Monday, 27 May 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness — a response

Spoiler alert: if you haven’t seen this film and want to preserve its secrets, come back later.

TL;DR version: mediocre as an action film, no discernable science-fiction elements beyond its dress, and only barely, vaguely recognisable as part of the Star Trek franchise. I give it 1/5 stars.

So on Friday night, I bit the bullet and watched Star Trek Into Darkness. I even tweeted about it as I did so. I had really hated J.J. Abrams’ 2009 film, and honestly I wasn’t expecting to like this much more. However, I was encouraged by a couple of reviews that suggested that this time Abrams had used the film to provide some social commentary on terrorism and drone strikes.

I think it makes sense to evaluate the Star Trek films on at least three levels (an idea on which I’ll expand in another post one day):
  • as action/adventure films
  • as science-fiction films
  • as Star Trek films
I found Star Trek Into Darkness unsatisfying on all three counts. I enjoyed it less than just about any film that I’ve ever watched all the way through. Had I not been wanting to review and critique it from as informed a position as possible, there's just no way that I would have sat it out to the end. My interest had all but evaporated after the first 30 minutes, and was gone completely after the first 50.

As an action/adventure film

Historically, the Star Trek films skew very strongly towards the ‘adventure’ end of the action spectrum. Action sequences in the first ten films tended to be relatively sparse, separated by long stretches of investigation and analysis. Two of the ten[1] featured practically no violence at all, and three others[2] had violent confrontations at their climaxes, but very little action at any other point in the films.

For the 2009 film, Abrams chose to make something much more like standard action-movie fare: a series of violent setpieces culminating in a final hand-to-hand clash between protagonist and antagonist.

To me, Into Darkness seems to occupy an uncomfortable place between the two. When violence is depicted, it is frenzied and on a huge scale. But the violence never really builds to a crescendo as it did in the 2009 film.  Setpieces are separated by long sequences of no action at all, much like the earlier films. However, where those films used the time for narrative or thematic purposes, Into Darkness uses them mostly for some truly heavy-handed attempts at character building—Star Trek: Grey’s Anatomy. Three egregious examples stand out in my memory: Uhura and Kirk’s turbolift scene, Uhura, Kirk, and Spock’s scene in the shuttlecraft, and—worst of all—Kirk’s death scene. The latter is such a shameless rip-off of Spock’s death in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan that it actually lifts lines verbatim. However, while Spock’s death takes place after the climax of the film, safely out of the way of any action sequences, Kirk’s death in Into Darkness is the event that triggers the climactic showdown between Spock and Khan, necessarily therefore before the climax. And. it. stops. the. film. dead.


Another thing that struck me as odd about the action in Into Darkness is that the largest and showiest setpiece is not at the film’s climax, but a little under halfway through, in the fight with the Klingons. This is a long and sprawling sequence. It starts with an aerial chase through a derelict industrial landscape that borrows heavily from the flying sequences of the classic Star Wars trilogy, in particular, the Millennium Falcon’s race through the Death Star infrastructure in Return of the Jedi. This segues into ground combat that is as gleeful as it is chaotic. I found it difficult to follow what was going on or what the specific goals of various participants were; the fight really seemed like a free-for-all on a huge scale. Nonsensical as it seemed, lots of stuff was always happening on the screen and it went on for a long time. To me, this made the end of the film seem very anticlimactic when it had nothing even remotely comparable to offer.

I confess that I’m not a fan of the action-film genre, so my assessment of this particular aspect of Into Darkness might not be well-informed. However, the few, widely spaced, and strangely ordered sequences make me think that Into Darkness is a mediocre action movie at best: I’ll say 3/5 stars. However, this is still the most that the movie has going for it.

As a science fiction movie

I believe that it takes more than a futuristic or space setting for the label ‘science fiction’ to mean anything useful. For example, does this movie question something about society’s relationship with science and technology? Is the central crisis of the film created (or solved) by the application of scientific knowledge or principles? Stripped of its futurist dress and placed in the present day is all that’s left a thriller?

As with its 2009 predecessor, I didn’t detect anything particularly science fictional about Into Darkness. There is only one piece of technology essential to the plot that would prevent its easy transposition to the present day: Khan’s regenerative blood. However, even this is nothing more than a magic substance, the nature of which is never explored, questioned, or evaluated.

The central crisis of the film is: a military contractor feels that he has been stiffed on a contract with the Pentagon. The crisis is resolved by a naval officer (single-handedly) chasing said contractor on foot through the streets of San Francisco and engaging in fisticuffs with him on the back of a moving truck until another naval officer tasers the disgruntled contractor and knocks him out for capture. The regenerative blood is only a MacGuffin to force Spock to capture Khan alive—a MacGuffin that shouldn’t even be required, given Spock’s dedication to bringing Khan to justice, expressed much earlier in the film. 1/5 stars for being science-fiction only skin-deep.

As a Star Trek movie

The question here is does the movie concern itself with any of Star Trek’s recurring and characteristic themes? Does it ask about what it means to be human? Does it explore and challenge some social issue of the day? Does it posit a brighter future for humanity, as post-scarcity peaceful explorers of deep space? Is there a promise of transcendence in humanity’s future? More simply, stripped of its specifically Star Trek names, costumes, designs, and references, would this film be recognisably Star Trek?

Well, for a start, there would be an awful lot to strip. The references and name-drops are laid on very thick indeed. One of the most frustrating things for me about the film was that this was all so un-necessary for anything outside of brand recognition.

There is absolutely nothing about Khan’s character or motivations that links him to the character from ‘Space Seed’ and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. He really could have stayed John Harrison with absolutely zero impact on the plot whatsoever. Ditto for the Klingons. The Star Trek TV series and films of the 1980s and 90s invested heavily in fleshing out Klingon culture into something quite rich. There’s absolutely nothing linking the generic goons of Into Darkness to that culture however. So when branding is the only conceivable reason to bother doing this, it all seems so very cynical and contrived.

With all this peeled away, however, I think there’s maybe only one thing that would leave Into Darkness recognisable as Star Trek: Spock’s conversation with Kirk in the shuttle about the illegality of the ‘drone strike’ mission on which Marcus is sending them. I find it hard to imagine too many other fictional worlds in which that conversation and the subsequent change in Kirk’s convictions would take place. However, in the end, nothing more is made of this decision, and it’s not as if the film is driven by weighing its costs and benefits. It truly is a throwaway moment. Arguably, Kirk’s decision not to carry out the mission as planned cost the lives of everybody on the U.S.S. Vengeance, as well as all the people killed when the starship ploughed into San Francisco. But nothing is made of this.

If Into Darkness is recognisably Star Trek, it’s pretty light-on. Even woeful entries from the original run of films such as Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and Star Trek: Nemesis were more essentially Star Trek than this. Anyway, 2/5 stars for at least trying, which is more than Abrams did in 2009.


There is an interesting and timely story to tell about extra-judicial, long-range killings, and it could be told in a film where superior technical and scientific ability is what allows the protagonist to succeed. It could probably even be told with enough action setpieces to keep casual cinemagoers happy. That would be a Star Trek film to get excited about. Into Darkness is not that film.

[1] Star Trek: The Motion Picture and The Voyage Home: Star Trek IV

[2] Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Star Trek: Generations, Star Trek: Insurrection

No comments:

Post a Comment