“Flawed but ultimately enjoyable,” seems to be the going mantra on the second installment of JJ Abrams adaptation of Gene Roddenberry’s vision, Star Trek 2: Into Darkness. Hrrrm. I wanted to tow that party line. I wanted to join in on all the gushing. If only for the sake of peace. But sorry, after sitting through two viewings of this flick, like a Double XX posse track, “I’m not gonna be able to do it.”
SPOILERS in here the size of gorillas and what not, so you’ve been warned.
I’ll be upfront. I was not a fan of the first JJ Abrams Trek reboot back in 2009. Goodness knows I’d tried. I went in eager and wide-eyed, sitting and waiting for the Abrams magic to hit me. Nothin’. I thought maybe something was wrong. Everyone else was oohing and ahhing in the theater. Maybe I was having a bad day. Or I was over thinking it. Dragged two more poor souls to see it a second and third time. But if anything, I only came to like the film less. It was full of action. The characters were all there. The story was familiar. The visuals were *stunning.* It just wasn’t Trek, at least to me. And there was no use forcing it.
I’m no purist–whatever that is exactly. I don’t really care that much about altered timelines, as long as somewhere the original timeline remains intact. Abrams could have made the entire crew cosmic hyper-intelligent chickens from a parallel dimension, and I would have probably stuck by it. Sure I would have asked where the heck DTI was when all this was going on, but I was ready for tidy explanations. No, it was something more problematic, something that just seemed off. I couldn’t connect with the characters or the plot. I couldn’t get that Trek afterglow when I left the theater. And it was frustrating, because I really wanted that! So, when I heard there was going to be a sequel, based on the famed Wrath of Khan, no less, I wasn’t sure what to think. Still, I took a deep breath, cleared my head, and walked in to try to catch just a glimmer of that fabled Abrams magic one more time.
Guess I’m hard-headed.
The movie begins innocuous enough, with a young Kirk (Chris Pine) and ornery Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban), running through an alien forest. The two had stolen some religious scroll from the “indigenous” inhabitants, who are fresh in pursuit–all jabbering and pointing spears. Turns out their world is about to end through a super volcano, and the Enterprise is there to fix it. After a series of harrowing events, Dr. Spock (Zachary Quinto) manages to release a “cold fusion device ” that freezes the volcano, saving the planet–but not before the Enterprise, hiding beneath the sea, breaks the Prime Directive to emerge like a leviathan and rescue him. Spock is shocked Kirk would do such a thing, revealing themselves to a vastly pre-warp civilization. Kirk, ever the rebel, shrugs it off and says what could happen? We are then greeted with the alien species sketching an image of the Enterprise in their red ochre dirt, bowing to it in reverence.
Okay. So yeah, the whole thing had a serious ripped-off Indiana Jones running with the stolen idol feel. It was also uncomfortable in a racialist “othering” type of way–jabbering spear-wielding superstitious “primitives” and fleeing white men. What the heck was the Enterprise doing underwater anyway? Why not just park up in orbit if you don’t want to be seen as it’s been done in, oh, every single Trek incarnation? And in the science department, whatever you use to instantly freeze lava–it ain’t got much to do with “cold fusion.” In fact, I’m thinking an actual cold fusion reaction in an active volcano might make the whole situation terribly worse! The heart of a volcano isn’t in the crater anyway, so wouldn’t the device have to be detonated much deeper? But you know, whatever. Swept all that under the rug and told the thinking part of my brain to STFU. I was still into this thing! Go Trek!
Back on Earth, Kirk is getting reamed out by Admiral Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) for the whole affair. Turns out he was just supposed to survey the planet, not get involved. And now he’s gone and broken the Prime Directive. Kirk is pissed at Spock for detailing it all in his report, and the pair are broken up–Kirk stripped of the Enterprise, and Spock sent to another ship. But, not to worry. Nothing really goes bad for our friends, and Admiral Pike (inexplicably) decides that the guy he just reamed out should be made his first officer.
The two are summoned to Starfleet by Admiral Alexander Marcus (Peter Weller) after a former operative named John Harrison blows up an archive building, killing scores. Well he doesn’t actually do it, rather he has a Starfleet personnel (Noel Clarke- Mickey from Doctor Who), become a suicide bomber–in exchange for some blood to save his daughter. Pour some liquor out for the brotha who didn’t make it through the first 30 minutes of the flick. At the meeting, Kirk realizes that something isn’t right. And his hunch pays off when Harrison launches an attack on the facility, as the heart of Starfleet has terrible security. It’s a well-shot scene, a firefight that takes out the top Starfleet brass (including Admiral Pike) and is only stopped by Kirk–but not before Harrison beams away.
Via Scotty (Simon Pegg)–possibly my favorite character of the reboot–Kirk and company learn that Harrison has used some trans-warp beaming tech to journey to the Klingon home world, Kronos. That’s a heckuva tool. To take you across the whole damn galaxy. Admiral Marcus reveals that things ain’t so kosher with the Klingons, to whom Harrison may have defected. He himself, anticipating war, has developed a set of new long-range photon torpedoes through the shadowy Section 31–which was first revealed in DS9. Kirk and his crew are to take the Enterprise secretly to the edge of the Neutral Zone with the Klingons, and eliminate Harrison with extreme prejudice. This of course tugged at that logic part of my brain cuz you know, you guys have that whole trans-warp tech. Why not just beam a team over to Kronos? Or beam the torpedoes over? Or heck, can you just beam dude back? I mean you’re just jumping back and forth across the galaxy–what the heck? But I told my brain to kindly go away, and tried to continue.
So Starfleet is into targeted assassinations and secret airstrikes. Terrifying stuff, and quite appropriate to our times. Thankfully, both Spock and Scotty question the moral and ethical ramifications of this–especially in light of tensions with the Klingons. Because you know, blowing the beejeezus outta a whole section of the Klingon home world–even unoccupied–might raise a few eyebrows. Scotty goes as far as to resign, not joining the crew. Kirk, at first determined to carry out the airstrikes, is eventually convinced to lead an away mission to capture Harrison, who is located in a very remote section of the Klingon home world. They make it about 20 minutes from their destination before the warp engine, which Chekhov has been placed in charge of (because unlike every other Trek incarnation, this one doesn’t seem to have a basic chain of command in the engine room) goes kaput. Forced to mask themselves, the away mission uses a non Starfleet ship from “the Mudd incident” (nice one!) to enter Kronos.
And this is where, for me anyway, my brain finally mutinied.
On the way down, we are greeted to an argument (of sorts) between lovers Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Spock–which seemed so forced into the scene it just got in the way, even with Kirk trying to make light of it. When the group is cornered by sleek Klingon patrol ships, it seems for a glimmer of a moment Uhura might come into her own. She proposes, as she is the only one who speaks Klingon, that she can talk their way out of this. Might subterfuge and diplomacy win the day over brute force? Might Uhura turn out to have a purpose in this film beyond worrying and fussing over her boyfriend Spock?
Turns out, no.
Things go badly with the Klingons, who all for some reason dress like S&M offensive linemen and look like skinheads with bad facial piercings. In moments, we’re into another action scene. Harrison shows up with some big guns, and he knows how to use em’! In a fury of firepower that would make Rambo blush, he not only takes out hordes of Klingons, but blasts their ships out of the sky. When the dust settles he turns himself into Kirk, Spock and Uhura (the only survivors) after learning they have precisely 72 torpedoes trained on him. There is one humorous scene as Kirk tries to punch Harrison into submission, to which there is no effect.
And that’s it for the Klingons. Hello and Goodbye. Yeah. Possibly one of the most well-known alien species in the Trek Universe are pretty much used as “mooks.” The warriors of the Beta Quadrant fight about as terrible as Jackson’s Uruk-hai, and one really super human can defeat them by the dozens. In fact, it seems this is pretty much their only purpose in the whole flick–to show us just how bad-ass Harrison is. Luckily for Kirk and crew, the Klingons seem to have the *worst* perimeter defenses in the galaxy, and are blissfully unaware of either the violent incursion onto their home world or the relatively close disabled Federation ship at the edge of the (we must assume) heavily patrolled Neutral Zone. That there is no explanation really given for this is kinda grating. Somewhere, the Son of Mogh is snarling.
Once back on the Enterprise, we begin to figure out what is going on. The torpedoes are actually filled with frozen people. Of course. And the disabling of the Enterprise appears to have been done on purpose. In one heck of an info dump, Harrison reveals he’s actually a survivor from an earlier era named Khan Noonien Singh…even if he looks like his name should be Jeffrey, or Steven, or perhaps Sherlock. But not Khan Noonan Singh. I mean come on. True enough, Ricardo Montalban’s Khan was a white Mexican man of Spanish descent painted bronze. But there’s a whole Latin otherness we can work with there. And it would have been nice if our most recent incarnation didn’t take a step backwards in the racebending department.
So whitewashed “doesn’t-tan-well” Khan turns out to not only have super strength and super intellect, but super diction as well–as if he can defeat us all with his well pronounced words. Channeling some kind of cosmic Hannibal Lecter, he goes on to tell Kirk that Admiral Marcus found him and awakened him, using his warfare expertise in the hopes of militarizing Starfleet. To keep him in line, Marcus held his people hostage. Planning his escape, Khan managed to place his people into the torpedoes he helped create, to smuggle them away. Later, believing Marcus had killed them all, he turned on Starfleet and just started blowing sh*t up. Superior intellect. But, when hearing that Kirk has 72 torpedoes–exactly the number of his crew–he deduces this must be his people. Hence, why he decides to surrender. Or some such convoluted thing.
Sometime thereafter, Admiral Marcus shows up in a freakingly huge Starfleet battleship he’d secretly been building somewhere near Jupiter. We learn about this through Scotty, whose sole purpose for conveniently resigning his commission was to be left back on Earth so he could snoop around and find it. Kirk gave him a call on his filp-phone thingy from the Neutral Zone, which I’m guessing is one heck of a roaming charge. An irate Admiral Marcus does his best Jack Nicholson impression from A Few Good Men, arguing he did what he did because war with the Klingons is inevitable, and they need him
on that wall in Starfleet to protect them. He demands Kirk hand over Khan. The admiral’s daughter, Dr. Carol Marcus, tries to talk her father out of it, but he just beams her away and starts firing on the Enterprise.
Oh, did I forget? Yeah, the admiral’s daughter conveniently stowed away on the ship as a science officer. And sure, why not? Other than the bit with the “cold fusion” in the beginning, the Enterprise’s science officer (Spock) doesn’t do much of any science or hard-thinking for the entire movie. Given that in the original timeline, Kirk and Carol Marcus are supposed to have a son, we can assume the writers plan to go somewhere with this later.
The next bits of the movie are non-stop action. First Kirk teams up with Khan to stop the admiral, giving us a whole action-y space-diving scene. Plus Scotty is reintroduced, of course hiding on the admiral’s super ship and being a fly in the ointment. There’s also a cameo of the original Spock (Leonard Nimoy) who warns of how dangerous Khan is. Then, after Khan crushes the admiral’s head and takes the super ship, Kirk and crew are forced to fight against him. They manage to defeat him simply enough–by following his demands to beam over the 72 torpedoes holding his crew. Only they’ve removed the bodies and set them to go off. Super intellect Khan doesn’t know how to read bio-signatures and his ship goes boom, as he wrecks shop on the Enterprise.
Okay. So over right? No. Because jut when you think everything is done, the Enterprise suddenly shuts off. Who knew the thing had an off-switch? We are treated to an entire scene of the ship in free fall, with people and things being tossed to and fro (though shouldn’t artificial gravity have been gone as well as oxygen if the ship shut off and…ahhhh forget it), Kirk, Scotty and Chekhov manage to make it to the engine room to save the day–but not before Kirk is forced to sacrifice himself by helping jump start the ship. Literally. I mean he literally hops up and down on a big thingy-ma-jingy. No complex scientific fix here, just good-ole-fashion slappin’ the box. You show em’ Tex! The ship starts, but Kirk is flooded with deadly radiation at the same time.
It is an obvious nod, or cannibalization (your choice of perspective), to Wrath of Khan. The original version, which featured Spock in the dying role instead of Kirk, is probably one of the most memorable scenes from the Trek franchise. Spock, his irradiated skin peeling off, his sight gone so that he is bumping into walls, but routinely adjusting his uniform to keep his dignity–still chokes me up. There was a Seinfeld where Jerry and George had to stop talking about it, as they were nearly brought to tears. It’s classic. And unless you’re doing it as parody, you’d best get it right.
But if JJ Abrams strength lies in his never-ending action scenes, this recreation highlights one of his key weaknesses. As I watched Kirk near death, I felt just about nothing. I didn’t have anything invested in the rather underdeveloped character. If he died, so be it. Besides, he didn’t look that bad. Whereas the original near dead Spock suffered terrible radiation burns, this Kirk just seemed kinda sweaty, maybe a little off-color. Not even deadly radiation could mar them pretty boy looks. By the time reboot Spock, losing composure, yells out the famous line “KHANNNNNN!” originally uttered by Kirk (William Shatner) in Wrath of Khan, I had my head in my hands. That bastardized scene is now going to be up there with Vader’s emotional “NOOOOOOOO!” at the end of Revenge of the Sith, as one of the most wince worthy moments in my sci-fi movie watching history. And you put it there Abrams. You did.
Still, the key reason I didn’t feel a great deal of emotion with the loss of reboot Kirk–was because I knew he wasn’t actually dead. One of the irritating problems with the plot of this film was its glaring transparency. I kept seeing what was going to happen before it actually took place–like I was some Mistborn burning Atium (yep, I just crossed whole genres there). In a previous scene that was so throw-away it looked like they went and pasted it in, Kirk (for NO REASON WHATSOEVER) turns to ask Dr. McCoy what he’s doing with an “out-of-nowhere” dead Tribble. Dr. McCoy responds he’s injecting it with Khan’s blood, because…you know…uhhh… yeah.
On cue, just in the nick of time, we see the Tribble come back to life. Near dead Kirk gets an out! Silly audience, he was never in danger to begin with! No one in this flick is really in danger. It’s just a movie. And there are always happy endings. Sure there’s harrowing things happening. A whole planet like Vulcan being obliterated? Eh. Sh*t happens. Tough Universe. But we’re not going to lose anybody you like. No Ned Starks up in this piece. Abrams played chicken with Wrath of Khan, then blinked. And that is wack.
So just when you think the movie is finally ending–Khan shows back up! (I must admit, this was the one scene I didn’t see happening). And what is the plan of he of the grand intellect? He crashes his freaking super ship into Starfleet headquarters. So we get to see buildings crumble. Then he jumps out of his ship all super human like, and starts running. This entire moment is apparently created to also make sure we get to see the requisite movie chase scene. With Kirk out of commission, Spock is now the action hero. He’s beamed down to Earth and takes off after Khan.
And this isn’t surprising. As said before, Spock is wasted as a science officer. He does very little of scientific use in this movie after the first 20 minutes or so. And by the end, he’s morphed from an intellectual Vulcan into an action hero. We get to see him running after Khan and they end up in a fight scene located (naturally) atop some moving transports high above the city. And what a fight it is! Spock uses everything in his arsenal. He uses some Vulcan martial arts on Khan. He nerve-pinches Khan. At one point, he even uses the Mind Meld as a weapon. Seriously. He did that.
As if going up against a super human isn’t bad enough, Spock has been given orders by McCoy not to kill Khan–because they need his (Khan’s) blood to save Kirk. Never mind that McCoy has 72 FROZEN SUPER HUMANS WITH THE SAME BLOOD JUST FEET FROM HIM ON THE ENTERPRISE! No, for some unexplained reason, he just needs Khan’s. Or, better put, some writers decided we needed to see a mano-a-mano between the Vulcan and the super dude. Somehow, inexplicably, Spock manages to not be ripped in half by Khan in the first few seconds–who we saw earlier massacring battle-hardened, ride-or-die, ready for glory in Sto’Vo’Kor Klingons by the score. Still, the super human eventually manages to get the upper hand, and Spock is only saved by the timely arrival of Uhura. She stuns Khan repeatedly, giving her boyfriend enough time to sucker punch him with a ripped away piece of iron. Spock then loses it and almost kills the super dude in a fit of rage.
To be honest, rebooted Spock barely has control of his emotions the whole film. He’s surly, always on the point of repressed anger and seems a hair’s breadth away from going postal. There was something about the original Spock, that managed to have him keep his emotions in check, nearly at all times–no matter the situation. It was what made him seem so different, so inhuman. That way, if he ever did break down, it truly seemed unnatural and out of character. Even as a tough guy security officer, Voyager’s Tuvok rarely ever broke his Vulcan demeanor; at the most, he merely seemed annoyed…or constipated.
Reboot Spock doesn’t seem to carry that type of dignity, barely restraining the emotional “beast within.” Given the destruction of his home world and some 6 billion of his kin, I’m kind of willing to accept he bends the traditional Vulcan role. But it would be interesting to see his character at least acknowledge or deal with this–if only to preserve his planet’s culture. Some logic meditation or exercises or something! The excuse that he’s half-human is bunk. After all, Vulcans aren’t unemotional by physiology, but by choice.
At any rate, Uhura manages to stop him from killing Khan in a fit of Romulan-like rage. Kirk is saved. Super dude is refrozen and packed away into deep storage, for what I can guess is another movie. We’re then treated to a scene at Starfleet, complete with those militarist looking hats not seen since “The Cage.” Kirk is recovered. Gets his ship back. Warp Drive trail. The End.
By this time I realized there wasn’t going to be any Abrams magic for me. Just a confusing bundle of emotions. When some claps went up with the credits (not as much as the first installment, and a bit more hesitant, but there) I sat in my seat, hoping maybe some part of the film might be saved for me by an Easter egg, perhaps featuring Samuel Jackson as Nick Fury inducting the whole crew into the Avengers. No such luck.
Into Darkness in the end is an action movie. No, that’s not right. It’s a series of action scenes stitched together by a plot and storyline that seem almost like afterthoughts. Character development? Not so much. Most of the film seems to be an attempt to meld together the OST episode “Space Seed” and Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan, playing off one of the franchise’s most celebrated villains. I would call it a valiant effort gone awry. But in the end, with a set of transparent plot devices and enormous absurd holes, I gotta chalk it up to just plain lazy writing.
Some parts just didn’t make sense–and I couldn’t understand why they just weren’t fixed, if just for the sake of being coherent. And I suppose the reason ultimately is the creators really didn’t care. Because this isn’t really a Star Trek movie. It’s a movie “loosely based” on the Star Trek Universe. Abrams is a very fortunate kid let loose in the Trek candy store. And he appropriates what he likes, and throws them together into an action movie meant to garner mass appeal. He has made it plain quite recently that not only was he not a Star Trek fan prior to taking the helm, but that “it always felt too philosophical” to him.
Too philosophical? Star Trek? That’s like saying Star Wars had “too much of that force thingy.” Star Trek is philosophical. It is why it has had such lasting power, even when it puts out series and movies that aren’t the best. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the original Star Trek series (from OST to Enterprise) were perfect by any means. There were times Gene Roddenberry’s vision was interpreted with glaring absurdity. Themes of race in OST episodes like the minstrel-faced “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” or TNG’s exotic African-ish “Code of Honor” were embarrassing. And by Voyager, it seemed that the only references to ancient Earth culture took place in quaint rural Irish villages or thinkers of the Western European Renaissance.
Trek could also be a bit too Pollyanna, with the Federation as “moral perfection” and non-human enemy species (often swarthy) as retrograde in their cultural and political development. It was good to see some of this remedied through things like the nefarious Section 31, or unscrupulous Starfleet officers in Undiscovered Country.
Abrams reboot is of course always defended by pointing to how bad some of the recent Trek movies were, and he’s credited with “breathing new life” into the franchise. And there’s some truth to that. Some of the recent Trek movies were pretty bad, and floundered from bloated overwrought plots. I still don’t know what the heck Nemesis was going on about. Still, they weren’t all failures. Some like First Contact managed to hit the mark–mingling action with plot, character development and Trek-ian philosophy. And as other reboots, such as Battlestar Galactica, have shown, philosophy can go a long way in giving new depth. So it can be done. We don’t need to sacrifice one to have the other.
Without philosophy, without that concern of imbuing the story with that driving force, what you have left is spectacle–a space film with good guys and stock character villains, where things get blown up and people engage in extreme diving. In the driving political economics behind the film making industry, for Abrams, and his financial backers, it’s a goldmine. The rebooted franchise is sure to bring in a good amount of new viewers who have grown used to the Hollywood blockbuster formula. Even the fractious and grumbling Trek fan base will show up, because it has the brand name. But will these films have lasting power? The original Trek franchise didn’t do that well as a television series, but somehow managed to carve out a very loyal fan base. Will Abrams non-philosophical thrill ride (of which we are certain to get more) create such an enduring following? Will these movies be able to withstand time? Or will they merely become disposable, taking up space next to the dozen or so Fast and Furious DVDs? I suppose we’ll see, because it definitely looks like it’s here to stay.
Matthew Yglesias over at Slate makes his own peace with JJ Abrams rebooted franchise, finding this film better than the first–especially the ending, which seems set to take the crew into it’s “five-year voyage.” But he does ask for one thing in return. If we’re going to have the spectacle of Trek as blockbuster, we also need to return to Trek on television. Perhaps only on the small screen Yglesias muses, can Trek be what it is meant to be–in full. Perhaps only there can it truly explore more complex themes for our age, and attempt to expand Roddenberry’s vision. And maybe, he muses, the popular rebooted movie franchise might spur on the clamoring for a new weekly television series.
Only, it’ll probably be directed by JJ Abrams. Damn.