Star Trek Into Darkness
(SPOILERS) J. J. Abrams sequel to his reboot of a series he professes never to have liked very much looks to like it will achieve exactly what Paramount wanted. If the 2009 film was a huge hit in the States, its international business was still disproportionately small. So it was ever thus for the franchise’s bankability. But the four years between installments have seen its reputation and exposure grow; Abrams has made Star Trek cool, and now it isn’t only Americans who want to see it. Whether that receptiveness is deserved is a different matter.
There’s a distinct sense that everyone involved with STID is hedging their bets, and thus moving in exactly the opposite direction of a predecessor that was ready to sacrifice a number of sacred cows to stir things up. The film is hugely enjoyable in the moment for the thrill ride sensibility fashioned by its director, but leaves one with a growing sense of dissatisfaction at its cheap emotional shorthand and clumsy lapses into narrative incoherence.
Star Trek (2009) is by far the superior film. It proved to be an exhilarating reinvention of a series I liked well enough but never had a great deal of passion for; on exiting the cinema I could easily have gone straight back in to watch it again. I couldn’t say that about STID, although I might have been tempted to rewatch individual scenes in an attempt to clarify many of the whos, whys and whens of motivation and, indeed, assess whether any of it stacks up once the dust of its director’s sensory bombardment has settled.
Certainly, Abrams stages individual action sequences with as ready aplomb as he did first time round, but on an even greater scale. Yet STID doesn't flow as well. It seems dubiously content to return to the ground covered in the earlier film, as if it is frightened to seek out new worlds, new civilisations etc. The notes it hits are so over-familiar in places that you will more likely groan at the lack of inspiration rather than grin in recognition of the shout-outs, be they to its predecessor and to the lore it is drawing on.
Typical of the film’s hesitation is the peculiar decision not to have started the Enterprise’s five-year mission. Surely, that is exactly where the first outing left us? Instead, we begin breathlessly mid-adventure, Indiana Jones-style, as Kirk disobeys the Prime Directive in order to save Spock (who seems to be disobeying the Prime Directive in saving this planet from destruction anyway, so presumably in the minds of writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof if an alien civilization doesn’t actually see you, it ain’t interference).
There are a number of points right from the off that illustrate the “Cool first, plot logic a distant second” during this sequence, but I was most impressed by the alien race’s artistic skills, coming up with a remarkable blueprint of the Enterprise drawn in the dirt. The consequence of all this is to revert to the characters’ earlier tensions so they can work through them all over again. Kirk’s hotheaded instinct gets him into trouble with Pike (again) and he is demoted, so he has to prove himself (again). Spock’s by-the-book behaviour places duty above friendship (again), so the clash between their attitudes becomes the lifeblood of the movie (again).
This leads to a surprisingly affecting inversion of the one great Star Trek movie (The Wrath of Khan). I was surprised this scene worked as well as it did for me, as arguably the friendship between the two hasn’t been earned at this point, and it shows a continuation of the cheapening of death across the fantasy and SF genre. It’s probably unfair to point to Buffy for starting this trend, but death and immediate resurrection appear to be a lazy go-to for writers in place of actual substance (something like the current iteration of Doctor Who has over-used the device to the point of eliminating all narrative tension and stakes).
I suppose it’s merely a reflection of the shifting attitudes to age that the adults of TOS (the original series) are now petulant and immature boy-men. Spock and Uhura are fighting so there’s a romcom scene of them sparring ,with Kirk caught in the middle. As they embark on a mission. The performers sell it, and it’s superficially quite amusing (and gives rise to a touching moment on Spock’s part as he expands on why he doesn’t show that he cares) but it does make you wonder if this new version of Star Trek should be quite so malleable. It also highlights an approach to modern storytelling, whereby character development is not germane to the story, but a separate entity to be overlaid whether it fits or not. The consequence is to make a meal of once economically rendered emotional beats; the emphasis, ironically, lessens the impact. Here, we know that Kirk and Spock have to be friends due to Shat and Nimoy. So their friendship (and problems with it) are overtly commented on time and again throughout, as if this will somehow justify the death scene. Everything has to be big and full of impact, do distract from troubled minutiae. Abrams and his crew have hit on a perversely successful, fast food formula; it provides a quick fix, but there is no sustenance there.
But the total effect is that we have travelled no further forward with this crew than before. STID is stuck in the holding pattern of the first film, as with Bond in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. It didn’t work well for Bond and, if STID is a far superior film to QoS, it doesn’t work for the Enterprise crew. It evidences what happens when filmmakers become nervous about how to repeat their success; they literally do opt to repeat themselves.
Interviews with the writers post- the success of Trek ’09 saw Khan brought up regularly, and they showed understandable caginess over the prospect of approaching the most iconic villain of Trek (outside of the Klingons). That they ultimately chose to go there is a creative failure in all sorts of ways, but mostly it’s just remarkably gutless. Having said that, I don’t have an enormous problem with the reinvention of Khan (although I’m not sure how it can be justified if the two universes were supposed to be the same before the divergent events of Trek ’09), but the lack of care over the villains generally is a problem. The extent to which he works as a bad guy is all down to Benedict Cumberhatch’s authoritative performance, and owes nothing to the rushed info-dumping of his back story and the murky and confused exposition of his allegiances and motivations. He’s a more impressive villain than Eric Bana’s Nero, but he’s ultimately just as empty. So it leads one to conclude that the writers were banking on the baggage of the Khan name doing most of the work for them (and the getting Nimoy to show up and gravely intone how dangerous trad-Khan to seal the deal).
There are similar problems with Peter Weller’s Admiral Marcus, whose villainy seems like real world commentary masquerading as character. It’s a shame, as I like Weller, but he’s just the stock bad guy you thought was a good guy. Who happens to be Carol Marcus’ dad (she of Wrath of Khan, remember?) Given all the referencing here, I was surprised he didn’t say, “Please drop your shields. You have 20 seconds to comply”. It would at least have given him one memorable line.
The Star Trek universe future is now a thoroughly corrupt place, chock full of conspiracies to wage war, covert operations (Section 31), and private security firms employed on huge black evil militarised starships.
There has been a fair bit of discussion already over the extent to which co-writer Roberto Orci’s “Truther” credentials as a conspiracy theorist have impacted and/or been detrimental to the plotting of STID. His purported stance is much maligned/ridiculed in some quarters of the Internet, which is unsurprising; if there’s one area guaranteed to enrage, it’s conspiracy theories, on whatever side of the fence one sits. What’s ironic about STID is how garbled and incoherent the plotting of this conspiracy is; you’d have thought that, as dedicated as he is, Orci would single out precisely the actions of Marcus and Khan and to what ends. I’ve seen few comments from anyone who is completely clear on this. Perhaps Orci is purposefully rendering in his narrative the uncertainty involved in conspiracies on who did what and why in respect of 9/11, WMD, Iraq etc.? But the answer is much less intricate; it’s because he and his fellow writers continually drop the ball.
We’re told that Marcus revived Khan and used his heightened intelligence to develop weaponry to prepare for the Federation’s inevitable war with the Klingon Empire. And that the hold he had over Khan was the promise to return the 72 members of his crew (all genetically advance master race types; Khan is now decidedly Aryan, unlike Ricardo Montalban’s version). Khan tells Kirk that Marcus reneged; the terrorist act Khan perpetrates at the opening of the film (which leads to his attack on Starfleet elite personnel, including Marcus) was one of revenge against him. We also learn that Khan hid his cryogenically preserved “family” (this word is used throughout, presumably to encourage a sci-fi illiterate audience’s investment in this universe) in the missiles he developed for Khan, so as to protect them from Marcus. Which seems like a bafflingly dangerous ploy. As I heard him tell it, Marcus found out. Which would give Marcus leverage over Khan surely? So, were the opening events in fact a False Flag operation instigated by Marcus, whereby a fake terrorist puts the blame on the Klingons and so starts a war? That’s certainly the kind of thing you might expect from Orci (if that is his outlook on global events), and at least one could read into that a semi-coherent subtext regarding his take on a covert US agenda.
But it means that Khan didn’t tell Kirk the truth (so how is the audience expected to piece it all together?) If Marcus is blackmailing Khan, that would explain him teleporting to Kronos (the Klingon world); it’s a lure to get the Enterprise to open fire on the planet and so initiate war. But if Kirk had followed orders Khan would be dead, so why would someone so super-intelligent put himself in that situation? The 72 missiles aboard the Enterprise appear to be a trigger for Khan to ally with the Enterprise (briefly), in which case it must have come as a surprise to him that his fellows were to be killed by Marcus (but why, what did he expect Marcus to do with the missiles?) Alternatively, Khan went AWOL and started blowing shit up with the goal of revenge on Marcus. In which case, why would Marcus have kept his super race alive (if, as we are told, he knew about them residing in the missiles)? One can almost picture Orci, so obsessed with the idea that he’s injected a scathing indictment of his country into a mainstream movie, missing the wood for the trees and forgetting to ensure that it makes any sense. It certainly won’t help his “cause” if he can’t spell out his thoughts.
This murkiness might not be quite so damaging, or justify quite so much comment, if other crucial plot points didn’t continue this lack of care and coherence. Crucially, when comparing the two Abram Treks, the holes in XI's internal logic don’t square up to the viewer and beg to be mocked. The biggest one here is the curative nature of Khan’s blood. I mentioned I thought Kirk’s death worked surprisingly well, when on paper it is far too schematic an inversion of Wrath of Khan to pack a wallop. But what immediately follows it is guilty of exactly the banal copying tactics that needed to be avoided. Poor Quinto is saddled with a ridiculous roar of “KHANNNN!” designed to mimic Kirk in Trek II but coming across more like Darth Vader’s “NOOOOOOO!” in Revenge of the Sith. He can’t be blamed looking like a prize turkey, as any self-respecting writer would have steered clear of this (look at all the spoofs of the original scene, Seinfeld included), let alone ones who are Trek fans. And the climactic fisticuffs atop speeding flying vehicles are not just an anti-climax after the grandiose space battles but a tiresomely predictable sequence that we’ve been subjected to many times before.
The point of the dust-up is to take Khan alive. He’s needed to bring Kirk back to life (McCoy discovers this because he’s gone all mad scientist for no apparent reason and injected a dead Tribble full of the stuff; just for shits and giggles – you know what these medical professionals are like). We saw what an amazing restorative his blood is in an early scene, as the daughter of Mickey from Doctor Who is saved from certain expiration. As many in the audience appear to have instantly concluded, all McCoy had to do was take some blood from one of the 72 other super beings on board the ship. Presto. Yes, Khan needed sorting out, but Spock was doing that anyway. I do wonder if this wasn’t an issue the writers were conscious of but someone pushed for more dramatic weight behind the confrontation (if so, J. J., you’ve got egg on your face).
Quite aside from this, the ability to now conquer death with Extract of Khan invites an extraordinary rosy outlook for the 25th century. One presumes the serum will be rewritten as unstable and with no sustainable value, despite Khan’s blood working on two disparate species. The number of sloppy plot points just stack up.
I don’t necessarily take a “deal breaker” attitude to such failings. And clearly, neither do many who extol the virtues of more artistically feted movies (Looper’s a good example, packed with lapses in internal logic but roundly praised). But Orci, Kurtzman and Lindelof had three years to come up with a new adventure and iron out the wrinkles. For some reason they just don't seem to have cared, and Abrams's energetic direction can only mask so much.
As mentioned, his work is consistently thrilling. But he’s also just raking over the coals. There’s a slight air of fatigue, without the freshness and vigour of his first stint. Look, it’s Kirk flying through the air (or space) again. Look, there blows the Enterprise (with added gravity loss) again. Even when Kirk is fixing the ship’s drive by jumping up and down on something (such technical knowhow), Abrams just about convinces you this is what’s needed. But an encounter with Klingons proves decidedly lacklustre, even with Khan’s convincing takedown tactics. And the new Klingons look rather poor; TV-standard prosthetics, balder and with added piercings. Having Spock do a Jesus Christ pose in the volcano scene is a bit OTT too.
Nevertheless, many of the key elements continue to work extremely well. Pine and Quinto have made Kirk and Spock theirs; no mean feat. Bruce Greenwood’s Pike will be sorely missed. His death scene has none of the easy emotion of Kirk’s, and the reboot has lost a much-needed adult character capable of injecting gravitas into the proceedings.
Karl Urban is plain great, perhaps most successful at transferring the temperament of an old series character. His motivations are less well sketched however. Zoe Saladana’s Uhura eats up some of the traditional McCoy screen time but perversely to little advantage as she is identified by her relationship with Spock, not as an independent character. John Cho and Anton Yelchin are a bit undernourished. Unfortunately Pegg (serving up a bigger part for the film geek pal?) has much more screen time, and he’s still glaringly miscast as Scotty. His Jar Jar midget friend turns up too, but at least it keeps silent.
Alice Eve does great underwear, but has an otherwise thankless role. As noted, Cumberhatch makes much more of his part than there is on paper; he's as impressive as ever, but his character's backstory is chugged over with disappointing brevity. It's further illustrative of a general disdain for the series trademark philosophical ruminations at the expense of getting on to the next breathlessly explosive sequence.
This is very much a case of the enjoyment of a film in many departments making its failures all-the-more frustrating; if that weren’t the case, I would have been more concisely dismissive. Most of all, the resounding feeling is of pissing away all the positivity they created last time out by abjectly resting on their laurels. As the film began, I was conscious of how Michael Giacchino’s score is the Star Trek theme for this incarnation. But I didn’t think that familiarity would extend throughout, and that it would become so unadventurous so quickly.
Although he’s the one who salvages the film from its weak script, Abrams should really have said “Thanks, but no thanks” when asked to return. He has nothing new to give to Star Trek. Now he’s departed to mess about with Star Wars, on a superficial level they should really rethink the series' colour palate. Something a bit more vibrant, less bleached out. A bit more ‘60s. The lens flares need to go. And they'll need to make the films a bit more regularly (what are they going to do, have two adventures during the whole five-year mission?) But, most of all, they need to have the confidence to tell new stories, seek out new villains and leave Earth behind. So, ditch the writers too then. Just retain the cast, basically. Except for Pegg.