The release of a new Star Trek movie is my opportunity to geek out. I started watching Star Trek when I was just three years old, so I’ve been following it for 43 years, through TV series, movies, books, games of all sorts and way more trinkets, clothing and paraphernalia purchased than I care to admit. That should establish my street cred for this review of Star Trek: Into Darkness.
WARNING: THIS IS A FULL SPOILER REVIEW. IF YOU STILL HAVEN’T SEEN “INTO DARKNESS,” AND YOU INTEND TO, THEN STOP READING THIS NOW!!!
Let me start by saying ST:ID was a lot of fun and I thoroughly enjoyed watching the movie. The special effects were spectacular, the action kept going, the movie was well-paced and even some of the more obviously “suspend your disbelief” stunts felt acceptable. But in the end, this movie missed an opportunity to be a truly great sci-fi adventure film, and it accentuated both the strengths and the weaknesses of JJ Abrams’ first Star Trek movie, while falling badly into some traps Abrams’ first effort generally avoided.
I’ll start with issues that don’t have to do with Trek continuity. The threat in this movie is not, ultimately, the revamped Khan Noonien Singh (a lot more on the revamping later), but the attempt by a powerful Starfleet admiral to change the fleet from one whose primary purpose is exploration, and only secondarily defense, to a mighty military force.
Where to start with the problems with that? First of all, it’s been done, and more than once. It was first covered in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, where Admiral Cartwright conspires to prevent peace with the Klingons, then in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, Pegasus, where another admiral tried to break a treaty the Federation had signed in order to produce forbidden military technology. Most clearly it was covered in Deep Space Nine, in the two episodes Paradise Lost and Homefront, where yet another admiral attempts to impose martial law on Earth.
I tell ya, Starfleet needs serious help in evaluating who its admirals should be.
In fact, the whole threat seems poorly designed. Peter Weller (whose shoddy, campy performance sticks out like a sore thumb among the rest of the cast, which generally performs admirably) plays Admiral Alexander Marcus, who is apparently very freaked out by the destruction of Vulcan and the growing military threat represented by the Klingon Empire. So, he decides to unfreeze Khan, who has been discovered earlier than in the original timeline, and hold the rest of Khan’s people hostage so he can force Khan to help him design a new Dreadnought-class starship. The new ship is a military powerhouse and the apparent crown jewel of new weaponry for a Federation gearing up for war. It’s also a nod to serious old-time ST geeks, who saw, in the very first Star Fleet Technical Manual ever published (way back in the ’70s) the plans for a Dreadnought class ship. It was expanded on in some games, as well. The old board game types, remember those? No, I thought not. Damn, I’m old.
Anyway, Khan explains that Marcus needed the 20th century genetically enhanced savagery that he possessed. In what way does that help? I mean, it’s not like Federation scientists didn’t know how to build phasers and photon torpedoes. In fact, nothing about the Dreadnought-class USS Vengeance seems like anything more than a really powerful starship. It is bigger, stronger and faster than the Enterprise, but that’s it. There’s no visible result that required Khan, who surely could not help with any technology, since, having been frozen in the mid-1990s, he’d be as lost as an 18th-century engineer would be in trying to design a new smartphone, no matter how smart his genetically-enhanced mind may be.
That whole plot line made no sense at all. Nor did Khan’s motivation. His plan to free his crew hardly seems the stuff of a genetically enhanced genius. Just start blowing shit up so that Marcus would hand over the rest of his crew, in Klingon space, no less? You’d think he’d come up with a plan that had a lot less potential to go wrong.
Plot oddities abounded from the start. Captain Kirk infiltrates a shrine and steals a holy document so the natives would chase him and give Spock an opportunity to defuse a volcano that would destroy the planet if it erupts. OK, but why does Kirk choose Dr. McCoy of all people to be with him? An even better question is why the Enterprise hides under water. Obviously, transporters are not working, but wouldn’t it make more sense to send down more than one shuttlecraft instead of the whole ship? I mean, I get the appeal of the Enterprise rising up out of the water. But it’s one thing for Kirk to play fast and loose with the Prime Directive for a greater good, even if it could get him fired. But when there’s an obvious alternative, that’s just bad, not to mention lazy, storytelling.
And then Kirk breaks the Prime Directive to save Spock’s life. And he doesn’t just break it, he shatters it, without a second thought for its meaning. OK, I get that this is a younger, much wilder, fatherless Kirk. But he’s still a Starfleet captain. I can see him doing what he did, but not trying to repair, or at least in some way mitigate the damage he’s done by making the Enterprise the new symbol of divinity on that planet? Seems odd.
Even odder is how lightly he gets off. This isn’t just an abstract rule he broke, this is Starfleet’s General Order Number One. Breaking that rule, at the very least, would have to mean being drummed out of Starfleet, no matter how much an influential admiral argued on Kirk’s behalf. It certainly does not mean a captain gets demoted to first officer where he’s next in line to get his ship back.
Before I get to the biggest problem, which will bring me back to Khan, I have to note the gratuitousness of two other scenes. Alice Eve’s Carol Marcus was largely an extraneous character in this film. She did contribute some things, but they could have just as easily been done by others. I don’t really have a problem with that, as it introduces Kirk’s love interest for future movies or a possible TV series. But the scene where she needlessly changes her clothes behind Kirk’s back, and where the camera, equally needlessly, needs to show her half-naked was as gratuitous a use of a woman’s body as you can get. I mean, really, if you want to show some skin, at least pretend to work it into the story. And, just by the way, some of us wouldn’t mind seeing Chris Pine in his skivvies as well, in the great Shatner tradition. I mean, if we’re going to be gratuitous, let’s at least demean males as well as females. Then it’s more prurient, less sexist.
And as much as I like to see Leonard Nimoy’s Spock Prime, there was, again, no good reason for his appearance in this movie. His conversation with his Abramsverse counterpart did nothing to advance the plot.
But all of this that I’ve listed thus far detracted from the movie only slightly. The biggest problem was Khan himself.
Let’s remember that Abrams cleverly altered the Star Trek timeline so he wouldn’t have to worry about continuity. But that alteration starts on the day of Jim Kirk’s birth. So how is it that Khan Noonien Singh has gone from an Indian (OK, Ricardo Montalban wasn’t the most convincing Sikh, but he was playing a Sikh) to a very white man? I mean, with all due respect to Benedict Cumberbatch who did the best he possibly could with a role that wasn’t particularly well-written, he doesn’t look like a man named Khan Noonien Singh.
I’ve seen some stuff on the web about the “whitewashing” of Khan, with people taking offense at turning this villain white. I actually sort of wonder if Abrams did it precisely because he was casting Khan as a terrorist and preferred not to get into the person of color being the terrorist attacking white people (for all the multi-culturalism Trek likes to espouse, the Roddenberry, Berman and Abrams versions all reflect a very white, very American Federation). What bothered me was the inconsistency.
I actually think, or maybe it’s hope, that there’s a scene on the cutting room floor that really should have been left in. Because Khan’s problems don’t stop with his sudden Anglicization. There’s also the magic blood. Khan’s blood can not only heal the dying, it can bring back the dead. So Khan is, apparently, the key to immortality. So why, in the other time line, didn’t he just bleed into the mouths or inject his blood into the veins of those of his people who died? Remember, the gross little rhino-reptile thing whose young wrap themselves around the cerebral cortex, “…killed twenty of my people, including my beloved wife.” Are we to seriously believe that this man, who dominated a huge chunk of 1990s Earth before he was eventually defeated, didn’t know all the effects of his genetic enhancement? Please.
And, if it is Khan’s genetic manipulation that gives him magic blood, why does McCoy need him to revive Kirk? He has 72 other sources of the same genetic manipulation. So, I think there’s a scene on the upcoming DVD release that will show that Marcus did some more stuff to Khan after he found him, causing, perhaps unintentionally, the blood change and changing his appearance. At least I hope so, because otherwise, this is very poorly thought out.
For the record, I don’t think even the terrible last TV series, Star Trek: Enterprise ever produced as cringe-worthy a moment as Spock yelling “KHAAAAAAAAAAN!” I like the re-imagining of Spock as a more emotional and screwed up character, having had more difficulty than we saw in the original timeline in suppressing his emotions and now being completely derailed by seeing his home world destroyed and failing to save his mother from it. But this was just silly.
Also, the climactic scene of Kirk’s death feels very forced to say the least. It was well-done, and it wrenched tears from my eyes. But the relationship between Kirk and Spock in The Wrath of Khan was very well-established. They had been close friends for years, closer than many lovers. Kirk’s loss was well established. In this film, Spock and Kirk are still getting to know each other and there is still a lot of tension between them. The depth of loss is simply put on, it’s a building with no foundation. My weepy eyes were for Kirk’s death, not for Spock’s loss. In TWOK it was for both.
Don’t get me wrong, this is a very fun film. And there’s long periods in it with nothing that seemed off. But these problems were really disjointing. The odd change in Khan that made no sense really hurts this movie as a Trek film. And as a movie in general, the weak motivation of the villains and the humongous plot holes, as well as the bizarre leaps of science (the Enterprise goes from Earth to Q’onos back to Earth in a day, despite losing a huge chunk of time to a downed warp engine…that’s just absurd) that make it seem more like magic, weaken it as a movie in general and a sci-fi movie in particular.