Star Trek Into Darkness

 

Star Trek Into Darkness - Bernd's Review

Synopsis

Stardate 2259.55: The Enterprise is hiding in an ocean on the planet Nibiru, while Spock is on a mission to stop the activity of a volcano using a cold fusion device, in order to save the local population. When it turns out impossible to retrieve Spock otherwise, Kirk orders the Enterprise to surface and beam out Spock, which is witnessed by the primitive inhabitants and hence violates the Prime Directive. Spock, however, reports the incident, which leads to Kirk's demotion to Christopher Pike's first officer. In the meantime, a mysterious man named Harrison has bribed a Starfleet officer to blow up a Starfleet archive in London, the price being the cure of the man's ill daughter. The leading officers of Starfleet come together in a meeting in San Francisco, which is attacked by Harrison and costs Pike's life. Kirk can bring down the attacking vessel, but Harrison escapes to Qo'noS. In order to eliminate the terrorist, Admiral Marcus orders Kirk to take the Enterprise to the Klingon border and fire torpedoes at Harrison's hiding place in an abandoned city. The crew, however, is opposed to the torpedoes. Scotty is even relieved of duty because he sees the torpedoes, which are impervious to scans, as a danger he can't control. Kirk eventually gives in to the objections and embarks a captured civilian vessel to apprehend Harrison, together with Spock and Uhura. Uhura tries in vain to convince the Klingon patrol to provide support against Harrison, upon which Harrison kills all the Klingons and surrenders to the Starfleet crew. The Enterprise is dead in space due to a malfunction of the warp core, which is suspected to be sabotage. Harrison turns out be be Khan Noonien Singh, a genetically enhanced human being from the 20th century, and the 72 torpedoes actually hold the cryonic chambers with his followers. Admiral Marcus appears with a huge vessel, the Vengeance. He threatens to destroy the Enterprise, along with Khan who helped him build the ship and the torpedoes in the first place, working for the secret organization Section 31. Carol Marcus, who has faked her transfer orders to the Enterprise in order to keep an eye on the torpedoes, tries in vain to convince him to cease the attack. Her father beams her over to his ship. Only Scotty's sabotage to the Vengeance prevents the Enterprise's destruction. Kirk joins forces with Khan, and they dive over to the Vengeance where Scotty opens a hatch for them. Kirk tells Scotty to stun Khan once they reach the bridge, but Khan breaks free and kills Admiral Marcus. Kirk negotiates a deal with Khan: the lives of the Enterprise crew for the lives of his 72 people in the torpedoes. Khan fires at the Enterprise regardless once the torpedoes are aboard the Vengeance, but he isn't aware that they have been activated, largely destroying his ship as well. The cryonic chambers, on the other hand, were removed in the meantime and are safely stored aboard the Enterprise. The Enterprise, however, is without power now and falls toward Earth. Kirk reactivates the warp core but is exposed to a fatal radiation dose. Khan makes his ship crash into San Francisco, and he escapes yet again, followed by Spock who is determined to kill him. Dr. McCoy, however, finds out that Khan's blood cells could cure Kirk. He puts Kirk into one of the cryonic chambers to keep his brain intact. So Khan is apprehended alive, and Kirk can be saved. One year later, the Enterprise is relaunched and departs to a mission in deep space, while Khan is back in his cryonic chamber again, joining his people.

Preface

I am generally unable to focus my eyes on 3D movies without getting a headache. Since STID is shown exclusively in 3D almost everywhere, it took me two weeks until I finally decided I would have to see it in 3D regardless. While it did give me a headache as expected, it was still a mostly pleasant experience for my eyes, at least technically speaking. I was surprised that I didn't have to squint frequently to get the 3D images congruent. Actually, I saw ghost images only a few times during the movie. This ease of viewing may have to do with the fact that STID comes only with mild 3D. While the effect is quite pronounced in many space sequences, the post-production 3D fails to convince me in live-action scenes that are rather flat. The movie could have easily done without the artificial 3D effects.

I did not read spoiler reviews prior to going to the theater. While there was no way avoiding the big spoiler "Cumberbatch is Khan!", which had actually been around for over a year (although it had been repeatedly denied ever since), I still didn't know some major plot points when I sat down to watch it for the first time. This had some side effects, also for the other people in the theater as I will explain further down.

Premise

J.J. Abrams's first Trek film suffered from the idea of being a reboot while pretending it was none. It tried hard to relay the message of Gene Roddenberry, but failed to do so on several accounts, most notably because it evoked the concept of destiny, as opposed to free will.

Anyway, STID could have profited very much from the new ground that "Star Trek (2009)" has laid, in a way that it would be compared with its direct predecessor, rather than with Roddenberry's Star Trek. Unfortunately there are countless unnecessary tie-ins from the old Star Trek in the movie, many of which are utterly contrived and some of which are plain ridiculous. The crew's destinies are explicitly said to be predetermined once again, from the person who would least claim that in the Prime Universe. STID just begs to be compared with the Prime Universe, and so I will not spare the movie of my criticism that it does not adhere to all the standards laid down in the over 40 years of Star Trek that came before the Abramsverse, the technical ones (canon), the look and feel, as well as the philosophy.

Story

I like the opening sequence on Nibiru very much (which, by the way, is reminiscent of the pre-credit scenes in James Bond movies). It is a precious moment because it is the only time in the Abramsverse so far that we see the crew on a mission "to explore strange new worlds", which is what Star Trek was once about. Well, I enjoyed it until the Enterprise turned out to be a submarine. I was prepared for it but it still annoyed me a lot. Seriously, even if the Enterprise were built for it, why in the world does Kirk hide his 700m ship (if we believe in the official scale) in the ocean, against Scotty's explicit concerns regarding the corrosive salt water, when he could just stay in orbit, beam up and down and launch shuttles much more easily? The whole stunt was inserted into the story merely for a cheap "wow" effect and against all reason. I dig the scene in which Kirk and McCoy discuss the question whether they should save Spock from the volcano, with Uhura standing apart, too agitated to say or do anything. Kirk asks McCoy if Spock would do the same for Kirk, upon which McCoy says, "He would let you die." This establishes one of the main motifs of the movie, and arguably the only one that is worked out really well: the question whether Spock shouldn't overcome his Vulcan logic when it comes to saving his friends or to being loyal with them.

The next act takes place in London, where a family father is troubled about his daughter being terminally ill. I was pleasantly surprised that there are only a few spoken words in the whole act. The only thing I remember is Harrison saying, "I can save her." It has a much stronger impact without much talking and without the possible medical babble. I only felt that the music was much too loud, it seemed like it was supposed to fill in for the missing action when it should rather have been turned down to fit with the dramatic yet overall quiet scenes.

Pike's death in Harrison's attack on the conference room is another emotional highlight of the movie, although we could expect that he would die or be disabled and make way for Kirk to take command again. Pike is a tragic figure as already in "Star Trek (2009)". Actually, the whole sequence of events is familiar from the previous movie: Kirk is on trial and/or is demoted for a comparably minor offense in the beginning. Then Pike, the captain of the Enterprise, is disabled/dead, so Kirk takes command of the ship. And he stays in command in the end in spite of his previously attested immaturity. This pattern is the same in both movies, and it doesn't become more plausible by just being repeated.

As the plot progresses, it gets increasingly complex, and too complex to tie all the loose ends together again in the end. And it loses sight of the actual mission. We've got: the mysterious torpedoes that can't be opened or scanned in any fashion; a villain who is hiding on Qo'noS and who could be eliminated by those torpedoes (in real life: attack drones); a Starfleet admiral who wants Kirk to use these and only these torpedoes; an attractive female officer who is unexpectedly assigned to the crew and who poses as an expert for these torpedoes; Kirk's crew members who almost unanimously protest against the use of these torpedoes. Scotty even requests to be released of duty because of them, which Kirk -unexpectedly for Scotty- agrees to. The crew's skepticism about the torpedoes is supposed to make sense only in hindsight, as prudent foresight. I find it quite distracting that everything revolves around the nature of these plot devices, rather than the question how to eliminate Harrison.

The solution to try to apprehend Harrison, rather than killing him, turns out a stupid mistake because you don't try to land on Qo'noS with a civilian ship and honestly expect to survive this stunt. Much less would you do it while the ship's warp drive is offline at the Klingon border. To add insult to injury, the chase scene with the Klingon ships through the very un-Klingon abandoned city looks much more like Star Wars than Star Trek, and Harrison eliminates the Klingons much like in a superhero movie. Agreed, he does have supernatural forces as will be explained later, but it doesn't feel like Star Trek at all. Also, I think it is quite hypocritical that the Klingons, with whom Kirk and his people have no business, are slaughtered by the dozen, while Harrison gets a chance to surrender. Sure, the Klingons would never surrender, but it is highly unethical to cause so much collateral damage apprehending just a single man, which is just one more reason why Kirk should have used the torpedoes, or any other weapons that would kill just Harrison. Or perhaps he could have asked the Klingons in advance to do the job for him? While I'm usually opposed to excessive violence, I really like the scene in which Kirk tries to beat up Harrison. Kirk hits him repeatedly, but Harrison still stands tall, and only Kirk's fist is hurting.

In the following it is revealed that Harrison is actually Khan. But this revelation has no impact on the story; it is just a message to the audience, "Look, this is still Star Trek. We've even got Khan for you." The fact that it's Khan, the generally accepted Savior of the Star Trek Franchise, remains utterly gratuitous for the rest of the movie. Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan 2.0 doesn't look at all like Ricardo Montalban. This may be explained as a surgical alteration as part of his new identity as a British Starfleet officer. Well, there are his 72 followers in the torpedoes, but these never really play a role except for being a pawn. For the story, Harrison could have been any other person, he could have been concerned about anything else, and he could have had any other reason for his crusade against Starfleet. Actually, his reason for revenge is a weak one, compared to the one of Khan 1.0 in "Star Trek II". As already hinted at in the preface of this review, STID enters a direct competition with the classic, and while Cumberbatch is absolutely convincing in showing Khan's attitude, the story fails to provide him with the strong motivation of having been exiled to a desert planet. It doesn't really explain either why Khan allowed himself to become a minion of Marcus. Even worse, it takes old Spock (Leonard Nimoy) to explain to young Spock how dangerous Khan is, in the arguably dumbest cameo ever in Star Trek. Seriously, why does young Spock assume that Khan is known in the Prime Universe too, other than because of a feeling that he himself is living in a second-rate universe in which events repeat in some fashion? And old Spock only corroborates this notion by speaking of young Spock's destiny once again, besides saying that Khan is an awfully bad man.

Admiral Marcus shows his ugly face and joins the long list of mad admirals in Star Trek when he appears on the scene with an outrageously huge and ugly vessel and begins to destroy the Enterprise. Only Scotty's sabotage of the ship called "Vengeance" averts the immediate destruction of the Enterprise (which is conspicuously reminiscent of what he would do to the Excelsior in "Star Trek III", in another universe, some 25 years later -- one of the better tie-ins from the "old" Trek). It is logical at this point of the story that Kirk joins forces with Khan, as even Spock has to admit. Their space ride to the Vengeance is exciting to watch, but it is also too similar to the space dive scene in "Star Trek (2009)". Abrams's staff tried to make it even more exciting this time, but it ended up being totally over the top. When Khan and Kirk are shot into space as more or less human torpedoes and maneuver through the debris field, it too feels rather like a scene in a superhero movie than in Star Trek.

The showdown of STID, or what should have been the showdown, is very protracted. It takes about half the movie from the first devastating attack on the Enterprise until the two bad guys are eventually more or less defeated in the end. It is breathless and doesn't leave any time for the characters to reflect on what is happening, unlike it was customary in previous Star Trek movies, even in "Star Trek (2009)". The Enterprise's uncontrolled descent in the Earth's atmosphere is another scene that is totally over the top. Scotty is a pleasant exception among all the superheroes when he loses his grip of the railing. But Kirk catches his fall, which is physically impossible. And if this were not yet unrealistic enough, Super-Chekov comes and grabs Kirk's hand when he is falling together with Scotty!

So far I did enjoy the movie despite all of its plot holes, its gratuitous tie-ins and its excursions into the superhero genre. But with the scene in which Kirk saves the tumbling ship by restarting the reactor the movie has lost me. As already mentioned, I avoided reading spoilers. Of course, I knew the trailer with the hands pressed on the glass pane, but I was absolutely convinced it was red herring (and it would have been a great one). I was not prepared for STID totally ripping off Spock's death scene from "Star Trek II", only with switched roles. I anticipated what would follow as soon as Kirk and Scotty were standing in front of that glass door in engineering. I yawned. But it was still a shock that the sequence of events was exactly the same as in "Star Trek II", even the words that Kirk and Spock exchange. After the initial shock I couldn't help but giggle, followed by loud laughter. It was so dreadful, I couldn't help but to laugh it away. My girl-friend says my reaction was embarrassing, and perhaps I should be sorry for disturbing the supposedly most emotional scene of the movie in such an inappropriate fashion. But seriously: What the hell where they thinking? That it would be a nice homage? If this was the intention, it has gone completely awry. The way STID exactly repeats the events of "Star Trek II" (or rather, pre-enacts them) and thereby plagiarizes them certainly doesn't harm the original movie. But it turns STID and ultimately the whole Abramsverse into a second-rate universe that taps into the original instead of trying to find its own way. "Why think of something original if we can do the old stuff all over again, with fresh actors and effects?" Also, quite unlike in "Star Trek II", this new Kirk and Spock know one another for just one year; it just can't have emotional impact of the original even if it were not an unintentionally funny cheap rip-off.

As I wouldn't have expected otherwise, Spock screams "Khaaaan!" after Kirk's death. The rest of the movie consists of more superhero chase scenes, in which Spock develops seemingly the same superhuman forces as Khan when they jump around on and between the cargo shuttles. Although it is just another plot device (this movie's Red Matter) and Khan 1.0 was never supposed to have such miraculous abilities, I like how Kirk's life is saved using Khan's blood cells, which has a double impact. On one hand it is poetic justice that Khan unwillingly helps save the life of his enemy; on the other hand it is a reason why he must stay alive at any cost.

Thinking about it, in the end Khan gets everything he could realistically have hoped for. He and his people are all still alive in their chambers, so they aren't worse off than at the time they were found in space. Khan has caused a lot of destruction, and he has killed his mortal enemy Admiral Marcus. Just like Nero in "Star Trek (2009)" he has achieved everything he wanted, and he has made the new universe a bit worse than it already was after Nero's destruction of Vulcan. Like in the previous movie, the happy ending is a fabricated one and fails to convince me as such.

Characters & acting 

Well, I can't really say much about Kirk in this movie, other than that he makes many decisions (some of which he has to revise) and engages in reckless maneuvers (some of which end up in even more chaos). In my impression Kirk, even rather than Khan, is the unstable element in the story. The problem with Kirk as a character is that we can't see a real development after he has been demoted and regains his command effortlessly because Christopher Pike is dead. Well, overall Kirk is not quite the asshole he still was in "Star Trek (2009)". Regarding Chris Pine, he is doing a fine job in this very inconstant role. And as hard as he may have tried, he had no chance to save Kirk's death scene that was written as being incredibly silly in the first place.

The role of Spock in STID is more daring than in "Star Trek (2009)", a movie that played safe and showed the logical Spock from TOS most of the time. He only lost his temper in the previous movie after his homeworld had been destroyed and once again when Kirk challenged him. In STID Spock is challenged by emotions on several different levels: in his friendship with Kirk (who reproaches him for putting duty over loyalty), in his relationship with Uhura (who is waiting for signal that he loves her) and with his wrath on Khan. I don't think that it's plausible that Spock can rather live with the loss of his home planet (which is only a side note this time) and of his mother, while the fight against an enemy like Khan provokes such an irate reaction in him ("Khaaan!"). But as old Spock says, it may be young Spock's destiny by the logic of the new universe. As unbelievable as this premise is, Quinto makes the best of it without appearing as a silly "mad Vulcan".

"Star Trek Into Darkness" makes better use of its principal cast, not just of Kirk and Spock, than "Star Trek (2009)". Uhura has a good scene in which she tries to convince the Klingons that they must support her to capture Harrison, because he is a man without honor. Her effort is in vain, but it becomes clear that this Uhura is a more proactive person than her counterpart in the Prime Universe, and not just because she is fluent in Klingon. Regarding her relationship with Spock, I find it pleasant that she is not quite as passive as she still was in the preceding movie, although she could and should have been still more of a Starfleet officer and less of Spock's girl-friend. ZoŽ Saldana is very sexy as always (especially in the wetsuit), and in her case it never comes across as gratuitous.

McCoy's best scene is the surgery he performs on the photon torpedo, which is, of course, a homage to "Star Trek VI". It is one of the better homages of the movie because it is not so utterly obvious. He provides advice and inspiration for Kirk and Spock a bit more like in TOS, and less like in "Star Trek (2009)" where he contributed little more than occasional cues. The only thing I don't like about McCoy in STID is that he frequently uses metaphors, even after his promise that he would restrain himself. While Karl Urban's performance was overall on spot, I would have wished for him to put a bit more emphasis in the facial expression, rather than into the wording.

The development of Scotty's character is a pleasant surprise in STID. The humor surrounding everything he is doing and saying is toned down to a more appropriate level. His arguably greatest scene is when he asks to be relieved of duty, more like a hollow threat, and Kirk surprisingly accepts his request. The way Simon Pegg plays Scotty's reaction is priceless. It seems I have to revise my opinion from the first movie on this casting choice and I look forward to seeing him next time. On the downside, Scotty's relationship to Keenser is once again like master and dog.

Sulu is allowed to play captain, and he has visibly fun in his role, which foreshadows his taking command of the Excelsior in the other universe in "Star Trek VI". However, this is his only really noteworthy scene.

Chekov is promoted to chief engineer after the departure of Scotty. This gives his character a bit more to do than usual but doesn't really help in his development. Chekov is still the prodigy who knows everything, who can do everything, but who ends up running around hectically. We have to admit at latest in this movie that the new Chekov has hardly anything in common with his Prime Universe counterpart (which in his case is plausible, because the two can't be the same person, genetically speaking). My impression is that Anton Yelchin's performance departs even further from the original Chekov than already in the first movie, and I second that decision, although I still don't know what to make of the new Chekov.

Alice Eve as Carol Marcus is only visually a pleasant surprise. Her motivation never becomes quite clear, and the inclusion of Dr. Marcus of "Star Trek II" fame was gratuitous in the first place. Her role effectively ends half way through the movie, when she is disabled and her father is killed. I don't mind her underwear scene, the fuss about which is just more evidence for me that certain people focus their attention and their criticism on totally unimportant things and that the producers and writers gladly pick that up and apologize for such minor mishaps so they don't have to admit the real mistakes in their movies.

Benedict Cumberbatch is great as Harrison/Khan. As already mentioned his acting almost fills in for the lack of a really strong motivation in his role, which is the fault of the writers. He is calm and seductive at one time, only to become violent and emotional, often when you would least expect it. This Khan 2.0 has little in common with the one from "Space Seed" and "Star Trek II". Most obviously Khan 1.0 was never such a fighting machine as version 2.0. Yet, I think I saw a few mannerisms in Cumberbatch's play that reminded me a bit of Montalban.

Admiral Marcus remains a totally unremarkable character throughout the whole movie, like most of the various previous mad admirals that appeared in Star Trek. His role as a villain is bettered by Khan's, and his relationship to his daughter doesn't play a great role (and could easily have been removed from the story). Even his death, as gruesome as it may be, is nothing special (it reminds me of Admiral Dougherty's demise in "Star Trek Insurrection").

Look & feel

On a positive note, in my impression there were fewer lens flares in "Star Trek Into Darkness" than in "Star Trek (2009)". The action sequences in the new movie were generally better watchable, even with the increased difficulty of them being in 3D.

The engineering of the Enterprise is still as ugly and inappropriately factory-like as already in "Star Trek (2009)". I wouldn't really have expected that to change, but except for a few less water pipes that were visible the whole set still cries "brewery". I like the industrial look of the huge warp core, which strikes me as very realistic, although it has nothing in common with anything we have seen in Star Trek so far. The arguably most questionable design choice is the Vengeance, which not only has a name that is unbecoming of a Starfleet ship but is also as huge and ugly as no Federation vessel ever seen on Star Trek. As much as I hate this abomination of a starship, I think I could set aside my anger about it but only because I was prepared to see it.

There are some more designs whose aesthetics I don't like but which are consistent with the first movie. Most obviously the unattractive military uniforms with caps that fortunately appear only briefly, and the prevalence of the color gray in the cities on Earth. The disco that Scotty visits in San Francisco is a nice colorful contrast to the overall gray though.

Nitpicking

Read much more about the movie's inconsistencies on a separate page.

Further commentary

The directors of present-day action flicks need to take care that the human actors don't get lost in scenes that are dominated by bombastic visual effects. Fortunately Abrams, unlike many of his colleagues, holds his actors in high esteem and keeps them in the focus of interest most of the time. Still, "Star Trek Into Darkness" has lost sight of the human dimension. This shows in superhuman stunts as they are prevalent in the movie. Harrison, Kirk and Spock are jumping and flying around like superheroes, mostly even without the help of any technology. I think it is a big mistake to make a Star Trek movie that is supposed to rival superhero movies. Over-the-top stunts should be left to Spiderman, X-Men, Iron Man and the likes. Star Trek should tell genuine science fiction stories.

The second big mistake of STID is that its script incorporates elements that I only know from bad fan fiction: a secret organization that builds a massive warship in no time; an extended shooting orgy in which the ships are reduced to scrap; the involvement of established characters for no good reason but a cheap namedropping effect; a totally miscarried homage in which the events of a previous movie are repeated. This is just immature writing. And it tells me that the producers and writers don't really want their work to be taken seriously as a new, independent direction of Star Trek. In "Star Trek (2009)" they still had the advantage (and the excuse) that the whole mess was the result of a time travel event. STID, in contrast, should have nothing to do with the Prime Universe any longer as the timelines have parted, and Nimoy's utterly gratuitous appearance doesn't change anything about it. Still, the movie pretends that it is the destiny of the crew to run into Khan, and even of Kirk to die in exactly the same way Spock does in the Prime Universe, only some 25 years later. STID easily has the most farcical script of any Trek movie, including "Star Trek V" and "Star Trek (2009)". It has become a Star Trek parody of sorts.

The perhaps most definite failing on the long term is that Star Trek has stopped exploring and is just about chasing villains (or rather, about trying hard to prevent them from blowing up starships, cities and planets, and often in vain). Agreed, this tendency is anything but new and was already apparent in the last few movies set in the Prime Universe. This recent direction of Trek movies was even ironically alluded to in "Star Trek: Insurrection": "Can anyone remember when we used to be explorers?" Yet, the old Star Trek had some 600 episodes and a few movies that were not about going to war against a villain, while the Abramsverse doesn't know anything else so far. With the exception of the brief excursion to Nibiru, the new Enterprise neither explores strange new worlds, nor does it seek out new life and new civilizations. And most obviously it only goes where previous Trek stories have gone before. The final scene of STID insinuates that this may change, but so did already the ending of "Star Trek (2009)". Personally, I have little hope that the Star Trek I used to know and to love will ever return. There may be a TV series set in the Abramsverse and perhaps it will try to recapture the old spirit. But the general setting of the Abramsverse, that you only win if you're defiant and reckless and still can't change your destiny, is a bad premise for a new TV series.

Conclusion

So how do I rate STID? "Star Trek (2009)" scored six points, because I enjoyed it despite the ridiculous coincidences in the script and the fact that some general principles of Star Trek were abandoned. Well, I have to live with the latter because optional canon seems to be the new canon.

I enjoyed STID too. On the bright side, it had a better development of the characters, it brought us still more action and I admit I found it a bit more exciting than its predecessor. On the downside, the lame idea to bring back Khan in such a gratuitous fashion, to rip off Spock's death scene and to try to rival superhero movies was close to ruining STID for me. I can't take a movie seriously that doesn't even want to be taken seriously. I can't speak for the viewers who may have expected nothing more than an exciting popcorn movie and who were served one, but I think fans of Star Trek deserve better. So I give it four points.

Annotations

Rating: 4

 


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