The biggest success so far, critically at least, is Star Trek Into Darkness. Of the blockbuster movies released so far this year, it has received the highest Rotten Tomatoes score. But is this a fair reflection on the movie itself?
In 2009, JJ Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek pleased fans and newcomers alike, with a mix of entertaining characters, comedy one-liners and action. A whole new generation fell in love with the crew of the USS Enterprise, and as a result, there was a lot of expectation for this year’s sequel. The critical success of Star Trek Into Darkness seems, to me at least, to be due to goodwill created by the first film as much as by its content.
Please beware, this is not a review, and as such contains spoilers.
The opening sequence of STID is great. It has action, comedy and some great character beats. The film though spirals downhill from there as far as I’m concerned. Having gone through the origin story in Abrams’ first film, we are treated to almost a rehash. Kirk is demoted, losing his captaincy of the Enterprise, much like he was kicked out of the academy in the previous film. Once again, it is the loss of Captain Pike that brings him back to the fore.
This is possibly my biggest problem with STID. There is nothing fresh or new on offer. Kirk and Spock’s fragile relationship is seemingly set back to the same state as the first film, and Kirk is once again in charge thanks seemingly to a lack of better personnel. The film then ends on a similar note to 2009’s instalment, as the crew seemingly fly into deep space at the beginning of their five year mission, a mission I believed had been kick off at the end of the first film.
What hasn’t been recycled from the previous film has instead been reconditioned from the original Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Having seemingly taken great pains in 2009 to remove his Trek series from the confines of the previous series by the use of an alternate timeline plot device, I was expecting Abrams to craft out his own Trek legacy. Instead, he rehashes the Khan storyline, with some scenes almost exactly mirroring the original film. Except in this case, those moments are not earned.
Kirk and Spock had become friends in the original timeline over the course of a great deal of time, and the friendship felt real. In Abrams’ films, it’s difficult to tell why exactly Spock and Kirk ARE friends. They have spent seemingly very little time together, agree on little, and do not seem to have developed the mutual respect. It’s simply too early in their relationship. So when Spock echoes Kirk’s cry of ‘Khaaaaan’ in STID, the gravitas is gone. This is a Spock who just over an hour of screen time before had wilfully thrown Kirk under the bus for their actions in the opening gambit. He shows more emotion than he had in 2009’s Trek movie, when his whole planet was destroyed, and his mother with it. The scene is almost a parody of Star Trek II, and comes across as incredibly lazy.
Then there is the appearance of ‘old Spock’. In Abrams’ first film, the appearance of Leonard Nimoy as elder Spock worked. It helped to legitimize the movie as Star Trek, whilst at the same time setting up the alternate timeline device. When Nimoy as Spock voiced the final words of the movie, set over scenes of the Enterprise flying through space, it was a beautiful passing of the torch, and a fitting farewell to the franchise for Nimoy. By then having him appear in Star Trek Into Darkness, in a completely pointless conversation with Zachary Quinto’s Spock, it makes a mockery of all that.
Aside from this, we have an incoherent action sequence on the planet of Kronos, where Khan lays waste to a battalion of Klingons, whilst we wonder whereabouts everyone is supposed to be in relationship to each other. It is so poorly shot, a cacophony of flashes and noise, the worst kind of action sequence. We also have the, again all too familiar, ‘villain being caught on purpose’ plotline. This has become a tired trope of big budget action movies over the last few years, and again comes across as lazy plotting.
It is laziness that I feel is the problematic element here, and that is the reason for this article. Star Trek Into Darkness is an average action movie dressed up as something more by the skin of being ‘a Star Trek movie’. As a Kirk and Spock buddy cop movie, it is entertaining enough. The rest of the crew, sadly, are used merely as set dressing. Chekov’s contribution to proceedings is a failure to do someone else’s job. Sulu’s seems to be to get to sit in a different chair.
In Abrams’ first Trek film, every character got a couple of lines that echoed back to the original series and movies, which was a nice touch. It seems to be that having brainstormed different lines to use for Bones in that film, they then used all of them to paste into the script of his part in this film. Bones’ sole contribution in this film seems to be to stand on the shoulder of other characters and supply a dryly humorous line. A complete waste of both the character, and actor Karl Urban.
Aside from Spock and Kirk, Uhura and Scotty have been given the most to do. This does not seem to have worked well for them, however. Scotty is used as comic relief in a film already filled with humour, a sign that the writers don’t actually understand the concept of comic relief. He has also been given somewhat of a split personality, being portrayed as a bumbling fool when onscreen, but as a genius super soldier whilst off it.
Uhura, however, is the most slighted. Painted as a shrieking harpy who is unable to focus on her job because of her feelings for Spock, she is saved the indignity of having to strip to her underwear for the sole reason that this role has been contracted out to Alice Eve’s Dr. Carol Marcus. The characters are under-utilised and given no development. Abrams is relying on the work of his first film, and the legacy these characters have behind them. This is supposed to be a new timeline, however, and he should treat his characters as though nothing is known about them prior to his 2009 reboot.
Star Trek Into Darkness is an entertaining enough action movie, but it is by no means the great film that so many are calling it. Because the characters are familiar and loved from previous incarnations, however, so many are blinded to its huge flaws.
It is not a new technique, of course. If you show a child a red lunchbox, he won’t give a damn. If you plaster Moshi Monsters all over it, however, he’ll love it. That’s what Star Trek Into Darkness is. It is a simple lunchbox. Sturdily built, fit for purpose, but merely functional. The difference is, it has had Star Trek plastered all over it.
Don’t get me wrong, we’ve all bought lunchboxes for the familiar characters printed on them. My fear, though, is that by praising this laziness so much in this instance, and in others, it is only going to breed more. JJ Abrams is now off to take the reins on Star Wars Episode VII. If he now believes that all he needs to do is wrap an average movie in the familiar characters of that universe, he will do no better a job than George Lucas did with the prequels. Other directors and screenwriters, too, will see the success of Star Trek and rest on their laurels. We should be pushing for a higher bar, not celebrating adequacy.