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An appropriate image for taking things a bit darker.

It won’t win me any favors to say so, but The Wrath of Khan is an outrageously overrated movie. To dig the hole further, I put it in the same category of adorable geek over-praise as the animated Transformers movie and the Indiana Jones trilogy. I say all this not to provoke nerdrage (inevitable anyway) but to set up a point.

Star Trek Into Darkness is a ballsy half-remake of Khan and it works for me precisely because I don’t give a shit about Star Trek in any special sense. Being that I think Khan can only be considered a good movie if you only compare it to other Star Trek movies. Star Trek Into Darkness is a legitimately good movie. But you wouldn’t know it from the majority of nerdy critics. To them, Darkness commits two major sins: 1) it dares to play with the sacred Khan and 2) it is occasionally pretty stupid.

I really didn’t expect to like Into Darkness as much as I did. It’s got its problems, mostly the same writing problems as usual with this team of creatives, but it overcomes them without asking the audience for a bail-out. The only reason to get worked up over this movie is because you are the butthurt Trekkie that Abrams is baiting. I applaud the gumption it took to do what they did here, even if they do try to pad out the impact with fan-service references and acknowledgment of nostalgia. More than that, I applaud a fun, visually stunning science fiction movie that just happens to be Star Trek.

Probably needless to say but SPOILERS, guys. Though… the review title is itself a spoiler? Whatever.

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This movie features the most homoerotic genre bromance since The Lord of the Rings.

The first “sin” kind of takes care of itself. It’s a stupid, uninsightful complaint. It ignores the fact that Abrams has a mandate (which everyone helped create by making Star Trek 2009 a smash success) to remake the original continuity as he sees fit. It also ignores that the original Khan still exists for its odious fans to brow-beat neophytes with whenever they question the supremacy of whatever.

The second is overstated. If you liked Star Trek 2009, which is a pretty stupid movie full of irresponsible writing, then you had to ignore its almost brazen stupidity. Sometimes stupid is okay. I tend to be tough on stupid, but usually when it’s the kind of stupid that is all about cheating the audience or insulting them. Movies like Prometheus or Cowboys and Aliens fit that bill. Star Trek Into Darkness is not that kind of stupid. It doesn’t take itself seriously enough for that. It’s more akin to Indiana Jones or The Fast and the Furious. Those are movies that define enjoyable dumb.

And to be honest, Into Darkness is the first time I’ve felt like Abrams’ favorite hack writers actually bothered to dot their I’s and cross their T’s. Kurztman, Orci, and Lindelof are responsible for some of the worst written successful movies in a generation. Seriously, I am getting tired of having to explain to people why these guys are the worst and have pretty much always been the worst (Lindelof graduated to “worst” status after Prometheus and he isn’t doing himself any favors since). IMDB the fuckers. They make Akiva Goldsman look good.

But I’m not kidding when I say they at least tried to keep their script free of plot-holes. Almost all of the popular complaints (and I’ll get to many of them) have an in-movie justification, even if it’s one line of dialogue. I often praise good movies for asking the audience to pay attention to keep up with themes, characterization, etc. Though in Darkness it’s mostly plot stuff that gets explained this way, I have to respect that because the movie gets extremely expository one or two times but avoids making a problem out of it.

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People have had enough of Kirk, man.

Probably the most important theme in the movie is this: what are leaders willing to give up for the sake of the people they lead? So far, Kirk (Chris Pine) has been coming up short as an effective leader mostly because of his massive ego and disregard for Starfleet protocol. At the beginning of the film, he and an away team are trying to stop a volcano from destroying a primitive tribe on the planet Nibiru. This is pretty cool stuff and a nice nod to the essentially benevolent nature of Starfleet. It also sets up the point that Kirk, for all his faults, really is the type of leader who is willing to sacrifice everything for his people. He breaks the Prime Directive to save Spock (Zachary Quinto) from the volcano, something that the literalist Spock disapproves of, but that makes complete emotional and moral sense to Kirk and everybody else. Except Pike (Bruce Greenwood), who gives Kirk one of the best dressings down I’ve heard in a while.

Essentially, Kirk still has a lot to learn. This movie is sort of about that. His ego needs to be tempered, and Into Darkness is the crucible in which it happens. The movie therefore focuses more heavily on him and its closest secondary characters than it does on the sort-of-ensemble of the 2009 movie. Characters like Sulu (John Cho), Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and even Bones (Karl Urban) don’t get as much to do. Still, this movie very wisely makes sure that everybody gets a few lines or moments (like Sulu being a badass, somehow a staple now) to remind the audience why these guys are hugely beloved as characters and that Abrams et al are genuinely interested in continuing that legacy.

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Also, Spock keeps walking that fine line between irritating and awesome. This time with fire.

After Nibiru, Kirk gets bumped down to First Officer and Spock gets transferred to a different ship. However, terrorism is happening in London and all the captains and their first officers are called together in a disastrous meeting. The terrorist is a man named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) who is really Khan Noonien Singh. He has a big ol’ bone to pick with Starfleet and the magic regenerative blood needed to manipulate people to do his dirty work. In spite of the later issues revolving around that blood, the movie establishes very early that it’s important.

For all that Abrams seems to subsist on cynically manufactured “mystery” to bamboozle people into being interested in his shit, there isn’t really that much subterfuge going on within the movie itself. Everybody knows that someone is going to die in this movie. The big twist is that it isn’t Spock. The early notice about the Khanblood is as good as saying “don’t worry, it won’t stick”. Now this is sort of annoying, in a way, because it drives down the stakes. If we know Spock won’t really die, why worry about it? Unfortunately, this is a reboot of an existent story so we already know two things: 1) Spock dies and 2) Spock is resurrected in the sequel. Where Abrams gambles (and wins, I think) is in turning this around and killing Kirk but also reviving him in the same movie. This may not have been the only way to divert the stakes to something surprising (if you can’t have stakes, have twists is the logic, I guess?) but it is the way they took and it works.

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For all his many faults, Kirk doesn’t really hesitate.

Anyway. Pike dies in Khan’s brazen attack on the meeting and this puts Kirk into revenge mode. Although this movie is about Kirk getting his house in order, we need this sort of catalyst to put him at odds with his crew. At his weakest, Kirk starts out by letting his fatal flaws lead him around by the nose. Earlier, he lectured Spock about friendship after Spock’s truthful report on Nibiru cost him his job. Spock in turn lectures Kirk and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) about how mortality and loss seriously freak him out. This becomes very important when contextualizing the big death scene.

Kirk’s rampage puts him in Admiral Marcus’s (Peter Weller) big weathered palms. He allows Kirk and Spock to lead a mission to the Klingon homeworld where Harrison/Khan has fled. Once there, they are supposed to bomb him from orbit using 72 special missiles. This is calculated move all around. The Klingons are scooping up territory and acting generally hostile toward Starfleet. Khan knows that Starfleet can’t follow him, or at least that they’ll be slowed down while he plans his next move. Marcus, on the other hand, is revealed to have used Nero’s attacks on Earth in the 2009 movie as an excuse to begin converting branches of Starfleet to a paramilitary organization. He wants to fight a preemptive war against the Klingons, believing them to be a direct threat to Starfleet and humanity. This is very interesting both in terms of navigating the darker timeline Nero created vs. the generally benevolent nature and purpose of Starfleet as well as in terms of the extent to which Into Darkness is commenting on how lies, power, and ego can coalesce into aggression as it does with Marcus and Khan (dark reflections of Kirk’s brief flirtation with the same).

The secondary theme, then, is how easily threats can change a person, or organization, into a darker version of what they were. The Into Darkness title refers directly to this. Not only does Kirk go darker (for a while) but so has this timeline (world) and all the people in it. Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) is now a weapons specialist, where in the original series she was a more benign scientist.

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The Klingons are barely in this. I expect more in the threequel.

Being that there’s some set up for Movie 3 in this one, the Klingons are barely featured. A hint of things to come, it seems like, though I have some doubts about that given where Into Darkness leaves off. More on that later. For now, the significance is in keeping the settings exotic and interesting and creating great setpieces for explosive action sequences. The strongest part of the 2009 movie was never its action scenes. It was cool watching Spock and Kirk play gunfighter on Nero’s ship. Here, there’s a lot more chasing, butt-kicking, phaser-shooting, etc and it’s all great. This, even more than the impressive design and geography, makes me think Abrams will do right by Star Wars. At least more right than I would have thought prior to seeing this movie.

Some people are going to be annoyed by the fact that Into Darkness is an action movie. These people rightly expect Star Trek to present the exploratory, scientific dimension of the science fiction genre. I don’t know if this confusion of genres is really a problem for the movie, though. Into Darkness is what it is and it makes more sense to me to go after it, critically, for problems it has with what it is than for not being something else.

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Cumberbatch overacts the whole movie.

Into Darkness is not a subtle movie. This is not the same as being obnoxious, which it isn’t, but it does create some close calls. Benedict Cumberbatch is a great actor who is usually amazingly subtle. In this movie, he goes very broad and while his voice gives all necessary gravity to Khan’s huge ego and crazy schemes, his ridiculous facial expressions challenge that gravity and dare comedy. I think mileage will vary on that one but it is undeniably a performance almost too big for the movie. I guess he’s trying to fill Ricardo Montalban’s shoes or make people forget he’s white or something, but it’s a performance that pulls double duty both undermining the self-seriousness edging into the movie and reinforcing the inherent lightness of the adventure flavor of the movie. It’s like Iron Man 3 in that it flirts with the darker, grittier tone and sensibility but ultimately veers back into adventure/fun mode. I like this. It shows a sense of commitment to the foundational aspects of these respective franchises. In other words, Star Trek can get dark but it’s not dark at heart.

Ultimately, Khan’s grievances with Starfleet fall at Marcus’s feet. It was Marcus who used him to design weapons and who gave him access to restricted technology like Scotty’s super-transporter formula from the 2009 movie (which explains one of the “plot-holes” people are talking about). Then Khan went rogue to save his 72 comrades. Evil as he turns out to be, Khan’s concern for his brethren make him somewhat relatable to the extent that he’s a representative of the lesson Kirk has to learn. On the back of that small dose of empathy, Kirk partners up with Khan to attack Marcus’s warship and save the Enterprise. It’s a fun team-up but really breathless in that it’s the tail end of the second act and there isn’t much time for the characters to play cat and mouse. Kirk pretty much knows that Khan will turn on him, just as Khan plays fast and loose with his presentation of his motives (he isn’t really a victim, his small army of supermen are guilty of horrific warcrimes). In a bizarre scene that probably caused a lot of groaning among franchise fans, Spock calls up Old Spock (Leonard Nimoy) to ask about Khan. In 2009’s movie, Old Spock had sworn not to reveal anything to Young Spock so that the timeline wouldn’t be continually fucked over. However, this is sort of the exception (we’re told) because Khan is so dangerous.

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Dangerous but awesomely smug… Khan is a much better character after Kirk frees him. Especially when he gives Marcus the ol’ Roy Batty.

As a result, Spock is able to formulate a plan that sorts Khan out but also puts the Enterprise in jeapordy. There’s a bit where the ship free-falls into the atmosphere of Earth only to rise up in the clouds. As preposterous as it (and the whole movie) is in terms of realistic physics or even world-building (where is Earth’s response to a huge ship falling on it?), it’s a grandiose and iconic image that works as a stunning proof for the extent to which sacrificing sense for drama can work in a movie’s favor. If the movie doesn’t take external logic too seriously, anyway.

Less successful at this is Kirk’s “Russian Spacestation” engineering. He essentially kicks the fucking warp core back into place to get the Enterprise going again. Doing so means sacrificing himself due to the lethal amount of radiation in the core’s housing. This is the big twist of the movie. Khan has indirectly killed Kirk instead of Spock and after a moving, bromantic death scene, Spock’s earlier remarks about how loss and death mess him up come to the fore and he turns into an even bigger vengeance-machine than Kirk. This is a nod to the idea that Vulcans suppress their emotions because they feel so intensely that letting them go messes them up. Spock being the only one who can go toe-to-toe with Khan is cool. Also, in spite of the complaints that kicking the core is nuking the fridge, I think it’s completely consistent to the character. The scene isn’t just an inversion of the death, but an inversion of how the day gets saved at the price of that death. In Wrath of Khan, Spock does handyman engineering shit to save the day. That’s in-character for him. Spock is calculated, reserved, and competent. Kirk is impetuous and blunt. He doesn’t know what to do, technically, but he can see that one of the core’s pylons is out of sync and he knows he needs to fix that so he kicks it until it works as a gut instinct. Gut instinct is what Kirk is all about and this is returned to again and again in the movie, starting with saving Spock on Nibiru at the eventual cost of his captaincy, and repeatedly until it culminates in this moment.

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Goddamn emotions.

Much of the character work in these movies is about showing Kirk and Spock complete each other. In this one, they are established friends but still with a lot to learn both from and about each other. While some fans are complaining that Kirk’s death is thematically meaningless because Kirk and Spock haven’t been friends for 15 years. This would make the use of this in Darkness a cynical rehash of familiar material just for the sake of shocking fans or something. I look at it a different way. Given that I’m not a swinging dick Trekkie, this may mean I don’t know anything, but let’s try this thought out and see where it goes.

The movie isn’t trying to capitalize on 15 years of friendship. Conversely, it is capitalizing only on Kirk learning the importance of self-sacrifice and Spock learning the importance of friendship. There’s enough work done for either character to justify their big moment together. This is more about realizing how important they are to each other in potential terms, than it is about the heavy loss of an old friend. Spock and Kirk are still “finding each other” and yes, it’s as gay as it sounds. Which is awesome. Kirk doesn’t even get a romantic subplot this movie, and Spock’s thing with Uhura is even more perfunctory. That’s because everybody knows which romance is actually important to these movies.

The only way this scene and the whole setup/payoff of the reversal doesn’t work is if you bring a bunch of Wrath of Khan baggage to the mix. Taken on its own and with the material that’s actually in the movie, it works. This is enough for me. If they’d simply skimmed through and done this scene without any supporting work, it would be the type of move that I hate most and criticize most fiercely when I encounter it in stories. Here, it’s being unfairly maligned by fanboys.

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This does not mean that the movie isn’t stubbornly insistent of its own stupidity fairly often.

Now while I’m both defending and praising the pleasant surprise I got out of Into Darkness, I have to spend time on its myriad flaws. One of the minor ones, pictured above, is gratuity. This isn’t Bay’s Transformers series, so the gratuity is fairly minimal. This, however, makes it even more noticeable. Alice Eve undresses for no reason and then we get this carefully composed shot of her sexeh bodeh just to tickle the nascent pickles of pre or omnipubescent fanboys that creatives still think compose the majority of genre fans. Somehow, Hollywood hasn’t really figured out that nerds are the new normal and things like Star Trek aren’t the primary property of sweaty, virginal troglodytes. But it’s like they’re convinced they still have to drop the brow a few notches to appeal to these people, if they even exist anymore.

Again, it’s a minor quibble because it’s only one scene and it’s not that bad. Kirk is in his underwear in the movie too, and Chris Pine is way more sexy than Alice Eve anyhow. Plus, this movie is gayer than Hobbits (like I keep applauding) and that sort of repeals those moments where it pretends it likes girls.

If someone really wants to have a go at Star Trek Into Darkness for being dumb, it’s going to be in all the same ways that most plot-centric adventure movies are dumb. It contains many contrivances like the fact that nobody on Earth responds to the Enterprise’s plight in orbit. It contains many compromises between sense and drama. You can actually have both sense and drama, as much better science fiction movies continually prove. However, the Star Trek of the aughts isn’t really about being science fiction. It’s just window dressing, but very nice and pleasing window dressing. In effect, these are the kinds of rollicking, fun-first-questions-later movies that feel a bit antiquated in the contemporary world of armchair scientists refusing to suspend disbelief because they read io9’s article about warp drives.

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Besides: spectacle.

Now the one exception, it seemed to me, was the magic Khanblood. It doesn’t bother me that it’s a thing. It’s dumb the way the Matrix of Leadership was dumb in Transformers 2 (thanks again, Orci and Kurtzman!) but at least it’s a tangible resurrection tool. It’s hocus pocus, sure, but it’s not necessarily the bad kind. What irks about it is that the crew of the Enterprise waits in suspense and Spock goes after Khan and Uhura follows to make sure Khan’s blood is retrieved (thus Khan needs to be alive). Why does it need to be Khan’s blood when there are 72 other supermen onboard the Enterprise in their cryotubes? Some line about how their security is “sequenced” suggests that they are actually unable to open the tubes. This is one of those times where it’s too thin, too throwaway to count as an actual explanation. It’s also such a crucial moment (much more so than Spock and Kirk being at the big Starfleet meeting) and therefore requires more justification to have full impact. Unfortunately, the movie drops the ball here. It’s not as spectacularly sloppy as when they disappeared Nero and his ship for 25 years to wait for the plot to happen in the 2009 movie, but it’s still fairly sloppy.

So while Into Darkness surprised me and did a little to rehabilitate my assessment of J.J. Abrams overall filmmaking skill, it has not really undone the damage that Orci, Kurtzman, and Lindelof have done to scripts and their images over the last 6 or 7 years. It seems like they all do better work when they are separated. Put them together and you get Cowboys and Aliens.

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Love this image. Couldn’t think of a better place to put it.

Thankfully, Star Trek Into Darkness doesn’t hate its audience. It may not give much of a fig about the embedded Star Trek purists and Abrams may have stupidly tried to hide the identity of Khan by lying directly to everybody, but this is a movie made for people like me who love science fiction, think Star Trek can be a cool universe to play in, but who ultimately don’t give a fig about those purists either. Not even a little. To me, complaining about Into Darkness‘s many deviations and glib references to its overrated source material is the same as bitching that The Mandarin in Iron Man 3 is not the Yellow Peril caricature he was in the comics. If there’s any connective tissue at all to those two movies and how they relate to their audience, it’s in that. Iron Man 3 did it better, but Abrams can always learn new tricks.

The major takeaway as a fan culture is this: old stories are not sacred texts. If you want that kind of fandom, please see the Bible.

The major takeaway about this movie is this: sometimes dumb can be good, and it doesn’t do anybody any good to get outraged about dumb that loves you and wants you to have a good time. Save the raging for dumb that insults you, hates you, and thinks you’ll pay to be shat on like it’s amateur hour in Amsterdam.

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