Sci-Fi Movie Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

[Star Trek into Darkness. Released May 2013. Directed by J.J. Abrams, Writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. DVD/Blu-Ray released. As usual, this “post-viewing review” contains many spoilers.]

For those who love fiery explosions, savage thudding beatings, and pacing so fast even the story is expendable – this is the heart of the new Star Trek Into Darkness. It really, truly is a slammer-jammer. For those whose tastes do not run in these directions, or who have fond memories of the Gene Roddenberry inspired Star Treks that have gone before – I think the most trenchant observation of the new way of doing Star Trek, the J.J. Abrams way, is that it is a touch too clever by a factor of, say, 2.718.

In a sense, this is not a negative review. It is bifurcated. Along one track, there is little argument about the excitement, spectacular effects and sheer entertainment of watching the exploits of the crew of the starship Enterprise in the new Star Trek universe. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, Sulu, Chekov, and Carol (Carol?) do their character things in a milieu of a dramatic rollercoaster full of sudden jolts, twisted plotting and whizzy scenery. It’s quite a ride.

Along the other track, there is history – Khan. Khan is a Star Trek adversary of long standing; all the way back to the original Star Trek TV episodes. Khan, the superhuman, genetically engineered along with his cohort to be better at everything than regular human beings. Played by the pectorally superior and consummate, insidious Spanish suavity of Ricardo Montalban, the original Kahn was a one of those villains that people find disturbingly attractive. The movie, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, is one of the all-time Trek favorites.

Star Trek Into Darkness also reaches back into the Khan story and dismembers chunks of it to graft into this movie’s universe. For example, here Kahn is an Englishman, as charming as Liverpool in a sleet storm. Played by Benedict Cumberbatch, this Khan cleverly works with the screenwriters to create an intricately implausible plot against Starfleet that unfolds across the entire movie. Despite at times melodramatic chewing of scenery, he’s a more credible baddy than the monotonously vindictive villain (Nero) of J.J. Abrams first Star Trek movie.

At several points, the screenwriters play to the Khan history (wink, wink). Speaking for those who know the backstory, this cleverness undermines the drama because it reminds us repeatedly of screenwriter manipulation. Presumably, the new audiences won’t get the references and they will get a different message.

It is a message, which hinges on how Kahn is defeated. In Star Trek II, Kahn is defeated because he is not experienced in space battle tactics. Lost in a gas nebula where shields and sensors are inoperable, he does not understand three-dimensional maneuvers. Kirk does, having lived in that way most of his life, and he destroys Kahn’s ship – and Kahn. In short, Kahn is defeated by his limitations – an interesting and important message for would-be supermen.

This point is important because the Darkness movie features a scene where Spock (timeline two) contacts Spock (timeline one) to ask about Khan. Spock (I) says he shouldn’t tell (violation of inter-temporal ethics…), but does say, “We defeated him…at great cost.” We then see Spock (II) planning some kind of trick…cleverness defeats Kahn!

It sort of does – Kahn is tricked and his starship disabled. The story presumes him dead, although we all know he’s not. When he reappears, driving into San Francisco with his spaceship (tens of thousands die, spectacularly, but unseen), he is literally run down by Spock (II) and a dandy hand-to-hand combat ensues. Thud, thud. It’s not enough though, and just in time, Spock’s girlfriend, Uhura transports to the melee and phasers Kahn so he is off balance and Spock can pummel him into submission (thud, thud). Kahn is taken (back) into custody and re-sentenced to cryo, like his crew. He is defeated by brute force. Different message for a different time, I guess.

I bring up this level of detail because it’s representative of how this track of Star Trek tries so hard to be clever (and referential). It concocts a plot that not only stretches credulity and patience; it also runs roughshod over potential moments of insight for which the original Star Trek vision was famous.

Basically, thrills and cleverness rule. One-liners abound, along with our favorite characters doing cameos. Darkness introduces a new character I assume will be important, Carol Marcus, played by Alice Eve and because it’s a cameo, develops absolutely no rapport with the rest of the characters (except Kirk, wink, wink).

Along this track, Star Trek into Darkness deserves a very negative review, and as you can tell, I border on scorn. Even the first J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie has moments of affecting characterization and memorable images (especially the first half). This second movie is far less memorable, and I suspect this will be true even for people who are unfamiliar with the Star Trek canon. I hope, at least, they will enjoy the ride.

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