Star Trek Into Darkness is not the worst Star Trek movie. I would probably watch this film again before I rewatch The Final Frontier or Insurrection or Nemesis. That said, I would prefer not to rewatch any of these films - Star Trek Into Darkness included - because they are all very bad movies.
To truly explain why this is a bad movie - not a bad Star Trek movie, but a bad movie period - I will need to spoil the entire film. This review is not meant as a consumer guide to your weekend moviegoing (although if it were I could safely not recommend this movie to you) but rather an examination of the willful, purposeful stupidity that took what had been a fairly enjoyable, if utterly mediocre, action movie and drove it directly into the ground.
JJ Abrams’ reboot of Star Trek was a strange, almost miraculous film. When you think about the movie at all - give any of it a thought - the whole thing falls apart. But the film itself holds up as you watch it; you have to actually revisit it in your mind for the collapse to happen. Star Trek Into Darkness doesn’t bother waiting; the film falls apart as it goes, raining debris as it implodes like a building being demolished.
The movie picks up some time after the events of the reboot, with Kirk commanding the Enterprise on a mapping mission. When the crew discovers that a volcano on a planet inhabited by primitive peoples is about to blow and destroy all life on that world, Kirk takes action. In the course of saving the planet he inadvertently reveals to the natives the existence of the Enterprise (in a totally ridiculous way, but this is the least of the film’s transgressions); when word gets back to Starfleet Kirk is busted down to first officer and Pike is given command of the Enterprise again.
But before the ship can go back to space, a terrorist attack shakes Starfleet. A suicide bomber blows up an archive in London, which turns out to be a secret base for black ops guys Section 31, and which triggers a meeting of important Starfleet personnel (including Kirk and Spock for some reason). Triggering that meeting was the true purpose of the attack, and the meeting room is destroyed by a ship piloted by the ‘mysterious’ John Harrison. Pike is killed in the attack, which sends Kirk down a path of vengeance.
That path of vengeance leads the film on a path of shit. The movie barrels forward into an over-complicated conspiracy plot that’s harebrained and dopey. On some level it’s tempting to give Star Trek Into Darkness credit for being a movie that tackles current events - the evil conspiracy to start a war with the Klingons is painfully, totally, obviously inspired by the war in Iraq - but perhaps praise should be saved for times when a movie tackles current events well. The film is in such a rush to get from set piece to set piece that it never takes the time to really examine the political thought it is supposedly engaging. Previous JJ Abrams films have revolved around a MacGuffin; this might be the first time in an Abrams film where the plot itself is a MacGuffin.
All of that might have worked if screenwriters Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof had stuck to it, but they’ve decided to add Khan into the mix. John Harrison, you see, is actually secretly Khan, who has been thawed from his cryosleep by the head of Starfleet and pushed into servitude, designing weapons and ships and, for reasons that are unclear and probably nonsensical, actually personally engaging in terrorist activities. Because if you suddenly had Napoleon or Genghis Khan on your team you would send them off to do drive-bys.
Khan, of course, carries a heavy weight in the Star Trek universe. Using him immediately puts Star Trek Into Darkness up against Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and that’s a competition this film cannot hope to win. Instead STID makes the decision to turn Khan into a generic villain who can punch really hard. It’s such a strange decision; everything special about Khan has been stripped away, leaving only a villain-shaped outline. The fact that he was an important ruler and the fact that he's 300 years out of his own time are just ignored. It must have been clear to the filmmakers at some point that they had watered Khan down totally and thus left their film with an unconvincing antagonist, so they have Spock make a (totally unmotivated by the plot) phone call to Old Spock so that Old Spock can assure the audience that Khan is the greatest foe ever faced by the Enterprise.
That’s actually the level of writing in the movie. Old Spock explains why Khan is a guy to be feared. Pike explains Kirk’s character to Kirk, and also throws in a detailed explanation of the lessons Kirk must learn in this movie. Khan explains his own history to everybody, and the evil admiral explains his evil plan to the entire crew of the Enterprise. The film breathlessly rushes from action scene to action scene, stopping only to have a character deliver leaden exposition almost directly at the camera. It’s as though all of the set pieces were conceived first and then a trio of subpar writers had to fill in the gaps. That isn’t how you write a movie though, is it?
Those action set pieces are pretty good, but they don’t flow like they did in Star Trek 2009. JJ Abrams remains a singular stager of sequences; there are a few truly great sequences in this film that are shot wonderfully, edited with verve and play out as exciting, engaging mini-narratives. The opening sequence on the primitive planet, while painfully jocking Indiana Jones, works. There’s a great sequence where Kirk and Khan must spacedive from the Enterprise to the ubership Revenge. There are a couple of other good sequences throughout, but this time the energy isn’t there; where Star Trek 2009 swept you up as it jumped from scene to scene, logic and motivation be damned, Star Trek Into Darkness is like tagging along with a meth addict who is incoherently searching for a fix. Scenes that should be wonderful, like a battle with a squad of Klingons on the Klingon homeworld (incorrectly spelled Kronos onscreen) end up just being muddled and boring.
I’ve talked about the film going off the rails when Khan is revealed, but it doesn’t really crap out until after that. For some absolutely inane reason Star Trek Into Darkness briefly turns itself into a remake of Wrath of Khan, or at least its most famous scene. But - surprise! - it’s a twisteroo, and Kirk dies saving the ship. But where Wrath of Khan actually killed Spock (for the time being), STID has no conviction. Kirk, it turns out, can be saved in a way whose dumbness is only surpassed by the dumbness of its execution: the blood of Khan, it turns out, brings cells back from the dead. Because he’s an augmented, genetically engineered superman, don’t you know.
But Khan has escaped! Kirk lies dead while Spock must catch the baddie in a tedious footchase that ends on a green screen. Only a movie as stupid as STID would think a foot chase is a good denouement after a huge space battle. Then again, only a movie as stupid as STID would make a big deal out of getting Khan’s blood when the Enterprise has the 72 crewmembers of the Botany Bay sitting right in Sick Bay. Yes, 72 other genetically enhanced supermen (and lest you think I’m just playing continuity here it is established earlier in STID that the 72 frozen Khanpals are, in fact, all genetically engineered supermen) are sitting right there. Bones actually has one removed from his cryotube so Kirk can be frozen within it and stop further brain cell loss. But he has to wait for Khan to be captured, despite having 72 other guys with magic blood RIGHT THERE.
It’s at this point it became clear that Abrams/Orci/Kurtzman/Lindelof simply don’t care. It’s impossible that they shot the scene where Bones asks to have a superman removed from his cryotube and didn’t think, “Hey, maybe Bones should use this guy’s blood.” They just didn’t care. They had a climax they wanted - a highly emotional Spock fighting Khan and having to pull back from killing him - and they were going to get there no matter what logical impediments stood in their way.
The film, by the way, is littered with this stuff. The Klingon homeworld Qo’noS apparently has no sensor defense system. A top secret shipyard building a next generation warship is completely and totally unguarded. The head of Starfleet personally takes command of a ship in order to blow up the Enterprise. That same head of Starfleet’s daughter sneaks onboard the Enterprise for no real reason, and then serves no actual narrative purpose. These aren’t Trekkie nitpicks (I have some of those for sure), but rather violations of internal logic or consistency.
Cheats are allowed in storytelling. Sometimes they’re necessary. But the compact between storyteller and audience is that cheats should be kept to a minimum, that as often as possible plot points should make sense, should be motivated by the characters and that the characters in turn should have motivations that make sense and feed back into the narrative. Star Trek Into Darkness actively and constantly violates that compact.
And the filmmakers know it. More than once a character comments on how stupid something is, or how out of character someone is behaving. This sort of handwaving is a way of distancing the creative team from the junk they’ve created, a way of saying ‘Hey, we know this doesn’t really work, but come along for the ride anyway.’ It’s infuriating, and the time spent having Scotty whine to Kirk that he’s making decisions that are stupid, inappropriate and out of character should have been spent finding other solutions to the narrative problems.
Dramatically the movie fails. Setting aside any Trekkie feelings about killing Kirk in a reversal of the end of Wrath of Khan, that sequence falls flat. Part of the problem is that it happens too soon; what made Spock’s death in Khan so moving is that it’s two old friends saying goodbye. Kirk and Spock have known each other for like a year in this movie.
Worse than that, the death is a gimmick only. Kirk is brought back to life about ten minutes later; it’s shocking to me that the filmmakers could so totally undermine the dramatic value of the moment. If Kirk’s death is weightless because the Kirk/Spock relationship isn’t solidified it becomes doubly weightless because it ends up being only an inconvenience. By bringing Kirk back to life immediately the script establishes a situation where the stakes are about as high as having Kirk locked in a closet.
If that sequence fails utterly as drama, it does succeed admirably as the perfect example of the difference between JJ Abrams’ Trek and the real Trek. In Wrath of Khan when Spock enters the radiation chamber to save the ship he must replace parts and do what looks like some kind of actual repair work. When Kirk goes into the warp core to save the ship he has to... kick a piece of metal until it goes back into place. That, I think, sums it all up.
One of the things that made Star Trek 2009 work so well was the cast. Everybody’s back this time, and once again the best parts of Star Trek Into Darkness are the moments when the actors bounce off each other. Chris Pine’s version of Kirk isn’t one I like, but I still like Pine - he’s dripping with charisma. Karl Urban throws himself fully into the role of Bones, and he’s a joy in every frame. Zachary Quinto may be the only actor since Leonard Nimoy to really play a Vulcan right; too many other Vulcan actors have played up condescension and irritation, while Quinto maintains a perfect even keel that’s still warm and has hints of humor. Like the last film this movie focuses too much on the bromance between Kirk and Spock, leaving McCoy too often in the cold, but in general this iteration of the holy trinity continues to please with their camaraderie. Zoe Saldana’s Uhura continues to take up too much of Bones’ role as the middle ground between Kirk and Spock, but her presence remains welcome.
This time out Simon Pegg’s Scotty gets a lot of screentime, leaving poor Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and Sulu (John Cho) with little to do. Scotty’s idiotic, should have been left at Mos Eisley sidekick Keenser is around too, but thankfully he’s just kind of hanging out right up until the movie utterly forgets he exists. The good news is that while Scotty’s action remains humorous - somehow Montgomery Scott found himself becoming the comic relief in this timeline - none of it is as outrageously silly as his trip through the pipes in the last film. He actually has a badass moment this time around.
Benedict Cumberbatch is so wasted as Khan that it’s criminal. I mean, Khan is wasted in general but even within that Cumberbatch has little to do beyond growl bad lines and stand about. He punches some guys, he jumps a little, but mostly he stands about. Cumberbatch seems to think he’s playing Hannibal Lecter (and since Abrams visually recreates some Lecter and Clarice moments that isn’t surprising), but he forgot to bring any depth to the character. Or to look at the iconic performance of Ricardo Montalban. There’s nothing Khan in him, and there's barely any other character in there either.
I’d say that Peter Weller is wasted, but there’s something so syndicated television about the performance he gives that it actually feels perfect, like an homage to Star Trek: Voyager or something. His evil Admiral Marcus butts up against Snidely Whiplash territory; because the script has no interest in its own ideas Marcus is just an asshole, largely free of any discernable ideology. War is inevitable, he says, but there’s no way for audiences to understand if he’s right, if he’s wrong or if he’s right and just reacting wrong.
And then Alice Eve. Carol Marcus serves literally no narrative function - everything she does could easily be done by an existing crewmember. Even her relationship with the bad guy has essentially no pay-off whatsoever. The only reason she’s in the movie, I assume, is because there was a Carol Marcus in Wrath of Khan. There are a number of bits of fan service like that (which is weird in a movie like this that tries to alienate Trekkies at every turn), but the inclusion of Carol Marcus is the biggest and hollowest example. Alice Eve is fine, but she’s playing a non-character whose biggest moments are when she, without reason, strips to her underwear and when Khan steps on her leg. What’s an actor supposed to do with a part like this? What could Alice Eve have possibly done with such a non-entity?
I walked into Star Trek Into Darkness worried that this film would be the death knell for Star Trek as I knew it. It isn’t. It’s definitely a bad movie with an objectively bad and idiotic script, but it’s not a franchise killer. That said, it does have some elements that feel like they’ve broken Star Trek. Khan is able to beam himself from Earth to Qo’noS using a personal hyperwarp transporter device. The fact that such a device exists calls into question the need for space ships at all. The device can be carried in your hands, and it can beam you sixteen light years without a problem. The film actually abuses the hell out of the transporter; there’s a reason why the transporter is generally limited in the Star Trek universe*.
A bigger problem moving forward, though, is this: death has been cured at the end of this film. Khan’s blood can revive the deceased. A revolution in medicine must surely be coming, especially as the movie ends with Khan and his 72 men back in cryosleep and in Federation hands. Imagine a universe where you can beam yourself anywhere in the entire galaxy and also you can’t die. That’s essentially the universe that will exist in Star Trek 3. That should come in handy, as the movie ends without anybody even taking into consideration how the Klingons feel about what happened on their homeworld.
The good news is that the cast remains the strongest part of the new Star Trek franchise, and they’re probably locked in for another movie. Hopefully the dull, moronic shamblings of Star Trek Into Darkness is not repeated in Star Trek 3. I don’t care if the next film is strictly adhering to canon or if it’s filled with geeky references. I just want it to not be a shitty movie.
* I am, by the way, aware that long distance beaming is possible in the 24th century.