Friday, May 17, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness is a Fun but Ultimately Empty and Forgettable Recycling of The Wrath of Khan

***This review contains spoilers.***

Star Trek Into Darkness is a fun but ultimately empty and forgettable movie. The first two acts of the Star Trek Into Darkness are thrilling and excellent. The last portion of Star Trek Into Darkness meanders and lags bringing what began as a very above average to great movie down to just "satisfying."

J.J. Abrams has demonstrated that he is like a Las Vegas chef or casino cover band. He can play around with great ingredients, be it food or music, yet he has yet to demonstrate any originality in his work. The result is a less than satisfying imitation of the original.

Casual fans and those younger viewers who were reintroduced to Star Trek by J.J. Abrams' reboot in 2009 will find much to love about it. The response to his newest Star Trek will be extremely divided among those fans and devotees of Gene Roddenberry's original universe. Some will appreciate J.J. Abrams' take on the iconic movie, and best of the Star Trek franchise, The Wrath of Khan. Others will be disgusted by J.J. Abrams re-imagining of the story.

The original Star Trek was self-consciously reflective. Roddenberry's vision of the future was topical, hopeful, and forward thinking. With the original Star Trek TV series, and its many spin-offs, Roddenberry took the best of science fiction as a space for using the future to explore the challenging social and political issues of the present.

As I wrote in response to Abram's Star Trek in 2009, the original films and TV series were "about something." They had weight and meaning. In comparison, these first two installments in Abrams' Star Trek universe are forgettable, throw away, popcorn movies, designed for tweens and twenty-somethings socialized by a Twitter culture of limited attention spans and Facebook narcissism.

Abrams has created a version of Star Trek that is intentionally forgettable. They offer no  ideas that linger in the mind after one leaves the movie theater. The question remains: is this truly Star Trek? Or has Abrams created something in Star Trek Into Darkness that has none of its heart and soul?

Star Trek Into Darkness attempts to find some relevance by engaging a laundry list of themes that have come to typify post 9-11 America. Abrams' overly complicated, yet oddly predictable plot, summons up the visual iconography of the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, deals with the legal challenges of extraordinary rendition and targeted assassinations, and tries to say something important about torture, law, the Constitution, friendship, emotions, international affairs, and other related matters. The "darkness" of Abrams; Trek is the internal struggle of the main characters with their own feelings and emotions, as well as the tension within Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets regarding how to balance realpolitik and the temptations of militarism and preemptive war.

Star Trek Into Darkness's story revolves around the "villain" Benedict Cumberpatch, playing his version of Ricardo Montalban's Khan Noonien Singh, and his revenge plot against Starfleet and its leading Admiral Alexander Marcus (deftly portrayed by Peter Weller).

This is the great reveal of the movie, and one that has been speculated upon for years since the announcement of a sequel to 2009's movie. Cumberpatch is good. However, he is no revelation in the role as the STID's plot does not allow him to do anything but exist in the shadow of Montalban's perfect version of the character.

Star Trek Into Darkness's plot revolves around gaining the freedom of his crew, stored in suspended animation, from Weller. Abrams' twist is that this version of Khan, with enhanced intelligence, strength, ambition, and cunning, is a 300 year old super soldier and military genius who has been used by Starfleet and Admiral Marcus to develop the weapons and tactics that will be necessary to fight an inevitable war with the Klingon Empire. Khan goes rogue, thus setting into motion the chase and conflict that drives the story forward. Once the tension is established, and Khan is revealed, the movie becomes predictable and loses much of its energy.

Chris Pine's version of Captain Kirk is adequate as the character shows more growth and maturity in his role as leader of the USS Enterprise. Zachary Quinto's Spock continues to be a believable take on Leonard Nimoy's younger self. Zoe Saldana as Uhura is relatively underused. McCoy and Scott (played by Karl Urban and Simon Pegg), who together are also excellent in their roles, are given too little to do in the film as well. Jonathan Cho's Sulu, foreshadowing the rise to prominence of George Takei's character in the original Star Trek, gets some time in the command chair as captain. Anton Yelchin is put in command of engineering where he is harmless in that role.

Star Trek Into Darkness is the Khan-Kirk-Spock show--as it should be--and they all give good performances in their respective roles. However, the trio simply lack the gravity, personality, and chemistry between the much more experienced actors Montalban, Shatner, and Nimoy in the original Wrath of Khan.

The original Wrath of Khan had several decades of audience expectation and investment in the characters to build upon. Star Trek Into Darkness has no such grounding. This creates a vacuum where what should be a high-stakes game of life and death lacks any really anxiety or tension.

Star Trek Into Darkness has some great high points. There is humor, tension between the characters, and dialogue moments where the actors are drawing on the original Trek for inspiration while adding their own personalities to the respective roles. Abrams also includes many nods and winks to Star Trek fandom, and to sci-fi fans more broadly.

Star Trek Into Darkness has "Easter eggs" which include a reference to John Carter from Mars, as well as the author Ray Bradbury. Dr. Who fans will be happy to see Noel Clarke in a cameo role in the beginning of the film. Granting the wish of many Star Trek fans, me included, Khan and Weller are directly linked to the infamous Starfleet security agency Section 31. Abrams offers up his obligatory Star Wars allusions to the Mos Eisley cantina and the Millennium Falcon.

The crew of the Enterprise features a precursor to Commander Data, a sentient android, from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Kirk meets Carol Marcus, the daughter of his antagonist, and soon-to-be mother of his child and inventor of the Genesis device. There are also Deltan crew members, and of course, a tribble. The Klingons are awesome...and yes they do have their bat'leths. The Klingon energy planet Praxis is also shown (the moon has already been destroyed, which is much earlier in the timeline than in the original Trek story).

For those true classic Trek fans, the conclusion of SID features Uhura getting revenge on Khan in a way that she was not allowed to in the original TV episode Space Seed.

 J.J. Abrams Star Trek Into Darkness borrows from at least three different Star Trek movies. If you have seen any of those films, the plot of Star Trek Into Darkness is transparent. You know that Scotty will sabotage Weller's dreadnought, how as in Star Trek VI, that there are Federation forces trying to create conflict with the Klingons, and that either Kirk or Spock must "die" at the end of Abrams' version of Wrath of Khan. Here, Abrams chose Kirk to make the great sacrifice.

In a cringe worthy moment equivalent to Darth Vader's scream in Revenge of the Sith, Zachary Quinto channels William Shatner and yells out "Khan" into the vacuum of space. It will be only a few weeks before either Family Guy or The Simpsons parody a scene that should have been jettisoned out in to space with the Enterprise's garbage.

J.J. Abrams and his Star Trek franchise are at a crossroads. He has demonstrated that he can play with the tools and toys left behind by Gene Roddenberry. Now, Abrams must demonstrate that he can do something original as the Enterprise embarks on its five year mission of exploration and discovery at the end of Star Trek Into Darkness. Will Abrams continue to "discover" old plots and ideas? Or will Abrams find the courage and creativity to do something other than remix and re-manufacture, with modest success, the creative vision of another person?

Fate is a trickster. If Star Trek Into Darkness is the best that Abrams is capable of creatively, then fans may be yearning for George Lucas's return to Star Wars after Abrams' take on that universe in 2015.


chauncey devega said...

I saw it again last night. I was stunned that there was a woman crying, really loudly, when Kirk "died." And as people were leaving to overhear some saying how "awesome" and "amazing" this movie was? A real reflection of our culture at this moment. Abrams' Trek is the girl you have sex with on the first date in a bar bathroom.

Anonymous said...

Everyone loves it when folks come together and share opinions.
Great blog, stick with it!

Here is my blog post; police sunglasses official website

Anonymous said...

I really love your website.. Pleasant colors & theme. Did you
create this site yourself? Please reply back as I'm hoping to create my very own blog and would like to know where you got this from or exactly what the theme is named. Appreciate it!

My web page -

Jane Laplain said...

So that makes the audience the desperate, horny dude who bangs the girl in a bar bathroom on the first date? Not sure what you mean by this analogy.

TheOracle said...

Thank you for a review that actually gave a damn about films, originality and the Star Trek Universe!!! You are 100% correct that by throwing in everything but the kitchen sink JJ Abrams threw away the most important thing that has sustained this Frachise for three or four generations: Originality! Star Trek has never nor shoud it be like everything else! I am disgusted that this garbage is labeled with the Star Trek name. You mean to tell me that in the early sixties they coud up better ideas than in the 2013? What is the point of going see a chop suey of other better films??? JJ Abrams is a hack! I have said it for years and He keeps proving me right!

chauncey devega said...

Could be. And I am a fan of random horny sex w. strangers in bar bathrooms :) My ultimate point was that this movie has no lasting value after the thrill.

chauncey devega said...

How kind. I know I am an outlier on this movie. But, heck, the truth is the truth. I like Super 8 and Cloverfield. He is derivative. Do something different. Heck, even draw on some of the many novels out there. He should have had to the good sense to stay away from Khan. I would have been happy w. a Harry Mudd terminator robot threat more than this. At least Abrams would have been at least heavily modifying--w. some wit--the original idea.