Standing in line for Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013) I could not understand… Why had I no recollection of the first Star Trek (2009)? I knew it had been 4 years, but even so I expected to remember something. And why, after having watched it, had I felt no inclination to watch it again, or to immerse myself in a universe with an esteemed cult following?
I now know the answers to these questions, having since watched Into Darkness, rewatched the first film, and ventured beyond. In this review I will explain how director J.J. Abrams’s second outing continues the fabled trend (or ‘curse’) of good even-numbered Star Trek films, and the good that his newest film has done for the franchise.
In my recent viewing of the 2009 film I felt immediately pinned at the throat. The film opens with a massive vessel emerging from a hole in space. It is from the future, thus creating an alternate reality to the universe of the well established franchise. Immediately the ship begins to radically alter the course of history, by laying waste to an unsuspecting and hopelessly outmatched Federation fleet. George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth) is among the fleet and becomes Captain for all of 12 minutes, during which time he saves 800 lives, including his wife and son (who is born on an escape pod, just prior to his father’s death). The son is James Kirk (Chris Pine); a man once destined to lead the USS Enterprise, he is left without the father who inspired him to join Starfleet, and is instead set to pursue a life of distinguished delinquency.
The concept of the film is reasonable, but the feeling of being pinned did not subside. As the scene changed to show a young Kirk, little older than 10, racing a car down a highway at 90mph, before bailing, to avoid falling off a cliff, it was obvious the film was Hollywood in all its ridiculous grandiosity.
In parallel Spock (Zachary Quinto) is introduced. Spock is part human and part Vulcan, and has a captivating origin story. Vulcans completely suppress emotion, due to their understanding that emotion can cloud judgement, and wish for all actions to be dictated by logic. As a child Spock is surrounded by a group of older Vulcans, in what he says is their 35th attempt to illicit an emotional response from him. In calling his mother a filthy human whore they succeed — a little too well. All of Spock’s bottled up anger is unleashed upon them in an aggressive fit of rage. He is subsequently ashamed, and vows to purge all emotion. However, he never shakes the stigma of his half-human origins; even the wisest Vulcans discriminate, by terming him “disadvantaged”. In response, Spock becomes the first Vulcan to decline admission to the highly esteemed Vulcan Science Academy, opting instead to join Starfleet. Vulcan in demeanor, he is human at heart.
Kirk’s character also has significant depth. On the surface he drinks, womanizes, and knows just how smart he is; an example of much of our human faults. A bar fight brings him to the attention of Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood), a man who admired his father and sees greatness within Kirk. He feels Kirk’s tendency to leap without looking is something Starfleet lacks, and sorely needs. Kirk is challenged to best the exceptional 12 minute Captaincy of his father, leading him to join the Starfleet Academy and begin showing qualities he would long before have exhibited, had reality not been altered. To Spock’s frustration Kirk beats a test he designed to be impossible, in order that a Captain face and accept fear. Kirk achieved this by modifying the program. To Spock, this is cheating. To Kirk, the test is at fault: He does not believe in no-win scenarios. Needless to say, their famed friendship does not get off to the best of starts.
Unfortunately, even with all the film’s character and emotional currency, it throws in first and foremost with the flashy farcical of Hollywood blockbusters. When Kirk is on the Enterprise for the first time — not as Captain, but as a suspended student (sneaked aboard, through unorthodox means, by Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy (Karl Urban)) — he attempts to save the crew. He has the revelation they are heading towards the same ship that killed his father 25 years before. In trying to explain this he is encumbered with hands the size of balloons, and a numb tongue, as result of an adverse allergic reaction. To continue the farce, as Kirk, Lt. Sulu (John Cho), and a man called Olson plummet toward the surface of the Vulcan homeworld, in an attempt to stop enemy plans, Olson dies–not simply because he is wearing a red shirt, but because he pulls his parachute much too late. On a highly important mission, with the fate of an entire world at stake, you don’t get caught up in a bloody adrenaline rush. Especially not after having graduated from Starfleet.
The film violates the integrity of its universe. It seems afraid any lull of more than a few seconds (without a joke, a flash-bang, or epic music), will result in it losing its audience, or the film being seen to conform with its nerdy stereotype. It is this emphasis (and a lack of respect for the intelligence of the average cinemagoer) that undermines the film. There is no loosening on the viewer’s throat, no given pause for breath, no moment for reflection, and so as the curtain closes we walk away entertained, but without impression. The film was (excuse the pun) warped, forgettable, and its depth–while present–was squandered.
Simply put, Star Trek (2009), in spite of excellent casting and good potential, was not Star Trek. It is here, I believe, that Into Darkness succeeds where its predecessor did not.
The opening of Into Darkness is misleading, in that it seems to follow the same style as the first film. We first see Kirk and Bones running through a red jungle, chased by spear throwing papier-mâché faced humanoids. Meanwhile Spock is in a volcano. Flash. Bang. Hollywood. etc. He intends to detonate a device at the heart of this volcano, to save the planet’s inhabitants from impending eruption, but in doing so is out of transporter range. Any effort to save him would violate the Prime Directive, which prohibits any interaction with undeveloped civilizations. Spock insists he be left, and accepts death, as “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”, but the (now)Captain Kirk, who is loyal and has little regard for rules, saves Spock just as the device detonates and the flash-bang freezes. This almost symbolically parallels the halting of a Hollywood approach to the film.
In the events that follow it becomes clear the film is not as one-geared and unrelenting as the first. After initial flash, it slows. We look out over a futuristic London. The world is so similar, yet different, capturing the fantasy appeal that grips franchise fans. The camera moves in on a children’s hospital. Inside a distraught mother and father perch over the bed of their daughter, who is terminally ill. As the father steps out on to a balcony, a cold-calm-calculating voice speaks behind him. “I can save her.” The subtext being, “provided you do exactly as I say”. This man (who is played so very, very well by Benedict Cumberbatch), with a lethal combination of intellect and savagery, is willing to use a father with a dying daughter as a pawn in his plans. He is as purged of conscience as the Vulcans are of emotion.
As the nomenclature suggests, this film is far darker than its predecessor. Darker, but also far more mature.
In the first film characters were relatively one dimensional in their development. They were pointed in one direction, and stuck with it. Kirk was set on proving himself, Spock was wrangling with anger (with vague hint of love), and the villain cared for nothing but vengence. Spock did become part-member of an endangered species, but it was difficult to emotionally relate to a culture of emotionless people, particularly considering their treatment of Spock. Into Darkness is far more relatable. Crucially, emotion is also exhibited by (and interlinked between) all key characters, as opposed to just focusing on Spock (which I felt rather ironic, in the first film).
The superb casting finally bears fruit, as characters deal with greater emotional complexities than sassiness, anger, and vengence. Kirk must deal with loss on several fronts (rank, friendship, and family) and triumph over being emotionally compromised; Spock comes to understand the true nature of love and friendship; even the villains are more complex–and are frequently kept much closer than a viewing screen, forming temporary alliances, in anticipation of numerous betrayals. Into Darkness is a tight, character driven film, given impetus also by excellent acting (Quinto and Cumberbatch in particular deserve commendation).
When intending to write a review I try and avoid reading the impressions of others, until after having established my own, but I am aware of criticisms surrounding characters, particularly concerning the ‘absence’ of women. While men may disproportionately make up the cast, I disagree with the criticism, on basis that both significant women (played by Zoe Saldana and Alice Eve) exhibit exemplary acts of courage. These acts greatly overshadow, say, the bumbling of Bones, Scotty (Simon Pegg) and his Cauliflower assistant. The women are not weak damsels, they intervene at crucial moments–I would also much rather a little flirting, and brief exposé, to the chronic violation of the first film.
I also could not resist reading a review by Wil Wheaton (yes, that guy), who considers the film his favourite Star Trek. I found his parallels with 9/11 and commentary on terrorism, as a weapon we created is turned against us, rather interesting.
“If the power of Science Fiction is to force us to confront subjects that are difficult or taboo, I will argue that Into Darkness does it as effectively as anything I’ve seen in years.” – Wil Wheaton
Here is a link for those interested (although I warn you there are spoilers).
However, the crowning achievement of the film, in my view, is that it inspires exploration. All franchise films do this to some extent — Rick Riordan, for example, is honest in admitting he sold the rights to Percy Jackson in hope additional mainstream publicity would expand his readership, and he has no interest in watching the films. But while publicity can be important in drawing people to a universe, Star Trek is already in our collective conscience to some degree. The films present more of an opportunity, to make something of that consciousness, to clarify its identity, rather than having significant worth as a marketing ploy. Unfortunately the 2009 film appealed to the wrong audience (perhaps under the false premise that all interested nerds were converted already? *clears throat*). It exaggerated the combat, at expense of the soul.
One must remember that the television series began in 1966, with only story and characters, not special effects, to draw upon. This also helps to explain the scarcity of women, as the characters that comprise Into Darkness originate from a period of our history that was not so forward in thinking as we would like to believe. I am told this same emphasis on story over effects was taken up again by Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987. While the 2009 film may have piqued interest for some, it can hardly be said to have engaged with its roots, or to have inspired its audience. I speak very much from experience.
By contrast, after watching Into Darkness I immediately hunted down the film Star Trek II (1982), and have since also watched and enjoyed a number of episodes from the original television series. Rewatching Into Darkness (yes, I saw it twice) after seeing Star Trek II I can say that while the familiar/nostalgic elements did enrich the experience (as the film shares some plot parallels), these were in no way used as a means of tricking the viewer in to thinking the film is better than it actually is.
Into Darkness is very much self-contained, with all events building upon strong character development (on this note I would also like to stress that there is absolutely no need to watch the 2009 film to fully enjoy the second). Had it not been for the character driven focus the alternate reality parallels might well have been laughable, rather than powerful. And while the plot itself is not without some nonsensical faults, the character foundation is sufficient in preventing any questionable aspects from ruining the film.
Star Trek (2009) ended with terrible cliché, as the cast assumed stations, complete (of course) with epic music. Into Darkness ends with a heartfelt speech, which talks of morals and lessons learned. When the film finally references the classic five year mission plan you may well feel, as I did, a stirring inside, to seek out what you have not bothered to before. It may be the start of your voyage into a new universe.
Evoking this kind of feeling is a massive achievement. One that all franchise films should aspire to, but few–under box office pressure–are bold enough to try.