J.J. Abrams’ 2009 entry into the Star Trek franchise - the one that has enough elements of both a reboot and a sequel that nobody can quite pin it down as one or the other - has a lot of fans. It also has a lot of detractors. It’s a film with stunning visuals, a resurrection of a franchise that hadn’t seen the big screen in seven years, and Leonard Nimoy’s first appearance in a Trek film since 1991’s The Undiscovered Country. It was also a film that backtracked on 43 years of continuity, recasted iconic characters, and was directed by a Star Wars fan with very little interest in Trek
Rumor has it that, in the process of filming, Star Wars Episode VII director J.J. Abrams learned about the Star Trek spirit. That might be true, because this film feels a hell of a lot more like what Trek is supposed to feel like than the last one did. It’s still some strange hybrid of old and new, but every character felt more like what they were supposed to than they did before. There are still some kinks to work out - Uhura is an entirely new creation in her Vulcan-dating incarnation, and Sulu is missing some of the giddyness that George Takei brings to the table - but 9 times out of 10 when a member of the Enterprise crew spoke, it was either a line I could imagine their original actors saying, or one that was related to the new universe. I’m not entirely certain how Leonard McCoy met a Gorn before the Enterprise went on its first five year mission, but hey, at least we’ve got Bones and Gorns...and his goddamn catchphrase.
Into Darkness starts off with an innocuous opening, leaving viewers to expect a generic terrorism story and finds its way to something that fans of old will recognize. Something that I hope will entice new fans to seek out the film they pay homage to. Anybody who’s familiar with the “Into Harkness” spoof posters that shot up around the first poster of this film will be happy to know that Noel Clarke has a brief role in this film. It turns out that a rogue Intelligence agent bribed him into blowing up a secret military facility, leading to Clarke turning himself in. After he was blown up. Actually, I’m okay with believing that the guy who claimed Mickey turned himself in was lying, because that would add another layer of foreshadowing to this movie.
Meanwhile, Jim Kirk is having his own problems. He’s been demoted, visits memory lane with his commanding officer, and ends up at a crisis meeting to discuss the terrorist attack. We get our first glimpse of this Kirk showing the character’s trademark insight - like Han Solo and thousands of other characters that Star Wars vs Star Trek: Would the Empire Kick the Federation’s Ass? would classify as a “Scoundrel”, Jim Kirk is a complete idiot when it comes to keeping his ass out of the fire and a genius when it comes to thinking of things that nobody else in the room has considered. I’m...actually not sure if this can be considered foreshadowing of events later in the film, so I’ll discuss that as we get there. If I haven’t made it clear yet, I’m going to need to spoil quite a bit in this film to really discuss it. If you need a visual to end the review with so that you’re not subjected to heavy spoilers, let it be the idea of Sylar fighting Evil Neo (as played by Sherlock Holmes) in a fit of rage.
Just as Kirk develops the theory that the true purpose of the attack was to gather important military targets into one meeting, the terrorist (known as John Harrison) attacks said gathering. This results in the death of Christopher Pike, which means the old man isn’t going to be cosplaying as Davros, conversing with R2-D2, or spending most his life livin’ in a psychic paradise. Harrison then uses a personal transmat - er, personal beaming device - to escape to the Klingon homeworld of Qo’noS.
The Enterprise, with revenge-focused Kirk at the helm, is sent to assassinate the terrorist. When Spock and Scotty convince the Captain to be more rational, the end result is their target saving their lives from Klingons and then surrendering to their custody, despite Kirk’s fit of rage that results in the prisoner being bashed in the face repeatedly. In the midst of all of this, Spock and Uhura have a discussion about Spock’s seeming uncaring attitde in the face of death, and the truth of the overwhelming reactions he’s been fighting off ever since the destruction of Vulcan.
Believe it or not, nothing in the film to this point has failed to be setup for something else. Spock’s emotions and dealing with death, combined with the concept of revenge and holding back from killing. Kirk doesn’t need to come up with any plans to save the day, but Spock does. Spock also has a conversation with himself from the original Trek universe about events that took place in a previous film in which Kirk survived only by being the smartest man in the sector. Somehow, the meeting scene foreshadowing events that happen either in another universe with another officer is still less strange and timey-wimey than “The Name of the Doctor”. To top it all off, toward the end of the film one of the most iconic scenes to feature Kirk and Spock is replayed with a subtle twist that keeps everyone in the audience on their toes. Once several of Chekov’s guns are fired (Anton Chekov, not Pavel), we’ve finally reached a conclusion.
Flaws can be found in the writing of this film, but ultimately I find it hard to expect this to have been done much better. Our returning villain in his third appearance could have been a little smarter, a little more true to character, some of the dialogue could have been tweaked, and as I mentioned there was some weirdness with what exactly was being foreshadowed with Kirk. Still, even my brief synopsis shows that there was a lot going on with this screenplay and I’m rather amazed that it held together as well as it did.
The bulk of the problems, then, can be laid at the hands of visual decisions. Which means that I’m probably looking at J.J. Abrams himself with most, if not all of these problems. There is the issue of Kirk and some others surviving falls that should have resulted in multiple broken bones without a scratch. That’s a common enough form of dramatic license that I can overlook it, though. More importantly, let’s talk about something that a franchise that will be celebrating its 50th anniversary in three years should know better.
In the trailer for this movie, a large number of men shown in a military uniform appeared, plus Zoe Saldana in a wetsuit. Spoiler: men wear wetsuits, and Uhura wears a uniform. If that (and the length of the female officers’ skirts) isn’t indicative of a trend here, we have the unfortunate sight of a female senior officer in the midst of a brutal terrorist attack, being exploited as an opportunity to show teenaged boys some female leg as she’s knocked to the ground. Even the film’s editor was ashamed of this shot - the camera lingers on it just enough to realize how appalling its inclusion was before cutting away.
Conversely, the most blatant incidence of sexual fanservice...actually makes sense to me. Carol Marcus, who longtime fans will know both foreshadows the villain of the piece and will - in another universe - bear Jim’s child, has a scene in her underwear. No one’s trying to be sneaky about it, it looks good (if you’re into that sort of thing), and nobody has to be exploited or demeaned (except perhaps Jim “I said turn around” Kirk) in order to pull it off.
Almost as though daring me to get too comfortable, there are also small aesthetic things that either feel a little out of place or certainly are. While I can understand the humans calling Qo’noS the adapted “Kronos”, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for the captions to do so- if the captions need to be there at all. And if they do, they should really not be using pre-Stardate system dates. That’s probably the worst problem at all, when you take into account the fact that the biggest criticism of the previous film was how little it felt like Star Trek.
Into Darkness is a fun movie. It’s a good movie, if for no reason other than the screenplay has no massive holes and character actions happen in a mostly organic fashion. I wouldn’t consider this my favorite Trek film, but it probably falls in the top 5. As far as works in progress go, Star Trek Alternate Universe (as I’m going to call the series until it actually comes up with a name) is shaping up to be something, although the fact that they still haven’t bothered to make a TV show out of such a profitable property known for its television presence is rather baffling. Still, if you’re interested in Sci-Fi action with a hint of drama and a sprinkle of cheese, you wouldn’t go wrong to watch this movie.