Star Trek: Into Darkness - Nic's Impressions

Nic here. So of course I have to share my feelings about the new Star Trek film ("Into Darkness") with all of you on the Internet. I'm writing this article assuming that anyone reading it has seen the film as well. So, just to be clear...

Warning: Serious Spoilers Ahead!!! Don't read on if you don't want me giving away major aspects of the film.

OK, so, here's the deal Internet, my feelings about Into Darkness are conflicted. I saw it opening Friday night in IMAX 3D with Liz (my wife), Josh, and Todd, and in our mandatory still-in-the-theater first conversation about the film when they asked me what I thought, that's what came out. "I'm conflicted." In some ways and on some levels I really liked it. And in others I am very disappointed. I'm essentially a life long Star Trek fan, which no doubt accounts for the many subtle and conflicting layers of emotion the movie brought out in me. When Liz, Josh, and Todd first asked me my opinion, those emotions were all intertwined with one another, along with the reasons for them. I kept saying seemingly contradictory things, like, "it doesn't rely enough on previous Trek," and yet also, "it relies too much on previous Trek," or, "this relationship had too much emphasis," and, "the film doesn't deal with characters and relationships enough." So I've been spending the last couple of days trying to sort through them and figure out 1) why I feel them, and 2) how to articulate them.

So let's start with this.

If I evaluate it just as as a summer action movie:
No doubt it's a well done action movie. There are plenty of actions-packed scenes, a good amount of heroics and villainy, some smile-inducing lightheartedness, and lots of stuff that goes boom. The shaky-cam and "close-ups shot from three inches off the nose" approach to cinematography may not be my favorite, but such things are pretty common in Hollywood these days and I've learned to live with them. However, even as a big-budget action movie, I must admit I find it on the low end of my personal "substance" spectrum.

If I evaluate it as science-fiction:
I don't know, I tend to want a bit more science (even of the fictional variety) in my science fiction. Warp drive that can get you from Earth to Qo'Nos (not Kronos...wait Nic, not yet) in a few minutes, handheld communicators that can allow instantaneous communication between said planets, humans genetically engineered such that they can raise tribbles and brash captains from the dead, etc. are things that, for me, seem more at home in science-fantasy. And, I'll say it, I tend to like a bit more technobabble in my science-fiction. There, I said it. But then again, why should I be ashamed of that? Isn't technobabble a natural outgrowth of a story having in-universe fictional scientific technologies, laws of physics, etc.? And isn't such fictional science a fairly central aspect of science fiction? Star Wars (I'm talking film/tv canon here) doesn't go into much explanation about how hyperdrives, lightsabers, and repulsorlifts work because Star Wars is closer to science-fantasy, whereas Trek has a long history of going into such details, because it's science fiction. Or, at least, historically that's what it's been.

If I evaluate it as science-fantasy:
I personally tend to want a bit more classic fantasy trappings (certain story themes, types of characters, etc.) in my science-fantasy. If you're not going to tell me how your starship works, or bother to name its computer's operating system, give me something else in its place, like knights or monsters or magic.

If I evaluate it as Star Trek:
Here's where it gets all intertwined and in need of unraveling. As I said earlier, I'm a life-long Star Trek fan (in the spirit of full disclosure, I have more of an affinity for what one might call the "Berman-Era" of Star Trek that TOS, though I was a TOS fan first). And as such, I bring certain baggage that is both Trek-specific and Nic-specific with me to any Trek viewing experience. I'm planning on writing more about that in it's own article, but here's the short version, as it will let you know where I'm coming from. In a nutshell, I still have problems with the facts that: 1) Bad Robot has been given essentially exclusive control of Trek (Abrams didn't even like Trek, he was more of a Star Wars fan and has expressly stated that his intention was to make the former more like the latter), 2) they chose to 'not-technically-but-basically reboot' Star Trek with this new timeline and focus on alternate versions of Kirk, Spock, et. al. (instead of staying in the main timeline and focusing on original characters maybe in a different era, something that would be, at the same time, both new and also able to acknowledge/honor previous Trek in more than just a 'wink-wink, did you catch that reference' kind of way), and 3) that's the only Trek they seem to have any desire to see exist these days (so we currently have no chance of a Titan show, a Worf show, or for that matter any glimpse back at the original timeline, i.e., all previous Trek barring Enterprise).

So when I come to these new movies, that's what I feel right off the bat. A disappointment for the basic story direction they've chosen. But I'm trying to filter that part, the Nic-specific part, out and just look at this in terms of Star Trek.

Elements that felt 'right' to me:
There were many things.

For example, characters who appeared in Trek before, and the actors who played them...

Kirk - With the caveat that this Kirk grew up without his father and consequently is a bit more rebellious than original Kirk, I have to say that Christopher Pine is going a great job as James Tiberius Perfect Hair. He doesn't do a Shatner impression, and he doesn't really look like him either, but nevertheless he really does carry over the essence of Starfleet's most storied captain.

Spock - While he does a better job here than he did in Star Trek 2009 (he's not butt-hole Spock), I still can't help but feel like there is probably someone on the planet who could do a better job with Spock than Zachary Quinto. Just like I can't put into words what Pine gets right, I can't put into words what Quinto gets wrong. (I'll keep working on it though.) But I will say that Quinto is definitely getting better.

McCoy - I don't think there is anyone on the planet who could do a better job with McCoy than Karl Urban. He just nails the character. The DeForest Kelly inflections, the 'always at the edge of being shocked by the behavior of every single being in the universe,' the whole thing. Urban is, for my money, the perfect McCoy. I really wish he had more time to shine in this one.

Scotty - There's a certain 'old-school' quality to James Doohan's performance (a combination of warmth, gravity, and life-experience) that I don't think he quite has yet. But beyond that, Simon Pegg is great as Scotty.

Uhura - No offense to Nichelle Nichols who did just fine, but original Uhura wasn't overly well defined as a character. Thus, Zoe Saldana has more room to do her own thing. She does well enough. But, I must say, for whatever reason, new Uhura is the one classic character that, to me, seems the most removed from the original counterpart.

Sulu - John Cho doesn't have the voice ("oh my"), but I like him as Sulu. Seeing him get a little time in the captain's chair was a nice nod to the now-abandoned history of the character.

Chekov - Anton Yelchin is still great as Chekov. Although....I don't know...for some reason I was expecting the character to seem a bit less spastic and a touch more seasoned (horrible thing to call a man) by the time of this film.

Pike - A character from the original that was even less defined than Uhura, the for my money always excellent Bruce Greenwood was by in large able to do his thing in creating the character. He did great in Star Trek 2009, and his performance (now with gray mutton chops) is just as enjoyable here.

Carol Marcus - Alice Eve's take on perhaps Kirk's future baby-momma isn't that close to original actresses. But, maybe it's just me, for my money that's not a big deal. It's not like Dr. Marcus was that well defined to begin with.

Kahn - Here's where some inner conflict really kicks up for me. On the one hand, Benedict Cumberbatch's performance (save at least one notable exception) was excellent. He brought a violent raging quality and a disconnected calmness that worked really well together in a creepy kind of fashion. He was even able to play the character in such a way that the viewer really could wonder if this guy isn't so bad after all (spoiler: he is). All in all it made for a great action movie villain (although from a writing standpoint his history could have been fleshed out a bit more). But on the other hand, he didn't feel like Kahn to me. Yes, the difference in look and accent is probably a large part of it. But I don't think it's just that. I don't know, it's one of those things I'm still trying to sort out.

Aside from characters, I thought another area where they got many things right was in visual design. The design of the Enterprise itself, carried over from the first film, I still rather enjoy. But, let me be clear, I'm talking about how the starship looks on the outside. I'm still not a fan of the interiors (too much a combination of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, 2001, and an Apple store). But at least main engineering wasn't clearly a brewery. And kudos on changing the design of going to warp from the obviously Star Wars inspired look of the first film to a (novel idea here) Star Trek inspired look, what with the trails and all. Other notable designs worth mentioning included Klingons (the glitter notwithstanding), Klingon ships (ish), and the Vengeance (large machine guns notwithstanding).

I also should say that the sound design (including nice use of original series sound effects) and mixing was excellent. But, with Ben Burtt, Matthew Wood, and Dave Acord on your sound team, that's to be expected.

Elements that didn't feel 'right' for me:
Before I move on to talk about where most of my disappointments in the film can be found, that is, the plot, and while I'm talking about sound, I have to mention the score. I don't really remember much of it distinctly. But what I do remember is that the film starts out with the main theme from 2009's Star Trek. I wasn't overly impressed with it back 4 years ago. It wasn't horrible. But even as the "theme of the particular movie" I thought it didn't quite cut the mustard. Given that Into Darkness reprises it, I'm guessing the Bad Robot people want this to be the new main theme for Star Trek. I just don't think it's good enough for that. It isn't iconic enough, and it isn't emotionally representative of the franchise enough (even the new franchise taken by itself). I'm not digging it.

But even in a motion picture all of those elements are merely trappings. The core of the film is the story as expressed through the script. And it's here where, as a Trek fan, things really get wonky for me and I get all conflicted.

(Incidentally, here's an article that goes into more detail in critiquing the plot. I think he makes some valid points. But I also think he's a little too hard on the movie at times.)

Again, there is good to be found. Some examples: The jokes and humor are very Trekish. The references to past Trek are enjoyable (but also bittersweet, in that that's all they may ever be again, references). And the explanation as to why someone else came upon Kahn's ship and not the Enterprise (something I've thought would need to be addressed since rumors this film would involve Kahn started swirling years ago) was welcome and worked for those of us who care about canon consistency.

But three things in particular about the story and script felt off to me.

First, there's the extent to which this was a straight-up and non-stop action movie. As Michael Pillar said Gene Roddenberry taught him, Star Trek stories are always about something. Yes, there are characters and they do things, which causes other things to happen, etc. But, beyond that, they are always about something. They deal with themes. They explore concepts. And they do so with a strong emphasis on characters.

Now, I'm not saying Into Darkness isn't about anything. But, not trying to be rude, but it doesn't seem to be about much. Being too aggressive or militaristic is bad. So is revenge. And people in power can't always be trusted. That's about it. Those are important ideas to be sure. But they are also a bit generic, and, more importantly, although they are present in Into Darkness they're certainly not at the forefront.

I think another consequence it being so close to a straight up action film is that it contributed to its feeling less of like science-fiction in general and Star Trek in particular. Even the most action packed of the first 10 movies (Wrath of Kahn and First Contact) had heaping doses of science-fiction in them. Indeed, I think in many ways 2009's Star Trek felt more like Trek than this one. This speaks to Josh's concern with Into Darkness: The Abrams' films are headed in the wrong direction.

Second, there's the handling of the Kirk and Spock relationship. After the movie Josh said that he was disappointed that the movie made an issue of their friendship. He wasn't complaining that they were friends, but rather that the movie, like the one before it, made it a major plot thread. It's like the movie pulled out a spotlight and said, "Look! Hey, these guys are friends and that's important because of who they are and who heir alternate versions are. But they're so different from each other, huh? Wow, yeah, it's not an easy friendship. Look at that." He wondered if they were going to do this (along with Kirk getting in trouble for being a maverick and then getting the Enterprise back) in every movie. And I think he has a point. I personally have no problem with the movie showing their friendship. But why make a big dramatic deal about it? (Of course, part of the answer may be so that the Wrath of Kahn ending can have weight to it. But I'll get to that in a minute.)

But they did make a deal about it, and in doing so I think that, although it works at times, at others it suffers from two opposing problems which make the whole thing feel a bit forced. It's almost paradoxical, but it seems to me that, compared to what it really would be, the film presents their relationship as both too new and too old.

I looked it up, and this film takes place the year after the previous film. Not a ton of time, certainly. But enough for Kirk to have learned that Spock is a by the book kind of guy and Spock to have learned that Kirk isn't. So the hubbub over their actions on Nibiru and the reports they filed about it seems out of place. This isn't their first day together. I'd have expected them to be a bit beyond this.

(It should be pointed out that in the original timeline Kirk and Spock, though having different ideas about when to follow the rules, didn't have a bickering phase in their relationship. At least not one that we saw. By the time of the first episode of the original series this was not an apparent source of tension in their relationship. It was more an issue for Spock and McCoy. But on the other hand, as Liz pointed out, this Kirk grew up without a dad and is thus more rebellious, and this Spock lost his home world which might make him crave order more than he otherwise would have.)

But then the Kirk death scene feels out of place for the exact opposite reason. These guys have only known each other for four years tops, and have only been working together for around one. I get Spock being sad, but not at the level he does. The mirroring scene in Wrath of Kahn meant so much because these characters had been friends and colleagues for over a decade. It's as though this film was relying on material from outside itself, from its own disavowed and disconnected (since it happened in a different timeline) back story, for its emotional weight.

This, I think, is a symptom of my third and largest issue with Into Darkness. And it's so important I'm giving it its own heading.

Bringing Back Kahn
I understand that Wrath of Kahn is probably the best liked of the first 10 Star Trek films. It's at the top of all sorts of lists, both professional and non-professional. Historically, it was extremely important to Trek as a franchise. So on some level I understand J.J. Abrams' motivation for having this film bring Kahn into the mix. the end I don't think it was the best call to make.

1. Why go to the trouble creatively to alter the timeline and essentially reboot Star Trek, just to then "riff" on what has already been done? This isn't Batman or Superman or Spiderman or Iron Man or [insert comic book property here] or even Transformers where the source material already includes multiple continuities and incarnations of characters, and putting it on film almost necessitates taking the best of those existing ideas and doing your own take on them. Before you came around there was one Trek continuity. You decided to quasi-reboot it, to create a new continuity. Did you really do so just to give Trek the comic book treatment? You have a chance to do something new. To come up with original ideas, or at least original characters. Why not take it? (This goes back to my feelings on their decision to do the reboot in the first place. Same thing. Why not do something new?)

2. Similar to the Kirk and Spock relationship, the weight of Kahn as the villain here, aside from the fact that he killed Pike and a few dozen others (which I'm not trying to minimize), isn't developed independently within the film itself. Rather it seems to rely to a large extent on "Space Seed" (the original series episode involving Kahn) and Wrath of Kahn. When he reveals who he is he yells it in a raspy voice in a very dramatic moment, the point of which is that this is a big stinking deal. This is Kahn! But, within the film and new timeline itself, this doesn't mean much. And the remainder of the film does little, aside from the referencing Wrath of Kahn (and thus a different Kahn, Kirk, Spock, etc.) to change that. Ok, your name is Kahn. And? Oh, you were some sort of genetically engineered superman who was incarcerated for being bad at some undefined point in the past. I get that Trek audiences know the significance. But for this Kahn and Enterprise crew it isn't significant. They have no history together. And, it seems to me, what they develop here doesn't appear likely to prove to be as iconic.

3. To me, most of the direct echoes to Wrath of Kahn seemed forced. Poor Zachary Quinto, through presumably no fault of his own, ends up being the bearer of a couple of notable ones. First there's the quoting of the classic "The needs of the many..." line (which here doesn't have the idea of "don't cry for my Jim" but of "you're an idiot Captain so let me explain this to you"). Then, after Kirk's death (which, perhaps surprisingly, I didn't at the time feel as forced, but rather an interesting look at events echoing in different ways through changed timelines and all that science-fictiony stuff), we have Spock looking up to the sky and yelling "KAHN!!!" Oy! Again, not really Quinto's fault. He delivers it pretty well. It's just the fact that it exists here that's the problem.

In the end, the bringing Kahn in makes the whole affair seem a little like people trying to ride the coattails of greatness in order to be popular, as opposed to doing their own thing.

So there it is. Some of my thoughts on Star Trek Into Darkness. A film that I both liked and didn't like. If I had to sum it up I'd say that my disappointments with it aren't primarily with the execution. Rather, they are the direct result of two creative decisions made years ago: Create an alternate timeline, and do a riff on Wrath of Kahn. The result is a film that both doesn't rely on the Star Trek that's come before it, and does. But many of the ways it doesn't I wish it did. And many of the ways it does I think it would be a stronger film if it didn't.

Until next time, I remain

 - Nic

p.s. - I enjoyed the references to DS9 (Section 31), Enterprise (the model of the NX-01 in Adm. Marcus' room), and First Contact (the model of the Phoenix in Adm. Marcus' room). But what was up with that science officer with the robot voice (officially known as Science Officer 0718). Anyone else have a "what the crap" spit out your coffee moment when he first spoke?

Posted on May 20, 2013 .