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Star Trek Into Darkness

Who doesn't like a good hamburger?

Hamburgers are a pretty casual, always-tasty meal that can range from a bland and simple fast-food cheeseburger to a gourmet bacon burger.

Me, I'm a big ribs guy! They're my favorite. Lone Star Steakhouse always made the best ribs - ribs fit for a Caesar's Memorial Day barbeque - but it's hard for me to say "no" to just about any rack of ribs. Sadly, all the Lone Stars in town are closed, and I've yet to find a true successor.

Star Trek Into Darkness poster

How does this relate to Star Trek Into Darkness? The original Star Trek series and Star Trek: the Next Generation are like those Lone Star ribs to me. They're my favorite. A really good science fiction movie - like 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Terminator, or Moon, or maybe even the recently-released Oblivion - is like a visit to [say] Famous Dave's to have some ribs. It's good, but it's still not Lone Star good! These new Star Trek movies, however, aren't even like ribs to begin with. They're more like hamburgers. Yeah sure they're a satisfying meal, but sometimes, I don't want a hamburger; I want ribs!

Into Darkness isn't what I wanted in a "Star Trek" movie at all. Even worse, it's worth as a movie is mostly superficial.

Still missing that passion for discovery that inspired a generation

Into Darkness reminded me a lot of two other Star Trek movies: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and Star Trek: Nemesis.

The Final Frontier is widely-regarded as the worst original-cast Star Trek movie (and rightfully so). It's premise is silly. The script is poorly-written (although still much more coherent than many of today's movie scripts - including Into Darkness). And the special-effects are atrocious! It was like one of those really bad episodes of the original series brought to life on the big screen with a slightly higher budget. But it did have one redeeming characteristic. The beginning and end of the movie consist of the camping scenes with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, and these scenes are actually really good. They're character-driven scenes in which we learn a little bit about the adventurous spirit of Kirk, his greatest fear, and the desire to explore that drove him to join Starfleet. It manages to further develop a character that had been around in movies and television for over 20 years, and whom one would have thought couldn't be further developed at all.

Kirk: I'm not trying to break any records. I'm doing this because I enjoy it. Not to mention the most important reason for climbing a mountain...
Spock: And that is ... ?
Kirk: Because it's there.
   -Star Trek V: the Final Frontier

As bad as that movie was, this simple exchange in this simple scene exemplifies what Kirk, Starfleet, and Star Trek are all about: the desire to go out there and experience the universe! Even if it's dangerous, the rewards of the experience, and the discovery that it brings is worth the risk. This is one of the prime ideologies behind Star Trek. Sure we could send probes out to collect data and send it back to us in the comfort and safety of our laboratories on earth. But why do that when we can go there and experience the universe for ourselves?

And that is a spirit that is sadly missing from Abrams' interpretation of Star Trek. Why does Kirk join Starfleet? Is it because he has a passion for adventure and discovery and expanding the horizons of human experience? Not according to these movies. In these movies, he does it because Captain Pike dared him to. Or maybe because he wants to pursue hot alien pussy, because both movies still treat Kirk like a cartoon horn dog whose eyes pop out of his head whenever a skirt walks by.

Star Trek Into Darkness - Scotty's concerns regarding torpedoes
Scotty: Is this a military mission? Is that what we are now? Because I thought we were explorers.
Thank you, whoever wrote this line, for perfectly critiquing this movie for me!

In fact, none of the characters in these new movies shows that passion for exploration that is so omnipresent in much of the original series and the Next Generation. Well, Scotty tries to. In fact, much of Scotty's dialogue sounds like criticism from the alienated Star Trek fan base. And he gets fired for his legitimate concern. But that little spark of the explorer's spirit that Scotty shows in this movie made me like Simon Pegg's character a lot more than I did before. Even Karl Urban's spot-on portrayal of Dr. McCoy was knocked down a peg or two in this movie by overemphasizing comedic one-liners. His dialogue consists almost exclusively of one-line retorts and catch phrases. Very poorly-written by the screenwriters, but still very well performed by Urban! So Scotty ends up being the only character in this new movie that I actually like because he's the only one who stands up for what Star Trek and Starfleet are supposed to be about: exploring space for the sake of discovery. He's also the only character who doesn't feel like a Warner Brothers cartoon.

Somebody on the writing staff snuck in the Cliff Notes of an episode of Star Trek

The real shame is that this movie does have a tiny spark of genuine Star Trek DNA in it that was missing from the first movie. Much like in Star Trek V, Into Darkness begins with a first act that feels like a short episode that helps to set up one of the major themes of the rest of the movie. This first 20 minutes or so, which feels almost like an abridged Cliff Notes version of an actual episode of Star Trek ended up being one of my favorite parts of the movie.

Strange new worlds, new life, and new civilizations ... for a little while

At the start of the movie, the Enterprise is doing its friggin job and conducting a survey of a primitive, alien culture. You know, doing that whole "exploring strange new worlds and seeking out new life and new civilizations" part of it's mission charter. Apparently, a volcano is about to erupt and wipe out the indigenous civilization, so Kirk decides to save the culture by "freezing" the volcano so that it doesn't erupt. Things go badly, and in order to rescue a trapped crew member, the Enterprise is exposed to the native population, who begin to worship it as a god in a cute little nod to the excellent Next Generation episode "Who Watches the Watchers" (one of my favorite episodes of that series). The Enterprise then returns to Earth, where Admiral Pike gives Kirk a lecture about the Prime Directive and strips Kirk of his command saying that he is "not ready" to command because he doesn't "respect the chair" [the captain's chair of a starship].

Star Trek TNG Who Watches the Watchers - Picard must prove he is not a god
The moral issues involving the Prime Directive used to be the basis of entire episodes of Star Trek, as in this classic episode "Who Watches the Watchers". Now we just gloss over it as if it's not a big deal.

This act of the movie actually feels a little bit like an episode of the original series. The crew is doing their mission, things go wrong, and Kirk has to make a moral decision about whether to save a crewmate or follow the Prime Directive. For a few minutes in there, I felt like I was actually watching a Star Trek episode! It was a bad, rushed, overly-cartoonish episode of Star Trek that made no sense, but whatever.

This act is used as a writing mechanic to get Kirk back on Earth and interacting with Pike as an excuse to get the main plot rolling. It also serves to set up Kirk's character arc, in which he begins to realize that he's not an effective leader and may actually be a liability. This concern informs almost every decision that he makes for the rest of the movie.

Unfortunately, this first act also completely glosses over the rationale and ideology of Starfleet by not giving the audience any insight into why any of this is important. They don't bother telling us what the Federation had to learn by studying this culture. They don't explain the reasoning why the Enterprise has to be hidden under the friggin ocean instead of in orbit and sending down a shuttle (yes, they park the entire Enterprise under the ocean in order to conceal it from the natives - which Scotty wastes no time in reminding Kirk, and the audience, is a ridiculous idea). And most importantly, they don't explain the reason why the Non-Interference Clause (Prime Directive) is "Starfleet General Order Number One". They also don't bother taking any effort to rectify the situation (as was done in the referenced TNG episode). These are important things for a movie that wants to be "Star Trek" to address because they are the fundamental building blocks of the series! It's what the franchise is supposed to be about. The movie doesn't provide any value for the time and effort spent studying this culture, and so the whole mission comes off looking like a stupid, dangerous, waste of time, and the Prime Directive gets reduced to a simple commandment imposed on Starfleet officers.

Daring to sneak in a modern-day allegory

I do have to give the writers credit for getting one thing very right: they actually managed to sneak in a relevant socio-political allegory into the movie.

This is one of the things that Star Trek (and science fiction in general) always did best, and I was very pleased to see it incorporated into this movie.

Basically, a Starfleet admiral (Peter Weller's character) decides that "John Harrison" (Benedict Cumberbatch's character) is a terrorist that must be hunted down and destroyed. So he tasks the Enterprise to go after him and use fancy guided torpedoes to take him out from a safe distance. Kirk is happy to go along with the plan, as "Harrison" had just murdered several high-ranking Starfleet officers. Spock, on the other hand, has reservations. He protests the unilateral execution of a Federation citizen without due process as immoral and in strict violation of everything that the Federation is supposed to hold dear.

Does any of this sound familiar? It should sound familiar, because the movie makes it very explicit. The writers are fortunately smart enough to fit it all seamlessly into the context of the movie without making the metaphor seem ham-fisted, even if they do rush through it in 5 minutes, wash their hands of the moral allegory that could have been a major point of the movie's plot, and go back to mindlessly blowing things up.

This is the only 5 minutes of the movie in which Into Darkness gets a big, fat "A" from me!

Into Darkness benefits from a scaling-down of the threat level

From the trailers, I thought Into Darkness was going to have an apocalyptic plot in which the crew has to save the whole Earth from imminent doom. Happily, the threat level is scaled down a bit. Despite the trailers full of explosions in Earth cities, the plot is actually a much more personal one. It's about "Harrison" - I can't keep doing this: he's Khan! It's about Khan's quest for revenge against a rogue Starfleet Admiral who was manipulating Khan for his own political goals. Yes, there are some big-scale threats here too: potential war with the Klingons being the biggest one. But there's no planet-killing lasers or manmade black holes this time. Just a super-powerful, oversized, over-armed, top secret starship. But no planet-killing lasers! ... that I'm aware of ...

The entire second half of the movie carries itself via nostalgic fan service

I mentioned earlier in the review that Into Darkness reminded me of two other movies. The first was Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. The other is Star Trek: Nemesis. This review by even compares Into Darkness to a video game that I can relate to: Silent Hill: Homecoming. Both of these sequels relied very heavily on nostalgia and fan service in order to try to appeal to their core fan bases. And both failed miserably.

We'll rip off The Wrath of Khan [again]; what could go wrong?

Much like Nemesis, Into Darkness tries very hard to replicate the success of Star Trek II (The Wrath of Khan) and Star Trek VI (The Undiscovered Country). Fortunately, Into Darkness is a little bit more clever than Nemesis. In Khan, Kirk's arc revolves around his feelings that age has caught up to him and he's no longer as useful as he used to be. Nemesis has similar themes with Picard having to deal with crew members leaving to move on with their lives and with facing a younger version of himself that makes him nostalgic about the days of his youth. Into Darkness is at least clever enough to mirror that theme from Khan instead of copy it directly like Nemesis. Instead of feeling inadequate because of his age, Kirk now feels useless because of his youth and lack of experience.

Star Trek II - Spock's death Star Trek Into Darkness - Kirk's death

Into Darkness also replicates some scenes from Khan verbatim. But it does manage to make those scenes relevant to this movie's plot and context. It doesn't make the mistake of arbitrary sacrifice the way that Nemesis did with its suicidal Data. When Kirk offers to sacrifice himself at the end of the movie, the decision feels valid within his character arc. But the scene lacks the impact of the tear-wrenching scene from Khan. New audiences simply haven't known these characters long enough to feel as strong of a sense of loss that caused preview audiences of Star Trek II to nearly riot. We have to take the movie's word for it that Kirk and Spock are actually friends, because so far, everything that we've seen in both movies indicates that they should hate each other. Kirk and McCoy have been established as being good pals, but not Kirk and Spock. Spock and Kirk are treated as BFFs because that's what the audience expects, but it's not what the movie actually sets up. McCoy should have been the one crying against the radiation glass, but he couldn't because he was too busy contributing to the other reason that this scene doesn't work in this movie.

The drama of the scene is completely deflated because nobody believes for a second that Kirk's sacrifice will be permanent. The movie has already reminded us several times of the regenerative properties of Khan's blood by the time this scene has come up, so there is absolutely no doubt in the viewer's mind that the "reset" button is going to be pushed. One of those reminders was only 15 or 20 minutes prior to the supposedly climactic death scene so that anyone who might have forgotten the set-up at the start of the movie will have been reminded that nobody in this movie is in irreversible danger. At least the last movie had the balls to blow up Vulcan and keep it blown up - despite having a plot revolving around time travel.

Bailed out by Leonard Nimoy

There's also a point in this movie in which Quinto-Spock calls up Nimoy-Spock for advice. So if you didn't already know that Khan is a bad guy yet, Nimoy goes ahead and breaks his own non-interference rules by spilling the beans. This scene is completely unnecessary fan service. Kirk already suspects that Khan is going to double-cross him, so all he would have to do is warn Spock. On top of that, Nimoy-Spock doesn't tell Quinto-Spock anything about Khan that Quinto-Spock doesn't already suspect, and there's really no reason for Quinto-Spock to drop everything and call Vulcan to begin with. What makes him think that Nimoy-Spock will know anything about Khan? Is Quinto-Spock going to stop and call Nimoy-Spock every time he gets into trouble or has to make a hard decision? Is that going to be the defacto problem-solving strategy for these new movies now?

Moments of sloppy writing demonstrate that the writers just don't get it

Star Trek is no stranger to bad writing. I have no illusions that the series is perfect. There are contradictions, and plot contrivances, and bad science, and plot holes galore! But that's to be expected when you're working under the constraints of making a low-budget, weekly TV series. When you have millions of dollars, a handful of writers, and two or three years to put the movie together, there really aren't any excuses for not having a tight script. Much like the 2009 Star Trek movie, Into Darkness is full of writing gaffes that show that the movie's writers just don't understand or don't care about Star Trek.

We all live in an Enterprise submarine

Star Trek Into Darkness - underwater Enterprise
The Enterprise hides underwater from primitive space-people.

The opening of the movie involves the Enterprise being parked under the friggin ocean to hide it from indigenous tribespeople. WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS?! Even Scotty says it's ridiculous, so somebody on the writing staff knew that this was a stupid idea. They use shuttles and space-suit-dives for everything else in these movies; why couldn't they do that here if the transporters weren't going to work? The Enterprise is a starship, not a submarine. It is not supposed to operate inside a planet's gravity. It was not even supposed to be able to handle the stress of being built on the surface of a planet and be launched into space, which is why in the original canon, it had to be built in orbit! The ship simply cannot handle the stress of maneuvering in an atmosphere, let alone the added pressure of water.

They even refer to the Enterprise's difficulty operating in an atmosphere in this opening scene, and at the end of the movie when it goes into free fall into Earth's atmosphere. So it's not like nobody knew that the ship wasn't supposed to operate in an atmosphere.

Besides, how did they get the Enterprise down there without disturbing the natives to begin with, and how did they think they were going to get it back out again?

Why is Uhura on the landing party?

Star Trek Into Darkness - underwear
Alice Eve has replaced Zoe Saldana as the primary ticket-seller for the teenage male demographic

Uhura is a communications officer and translator. Why would you take her on a mission to a primitive planet in which the goal is not to communicate or interact with the natives in any way? Plus, it's bad policy to take a romantic couple on a mission because it might interfere with the mission, especially one as dangerous as this. I can understand that they took her on the mission with the Klingons later on. They were "under cover", and might need her to speak Klingon if they got caught. But there is no need for her to be in that mission at the start of the movie.

But hey, at least they didn't have to use Uhura exclusively as eye candy anymore. They have Alice Eve's Carol Marcus character for that now!

The warp drive rules

For a movie that put so much attention on rules and regulations, nobody seems to care about following them. Scotty shows legitimate concern when torpedoes carrying unknown fuel and detonators are loaded on the Enterprise, but for all the wrong reasons. He should care because they're dangerous, and he doesn't know if they need any special care or handling instructions. It shouldn't have anything to do with "destabilizing the warp drive". If the warp drive were that finicky, Starfleet ships would be blowing up left and right.

This concern comes up again later on, when Kirk and Khan infiltrate the bad guy ship and sneak through the engine room because "they won't risk firing in this area and destabilizing the warp core".

Speaking of the dangers of warp drives, you're not supposed to go to warp inside of a star system! It's dangerous, and it's against the rules. Considering that the warp engine is so fragile that firing a torpedo with a fancy fuel source might cause a chain-reaction explosion, you'd think Scotty would also be worried about activating the warp drive inside the gravitational and magnetic fields of a star system. What happens if they pass through a solar flare?

Nope, nobody cared in the first movie, and nobody cared in this movie!

The same character arcs again

In addition to all of the characters being treated (once again) like cartoon caricatures of their former selves, none of them develops at all during this movie. All their arcs are the exact same arcs as in the previous movie:

  • Kirk is a rebel who has to learn how to lead
  • Spock has to learn to get along with Kirk and learn to express his feelings with Uhura, all while looking angry and sulky the entire time
  • Uhura is unhappy that Spock doesn't show his emotions
  • McCoy shouts one-liners and acts grumpy all the time
  • Scotty complains about everything
  • and so on...

It's bad enough that the previous movie had to treat all of these characters like exaggerated cartoon caricatures of themselves, but not taking any time to develop the characters any further in the new movie is absolutely unacceptable. None of the characters advances beyond where they were at the end of the last movie.

Dick measuring contest

Star Trek Into Darkness - Vengeance
Interstellar dick-measuring contest in progress.

One of the reasons that I'm reluctant to participate in fanboy debates about "which is better?" or "which ship would win in a fight?", is because a lot of times, those arguments come down to a simple dick-measuring contest over which ship is bigger and has more guns. This movie falls prey to that same problem. Insurrection, Nemesis, and the 2009 movie also had the same problem of making the bad guy ship look arbitrarily big and scary just to make the audience afraid of it. This is a stupid, horrible way to make the audience afraid of the villain and just goes to show how lazy and uncreative the script-writers are.

Look back at the older Star Trek TV show and movies to see all kinds of examples of how to properly instill fear into an audience. The Romulan Bird of Prey in the ToS episode "Balance of Terror" is scary because it can cloak and it's weapon is devastating. But both of these advantages are also disadvantages. The ship itself is not physically bigger than the Enterprise, nor is it actually better armed. It cannot travel at warp. It's weapon has limited range and requires a recharge. And the ship is completely unshielded and vulnerable when cloaked. The ship is not scary because it has the Enterprise completely unmatched in a physical/technical sense. It is scary because of the way that it is used. Defeating it requires that the crew essentially solve a puzzle, rather than just fire guns.

Similarly, the Klingon Bird of Prey in Star Trek VI is intimidating because it can do something that no other ship can do: fire while cloaked. It is scary because it has overcome one of the known weaknesses of cloaking technology. On top of that, the ship had been successfully used to sabotage the meeting with the Klingon flagship without anybody even knowing that it was there. It was like a ghost that could kill you without you even knowing it was there. But once that single advantage had been neutralized, the ship itself was weak-sauce and gets torn apart by a nearly-crippled Enterprise.

Finally, the best comparison: the Reliant from Star Trek II! The Reliant didn't need to be bigger or stronger than the Enterprise. In fact, the Reliant was a small scout ship that would be pulverized in a direct conflict with the Enterprise. So the audience isn't afraid of the Reliant; they're afraid of person in command. Khan takes advantage of his knowledge of Kirk and Starfleet protocol to cripple the Enterprise with a sneak attack so that the two can be on equal ground. It is Khan's cleverness that makes the Reliant formidable, not the Reliant itself.

But Into Darkness' writers couldn't be bothered to come up with anything clever or interesting or novel for the bad guy to make them threatening, so they have to rely on intimidating the audience through sheer size and brute strength. Khan's character doesn't act particularly smart or clever. He just stands there and takes a bunch of punches, then throws people across rooms. The Vengeance, similarly, lacks any creativity in its design or conception. It's just bigger, faster, and has more guns. It doesn't have to be used in any special way in order to be threatening; it just shows up, lines itself up with the Enterprise, and starts shooting.

No room to improve the technology

This movie also suffers from the problem of the technology being too convenient. There just don't seem to be any significant limitations to the tech available to Starfleet (except for warp cores that are prone to exploding). The Enterprise makes the trip from Earth to Qo'nos in a matter of minutes (or maybe hours), when that trip should actually be taking months on the original series warp scale. Two-way subspace communication is also instantaneous. Even in the later Star Trek series, subspace communication had a delay. They can even beam people halfway across the galaxy now (but they still needed to park the Enterprise in the ocean at the start because the transporter wouldn't work). Oh, and apparently, Khan's blood can bring people back from death, so now we're never going to be afraid of any character dying ever again.

False promises

Just like the 2009 movie, Into Darkness ends with a recitation of the Original Series' opening monologue (this time recited by Pine). After the last movie, I had hoped that this meant that the writers' goal was to make the next movie be about space exploration. That hope was quickly dashed when it was announced that the movie would have a villain (and that the villain would likely be Khan). So, should I expect that the next movie will be any different? Well, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. I have no doubt that the next movie will be about conflict with the Klingons, as there's been two movies so far that have been setting up for it. Hopefully, Abrams and his writers will have learned from Into Darkness' mistakes and take the time to write a well thought-out script and grow up the characters a bit.

And more gaffes...

I could go on ranting about gaffes and poor writing, but I don't want to keep you here all day. But here's a few more noteworthy ones:

  • Really stupid Starfleet rules regarding meeting leadership in a specific place after an emergency.
  • Why is Zachary Quinto always grimmacing and talking like a smart-ass? He spends the whole movie looking angry.
  • Does Khan actually have a plot to recover his crew when he fled to Qo'nos? He apparently didn't want the Enterprise to fire the missiles at Qo'nos because he immediately surrenders. Was he planning on hijacking the Enterprise? I just don't understand what Khan's actual motivations were because he didn't seem to be doing anything to actually try to recover his crew.

Oh, and I now have absolutely zero interest in ever seeing anything with Benedict Cumberbatch ever again. I didn't find his performance very compelling. He lacked all of the nuance and subtle personality of Ricardo Montalban. He just acted like a stoic sociopath for most of the movie who lets everyone beat him up, then talks all gravely to try to sound scary.

Failure as a movie first, and a Star Trek story second

As displeased as I was with the direction that 2009's Star Trek took, I at least enjoyed and respected that movie as a well-made movie. It was fun, fast-paced, action-packed, and fairly well-written (bad science aside). Into Darkness doesn't have any of that. Much of it is off-putting and depressing. The secondary-characters are all poorly-written and/or poorly-acted (the worst being Carol Marcus). The pacing is uncomfortable. The characters are poorly-developed, and almost every element of the movie is a rehash of the previous movie or the older Star Trek movies. On top of that, the scenes that are supposed to be emotionally-charged fall flat.

I cannot, in good conscious, recommend this movie. The last movie was a good movie; this one is not.

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