Star Trek: Into Darkness

*** SPOILER WARNING ***

Though I won’t be spoiling the whole movie or even a significant chunk of the plot, I will be revealing the true identity of Benedict Cumberbatch’s character that for some reason J.J. Abrams has decided should be kept secret even though the entire internet knew about it at least two years ago. But still, if you are one of the people who have luckily been spoiler-free up to this point, please wait until you have seen the movie before reading my review. I honestly do not want to spoil anything for anybody.

*** END SPOILER WARNING ***

I will state up front that I hated Star Trek (2009). I have been a Star Trek fan for a long time. Though I’ve always liked Star Wars better, Star Trek filled a different part of my fandom that Star Wars could not. That niche was science fiction. Contrary to seemingly popular opinion, Star Wars isn’t science fiction; it’s fantasy, or science fantasy if you prefer. Just because a story takes place in space or the future, doesn’t automatically make it science fiction. Star Wars has wizards and magic and princesses placing it very squarely in the fantasy category. Just because the backdrop of this tale involves space ships and droids and laser guns doesn’t automatically make it science fiction. That is because science fiction is a way of telling human interest stories against a futuristic backdrop or setting, in order to put those ideas in a different perspective. Star Trek (2009) was not science fiction, it was an action movie in space. There was no allegory, no message, nothing of substance whatsoever. It was simply a film with a lot of exciting action scenes tied together by a completely nonsensical story that didn’t even make sense within the context of the film itself. However, going into Star Trek: Into Darkness, I did try to keep an open mind. Because who knows? Perhaps the main problem with the script of the first one was all the time it took to set up a new parallel time line so that they can reboot the franchise didn’t give them time to tell an interesting and provocative narrative. Perhaps now that that was behind them, they could focus on telling a good story in their new (but still tied to the original via one character from the other timeline existing in the new timeline) sandbox. However, that is not the case. Instead of trying to tell a new and interesting story of their own, they just retread an old one and did an awful job of it at that.

The film opens up on the “M Class Planet Nibiru” where the crew of the Enterprise are trying to save a primitive species from extinction because a volcano is about to erupt. As a Star Trek fan I was immediately annoyed by this because doing this violates the Prime Directive. The Prime Directive states that Starfleet personnel are prohibited from interfering with the natural development of primitive species and cultures. Saving a species from extinction due to a naturally occurring volcanic eruption is a pretty clear violation of this edict. The script writers themselves even point this fact out to the audience by having Spock recite the Prime Directive to Captain Kirk, so I am clearly questioning the sanity of the script writers at this point. But then something amazing happens. Kirk gets in trouble for it. Christopher Pike chews him out and he gets stripped of his Captain rank. I was honestly surprised and delighted. I started to get my hopes up. I thought that maybe, just maybe, this would be a good Star Trek movie and for a while it was a reasonable facsimile. That is, until about roughly 40 minutes into the film when the narrative regressed into what I can only describe as a Bizarro World version of The Wrath of Khan.

Which brings me to the “mystery character”, played with a combination of herculean restraint and maniacal glee by the brilliant Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock). There has been much to-do about the character he plays on the internet and elsewhere. Guesses ranged everywhere from Trelane (“The Squire of Gothos”) to Gary Mitchell (“Where No Man Has Gone Before”) and many even speculated he was a new character entirely. But no, he plays none of those. One of the more popular theories was that he was playing Khan and that’s exactly who he is. I really have no idea why they’ve chosen to keep it a secret. I would think that it would be a lot easier to advertise the movie and what it’s about if people were just told outright. However, the way the line was delivered where his identity is revealed, it certainly seems like they meant to keep it a secret even as far back as the script development process. But there was no surprise whatsoever. Nobody in the theater gasped at the reveal. Nobody clapped or got excited. Just silence. If this non-reaction was in fact due to everybody in the theater knowing who the character was, then it is Paramount’s fault for having the film open in Australia and other parts of the world first because clearly word spread. If they wanted this to be such a big secret so that nobody knew who he was until the day the film opened, then they should have had a global simultaneous launch of the film, similar to how Warner Bros. released The Matrix Revolutions.

Once again, the action scenes are plentiful and in some cases, similar to Star Trek (2009), the plot is only there to provide a reason for the flashy and sometimes silly action sequence. The opening scene is clearly inspired by Raiders of the Lost Ark, one of the early action scenes on Earth is vaguely reminiscent of the opening of Mass Effect 3, (this is probably just a coincidence as even though ME3 was released last year, this film has been in production much longer than that), there’s a chase scene on Qo’noS (spelled incorrectly in the film as Kronos, which is the English transliteration) that takes some cues from the asteroid chase in Empire Strikes Back, and there are a couple of space battles that are extremely brief and quite anti-climactic given the overwhelming difference in firepower between the two ships. Regardless, there is plenty of action to go around and anyone seeing the film purely for the action sequences probably won’t leave disappointed.

The problem with this film, just like the last film, is the utterly stupid and insipid plot. To be fair, the script for this film is better than the first film, but that’s like saying that getting hit in the stomach is better than getting punched in the face. Either way, you’re in for a great deal of pain. As I said earlier, the first 40 minutes of the film is not that bad and it is quite enjoyable. The action is pretty good, there are some great character moments, and it all feels very much like Star Trek. But then something goes wrong; the plot gets overly-convoluted, the motivations of the villains make no sense, and Khan becomes a deus ex machina personified in the hopes of fixing a terrible tragedy that occurs to one of the crew. It’s hard to describe this as anything but lazy writing.

One of the most common aspects of lazy writing, to me, is when a character or characters do something out of character or a seemingly random event happens in order to create conflict. For example, take The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. At one point Aragorn and crew head out to Helm’s Deep to defend against the imminent attack by orcs. On the way there they are attacked by Wargs. This didn’t happen in the book. The only reason they put this scene in the film was to create an action scene to make the trip between Rohan and Helm’s Deep more interesting. It didn’t advance the plot in any meaningful way other than to have another appearance by Arwen and to have an extremely melodramatic scene where everybody thinks Aragorn is dead and then he shows up and everybody is happy.

Things like this occur quite a bit in Into Darkness, as well as Star Trek(2009), especially in the last half of the film with the big reveal of who is pulling everybody’s strings. I don’t want to spoil that so instead I’ll use the opening scene where they need to “freeze” a volcano as an example. They can’t be seen by the indigenous species so they hide the Enterprise in the ocean. Why do they do that? Because the volcano is giving off so much magnetic interference, their transporters don’t work. That one line is the reason why they are doing things the hard way. Kirk is running away from natives that he pissed off and can’t be rescued by transporter so they have to run away and jump off a cliff. They can’t transport Spock’s device into the volcano so he has to be lowered via a cable from a shuttle. If the transporters had worked, this would have been a pretty cut-and-dried mission. But because the writers needed that conflict, needed that exciting opening scene, they came up with a reason why they wouldn’t work. They did the same thing in Star Trek(2009) where they couldn’t transport on the mining platform that was drilling into Vulcan because it was also, if I recall correctly, putting off a lot of magnetic interference. The solution? Let’s parachute from outer space. It’s so stupid it just might work. *sigh*

As a movie, it fails miserably. As a Star Trek movie, it’s even worse. Supposedly one of the screenwriters is a Star Trek fan. And apparently he’s the one throwing in all the easter eggs in order to entertain or appease Star Trek fans. Well, it’s doing nothing but backfiring. As mentioned earlier, they spelled Qo’Nos incorrectly and instead used the English transliteration. Perhaps they could’ve just used the real spelling because the name of the planet was already pronounced a couple times, so it’s not like people would be mystified by the strange word that pops up in the upper right corner of the frame. The other possibility, I suppose, is that the Star Trek fan among the scriptwriters isn’t much of a Star Trek fan and thought it was actually spelled “Kronos”. I hope this is not the case and it is just an oversight on his part.

Math also seems to be a problem for the screenwriters. The film takes place in the year 2259. One character remarks that the cryotubes of Khan’s crew are “ancient” and date back 300 years. What is 2259 minus 300? That would be 1959. So the cryotubes containing genetically engineered super soldiers were shot into space ten years before the Apollo moon landing. Really? In the Trek timeline, Khan and his people were created during the Eugenics wars and he ruled until 1996 when he was overthrown and he and his people escaped into space on board the Botany Bay. That means that in 2259, they would’ve been in space 263 years, not 300. I’m sure they wanted to use a nice even number rather than to have an actor say “two-hundred and sixty-three” but they could’ve just said “over two hundred years” instead and then there would be no issue.

If I wanted to I could really nitpick the film to death in how many ways it butchers continuity and the rules of physics in the Trek universe, but I won’t. Suffice it to say, the people making these movies are simply not Star Trek fans. To make the kind of movie they want to make they don’t have to be. They made a movie for non-Trek fans and it shows. I never thought I’d say this, but can we get Rick Berman back? At least he tried to be true to the spirit of Gene Roddenberry’s original vision even if he didn’t always succeed.

I did not like this movie. I can only recommend it to those of you who enjoyed the first one and even then you might not like it depending on how you react to the last half of the film.

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