I’ve seen little of late that has left me feeling as full of nerd-rage as Star Trek Into Darkness. Not that it wasn’t an enjoyable movie. It was, but…
First, the good. Abrams once again put a great deal of attention into the Star Trek skin with which he covered his action movie. That was a thing I appreciated from the 2009 movie, and Abrams continued doing just as good a job. He also kept a fair grasp of characters, and even allowed his female characters to appear competent and useful (outside of one specific unnecessary T&A scene which had me literally throwing popcorn). They did such a good job that I didn’t even notice the women were in the gogo boots and miniskirt uniforms until near the end of the movie. The acting was good; it was at least as good as the 2009 movie, if not better due to the actors having a better grasp of their roles.
The biggest upgrade, to me, was that Abrams tried to make it a more thoughtful movie. Through all the complaints of the 2009 movie, the only one that I felt held any water was the fact that Abrams made a dumb action flick out of an IP that had always tried to be more thoughtful. Into Darkness made an honest attempt. I certainly won’t argue that “Kirk learns he must give of himself and take responsibility for his actions, while Spock learns that he can not be a robot” is the most basic Trek lesson ever, but one must learn the basics before one can advance.
On the technical side, Abrams tried for the action formula once again. Unfortunately, in doing so, he rarely gave the audience a chance to sit and absorb what they were seeing. Tension was inserted so ham-fistedly, I felt that a better movie title would have been Star Trek: Everyone Running. The most flagrant of those moments was when Scotty was sneaking through an enemy ship, trying to help other characters sneak aboard. It would have been a perfect moment to insert some stealth-filled tension, which would have made a great dramatic counterpoint to the frantic pace at which the other team was attempting to sneak in from the outside. Instead, we got five minutes of watching Scotty run.
The other problem was that, in making the movie a Star Trek “Message” episode, they took away from Khan. Yes, Khan was the villain…except no he wasn’t. The real villain was a Starfleet Admiral who, in his fear of the coming war, had unfrozen and attempted to manipulate Khan into helping him build weapons. I want to note, however, that the part itself was not the problem. The “genetically enhanced supervillain” was a perfectly fine character that fit in just fine with the overall narrative. There was not, however, any reason for him to be Khan. Quite frankly, making him Khan at all did the entire movie a disservice, since this representation simply could not live up to the fear the original could cause. It felt more like he was made Khan because the fans wanted to see Khan.
Which brings me around to the other problem. Tell me if this scene sounds at all familiar. The ship is approaching critical mass. The warp core is about to breach. They can almost get it fixed, but… shit, the core is misaligned! One of the senior officers, intent on saving the crew of the ship, runs into the core in spite of the fact that the radiation will kill them, and manages, in the nick of time, to re-align the core and get power back to the ship. The ship is saved, but at the cost of his life! Upon finding out about his death, one of the other senior officers shouts “KHAAAAAAN!”
Yeah, not only did they take two scenes from the original, re-hash them, and then mash them together, they also switched up who did what. I didn’t mind Abrams having Kirk perform Spock’s sacrifice, not in and of itself. I honestly felt the movie had worked to earn Kirk sacrificing himself heroically, and at that point, essentially re-shooting the situation from the original was a nice touch of fan service. What the movie did not earn was Spock’s emotional outburst. Not only was it not earned, it wasn’t needed. Had Spock stared at Kirk’s dead body, a single tear rolling down his eye, and then stood up and went after Khan in the exact same way, the scene would have been entirely acceptable and appropriate.
Instead, what we got was a gigantic flashing neon sign saying “LOOK, I’M GIVING YOU TREK FANS WHAT YOU WANT, RIGHT?! YOU THOUGHT THESE SCENES WERE GOOD, RIGHT?! DON’T YOU LIKE THEM NOW IN THIS MOVIE?! AM I A TREK MOVIE YET, AM I AM I AM I?!”
Well, no, Into Darkness, you’re not. Or rather, you almost were, right up until you did that. See, I’m pretty forgiving of the various uses of the Star Trek IP as long as the makers show that they tried. Trying, in this case, meaning that they show that they comprehend what made Star Trek what it was. That’s why I gave the 2009 movie a pass, because even though it was a dumb action flick, Abrams at least took the time to inform us that it was an alternate timeline. But in his zeal to create the perfect Star Trek skin for his dumb action flicks, Abrams made a glaring error and showcased that he had no understanding of the IP’s substance. It’s not that he took whole scenes and jury-rigged them into his movie, its that he did so with those scenes. Why?
Because those scenes defined what Star Trek was. Spock’s selflessness in the face of certain death, Kirk’s rage becoming so overwhelming that all he could do was scream the name of his enemy, those were moments that made us connect to the setting and the characters in a way that little else had. What’s worse, Abrams brought Kirk back at the end of the movie, which only served to hamstring the entire message he’d tried to set up. I’m not down on it entirely, I felt like they put in the work to justify saving Kirk. But in Wrath of Khan, when the movie ended, the audience was forced to sit there and process the ultimate meaning of Spock’s sacrifice. There was no internet back then, no rumors of a third movie, which meant there was no promise of Spock ever coming back. The audience was forced to sit and accept the fact that for all the good Spock had done, there now is no more Spock. Into Darkness, by contrast, told the audience “as long as you’re heroic enough, things will work out fine! No need for Pyrrhic victories here! Nothing short of fully happy endings!”
As I said, it was not a bad movie. I’d even say it was a good movie, and a little better than the 2009 movie, by virtue of trying to be more thoughtful. As much as some people complain about Abrams saying he was never really a fan of Star Trek, I do feel like he’s trying to think like a fan. I just can’t help but feel like he’s one of those fans who who watched a whole bunch of random episodes so he could talk about all the cool scenes, but didn’t bother to engage the actual material because he cares more about being seen as a fan than being a fan.
Could be worse, though. Could have been directed by Michael Bay.