Review: Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) [Spoilers]


This review contains spoilers for Star Trek Into Darkness and other Star Trek films, and is aimed at folks who may or may not be considered Trekkies, but who do find something of value in the Star Trek series.

It’s somewhat rare that the brothers have major disagreements on films, though they do happen. I don’t out and out hate Star Trek Into Darkness, but I don’t share Aren’s enthusiasm for the film to nearly the same level. I think that there are issues with the film that keep it from achieving the level of either great Star Trek-film or great summer action film.

Not all of those issues stem from how the film fits into the existing Star Trek series; I’m skeptical that the film stands truly alone. Ultimately, while it’s a diverting and generally entertaining film, Star Trek Into Darkness expects an audience to have some knowledge and affection for the past Star Trek films, particularly Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, to draw maximum pleasure from the repeated callbacks and in-jokes that pepper the film. At the same time, the logic and execution of the references is lacking, which makes me wonder who exactly the intended audience of this film is?

But first a couple of positive comments about the film: I really didn’t hate it, and it has a lot of good things going for it. First among them is Chris Pine in the role of James T. Kirk. Pine does a great job of portraying Kirk in all his brash and fast-thinking bravado. Pine manages to deliver the lines spoken by Kirk in such a way that they truly feel like it’s the same character, if an alternate timeline version, of William Shatnar’s icon. It’s a remarkable performance, and some seem unable to see past Pine’s boyishness, preferring Zachary Quinto’s Spock. Quinto is good, but for me can’t quite seem to get past playing to every generic expectation of Spock and his emotionless logic. It’s easy to forget that Leonard Nimoy’s Spock was actually quite varied and complex, even in early episodes of the original series. But still, Pine and Quinto do an admirable job as recast versions of two of the last century’s most iconic science fiction characters.

Another strong point of the film is Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance. Anyone who is a fan of this rising star, particularly his fantastic performance as Sherlock Holmes on the BBC’s Sherlock, knows that he is a formidable actor. As “John Harrison,” Cumberbatch gets plenty of opportunity to be a badass and deliver threats and warnings to the Enterprise crew. But this is where things get tricky and begin to fall apart.

By now if you’ve seen the film or visited the IMDb page for the film, you know that Cumberbatch is not actually John Harrison, but the infamous Khan Noonien Singh, formerly played by Ricardo Montalban. Yes, the Khan of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, here is found by the shadowy Starfleet agency, Section 31, before the Enterprise does and put into service to protect the Federation. Of course, Khan is not to be trusted and is pushing his own agenda in order to free his crew.

In choosing to not go the straight reboot route and instead present this series as an alternate timeline, J. J. Abrams frees himself to offer alternate stories with the same characters. But by branching the timeline, shouldn’t he stick to the origin of anything prior to where the timelines split? The best parts of the film are where it diverges the most from the originals, such as when Kirk and Khan team up (temporarily). It’s a minor nitpick, but why is Khan suddenly now white and seemingly possessing far more strength than he did in the original series or film? Perhaps this was an opportunity to take the Singh name seriously, and recast Khan as a Sikh? It would definitely be a more interesting take on the idea of a superhuman than another villain that reeks vaguely of white supremacy.

But the biggest problem with bringing back Khan as the villain is that at this point, Khan hasn’t yet earned the history with Kirk that would make him as memorable as he was in Star Trek II. As Aren pointed out in our discussion about the film, it is more a reworking of the original series episode “Space Seed” that introduced Khan than a remake of Star Trek II. At least it should be, given where it falls in the character’s history.

But it isn’t. J. J. Abrams and his writers apparently decided that to do a Khan film without some major nods to Star Trek II would be a waste. So we get Alice Eve as Carol Marcus doing little, the death of a major character while trying to restore the warp core, and, yes, “KHAAAAAAAN!” It comes across as merely fan service, but it points to what is the biggest problem with this series.

J. J. Abrams claims that he just wants to make Star Trek into a sweet action science fiction series, but the constant callbacks to the original series are more than just nice nods for fans in the know. For Star Trek (2009) or Star Trek Into Darkness to have emotional resonance, the films require the audience to have a preexisting emotional attachment to the characters and knowledge of plot points that have come before. What I feel the effect is for the most part is a lazy shorthand to drawing audience connection. The stakes seem bigger than they actually are because the audience knows that in Star Trek II, Khan killed Spock. In his appearance Spock Prime (Leonard Nimoy) even calls Khan the most dangerous foe the Enterprise ever faced, which seems hyperbolic since Khan was always more of an immediate threat to the ship and crew rather than the whole universe.

It’s symptomatic of J. J.’s entire approach to Star Trek that the emotional stakes rely on audience history, not what is actually on screen. So, in Star Trek Into Darkness, when Kirk makes the ultimate sacrifice, we’re supposed to be really moved and believe that Kirk and Spock are best friends, but really out of the two films we’ve had with them they spend much of the time at odds with each other. Only the presence of Spock Prime telling young Spock that they are supposed to be best friends exists, combined with what we all know about nearly 50 years of Star Trek canon. The desire to remake Star Trek II means that they wanted to repeat a character’s sacrifice, but the film hasn’t earned it at this point and it feels diminished.

Other major characters get short shrift, particularly Dr. Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban), who at this point in the films has done little other than repeat his admittedly funny one-liners. Aren says that the joy of the film is watching these actors interact with these iconic roles, but at this point it’s almost like watching karaoke versions of the characters: repetitions of lines and nods to character traits, but not real engagement with them.

My verdict on this film is basically that the contention that the film will be more appealing to non-Trek fans ignores the fact that Star Trek Into Darkness relies on what has come before as a nostalgic crutch. I’ve ignored much of what many are describing as plot-holes, because, well those don’t matter much to me. I think Star Trek has always had lots of questionable plot machinations that never detracted from my enjoyment of them. But, while I agree with Aren that there are some very good action sequences and real moments of fun along the way, Star Trek Into Darkness fumbles in its negotiation of being either a straight reboot or faithful to the spirit of the original series. It ends up being a fun action sci-fi that falls somewhere in between. And while that’s good enough that it may still end up being one of the summer’s better blockbusters, it could have been so much more.

6 out of 10

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013, USA)

Directed by J. J. Abrams; written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof; starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Alice Eve, Peter Weller, Bruce Greenwood, and Benedict Cumberbatch.