Now, I’ve already reviewed “Star Trek Into Darkness” but that review was written in the rosy afterglow of binging on the special effects and grand 3D IMAX spectacle of it all. It occurred to me a few days later that the plot didn’t make a lick of sense and far from learning from his missteps on the first “Star Trek” film; JJ Abrams had repeated them all and found some new ones too. Worse still, the film explicitly spits in the face of the idea that the rebooted continuity was created to let them tell new stories with the same characters, because they only seem interested in rehashing old stories and staying as earth-bound as possible.
When a terrorist attack devastates a Starfleet installation in 23rd Century London, Kirk and crew are sent to the Klingon homeworld to kill the man responsible, a former Starfleet Officer called John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). Instead of killing him, Kirk captures him, intending to bring him back to Earth to face justice. However Kirk and Spock discover that Harrison is not what he seems and may hold the key to a vast military conspiracy which reaches right to the heart of Starfleet itself.
The opening of “Star Trek Into Darkness” is possibly the dumbest, most incontrovertibly wrongheaded opening of any sci-fi film anywhere outside of the SyFy channel’s movie of the week. Not only do the writers (the same miscreants who wrote the previous one) seem entirely ignorant of the fictional principles of “Star Trek” technology and science, they seem to struggle with a great deal of present day knowledge and understanding too. The sequence was no doubt designed entirely to look ‘cool’ and it’s hard to know where to begin pointing out its flaws. There’s a scene in an episode of “Futurama” where the Planet Express Ship is inadvertently dragged underwater which goes like this:
Professor Hubert Farnsworth: Dear Lord! That’s over 150 atmospheres of pressure!
Fry: How many atmospheres can the ship withstand?
Professor Hubert Farnsworth: Well, it’s a space ship, so I’d say anywhere between zero and one.
The ignorance of basic physics is compounded by the fact there is no reason for the Enterprise to be underwater at all. In fact, they shouldn’t be on the planet in the first place and the discussion about the Prime Directive they have isn’t even on the right subject. The rest of it is just nonsense. A ‘cold fusion’ device would not freeze a volcano and why were Kirk and McCoy tasked with getting the natives away from the danger zone when apparently you can escape the danger zone on foot in about thirty seconds. Transporter beams needing line of sight: stupid (and better served by having the Enterprise in orbit rather than under the ocean a mile or so away). The idea of a volcano of that minuscule size being enough to destroy an entire planet: stupid. The suggestion that an entire planet has become corrupted because half a dozen natives have seen the ship rise from the sea? Stupid. And the whole asinine sequence exists in the film for one thing – to get Kirk demoted out of the Captain’s chair (as Starfleet plays musical chairs yet again with the command of Starships) and put Pike back in, just so they can switch them back again fifteen minutes later. So, just to recap, the whole of the first film was purported to be Kirk’s journey (it wasn’t though, was it? It was about Spock) to achieving his destiny, growing from the angry underachiever to a skilled commander. Having achieved that, this film undercuts it in its first five minutes. Don’t worry though, the swings and roundabouts of this most casual of military organisations mean that Kirk is back in the Captain’s chair again before you have time to say “Shenanigans”.
After the terrible start, the film recovers some ground, although its treatment of characters is still cavalier at best and a travesty at worst. The expedition to the Klingon Homeworld is well staged and exciting, as are all of the space battle scenes in this action heavy instalment. The reboot universe Klingons are fierce and intimidating although we don’t really get to know much about them. The real plot kicks into gear once Harrison is brought on board the Enterprise. Taunting and teasing Kirk in equal measure, he prompts the crew of the Enterprise to investigate the motives of Admiral Marcus, the man who sent them on the mission in the first place. Harrison is revealed to be none other than Khan Noonien Singh, and offers an alliance to bring down the Starfleet conspirators and save his Botany Bay crew.
In the beginning of the story, there is at least an attempt to explore how the events of “Space Seed” would have played out differently in this timeline but once Cumberbatch makes his growly declamation of his identity – a moment which is played as the dramatic pivot of the film – all bets are off and it becomes a tedious riffing on somebody else’s ideas. This is the cheapest, laziest point of the film, and it acts as the anchor which drags the last hour down. This new “Star Trek” was sold on the basis that you didn’t need to know anything of what came before, because it was all new. The Khan reveal (already corrupted and diminished by a spectacularly misjudged pre-release campaign of teasing and denial) is completely meaningless and devoid of any drama for both the characters and the audience, unlessyou’ve seen “The Wrath Of Khan”. This film is literally feeding off the drama of another movie to sustain itself: it’s a narrative vampire; a continuity parasite. Interestingly, it’s clearly shot and edited with a pause to allow a dramatic scored sting in the scene but experienced composer Michael Giacchino wisely opts for the absence of music to reflect the import of the scene. And as for the lifted-straight-from-the-“Wrath Of Khan”-script final act, swapping the characters around doesn’t make it fresh and clever – it makes it cheap and empty. The moments between Kirk and Spock at the end of “The Wrath Of Khan” have such emotional weight and power because these characters have earned it over eighty previous adventures that we’ve seen and a thousand we’ve imagined. When this universe’s Kirk and Spock try to mimic it, we don’t buy it because they’ve spent three hours together and spent most of that time bickering or being enemies and to have Spock scream ‘Khaaaaaan!’ is just risible, although it fits with the general Abrams theme of ‘it’s all about Spock’. That being said, the moment when Quinto’s Spock contacts Spock Prime to ask how to deal with Khan is literally the worst. ‘Contacting Old Spock’ is Trek’s equivalent to ‘Nuking The Fridge’ or ‘Jumping The Shark’. I hope Old Spock mentioned that once they’d dealt with Khan, they might want to get a wiggle on and travel back in time to get some humpback whales as it’ll save a lot of hassle in the long run.
Chris Pine’s Kirk continues to be the worst “Star Trek” captain ever, his aggressive dickishness toned down a little from the first movie (I’m not going to dwell on the puerile alien threesome scene) but his ability to command still severely curtailed. There isn’t a scene where Kirk has an idea or gives a command and it sticks. Usually, somebody else suggests an alternative and Kirk changes his mind. This happens throughout the film, and yet nobody seems to question why he’s in charge if all he ever does if flip-flop when decisions are made.
Quinto continues to do good work as Spock (as he should, he is the lead character) but is still saddled with the unconvincing romance with Uhura which has several sitcom-esque moments of relationship problems for ‘comedic effect’ during the movie. The rest of the crew get very little to do but repeat the same old lines as their predecessors while they sit at their stations. Anton Yelchin’s Chekov gets particularly shafted as he’s packed off to the engine room and hardly appears in the rest of the movie, allowing Scotty and his sidekick Keenser (Deep Roy) to stumble upon the bad guys’ secret lair and do lots of funny running and being out of breath.
Of the guest cast, Peter Weller is suitably bullish as the righteous Admiral Marcus and his conspiracy to provoke a war with the Klingons is the only plot element not to come from “Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan”. It comes from “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” instead. Alice Eve as the Admiral’s daughter Carol is completely unnecessary in this film, existing only to emphasise the parallels with “The Wrath Of Khan” and provide a gratuitously clumsy bit of titillation. Benedict Cumberbatch is in full scenery chewing mode and makes for an entertaining antagonist, but it’s hard to shake the impression that the Khan he thinks he’s playing is Shere Khan of “The Jungle Book” and not Khan Noonien Singh.
Not being content with sneaking in as much “Star Wars” as possible last time round, JJ looks to bring in even more “Star” franchises this time, invoking “Stargate” in the use of the trans-warp beaming technology. If Starfleet has the technology to beam across galactic distances at will, Admiral Marcus’ paranoia makes no sense. At the merest hint of a threat, he could just beam a weapon of mass destruction to the homeworld of the enemy and job done. As usual, behind of the flash and spectacle, there’s little thought and no logic.
As it stumbles to its action-packed finale, common sense is again jettisoned out the airlock as the two crippled and adrift starships which are behind the Moon, begin to fall, having been caught by gravity. Not of the Moon, mind you, but by the Earth which is over 240,000 miles away. Once the action crashes back down to Earth (it feels like we’ve never been away and like the Enterprise spends more time in the atmosphere than in outer space), the real reason for the switch becomes clear. With Kirk ‘dead’, the path is clear for the true hero of the “Star Trek” movies, Spock, to have the action packed chase and fight before Kirk is conveniently resurrected using a Khan’s blood serum that McCoy whips up from nothing like a miraculous medical “Ready, Steady, Cook!”. That’s right, kids. In JJ Abrams “Star Trek”, there’s no need for starships anymore and nobody can die. You can just feel the dramatic potential of the third film, can’t you?
As per his previous effort, there are good things about this movie. The interior of the Enterprise is much better realised this time out, although certain design elements are clearly there for dramatic potential rather than good ship design. In a starship where space would be at a premium, why would it ever make sense to have a multi-floor atrium running vertically through the ship? Sure, it looks nice, but it’s a hell of a waste of space. The score, once again by Michael Giacchino, is richer, darker and more confident than the previous one and having heard it performed by a live orchestra and choir accompanying the film, I can confirm it is far,far better than the movie deserves. To be fair, the action scenes and battles are thumpingly good, with the weapons having real and devastating impact but the same problem remains: the things these films are good at are not “Star Trek” things. As a sci-fi action adventure, “Star Trek Into Darkness” is a great improvement over 2009’s “Star Trek”, which itself was a fairly decent space opera but neither of them are quintessentially Star Trek. You’d think being better than the previous one would get it a better score but its egregious plundering of earlier films makes any improvements in other areas ultimately a zero sum game.
With JJ Abrams going off to make “Star Wars: Episode VII”, it looks like there will be more changes behind the scenes as they gear up for the third film. Abrams will still produce but the reality is his Lucasfilm duties will keep him from having too much influence and with the Orci/ Kurtzman partnership dissolving we can expect a new writing approach. “Into Darkness” does end on the promising note of the crew embarking on the five year mission we know and love, so there’s a possibility they consider this film their “Skyfall“: the prequels are done, everything is where we remember it to be and now we’re set for all new adventures. It appears Robert Orci will be handed the director’s chair for the third instalment, no doubt targeting a 2016 50th Anniversary release and of the three previous writers, he may be the least bad choice from a fan point of view. Reputedly, he is a huge fan of “Star Trek” and, if rumours are true, was opposed to using Khan at all in “Into Darkness”. That’s enough for me to give him the benefit of the doubt and you can bet that come 2016, my ass will be in a 3D IMAX seat to see where Trek is boldly going.