Star Trekking XII: Into Darkness

Posted: September 3, 2014 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews, Retrospectives

Written by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

“When it comes to movie franchises, Star Trek is one of my major blind spots. I have a bit of experience with the series; I’ve seen the Abrams’ films, Wrath of Khan, and even an episode of the original television series for class. But for the most, I’m a novice, and it’s a bit surprising when a sci-fi/adventure series seems right up my alley. I’ve decided to finally rectify this, and thought it be interesting to chronicle my experience through the films, not unlike what I did for the Harry Potter and Batman films. The major difference being that those series’ were ones I had a lot of experience and a strong emotional connection to, unlike Trek. I will be reviewing all twelve theatrically released films from now until late August (at the very latest). With that said, allow me to begin with Star Trek: The Motion Picture.”

This was the first paragraph of my review for The Motion Picture back on May 3rd of this year and served as an introduction to my “Star Trekking” series. I’ve kept my word, watching every film in the series in chronological order and writing a series of lentgthy reviews (though it took me a bit longer than I expected). Despite some less than stellar entries, I’ve really enjoyed my time with Star Trek. There’s some really enjoyable films in this series, and even the weaker films offer some interest. Not only that, but I really felt like I’ve aquired a fairly strong understanding of this world and why it’s so beloved. However the trade off to this is that I view the Abrams films in a very different light now. While I still enjoyed 2009’s Star Trek as a summer action film, but it lacked the magic and imagination of classic Trek. Because of this, I was a bit apprehensive to revisit Abrams’ second foray into the universe, Star Trek Into Darkness.

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Following the events with Nero, Kirk is still captain of the Enterprise and his core crew remains the same. Kirk has confidence, but he’s very reckless and his actions often blatantly disregard the rules. Case in point; the film opens with Kirk violating the prime derective (that the Federation never interfere in the affairs of alien races’ development), albeit in an effort to save Spock and a tribe of aliens. Such actions cause Kirk to be temporarily demoted, but this will not last night. Star Fleet is attacked on Earth by a terrorist known as Jon Harrison, later revealed to be Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), before fleeing to the Klingon home-world. For a Federation ship to enter Klingon space could be seen as a declaration of war, but Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) believes war with the Klingons is inevitable eventually. So he decides to send Kirk away on a very simple mission; to go out to Kronos and kill Jon Harrison.

So essentially we have yet another revenge plot, one where a wronged party seeks to kill those who have hurt them. In this case, we have Kirk seeking vengeance on Khan for killing Captain Pike, and it is later revealed that Khan was seeking vengeance because he believed his crew had been killed by Starfleet officers. I’m not inherently against revenge plots, but I’m tired of the Trek films going back to this same theme. From First Contact on, every single Trek film has involved a major character’s blind hatred and lust for vengeance, and the motives are less interesting in each subsequent film. Star Trek‘s mantra has always been, “To boldly go where no one has gone before” and yet the series is stuck recycling the same ideas in every film. There is some effort to explore new ground in the form of the themes regarding the blind pursuit of enemies onto foreign soil and a desire to shoot first, and ask questions later. Much as I appreciate the effort to have some thematic depth (as oppose to the last film) I’m not sure if the themes really work here. For starters, there is zero subtlety regarding the central theme as the characters openly discuss things in the most blunt manner possible. Not only that, but the central argument feels dated. Had the film come out during or after the Iraq war, the themes would have been topical. But by 2013, when so many other blockbusters like Minority Report and The Dark Knight have dealt with similar issues, Into Darkness feels late to the party. Worst of all though is I don’t think the film is really all that interested in its own themes. While they are preached a lot in the beginning and at the very end, there sort of abandoned throughout the rest of the film. Really, all of the material regarding the pursuing of terrorists feels like it’s there just to make the film look smarter than it is.

At it’s core, Into Darkness is still a full on action movie. Like the last film, as an action movie, this does largely work. The action scenes are consistently strong and there is a variety in the types of action scenes on display. There are also some unique setpieces, notably the scene where Kirk and Khan fly from one ship to another in special space suits. I also appreciate how the action is largely toned down from the last film. There is no planetary destruction this time around, with most of the action scenes being relegated to foot level events, and a stand off between two ships. The only action scene that really fails is the chase/fist fight between Spock and Khan that acts as the climax. First off, I really don’t see how Spock is able to go toe to toe with a superhuman like Khan, especially going by how Into Darkness portrays Khan’s strength. This is a guy who can take multiple stun shots from a phaser, but somehow Spock’s fists can take him down? Beyond that, the sight of Spock endlessly wailing on a villain is very out of character. If you don’t believe me, picture Leonard Nimoy endlessly punching Ricardo Montalban. Doesn’t quite feel right, does it?

Ultimately the biggest problem with Into Darkness is it’s complete lack of creativity and imagination. Not only are general ideas of revenge reused yet again, but more specific elements are stolen too. The most obvious example of this is the inclusion of Khan. Now, if the filmmakers had some creative idea for bringing Khan back that would be one thing, but they really don’t. He mostly does the same types of things the character did in The Wrath of Khan but with a lot less personality. And therein lies another issue with Khan; he isn’t really Khan. He may have the name, the superpowers, and the violence, but the personality and flair that Montalban brought is completely absent. Khan was passionate, boastful, and even fun, in addition to being an intimidating presence. Cumberbatch’s Khan is a much more cold character who just seems to be more of an evil psychopath. It’s a shame too because Cumberbatch does command the screen well, but this isn’t Khan. It’s clear that the filmmakers just wanted the importance of Khan without actually caring about the character, and as a result they lose both. The third act gets even more shameless in how it rips off Wrath, where we have Khan being tricked into beaming aboard a weapon which ultimately destroys his ship and an Enterprise crew member sacrificing themselves to save the ship. Sure, the film inverts who is doing what, but the same beats are hit, and ultimately both points are rendered mute by the fact that Khan still needs to be chased down and physically beaten and that Kirk is resurrected five minutes later free of consequence. Even the idea of a conspiracy to push to war with the Klingons is essentially a watered down version of what was going on in The Undiscovered Country. I’m not sure if all of this was an attempt to “pay homage”, an attempt to pander to fans, or they really don’t know what else to do with Star Trek. Whatever the case, it’s lazy and this series can do a lot better.

All that said, Star Trek Into Darkness isn’t a bad movie. In fact I’m sure to non-fans, it’s a pretty solid blockbuster. The visual effects are good, the action is good, the cast is still fun, the villain is menacing, and the stakes feel high. It’s because of these elements that I still find Into Darkness to be a decent film, but as someone who has seen how great Star Trek can be, I can’t endorse this movie. It takes so many liberties with its characters and what it values that it’s almost unrecognisable. Even detaching myself from the series, the sheer lack of creativity on display is inexcusable. I can’t blame outsiders from enjoying these new films, but I now get why fans of the old have been unable to embrace what Abrams has done. If this is the most creative things the filmmakers could think to do with Star Trek, maybe they shouldn’t have bothered rebooting it.

C+

So that concludes “Star Trekking”. It’s been a very fun series for me, and I hope people enjoyed reading my thoughts as I went through. I especially enjoyed the original six films and look forward to cycling through those again in the future. What’s next for Trek and I? Well, obviously a plan on seeing any new films in the series coming forward. Given that Robert Orci is now writing and directing, my hopes aren’t exactly high, but this series has rebounded before so who knows. I also think I might eventually give the original tv series a shot. I’ve heard some mixed things about the show, but I really dig these characters, and beyond that this is a pop culture milestone that I’d like to learn more about. I might even check out The Next Generation as well, though I doubt I’ll be doing too much writing on either series. Certainly not to the extent I have with the films. Before I sign off, there’s only one thing left to do; rank em!

1.Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

2.Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

3.Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

4.Star Trek: The Motion Picture

5.Star Trek: First Contact

6.Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

7.Star Trek (2009)

8.Star Trek Into Darkness

9.Star Trek: Insurrection

10.Star Trek: Generations

11.Star Trek: Nemesis

12.Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

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