Sulu, more of goatee security man who probably got killed when I wasn’t watching, and more of Scotty’s awesomeness. Spock absolutely steals the spotlight from Kirk in most of his scenes, showing the continuing struggle between his human and Vulcan sides while showing his own strength of leadership.
Into Darkness is the reboot’s response/echo/callback to Wrath of Khan — which it handled somewhat better than the lackluster Nemesis did. I don’t entirely agree that there needed to be a rehash of Star Trek’s best film, but it was quite… fascinating… to see how it was addressed, how it was inverted, and how it was subverted. I wish I could talk more about this aspect, but there are too many spoilers to get into it, so suffice to say that there’s an obvious respect for what came before instead of an attempt to upstage a classic.
Trekkies and characters aside, what you have here is a thrill ride of a sci-fi flick, long on action scenes and not so long on actual space exploration (although there is a promise of that at the end). I’m still adjusting to how Abrams has interpreted Trek’s look and style, at some points being slavishly devoted to the franchise and at many points veering off to do its own thing. The clean and neony warp core that we’ve long since known is now this atom-smashing mechanical monster that takes some getting used to, but probably is more true to form than the glowy condom of The Next Generation’s engine room. Klingons look a little off, but there’s some references to honor and a lot of aggressive fighting, so I’m able to make peace with that. I guess I’d like to see more classic Trek races than these weird aliens that only exist in these two reboot films, but then again, Trek’s all about introducing new races every single week.
So I’m cool with this. I continue to wonder where Trek will go from here, if these reboot films (of which I predict one or two more, tops) remain the only big- or small-screen presence during this decade. Will the prime universe eventually fade from the mainstream audience’s minds — and even Trekkies’ hearts? Who knows, but at least we’re left with two good Trek films in a row to make up for two bad ones that came before it.
- Paramount Pictures requested director J.J. Abrams to make the film in 3D. However, Abrams wanted to shoot the movie two dimensionally on film using IMAX cameras. The two compromised, and as a result this film marks the first time in cinema history that a movie was filmed in the IMAX format and then converted into 3D in post production.
- This marks the first time a Star Trek film has shot outside the United States, with shooting in Iceland for special effects sequences.
- During the opening sequence, McCoy says “Shut up Spock, we’re rescuing you!” McCoy spoke the same line in the original series episode “The Immunity Syndrome”.
- Chekov’s temporary posting to Chief Engineer is based on a long running backstory and fan joke. When he was recognized from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, it was explained Chekov was assigned in security department. During the prime universe takeover, Chekov attempted to seal off engineering (as Walter Koenig hadn’t yet joined the cast). Kirk was so impressed by his bravery, he moved him to bridge navigation. This also explained why Chekov in the first three films was later bridge weapons and tactical officer.
- Seatbelts! Finally!
- The son of the original Scotty; James Doohan; makes a cameo appearance in the film as a Transport Officer alongside the current Scotty Simon Pegg.
Christopher Pike: Do you know what a pain you are? You think the rules don’t apply to you. There’s greatness in you, but there’s not an ounce of humility. You think that you can’t make mistakes, but there’s going to come a moment when you realize you’re wrong about that, and you’re going to get yourself and everyone under your command killed.
Kirk: Why would a Starfleet admiral ask a three-hundred-year-old frozen man for help?
Harrison: Because I am better.
Kirk: At what?
Kirk: See, I told you it would fit!
Spock: I am not sure that qualifies.
Kirk: If Spock were here, and I were there, what would he do?
Bones: He’d let you die.
Kirk: The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
Spock: An Arabic proverb attributed to a prince who was betrayed and decapitated by his own subjects.
Kirk: Well, its still a hell of a quote.
Bones: You know, when I dreamed about being stuck on a deserted planet with a gorgeous woman, there was no torpedo.
Sulu: Attention: John Harrison. This is Captain Hikaru Sulu of the USS Enterprise. A shuttle of highly trained officers is on its way to your location. If you do not surrender to them immediately, I will unleash the entire payload of advanced long-range torpedoes currently locked on to your location. You have two minutes to confirm your compliance. Refusal to do so will result in your obliteration. And If you test me, you will fail.
Bones: Mr. Sulu, remind me never to piss you off.
Pike: Are you giving me attitude, Spock?
Spock: I am expressing multiple attitudes simultaneously sir, to which one are you referring?
Pike: That’s a technicality.
Spock: I am Vulcan, sir. We embrace technicalities.
Harrison: My crew is my family, Kirk. Is there anything you would not do for your family?
Kirk: Wait, are you guys… are you guys fighting?
Uhura: I’d rather not talk about it, sir.
Kirk: Oh my GOD, what is that even like?
If you liked this movie, try these:
- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
- Star Trek (2009)
- Sherlock (TV series)