A landing spot for reviews of interesting books, films, and objects what cross my path
as well as the occasional essay on whatever's pinging the old brain pan.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Movie Review: Star Trek: Into Darkness

Below all those asterisks down there, I'm going to be spoiler-rich, to the point of ruining the movie for anyone who hasn't yet seen it.  So here's my one-sentence, spoiler-free assessment for those who wonder if they should drop $10+ on a ticket: Into Darkness is not without flaws and doesn't quite rise to the level of distilled awesome that the 2009 Reboot accomplished, but its engaging plot, heaps of witty dialogue, lovely special effects, nice helping of memorable moments, and near-perfect characterizations of Kirk and Spock make it a worthy sequel, an excellent addition to the Trek franchise, and a must-see in the theater.  Go see this movie.  (I will mention here that I saw the movie in 2D and so can't comment on whether the 3D is used to good effect or is worth extra monies.  I still can't bring myself to pay extra to watch something in 3D, which I have never liked and which gives me a headache.  I know, I know.  "It's better now."  I just can't.)

Okay.  Saying it again.  The following is rife with spoilers--it's more of a fan-happy analysis than a traditional "Ought I See This?" review.  If you haven't seen Into Darkness yet and have any intention of doing so, go away and come back after you've caught the film.  Spoilers start after the starfield.  You have been warned.

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I was wary of Into Darkness.  I loved the 2009 Reboot.  Loved. It.  I loved the horrible-wonderful  opening sequence which wrecked me thoroughly ten minutes in.  I loved the casting.  I loved the story.  I loved the new-but-the-same, slightly edgy characterizations of my beloved Enterprise crew.  I loved the dialogue, I loved the banter, I loved the ridiculous humor.  I loved the shiny ship interiors and the brewery-like engineering deck.  I even loved the stupid lens flares.  From the moment the credits rolled, I wanted more-more-more.

But then I started thinking about more.  Could they do this again?  How much of what was so awesome about the Reboot was its rebooty-ness, was the fact that we were getting to see these characters afresh for the first time ever, was the fun of seeing the Trek universe re-imagined?  Would that translate to a sequel?  And what of the rumor that started flying that the villain in the sequel would be Khan?   Surely that would wreck it, I thought.  You can't retell that story with a young cast.  The Wrath of Khan is so much a story of middle-age, of reckoning up with your past decisions, of personal obsessive revenge born of past intimate conflict.  You can't do that with a twenty-seven-year-old Kirk.

Well, the villain in Into Darkness is Khan (played to psychotic perfection by CumberKhan Smauglock, I mean, Benedict Cumberbatch, who, as far as I can see, can do no wrong), and it works, mostly.  It works because they haven't tried to remake The Wrath of Khan--they've simply snipped out Khan's basic situation (scary-ass superhuman cyrogenically frozen and rocketed into space who is super-pissed at how he and his found-family have been treated) and built a whole new story around it.  It only mostly works because the ins-and-outs of the plot's backstory are a little murky, but that is not a problem that stems from the inclusion of Khan himself.  I leave final judgement on the plot construction until I've seen the movie at least one more time, but after one viewing I've got some questions.

What, exactly, was Admiral Marcus up to?  Was he simply trying to start a war with the Klingons?  Why?  What have the Klingon's done to anyone?  We get a little speech from Marcus about how they've been menacing about, but we haven't actually seen any of that.  Wouldn't the Romulans have been a better choice for that, given the events of the Reboot?  It would be unfair, since Nero was not acting on behalf of the Romulans and was from the future anyway, but the movie trys to set Marcus up as the dude who over-responds to acts of terroism and loses sight of his own values in the process.  Wouldn't that work better if we had direct knowledge of the things he was reacting to?  And what part were Khan and company meant to play in his plot against the Klingons?  At one point I thought when Kirk shot the torpedoes carrying Khan's people at Kronos Marcus meant for the Khanites to wreck so much havoc on the Klingons that the Klingons would no longer be a threat.  But later it appeared that he just meant it to be a provoking act that could not be traced to Starfleet and that would force the Klingons to react, thus sparking the war Marcus wanted while making it look like the Klingons actually started it.  This seems the most likely, but I still don't have the grasp on what Marcus wanted and why he wanted it that I think we need for the plot to sit square with the audience.  There was very little sense, either, of the rest of Starfleet (and Federation?) leadership dragging its feet about responding to the Klingon threat and of Marcus reacting to that.  Surely his little temper tantrum wasn't happening in a political vacuum?

And about that temper tantrum.  It takes the form of a massive base on Jupiter where he's building a gigantic, purely militaristic vessel (in violation of Starfleet's stated mission--exploration and peacekeeping).  Are we supposed to understand that this is a secret?  Or that people know about it but don't know what it really is?  I don't buy that you can hide a massive secret base in the Sol System in Trek-universe--there's too much coming and going (and sensors).  So, is there wide-spread corruption in Starfleet?  If not, how is Marcus accomplishing the building of this base and this ship?  Who are all those other people on his ship?  Where are the repercussions when Kirk and company get back to Earth?  Where are the questions, the inquiries, the paranoia?  "Thanks for ferreting out that rogue admiral, his giant secret base, hugenormous warship, and network of lackeys, Jimmy.  No wuckies here, so take our flagship and disappear into deep space for five years while we just cross our fingers there aren't more wackadoodles with big ol' ships who might try to start a war."  Really?  And Kirk just takes his coveted five-year mission and gets the hell out without stopping to try to tie up the Marcus loose ends or sort out if Section 31 is real, what it's about, or if it's a threat?  Again, I need to see the movie again--perhaps these things are more clear than they appear on the first viewing, but this is the kind of stuff that makes me say the movie isn't quite as good as the Reboot was, or as good as it could have been.

But, for the most part, I really didn't care that much about those plot wobbles--they certainly didn't detract from my enjoyment of the movie as it was unfolding--because it turns out they can do it again.  The fun of the Reboot, the witty dialogue, the humor, and the spot-on characterizations--it's all here again in Into Darkness and is every bit as good.  I will quibble that Bones was muttering around the edges of Kirk and Spock's tight-knit command structure and friendship a bit more than he ought to be, but the character arcs here were all Kirk-and-Spock, so I'll be forgiving on that one, especially since Bones did have some great lines despite not being as much a part of the classic triumvirate dynamic as he was in The Original Series.  I'll further quibble that some characters (Uhura, Chekov) were given things to do for the sake of setting up humorous situations or moments of character interactions rather than because there was any internal logic suggesting they ought to take on those roles.  (The Chief Engineer quits so you put your teenaged navigator into his role?  What, there aren't, like, forty guys down in engineering who have seniority, higher rank, and more experience than Chekov, even if he is a genius and has been shadowing Scotty?  Come on.)  While these moments did kind of irritate me in the moment, they also didn't really detract from my overall enjoyment of the film.  When you get the humor, the banter, and the characters as right as they did, I'm willing to forgive a lot of these kinds of little infelicities.

And now for the bit that made the movie for me: Kirk and Spock and their friendship.  J.J. Abrams et al. get Spock and they get Kirk-and-Spock.  Spock's story is about his struggle to be true to both his Vulcan and his Human sides, and that struggle almost always plays out in his interactions with his friends.  How do you be a friend to a human, for whom friendship inherently entails emotional availability, while remaining true to unemotional Vulcan ways?  If you are not just one or the other but both is it right to allow one half to take over?  Or is the denial of the other half an unhealthy betrayal of who you really are?   The exploration of this struggle in TOS was always about Spock's relationship with Kirk (though other characters--Bones, for one--played a large part in it as well), and I love (love) how they have made this struggle part of the story arc for Into Darkness and kept it about Kirk and Spock even while keeping Uhura in the mix as Spock's girlfriend.  Spock's failure truly to understand why Kirk saved his life at the volcano even though it violated their most important rule, his failure to understand why it's important to feel even negative emotions, and his subsequent epiphany about friendship and what it means were brilliantly portrayed and are classic, classic Trek themes.  All the points ever for making this emotional discovery a major part of the story arc for Into Darkness and all the more points for the astonishing, surprising, brilliant, magnificent  reversal of the unforgettable, quintessential Wrath of Khan scene where Spock declares his friendship for Kirk in his last moments after sacrificing himself to save the ship.  All my hats off to everyone involved in the crafting of this movie for figuring out not only how to get an homage to this moment that everybody knows into this movie but also how to make it a the-same-but-different emotional climax of this movie on its own terms.  Spock admitting that he's completely failing to keep himself from feeling as Jim dies?  I can't even.  Just.  *flails*  (As an aside here: it's very interesting to me that Spock gets to this moment so much earlier in this rebooted universe than he did in the original universe.  Remember all the times Spock wasn't as good a friend as he should have been in TOS? ("The City on the Edge of Forever," anyone?)  Or kind of stumbled around trying something that maybe wasn't the best move?  ("Requiem for Methuselah" comes to mind.)  What is it going to mean for Spock that he's had this moment so much earlier and as an epiphany rather than through a slow realization over many years?  Will he be happier?  Will he never get to a point where he wants to try Kohlinar?  Will he springboard off this moment into a relationship with Uhura that really, really works?  Will they have a passel of little Spuhuras?  Is Kirk going to have a little David with Carol Marcus and name Spock godfather?  Oh, the possibilites are endless.  More films, please.  Or a TV show with this cast?  A girl can dream.)

In addition to loving the hell out of the character development there, Into Darkness gets bonus points from me for three reasons.  First, letting Uhura be badass.  She's still not as badass as the dudes running around the Enterprise (she's not jumping into volcanoes or sacrificing herself for the ship), but she stands up for herself, calls Kirk out for underutilizing her skills as an officer, and faces down a band of angry Klingons on her onesies--and she can do all this because she's smart and capable, not because she's pretty or because she's in a relationship with the first officer or because she's friends with the captain.  Smart and capable.  And as much as I can't get fully behind sending her down into the fray when Spock was fighting Khan (because tactically she is not the best choice), it's still another chance to see her take on a traditionally male action (unflinching, repeated violence in a military setting) without any quibbling about whether she can do it.  And that is cool.  Second, showing us men who embody traditional maleness (they are protective, aggressive, good leaders, skilled fighters, and demonstrate (apparent) sexual prowess) and who also weep unabashedly, unashamedly, and without comment.  The scene where Pike died was especially brilliant--Kirk doesn't just grit his teeth, clench his fists, and go off hell-bent on revenge.  He weeps.  And it is not a failing, not a moment where he just couldn't keep it together, not an excusable lapse because the cause was sufficient.  It's just a natural reaction to his loss.  More of this kind of portrayal of masculinity, please.  Thank you.  Third, for being an action movie whose kickass action hero (Spock) is played by an openly gay actor.  We need to see this just as we need to see openly gay male athletes in major sports.  Slowly, slowly, we may be inching toward the vision of inclusion, equality, and respect Roddenberry tried to show us.  Carry on, Trek.  Carry on. 


  1. It's honestly one of the best sci-fi films I've seen in a while, ever since, well….the ’09 Star Trek. Good review Laura.