Star Trek Into Darkness outdoes its predecessor in most respects, except creative ambition. J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot bowled me over with its audacious, energetic reinterpretation of Gene Roddenberry’s universe, and it took me a while to fully digest what a mess the film is beneath its surface charm. Into Darkness combines the same charm with a stronger (though still flawed) story, a somewhat better villain and a level of thematic and moral awareness absent in the first film.
Its main drawback is this. Into Darkness is so wedded to specific elements of existing mythology, drawn both from the original TV series and the previous films, that it plays more like a freewheeling remake than an original story. And, compared to the original, pre-reboot story, the new film comes up way, way short.
Despite its irreverent humor and some creative twists, it’s so reverentially indebted to canon that it feels like an extended homage, like really good Star Trek alt-universe fan fiction. There’s too much reliance on nostalgia for the original, a bit like Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns in relation to the first two Christopher Reeve films — though, again, with a fresh take on the characters and a new sense of style. That’s enough to make Into Darkness a rousing, enjoyable extension of Abrams’ first film.
The sequel builds on the previous film’s greatest strength, the charismatic performances of Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto as younger, brasher versions of Kirk and Spock. Other crew members are used to varying degrees; Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Scotty (Simon Pegg) fare better than Bones (Karl Urban) or, for that matter, Sulu (John Cho) or Chekov (Anton Yelchin).
In 2009, Kirk and Spock were always at one another’s throats; here, although the tensions continue, the beginnings of a friendship are forming. When they’re at loggerheads now, it isn’t because they dislike each other, but because they have different approaches to moral questions such as when one can or must violate rules or orders to do the right thing — and even when their answers differ, they’re both morally serious about the questions. (So is Scotty, who, given an order he considers contrary to the safety of the Enterprise, is willing to resign rather than compromise his duty to the ship.)
For a while, it looks like these moral quandaries could have lingering consequences. The 2009 film ended with the Enterprise crew somewhat prematurely all in their familiar roles; Kirk, hardly out of Starfleet Academy, was at the helm of the Federation’s flagship. Into Darkness toys with upsetting the status quo, breaking up the crew. Lending some welcome gravitas, Bruce Greenwood returns as Captain Pike, chewing out Kirk for his irresponsibility, for thinking “the rules don’t apply” to him and for lacking “an ounce of humility.”
My impression, though, is that Abrams as a storyteller has never been big on taking consequences seriously. One of the glaring weaknesses of his Star Trek was its indifference, not only to the annihilation of the Vulcan homeworld and its six billion inhabitants, but also to the massacre of Kirk’s entire Starfleet class, right out of the academy, by the villainous Romulan Nero.
As my friend Peter Chattaway pointed out (in a brilliant comment at Arts & Faith), Abrams’ Star Trek ends back at the academy with a ceremony honoring Kirk and his crew, and there’s warm applause for their heroism — but not so much as a word or a moment of silence to recall the countless young cadets snuffed out at the dawn of their careers.
How different this is from earlier Trek films such as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, where even the death of one man (Scotty’s nephew, or one of Khan’s followers) was an occasion of grief. Not to mention, of course, the devastating death of Spock — eventually undone, of course, though it took the franchise two films to fully recover, and not without further consequences along the way. Not only was Kirk, previously an admiral, busted back down to captain, his son David was killed — a loss that continued to be felt three films later.
I’m not going into these particulars of past mythology just because I’m a geek. They’re directly relevant to the critique of Star Trek Into Darkness. On one level, suffice to say that, compared to past Trek films, the cycle of consequences and recovery is greatly compressed, to the point of triviality. Repercussions that in the original films would have impacted continuity for at least two or three installments are dispensed with in the space of a single act — and without the blood, sweat and tears of previous films.
To be fair, the death of one notable character in Into Darkness is given some emotional weight, and in the closing ceremony at Starfleet, this time around, there’s a word regarding those who lost their lives during the film’s events. There’s also a nice moment in which Kirk bargains for the life of his crew, taking responsibility for their actions and essentially offering himself to save them — and, later on, a sacrificial moment with direct resonances in the Trek canon.
Compared to previous Trek films, though, it’s rather perfunctory. Abrams just doesn’t seem to feel his characters’ suffering and losses. This was one of my problems with Super 8, which trivialized the loss of the young hero’s mother, and Mission: Impossible 3, which ratcheted up the emotional stakes so high that it killed the fun.
On another level … well, so far I’ve tried to respect Abrams’ penchant for secrecy and the efforts of the filmmakers and marketing around Into Darkness to avoid revealing which Trek plotlines are revisited here. Frankly, though, the secrecy doesn’t make sense here — and it winds up weakening the structure of the film, with established characters being awkwardly reintroduced under aliases, ostensibly for plot reasons, but really just to try to surprise the audience.
Benedict Cumberbatch (Amazing Grace) plays a character called John Harrison, ostensibly a Starfleet officer who goes rogue, committing terrorist acts against Starfleet. Under orders from Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller), Kirk takes the Enterprise after Harrison, packing prototype long-range photon torpedoes, all the way to the Klingon homeworld. Along for the ride is a lovely young science officer going by Carol Wallace (Alice Eve, Men in Black 3), whose presence on the ship Spock rightly objects to as gratuitous and whose presence in the film is almost as gratuitous, though not as gratuitous as a truly pointless shot of her in her underwear.
As in Iron Man 3, where an apparent foreign terrorist threat masked a domestic threat with connections in the highest levels of government, the threat may be closer, and go higher, than is initially apparent. Thankfully, there’s no “Truther” false-flag vibe here; instead, Into Darkness touches on themes evoking current debates around preemptive strikes and drone assassinations.
Many readers will know how spoiler-averse I am, but, as I said, I don’t see the point in secrecy here. It seems a bit like being coy about introducing the Joker in The Dark Knight. The creative thinking is clearly the same: An obvious move in the second installment of a franchise, if you didn’t do so from the outset, is to introduce the archnemesis (or the next best thing).
Trek mythology hasn’t given Kirk a proper archnemesis, but there is one obvious character who is in some sense the ultimate Trek antagonist: Khan Noonien Singh, the genetically engineered superman and warlord played by Ricardo Montalban.
For what it’s worth, the logic of reintroducing Khan at this point is eminently contestible. The whole point of the reboot should be to free the filmmakers to tell new stories, not just retell stories we already know, however differently.
Cumberbatch is a compelling presence, and his motivations make more sense than Nero’s in the earlier film, so, on the whole, he’s an improvement. That’s damning with faint praise, though. Montalban’s expansive, grandiose performance as the megalomaniacal Khan is one of the great pleasures of the Trek films. His readings of lines like “It is very cold in spaaace” and “I wish to go on … hurting you” are legendary.
Effective as he is, Cumberbatch seems to be playing a much duller character: devoid of charm, grimly calculating, fiercely controlled, with all the personality of a Terminator. What could the thinking have been? The part is underwritten, too; he doesn’t cite Milton or Melville, and doesn’t do anything else interesting instead.
It doesn’t help that the plot resorts yet again to that cliché du jour, the mastermind villain who deliberately allows himself to be captured and imprisoned as part of his master plan. After The Avengers and Skyfall, not to mention The Dark Knight, I’m sick of that one. Anyway, at least Heath Ledger, Tom Hiddleston and Javier Bardem were interesting to watch.
I haven’t bothered to deconstruct the movie’s sloppy tinkering with Trek sci-fi — and, honestly, I don’t feel like it, since it doesn’t bother me. I’ve accepted that this is Trek lite, and, in that capacity, it delivers solidly. Characters, set pieces, riffs and homages: all in all, Star Trek Into Darkness is a blast. Perhaps in the next film Abrams and company may set their sights on something more ambitious: finding consequential new stories to tell in their rebooted universe.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is studying for the permanent diaconate for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
Content Advisory: Much sci-fi action violence and mayhem, including a couple of brutal killings; a brief morning-after bedroom scene with Kirk and two alien women (nothing explicit); a brief shot of a woman in underwear; a few instances of crude language. Oh, and Spock has a line about there being “no such thing” as miracles. Teens and up.