By: Jared Greenspan
For the first 90% of Star Trek Into Darkness there is nothing overtly objectionable, save perhaps for the lack of a colon in the title. You might call that damning with faint praise, but what am I supposed to say? It is big, the characters are amiable, there is a pair of standout performances, the action setpieces are intermittently thrilling, the pace is brisk and the dialogue, though unquestionably dumb, is at least capable of moving things along. It’s nothing special, but it gets the job done.
And then comes the emotional and action climax of the film, a sequence so bizarre and wrong headed that I can’t even begin to comprehend why exactly the writers made the choices that they did. I can’t even say that I liked the movie now, because all I can think about is that ending. In order to properly dissect my reaction I will by necessity include some spoilers in this review, both in terms of plot and characters. These come in the latter half [Ed. note: advanced notice will be given]. But first, a review proper.
The plot: after a reckless survey mission goes awry, Kirk’s command of the Enterprise is taken away and given to his mentor Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood); Kirk is made his second-in-command, while Spock is reassigned to another ship. On the other side of the Earth a mysterious man who looks something like Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) gives his blood to a dying girl, who’s father – as penance – blows up what is referred to as a Star Fleet archive. An emergency meeting of Star Fleet’s upper brass – led by Commander Marcus (Peter Weller, who looks like his face was replaced with a brown leather jacket) – is called, which for some reason involves both Kirk and Spock. At this meeting the mysterious man is revealed to be John Harrison, a former agent of Star Fleet who is for some reason now “waging a one man war against Star Fleet”. The statement proves more true than Marcus could have dreamed, for almost at that moment a small craft piloted by Harrison fires through the window, killing Pike and everyone else except (of course!) Kirk, Spock and RoboCop. Though Kirk is able to take the ship down Harrison transports himself to the Klingon homeworld of Kronos. Kirk asks Marcus to allow him to go after him to get his revenge for the death of his mentor. And so on and so forth, as action builds into intrigue into conspiracy and… well, and so forth.
Now. As I wrote earlier, I quite liked the first hour and three quarters of this movie. All of the performances were at the very least charming, and at the best damn good. At the lower end is Chris Pine, a fun actor who I always imagine as a kid in a toy factory rather than a captain of men, women and weird aliens; I simply can’t imagine this character as portrayed by this actor assuming as much responsibility as he does. The supporting characters are almost all marginalized, which is a real shame when it comes to Karl Urban as Dr. McCoy; he gives each moment onscreen at least a few volts of electricity. The two supporting actors who truly have a chance to shine are Zoe Saldana as Uhura and Simon Pegg as Scotty; only Pegg takes advantage of the opportunity. The playing field is not quite level however; Uhura might get a lot of screen time, but she’s given soap opera moments that are virtually unplayable.
The two actors who take the day are Zachary Quinto as Spock and Cumberbatch as John Harrison. I have no idea how Quinto, an actor who in other roles doesn’t even exist, is able to play this role so well. Cynics might say, “Vulcans have no emotion, so they found the perfect character for him.” But this is unfair to the character and unfair to the actor; Quinto hits the comic and emotional beats of Spock and is good enough that he is on the verge of getting himself type-cast. And then there’s Cumberbatch, who, let’s face facts, is the flat out best actor of the bunch in the first place. He elevates the sub-par to slightly-above par material and gives life to what lesser actors might turn into a cardboard character. So kudos to him.
J.J. Abrams once again proves that he can shoot action sequences as well as anyone. Is there anything else really worth saying about his direction in such an ephemeral movie? You want more? Fine. There are a minimum of fourteen lens flares in each scene, he keeps the pace brisk enough that in many cases he’s able to gloss over any logical gaps and, though the very final action scene is comedown (it’s a goddamn footrace/car chase in a space movie) there are moments that, though they perhaps didn’t wow me, at least made me say, “Cool”.
And here we come to my issue, and spoilers will come.
————————SPOILER ALERT LINE————————
————————SERIOUSLY TURN BACK NOW OR FACE SPOILERS————————
Benedict Cumberbatch is not John Harrison. He is Khan. If you are oblivious to Star Trek then this means nothing; it is not a spoiler, and this reveal is meaningless obfuscation by the writers. If you are a Trek fan then this does mean something. Khan is the most famous villain in the Trek universe, the antagonist of a terrific episode and the eponymous villain of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That film is the apogee of the Trek megaverse, transcending the boundaries of the series’ alleged nerd-dom to become a classic of the science fiction genre. It likewise contains the two most iconic moments in all of Trek: Kirk screaming “KHAN!!!” and (SPOILER!!!) Spock’s death, as he sits calmly next to Kirk, twenty years of friendship ending in a beautiful sequence. I’d still argue that the reveal of Cumberbatch being Khan is not really a spoiler, because it doesn’t change anything we know about the character (except “hey, he might do something with eugenics later”) or the plot.
Quite frankly I have no qualms about them reusing the character. No text is sacrosanct, and if a movie is good then it is good. Khan is a terrific villain, Cumberbatch is more than able in his portrayal, and at the end of the day the use of Khan was not pure fan service. However, the movie’s conclusion was one of the most bizarre instances of fan service I have ever witnessed, and though it exists to engender the goodwill of fans of “Wrath of Khan” it will at the very least take those people out of STID and, at worst turn them against it. For those who don’t want to know why this is true, turn away.
The emotional and action climax of the movie takes place on a wounded Enterprise. Khan has nearly destroyed it from his shanghaied mega-ship, and there is a power issue that is going to result in the ship crashing into a nearby planet. And so Kirk, running around the ship, jumps into action. He goes into the nuclear core of the ship – knowing he will probably die – to kick a gigantic piece of the ship back into alignment with another (how? Whatever). The ship is saved, but Kirk is not. Spock rushes to where Kirk is; he is dying of radiation poisoning on the other side of a glass door, and there is no way to save him (of course there will be because this movie has no balls, but again, whatever). They have their heart to heart, they press their hands to each others on the window and Kirk dies. Spock screams out the villain’s name, with multiple exclamation marks following his utterance.
This movie could have ended in any number of ways. I won’t suggest one, because I am not a screenwriter, but I can suggest one that they shouldn’t have done: as a fan of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, I would suggest that THEY NOT DO THE EXACT SAME ENDING (well, the “Khan” yell came earlier in the movie, but we’ll leave that alone), only with the characters switched around. Same radiation. Same conversation. The hand on the wall as the character dies. The friendship bleeding away. I watched the scene wondering if I was in a dream, that I was simply imagining that they’d CGI’ed the faces of the new cast on the original film’s cast, pausing only to switch up Kirk and Spock. I realized I wasn’t dreaming. It was like hearing that Paul McCartney was starting a band called ‘The New Beatles’, only to see that their first album was called ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’, with the same tracklist. Haven’t we already seen this exact thing? And better? With meaning? In a classic movie to which comparisons will always be unkind, let alone when its most iconic moments are in direct alignment? It’s lunacy.
Hell. I mean I don’t really care about pilfering from old movies, or winks and nods (which this film has plenty of). I do care about lazy writing, and this is an example of some of the laziest writing I have ever witnessed. Orci, Kurtzman and Lindelhof (ugh) wrote an ending that is directly cribbed from another film, a fact egregious enough as is but even more remarkable when you realize that they section of the audience they plagiarized it for will resent them for doing it. Fan service is a dangerous thing to do in a film and can ultimately damage it for the public at large. In this instance, OKL have done the impossible: they have fan-serviced the climax so that the Star Trek fans THEMSELVES won’t like it.
So no. I didn’t end up liking the movie. Then again, that’s my opinion. My girlfriend isn’t a ‘Wrath’ fan, so she said that it was mostly fun but that the end was sort of weak. So there’s her review.
Also death can be cured. But that’s just a quibble.