Continuing from Part One of this series of posts, it’s time to discuss…
… and I’ll be completely honest; “Star Trek Into Darkness” is my least favorite of the Bad Robot-produced Star Trek movies. In fact, it’s one of my least favorite Star Trek movies of the entire Star Trek movie series.
After the wild, unexpectedly enjoyable ride that was 2009’s “Star Trek” (ST09), there was a four-year gap between the films. During this time, the Bad Robot team produced many movies (“Super 8”, “Cowboys & Aliens”) and TV shows that, frankly, weren’t terribly memorable. Much of that time and attention for these projects was siphoned off of the next Star Trek movie, which was eagerly anticipated following the surprise box office haul of ST09 (worldwide gross of just over $385 million; it’s one of the highest grossing ST movies of all time). Why Bad Robot dragged their collective feet getting to the next Trek movie is beyond me, especially after the box office of ST09. Oh well. Moving on…
There were a lot of rumors/speculation at the time surrounding the new movie’s villain, and many assumed it would be the genetically engineered Khan Noonian Singh (previously played by Ricardo Montalban in TOS’ “Space Seed” and 1982’s “The Wrath of Khan”). There was also a disinformation campaign set up by the Bad Robot team to deny the Khan rumor at every turn, with even cast members getting involved. It reached a point where some members of the cast were even feeding disinformation to the press (and to fans). Some bad blood was being generated by Bad Robot.
So cut to the summer of 2013. “Star Trek Into Darkness” (STID) was released, and what landed in the multiplexes was a whopping, overproduced dud.
Once again, I’m going to assume that my readers have already seen the film (thus, I’m skipping a plot synopsis), but I will post my customary…
***** DREADNOUGHT-CLASS SPOILER WARNINGS!! *****
….just in case.
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013).
Where to begin?
Let’s start with the positives (this won’t take long…).
Things I enjoyed about Star Trek Into Darkness.
* Once again, the main cast gives it their best.
Despite some truly groan-worthy dialogue in this entry, the cast (Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho and the late Anton Yelchin) really give it their all. Most of the issues are with the writing and not the actors, so I don’t blame them for any character/dialogue shortcomings.
Additional kudos to Bruce Greenwood as Admiral Pike as well.
* Dan Mindel’s gorgeous cinematography.
Once again, Mindel makes this film one of the best Star Trek movies ever. His cooler overall palette (more blues and cool whites this time), dramatic warm contrasts (the volcano sequence), crisp images, and toned-down lens flare are a slight improvement from his excellent work in ST09.
It’s deeply ironic for me that one of my least favorite ST films is also one of the best looking.
* As with ST09, director JJ Abrams makes excellent use of real-world locations.
Scenes detailing the USS Enterprise’s warp core were shot at the Key Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore Labs in Northern California, and unlike additional shots at the brewery (again) for the rest of engineering, the Lawrence Livermore Labs location actually looks like a futuristic warp core. Well done.
Smart use of the Getty Center in Los Angeles for the ‘Daystrom Institute’ at Starfleet Command HQ as well. With its clean, classy, timeless-but-modern architecture, it says futuristic without being too “Jetsons.”
* The “bling-on” Klingons.
They got a lot of hate online, but I actually liked them. Their bejeweled scalps were a new twist, as were their eerie eye color. For the first time since “The Motion Picture” they looked truly alien again. Too bad their scenes on an apparently devastated Kronos (the moon Praxis explodes much earlier in this timeline) are more or less inconsequential, except to act as wooden ducks for Khan to shoot, surrender to Kirk, and talk his way onto the Enterprise. On the plus side, the Kronos sequence does give Uhura a chance to shine with her fluent Klingon skills (even if she’s nearly choked to death for her efforts). The Klingons in this film aren’t so much characters as they are angry, exotic redshirts.
I was personally more interested in the backstory of the exploded moon Praxis (the disaster that served as the story fulcrum of “The Undiscovered Country”) apparently in a slow collusion with Kronos; why did it explode so many years earlier? A tantalizing bit of visual backstory that’s never explored in favor of a less interesting A-story.
Reasons why Star Trek Into Darkness crashed like a falling starship into Frisco Bay.
* The Nibiru sequence.
The first time we see the Enterprise and its crew, we see them screwing up.
Kirk and his officers are literally playing God to the primitive natives of the planet Nibiru. They are, in fact, blatantly violating Starfleet’s ‘Prime Directive’ of non-interference in primitive cultural development for no good reason. The Enterprise was never in danger, and they could’ve just as easily observed the life forms remotely somehow. They proceed to set off a “cold fusion” bomb to stop a supposedly planet-threatening volcano (which is NOT how cold fusion works, by the way…). Kirk also orders the ship to fly right over the natives and gives them an all-new religion in the process. I shudder to think of the potential cycle of religious conflicts Kirk unwittingly sentenced that planet’s ‘surviving’ natives to going forward (see: The Orville’s “Mad Idolatry” for a possible glimpse into the Nibiru natives’ near-future).
It arguably would’ve been more merciful to let the volcano do what it would’ve done anyway, safe for the crew’s ‘cold fusion’ interference. The decision was NOT Kirk’s to make, and where does such galactic meddling stop? Going back in time and saving the dinosaurs, perhaps?
Yes, Prime-universe Kirk would often violate the Prime Directive in the original series, but usually it was because his ship and crew were in immediate danger (“Return of the Archons” “The Apple”). STID does the reverse, as Kirk puts Spock’s life in danger in order to violate the Prime Directive… the very opposite of Prime Kirk’s type of common sense (not to mention Starfleet’s foremost regulation for its crews).
Another issue I had with the Nibiru sequence is that Kirk (the commanding officer) doesn’t seem to know the particulars of his own plan. He fires a phaser’s stunning beam at a seemingly threatening animal, only to have McCoy chide, “Dammit Jim, you stunned our ride,” implying that the animal was their way out. Well, then why the hell didn’t Captain Kirk know this? Shouldn’t the commanding officer of a mission be informed about exactly how said mission would proceed?
It’s also pure nonsense to hide the starship Enterprise underwater near the cliff’s edge.
If Kirk hadn’t ‘stunned their ride’ then what was the plan? Ride the animal off the cliff and into the ocean to rendezvous with the Enterprise? Why couldn’t the Enterprise have remained safely in orbit, waiting to beam the fleeing landing party out of danger (as it’s done in countless episodes of the series)? Even Scotty balks at the idea of hiding the Enterprise in the ocean, and for good reason. It only happened to work (by chance) when the transporter needed a direct line of sight to beam Spock up from the volcano. If Spock hadn’t been deep in the caldera with his ‘cold fusion’ device preparing to change the path of the planet’s biological/geological evolution? Then none of that would’ve been necessary.
It’s also ironic that after Spock is rescued, he balks at Kirk for flying the ship out of the ocean where the Nibiru natives could see it. Spock tells Kirk, “You have violated the prime directive!” Newsflash Spock; you have as well by setting off your volcano ‘cold fusion’ (ugh) bomb.
Spock has permanently altered both the biological and geological courses of the planet Nibiru’s evolution. Granted, it was on Kirk’s orders, but as first officer he could’ve (and arguably should’ve) relieved Kirk for violating the Prime Directive.
I don’t recall the Prime Directive ever stating that blatant and arbitrary interference in a planet’s natural biological/geological development is okay as long as the natives don’t see you. Maybe the loss of the primitive humanoid species on Nibiru was natural selection at work, making way for eventual planetary dominance by aquatic beings, or insects, or flora, or who knows what. Kirk and company only interfered because the Nibiru natives ‘look like us.’ Blatant speciesism, if ever I saw it.
A rightly pissed-off Admiral Pike later demotes Kirk over this, which leads me to…
* Kirk’s promotion/demotion/re-promotion in STID only serves to rehash Kirk’s arc from the first film.
In ST09, Kirk was a drunken, fatherless genius/barfly living a pointless life (“Good Kirk Hunting”?) who is challenged by Captain Pike to seek out a career in Starfleet, like his late father. Kirk decides to attend Starfleet Academy. After being grounded for cheating on the Kobayashi Maru command test, Kirk (with help from his friend and fellow cadet, Dr. McCoy) is a stowaway aboard the USS Enterprise’s maiden flight and winds up saving the ship, her captain (Pike) and eventually the Earth itself. As a reward, he jumps from brash cadet to newly commissioned captain of the USS Enterprise herself, skipping all of the ranks in-between. While I accept this as an admittedly unrealistic movie convention, it works well enough in ST09 since the whole point of that movie was to unite the crew and get them underway. Unrealistic yes, but hey…it’s Star Trek, not “Annapolis.”
So be it.
After the Nibiru incident, Kirk is busted down to cadet (again). Then Kirk is promoted to first officer of the Enterprise after Pike pulls a few strings for him (Pike is the one who busts Kirk down, but he still believes in him). Kirk’s demotion (however short-lived) was meant to teach him about the responsibilities of command; a lesson you’d think he should’ve learned before he was handed the keys to the flagship a year earlier, but whatever…
Sure enough, Pike is killed by Khan during an aerial assault on Starfleet HQ’s Daystrom building in a scene lifted whole from “Godfather III”’s helicopter-on-building assault (it’s not an homage; it’s a blatant theft). Upon Pike’s death, Kirk is once again given the command keys to the Enterprise to go after Khan. So what was the point of the whole demotion/promotion arc in the first place? Revenge-seeking Kirk doesn’t seem any more responsible than Prime Directive-violating Kirk from 15 minutes earlier in the film, yet he’s cleared to have another go at it (?!?).
* The character of Khan Noonian Singh (Benedict Cumberbatch) is miscast, misused and unnecessary.
Let me offset this criticism by saying I’ve been a huge fan of Benedict Cumberbatch ever since 2010’s “Sherlock” (and more recently with “Doctor Strange” and “Imitation Game”), so I was looking very forward to his participation in this film. That is, until I realized he was most likely playing Khan; a role for which I felt he was miscast.
Not that the role’s predecessor Ricardo Montalban, was any more geographically apt to play a North Indian Sikh. I was kind of hoping that maybe (?) they would consider casting an actual Indian actor for the role this time around. The milky pale, blue-eyed Cumberbatch bears absolutely no resemblance to the Khan character as previously established or described, nor does he sound remotely like him, either. The Khan of STID is less the flamboyant Napoleon dictator of the Eugenics Wars, and more a run-of-the-mill Jason Bourne clone. There really was no reason for the character to be revealed as Khan, because he is nothing like the Khan character as previously established.
Khan’s ‘big reveal’ to his captors means nothing here because new Kirk (unlike prime Kirk of “The Wrath of Khan”) has no idea who Khan is; he has no history with the character, since the Enterprise didn’t encounter the Botany Bay in this timeline. That ‘honor’ fell to Admiral Marcus and Section 31, unbeknownst to Kirk. So the big name drop scene is meaningless. It has none of the emotional impact of when Prime Kirk recognizes his old adversary on the main viewer in TWOK.
The STID version of the Khan character could’ve just as easily have been a rogue Section 31 agent named John Harrison (Khan’s alias used earlier in the film) who could’ve been genetically modified with recovered DNA cryogenically preserved from the Eugenics Wars in an effort to make a super-soldier of some type. I could’ve bought that. But as it is? Cumberbatch playing Khan just doesn’t work.
But I digress; the character was poorly written as well. In STID, he comes off more as a Jason Bourne-wannabe than the Napoleonic despot we saw in “Space Seed” or even the vengeful Moby Dick-like tyrant we saw in TWOK. The only traits this Khan seems to share with Montalban’s is cruelty and physical strength. Beyond that, there is really nothing else. I’d go so far as to say the character’s name is used only for his brand-name villainy; the hope that the character might infuse the film with the same mojo that propelled “The Wrath of Khan” into modern classic status. It doesn’t.
STID’s script arguably would’ve been more successful if the writers had pooled their talents and created a new character; one better suited to Benedict Cumberbatch’s considerable talent. The producers had a great catch with Cumberbatch, but hobbled him with a hand-me-down character for which he was unsuited. A real shame.
* Carol Marcus (Alice Eve).
Dr. Carol Marcus (as played by the late Bibi Besch in TWOK) was the brilliant scientist (and mother of Kirk’s son David) as well as a fiercely independent civilian leader of the radical terraforming ‘Genesis Project’ in TWOK.
In STID, she’s a younger, sexier, miniskirted Starfleet officer with a British accent whose specialty is working with high-yield long-range torpedoes (kind of the opposite of Besch’s Dr. Marcus’ research into life generating terraforming). She has daddy issues as well, stowing aboard the Enterprise under an alias in an effort to defy her evil, reactionary, American-accented pop, Admiral Marcus (an utterly one-note performance by “Robocop” star Peter Weller). I can easily accept that a daughter might not sound anything like her dad (my own father had a very different accent than mine), but reducing the fiercely independent, brilliant Dr. Carol Marcus of TWOK into a sexy Starfleet cheerleader who wants to defy daddy is a loss both for the character and for casting credibility.
There’s also an embarrassingly sexist moment when science officer Marcus has to be shown in her bra and panties for… um, what reason again, exactly??
All of this brings me to her American dad…
* Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller).
Peter Weller, an otherwise fine actor (“Robocop” “Naked Lunch”) plays a one-note ‘evil admiral’ who is just itching to start a war with the Klingons. Admiral Marcus is merely the latest in a long line of deranged/evil Starfleet superior officers. The evil admirals were already a tired, boring cliche in the various Trek TV series and even in prior Trek movies (Admiral Dougherty, “Insurrection”).
Using the loss of Vulcan as an excuse to militarize the Starfleet (and its CIA-type dark ops wing, Section 31), Marcus’ ‘brilliant’ plan is to use Khan and his 72 surviving, cryogenically frozen “supermen” left over from Earth’s ‘Eugenics Wars’ of an alternate 1996.
In the original series episode “Space Seed” it was Kirk and company who stumbled across Khan’s drifting sleeper ship, the SS Botany Bay. In the new timeline, it was Admiral Marcus and Section 31 who had the honors. Marcus immediately set about weaponizing his new acquisition; using the ‘superior intellect’ of the defrosted Khan to build new weapons for Starfleet. Marcus was using Khan’s 72 surviving-in-statis crewmen as collateral to ensure his cooperation.
Yeah, great idea… and here I thought Kirk’s granting Khan access to the original Enterprise’s tech manuals was stupid; Marcus gives Khan the keys to all of Starfleet’s defenses. Oh, and for some curious reason, Khan betrays Marcus the first chance he gets (hmm…imagine that) by somehow stuffing his frozen crewmen into torpedo casings (Carol’s creations), hoping (?) that all 72 of those torpedoes would (of course?) be fired at the Klingon home world of Kronos. It’s also hoped that all 72 torpedoes would land safely on Kronos (without detonating) so that Khan’s people could occupy the devastated home planet of one of the most hostile species in the galaxy (!?!?).
* The sheer stupidity of Khan’s plan.
I might’ve failed to mention that Khan had escaped Admiral Marcus’ custody earlier and apparently had ample time to transfer all 72 of his crewmen into the torpedo casings (somehow?). After a streak of terrorism (blowing up Section 31 HQ in London and strafing Starfleet HQ’s meeting), he trans-warp beams himself to the Klingon planet Kronos for ‘safety’ (the one planet ‘we canna go’ according to Scotty).
Khan also had access codes to a secret, heavily-armed, dreadnought-class vessel that he helped design for Section 31, the USS Vengeance, secure in orbit over Jupiter.
Um… why didn’t Khan simply trans-warp beam all of his people straight to the Vengeance (including himself) and get the hell out of the solar system? Khan had full access to the ship’s codes, and as he proved on Kronos with the Klingons (and later aboard the Vengeance itself), he could’ve easily overpowered the skeleton crew and taken the ship.
Khan and his people could’ve gone ANYWHERE in the galaxy; secure in a ship that no other class of Starfleet (or arguably Klingon) ship would’ve been able to make a dent.
But nope. Khan decides to go with the much shakier prospect of loading all 72 of his people into torpedo casings (how he did that completely unnoticed is anyone’s guess) and hoping that all of the torpedoes get shipped onto the Enterprise (which almost didn’t happen, per Scotty’s objection) in the hope that the Enterprise will (maybe?) fire all 72 torpedoes which will (again, hopefully) soft-land on Kronos.
Yeah, great plan.
I mean, it’s not as if the human-filled torpedoes could still explode, right? No wait, they can…
Later in the film, an enraged (but still logical) Spock tricks Khan by beaming the torpedoes back to the USS Vengeance and detonating all 72 torpedoes (with Khan’s frozen crewmen removed, of course) within the USS Vengeance’s cargo hold, thereby crippling the superior warship.
So, exploding these torpedoes (with the crewmen inside) was still always a possibility. Once again, I ask; what if they impacted and detonated on Kronos? Or what if Kirk didn’t use all of them? They were supposed to be high-yield torpedoes, so what if Kirk only used four torpedoes, instead of all 72? I mean, in the entirety of Star Trek, has the Enterprise ever had to fire 72 torpedoes? Not even in “The Doomsday Machine.”
I have to give screenwriters Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof credit; they may have written the single worst plan for a Star Trek villain ever…. and they had four years to come up with it, too. At least Nero was deranged, right? Khan is supposed to be a cool, ‘superior intellect’ and yet his plan is so jaw-droppingly stupid that under the least bit of scrutiny, it falls apart like wet tissue paper.
* The Space Skype call to Spock Prime.
There are few bigger fans of Leonard Nimoy’s Spock than myself, and I really enjoyed his appearance in ST09. It was meaningful, and his character played a vital role in the story (his Spock helps create the Bad Robot Trek movie timeline). But in STID? He’s reduced to a Skype call just to tell his younger self know that Khan is a really bad man, and that he was the greatest danger the Enterprise ever faced (really, Spock?).
That’s about it.
In hindsight, Khan would rank kind of low when you think of some of the other space dangers that Spock Prime’s USS Enterprise encountered; there was the solar-system destroying Nomad probe (“The Changeling”), the giant space amoeba (“Immunity Syndrome”) and the titular “Doomsday Machine” robotic planet killer, to name a few. Even ‘Mr. Flint’ in “Requiem for Methuselah” was capable of shrinking the Enterprise to the size of a tabletop toy. Frankly, Khan was kind of small potatoes next to those guys, but sure… whatever.
It’s such a shame that this would be Leonard Nimoy’s final appearance as Spock because it is nothing more than a shoehorned-in cameo that is far less important than his appearance in ST09.
* The movie steals from “The Wrath of Khan.”
Sometimes just in bits of dialogue, such as Spock’s “The needs of the many outweighs the needs of the few.”
Other times it rips off whole scenes, such as the Kirk-for-Spock switcheroo death scene. That it’s Kirk (temporarily) dying this time rather than Spock doesn’t matter; the circumstances (a radiation leak in the engine core) and even some of the lines (“Ship…out of danger?”) are line-specific. Kirk is resurrected (via Khan’s “magic blood”) so quickly that his ‘death’ seems like little more than a bad case of the flu. Guess they figured that having a sequel with the crew going on “The Search For Kirk” was a step too far (?).
Spock’s Khan yell (echoing Kirk’s famous yell in TWOK) is utterly ridiculous and out-of-character as well. I nearly cupped my ears in embarrassment when I first heard it.
The use of characters such as Carol Marcus (a character from TWOK) and well, Khan himself, just aggravates the situation.
I half-expected to see a teenaged Cadet Terrell and a baby Saavik in diapers…
* Khan’s magic blood.
This is the most ridiculous retcon of the Khan character of the entire movie. Nowhere in previous Khan canon (Khanon?) is it made clear that Khan’s blood had regenerative/recuperative powers. Why wasn’t it used in TWOK to save Khan’s ‘beloved wife’ Marla McGivers when she was killed by a Ceti eel on Ceti Alpha V? Could it repair a damaged eardrum? I mean, if it can overcome a fatal case of radiation poisoning and cure a child with an incurable disease (incurable even in the miraculous 23rd century medicine of Star Trek), then what ARE the limits of Khan’s newly retconned restorative blood? Is such blood unique to Khan, or do all of the genetically-modified augments have this property in their blood? Could McCoy have just revived any of the 72 augments and cured Kirk, or did it have to be Khan? These questions are not only left unanswered, but they are never even asked within the movie. This magic blood of Khan’s isn’t a fanboy quibble; this is a lazy scriptwriter’s deus ex machina.
The worst of it is that the magic blood is used to ‘cure’ Kirk from a radiation-ravaged death; making his ‘sacrifice’ to save his ship and crew pointless. At least Spock’s return in the 1980s’ Trek movies gave us two years and a sequel (“The Search For Spock”) to see if he was coming back
* The ‘message’ of the movie.
Kirk’s final, shoehorned-in ‘optimism’ speech to the assembled crew on Earth goes on about humanity no longer seeking vengeance, etc. Yet it was Kirk’s pursuit of vengeance (and later Spock’s) that basically saved the day and propelled the story. Trusting Khan only led to betrayal (and arguably a devastated San Francisco, with thousands dead). So what exactly was the point of Kirk’s speech again?
I could go on, but I think that’s enough venom for one post…
I’m sorry to go so negative with this one, but STID is a very frustrating movie for me as a lifelong Star Trek fan.
ST09 was so promising, and it assembled such a terrific cast. With four years to come up with a decent screenplay and we get a cobbled together, Franken-scripted sequel with a TNG-style evil admiral, as well as a collection of repeated beats from ST09 and “The Wrath of Khan” stitched together into a dumb, barely coherent story. There are some original elements but they’re clumsily or half-heartedly executed.
Perversely, STID is a gorgeous-looking film, and the production apparently spared no expense in the visually stunning (if completely ridiculous) Nibiru sequence, the gorgeous new interiors seen in the USS Enterprise, and the Getty Center-shot Starfleet HQ sequences. Like 2012’s “Prometheus”, it’s a film that I best enjoy with the audio off; that way I can’t hear the terrible dialogue that makes little-to-no sense.
STID is precisely the kind of Star Trek movie that most fans feared ST09 would be; big, overproduced and frightfully dumbed down. As I said in my last post on the Bad Robot ST movies, I don’t expect cinematic Star Trek to be as intellectual as the best of the TV show episodes, but “cold fusion” volcano killers, mutant-filled torpedoes and “magic blood” are just lazy, stupid plot devices that don’t even attempt to be clever.
The third Bad Robot Trek movie, scripted by Doug Jung and “Scotty” actor Simon Pegg, would be a considerable improvement (artistically, if not commercially) over STID.
It was called…
***** TO BE CONTINUED *****