Four years after its debut, there is still a great deal of controversy over the Star Trek reboot. My own feelings are rather complicated (enough to fill a two-part blog entry, as some readers may recall), but they basically boil down to this: I thought it was a good start.
I like that the reboot gave the franchise a desperately-needed shot in the arm. That said, I felt like the series’ new lease on life wouldn’t be worth a damn unless the filmmakers built on it in a meaningful way. The reboot had given the franchise new energy, but it was still in desperate need of new ideas. It needed to bring creativity, a hunger for exploration, some optimistic and thoughtful commentary on the human condition… You know, the things that made Star Trek such a fixture in geek culture and mainstream entertainment in the first place. Something that would inspire a whole new generation of geeks to look skyward and pursue careers in scientific breakthroughs, just as the original series did.
It was my sincere hope that after half a decade in development and production, J.J. Abrams and his team would be able to build off of their foundation and boldly go where no filmmakers had gone before. However, when ads started coming out and rumors started leaking close to the film’s release, I started worrying that this would be a failure huge enough to sink the franchise again.
Instead, Star Trek Into Darkness turned out to be something far more frustrating than either outcome: It was more of the same. For better and for worse.
Everything that was enjoyable about the previous film is still enjoyable here. For example, the core cast of actors are all still wonderfully suited for their roles and their interplay is still engaging. In particular, the film continues exploring Kirk and Spock — as individual characters and as friends — to solid results. This film even goes a step farther and manages to make the Spock/Uhura relationship work, in large part because of how it’s used to explore Spock’s inner emotional conflicts. As for Kirk, the guy continues to struggle with “no-win” situations. His pride gets knocked down several pegs as the narrative unfolds, and he grows a great deal for it.
Something else that I appreciated about the previous film is that everyone in the main cast got a “hero moment.” They all had a chance to step up and save the day. That still holds true in the sequel, I’m happy to say.
I’m also glad to report that the action scenes are still a lot of fun and there’s still a great deal of variety to them. You’ve got vehicular chases (with starships!), you’ve got foot chases, you’ve got gunfights, you’ve got fistfights, etc. A few of the action scenes even have some novel touches, such as Spock’s rather ingenious use of the Vulcan mind meld. Another highlight comes when the Enterprise malfunctions and starts to fall from the sky, which lets the filmmakers play with gravity in some very exciting ways.
Unfortunately — again, like the previous film — this one cribs from Star Wars in ways that are terribly misguided. Easily the most prominent example is in this movie’s “skydiving” scene, which was crafted as a clear reference to the Death Star trench run for whatever baffling reason. To wit: The “skydiving” target is a perfectly circular hole that’s roughly — and this is a direct quote — “four meters square.” If I’ve got the math right, that would make it two meters wide.
I should also add that visually, the movie is more of the same from the previous film, only better. The “warp drive” effect is much improved, for instance, and the Enterprise has some spiffy new sets. What’s more, the makeup and costuming work are still extraordinary, ditto for the creature design by maestro Neville Page. Alas, the film’s visuals still suffer from those goddamned lens flares. They may not be nearly as annoying here as in Star Trek or Super 8, but Abrams really needs to cut that shit out.
Speaking of things that Abrams needs to just stop for the love of God already, let’s talk about his “Mystery Box” approach to filmmaking. Abrams has become notorious for his steadfast refusal to tell a single solitary thing about the movies he’s making until they’re already released. Abrams’ maddening flair for secrecy has become just as famous as anything he’s ever made, if not more so. I get where he’s coming from with regards to that, but it’s gone way too far. Somebody needs to tell Abrams that all the hype and mystery is worth squat after the opening weekend. To paraphrase a much wiser storyteller than I, a movie may only make a huge revelation once, but it will suck forever. Just ask M. Night Shyamalan.
As a case in point, think about Cloverfield, which used forced secrecy and viral marketing as a substitute for an actual story. Things got worse with Super 8, when Abrams and company went to ridiculous lengths in hiding a monster that turned out to be absolutely nothing special at all. It’s gotten so bad that the “Mystery Box” approach is starting to bring down movies made by Abrams’ proteges without any involvement from Abrams himself (see: Damon Lindelof and the colossal disappointment called Prometheus).
But here, now, with this movie, the “Mystery Box” approach may finally have jumped the shark for good. In his obsessive drive to maintain secrecy, Abrams wrote a plot point into the film itself that damages the movie irreparably. It’s a massive black eye, left to stain the movie from now to eternity. I’m of course referring to the villain played by Benedict Cumberbatch.
I’m not going to treat this as a spoiler, because it should never have been a spoiler to begin with. The film plays this as a massive reveal, even though it really isn’t. I’m sure we all knew this anyway, but it still breaks my heart to say it: John Harrison — the character Cumberbatch allegedly plays — doesn’t exist. This persona of a disgraced Starfleet officer was designed as a smokescreen to cover up his true nature. His real name, of course, is Khan.
To be fair, this setup does make more sense in the movie. I think. It’s all very convoluted (and oh, I’ll be getting to the screenplay problems later), but essentially, Khan is in a blood feud with the Starfleet officer who discovered him and the Enterprise crew is being used as a pawn by both sides. Even if it’s terribly plotted and executed, I applaud the filmmakers for this rare attempt at originality. Additionally, Khan is on a mission to save his genetically-enhanced brethren, which mirrors Kirk’s own devotion to his crew in a novel way. My compliments end there, however.
First of all, I’m a fan of Benedict Cumberbatch. I love the guy, and I’ll watch him in anything. He conveys a tremendous amount of charisma, intelligence, and general badassery, all with a heavenly voice. But he is not Ricardo Montalban. The two look absolutely nothing alike. I completely fail to understand how Abrams went to so much trouble casting younger actors who could emulate their original series counterparts, and yet the actor he cast to play Khan doesn’t look a damned thing like the original Khan. And no explanation is ever even attempted. What the hell?!
Even worse, just like in the previous film, this movie has a plot device that can magically do whatever the narrative needs it to. In the last film, it was Red Matter. In this movie, it’s Khan’s blood. Yes, Khan’s genetically engineered super-blood has special powers in this movie. Never mind that neither Khan nor his bodily fluids had any such properties in “Space Seed” or in Wrath of Khan, he’s got them now. *pbbbt*
Regrettably, many of these same problems apply to the modern iteration of Carol Marcus. To be clear, this version of Carol is a very smart and proactive woman who’s written surprisingly well. I’m sure she’d have made quite an impression if Alice Eve had a single ounce of talent or screen presence. Even so, the film makes it abundantly clear that she isn’t a genius, much less one who could make something like Project Genesis. Furthermore, her specialty is strictly in the field of weapons and she never shows any sign of knowledge or interest in biology.
In short, Khan and Carol both suffer in this movie because of their existing baggage. Casting aside, the love interest in this film might have worked perfectly fine if she was given any other name. Unfortunately, they named her “Carol Marcus,” thus inviting — nay, demanding comparison to the prominent character of the same name from the previous continuity. A comparison, sadly, that this version inevitably loses. That said, I will admit that there is some flimsy justification for how the continuity shift turned Carol Marcus into a totally different character. The same cannot be said, however, for Khan.
If the filmmakers wanted so badly for the villain to have magical tiger blood, then they should have made a villain with such powers instead of foolishly trying to retcon an existing character who showed no sign of such powers. A character, I’ll remind you, who has been in cryostasis since the 1990s and would therefore be completely unaffected by Nero’s screwing with the timeline. Furthermore, if they wanted the villain to be played by Benedict Cumberbatch, then they should have crafted a new villain for him instead of pretending that he’s an established character who looks nothing like Benedict Cumberbatch. But of course, all of this is avoiding the most important issue.
As I pointed out back in one of my previous blog entries, this franchise has been trying and failing to recapture the “Wrath of Khan” lightning in a bottle since the seventh movie. That well went dry ages ago (if there was ever any water in it to begin with), yet the filmmakers continued to mull over obsolescence, revenge, mortality, the conflict of young vs. old, and a bunch of other warmed-over variations of themes that were already done and done better in the second movie. Abrams even touched on those themes in the reboot, and now he’s gone and brought Khan in outright. That was stupid. That was contrived, uninspired, predictable, and just plain boring. They may as well have waved a white flag saying “We don’t know what else to do!” For the sweet love of Roddenberry, when the hell is the franchise going to drop that torch and try saying something new?! It’s time to quit beating that horse because it’s dead, Jim!
On the other hand, I will admit that the narrative to this movie doesn’t strictly follow Wrath of Khan. There’s nothing that remotely resembles the Genesis device, and the film does put some interesting twists on old familiar story points from the second movie. The result is a strange kind of middle ground, where the film isn’t quite derivative enough to be a remake, but too derivative to count as an original story. It’s like they tried to put their own spin on a classic Star Trek story and failed to make it their own.
I understand that the filmmakers are trying to pay tribute to what came before, and I respect that. The only problem is that they’re going about it in a very stupid way. At best, the references to TOS in this film are just cute throwaway lines (a tribble gets the best of them). At worst, the references are warped beyond all recognition (see: Carol Marcus and Khan). It comes off as either condescending (in the best case) or insulting (in the worst).
What really saddens me is that beneath the flashy new paint job, I’m seeing a lot of the same problems that ran Star Trek into the ground in the first place. Specifically, the franchise had become obsessed over the past, trying to recapture the old magic because none of the creative minds could come up with a new way forward. The reboot was supposed to fix all of that, clearing away the old baggage to go places the franchise couldn’t before. For a while, it seemed like Abrams was going to take some risks and do precisely that when he wiped the planet Vulcan out of existence. But the sequel has nothing equivalent to that bold move, nor does Vulcan’s destruction have any bearing at all on the plot (and no, an inconsequential cameo from Spock Prime doesn’t count).
Oh, and the screenplay has a number of basic flaws besides that. Even without the standard gaffes (Trekkers have long since made their peace with planetoids and moons that have Earth-like gravity and breathable air), and even without all the arbitrary explanations for why the teleporter can’t be used to fix every little problem, there’s an appalling number of plot holes in this movie.
My favorite example is still the Enterprise resting at the bottom of an ocean at the start of the movie. No, we never get an explanation as to why it’s down there or how they landed it without any of the inhabitants noticing. Another classic: Pretty much all of the action in the movie’s second half takes place within our solar system. The entire climax is set within Earth’s orbit. This begs the question of why the Federation couldn’t have called in more ships to lend assistance. Furthermore, it would seem that the people of Earth have made absolutely no attempt at beefing up the homeland defense around Starfleet HQ, even after Nero tried to drill a giant hole to the planet’s core just off the coast of San Francisco!
What’s even worse, the plot can get pathetically predictable. I find it most intriguing how a filmmaker obsessed with secrecy could telegraph every huge plot development 30 minutes or more in advance. It got to the point where Kirk was acting so incredibly stupid, ignoring all the evidence plainly in front of him, that I couldn’t wait for the plot to teach him a lesson. Luckily, that was of course the entire point.
Star Trek Into Darkness has been getting generally positive reviews and I can understand why. The action is amazing, the production design is superb, the main cast is still wonderful, and it’s a good (if shallow) time all around. But then again, those are all the reasons why the previous film got positive reviews as well. I understood why the previous film was hated among the Trek faithful, and those complaints carry over to this film. I was patient with the reboot, but my patience has officially run out with the sequel. This franchise needs someone who can take the Enterprise into bolder, more intellectual, more inspiring territory. The last thing it needs is someone who’s content to rest on his laurels and let the ship coast.
In his TV work, Abrams is known for creating series without following them through. He’ll work on a series right up until the pilot, then hand the show over to someone else and say “It’s yours now!” while moving on to something else. I sincerely wish he had done that with this franchise. After the solid and energetic kick start, he should have stayed on as an exec-producer while handing the reins to someone with two original ideas to rub together.
(Side note: Credit/blame must also be given to writers and exec-producers Bob Orci and Alex Kurtzman. Given their writing filmography, I don’t know if there’s ever been a single good original idea between the two of them.)
This movie continues the problem of rehashing Wrath of Khan, even more than previous films did. Even worse, it doesn’t have the sense of exploration or wonder that we all know and love from the original series. This is still a franchise in desperate need of a brain. Fortunately, Abrams is moving on to Star Wars, which is clearly a franchise more dear to his heart. If this isn’t his last Trek movie, the next one will be. So cross your fingers and hope for better luck next time.
Bottom line: If you liked the previous film, you’ll find more to like here. If you hated the previous film or were on the fence about it, stick to TOS reruns and wait for Abrams’ departure.