Posted by: Trey | 05/16/2013

“You think you’re safe. You are not. Is there anything you would not do for your family?”

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

 

Confession: I am a Trekkie. Not a “Trekker,” or whatever the hip fans call themselves these days. I’m an old school Trekkie, and it is as a Trekkie that I say that Star Trek into Darkness is Good Trek. It hits all the right notes, and the cast proves that their ability to take on the iconic roles of the Enterprise crew was not a fluke in 2009. Moreover, Star Trek Into Darkness manages to walk the line between escapist entertainment and social commentary much like the original TV series did, but that other Trek movies rarely accomplish.

If I had any criticisms of Star Trek (2009), it was this:  The villain was not particularly memorable, and by necessity the bigger picture took a backseat to the internal conflict of the crew getting to know each other. As a sequel, Into Darkness mostly alleviates this problem. Benedict Cumberbatch delivers a fantastic performance as John Harrison, and demands the audience’s full attention in every scene he has. While the crew is established following the events of the first movie, the script manages to work in some conflict between characters without straining credibility. Also, the addition of Peter Weller and Alice Eve in key roles is more than welcome – although I wish Eve was given more to do.

While the first film played a sort of ‘getting the band together’ game and took its time with the revised origins of the ship and its crew, Into Darkness assumes that you know Trek – or at least have seen the first film – and hits the ground running. The script still takes the time to briefly explain things when necessary, such as a crash course in the Prime Directive early in the film, but overall the story is presented as a continuation with no stopping for drawn-out recaps of earlier events. There are also frequent references and allusions to characters and stories from other versions of Star Trek which, while fun for fans like me to catalog, come so quickly that they shouldn’t call undue attention to themselves for those not “in the know.” Moreover, Into Darkness latches onto, and plays with, the idea of what it means for the Enterprise crew to be a kind of family. This, more than almost anything else, is a theme I associate with Classic Trek and, in particular, the Classic Trek films. In addition, the film tackles issues of preemptive war, due process, and most directly the question of military expansion versus scientific exploration. Granted, most of these topics are only touched on, but did anyone really expect a preachy, didactic monologue in the middle of a summer blockbuster? That these issues are invoked at all is surprising, considering the pure escapism of Star Trek (2009), and it suggests a return to the kind of social commentary which defined the original series, albeit adapted to contemporary blockbuster sensibilities. This all feeds into the big picture conflict missing from the previous film, and gives the plot much higher stakes.

However, Into Darkness never loses sight of the (apologies to Mr. Spock) human element. To invert Mr. Spock’s saying from the original film series, the needs of the one DO outweigh the needs of the many. The crew’s obligations to each other are familial, and they go beyond duty or regulations. This comes directly from Classic Trek – for example Spock risking his career and life to help Commodore Pike in The Menagerie, Kirk disobeying orders to save Spock in Amok Time, and the entirety of Star Trek III all show the crew placing personal relationships above regulations and, in the process, reveal the distinction that can be made between doing what is appropriate or expected and doing what is right.

This is not to say that the film is perfect. As I said, Alice Eve really doesn’t get much to do aside from look pretty and provide a few bits of key exposition. Into Darkness at times feels episodic. This could be in part due to Abrams’s TV background, but I think it is also because Star Trek is by nature episodic. Virtually every film installment has played essentially like a feature-length addition to the various TV series. Whether that is a negative depends on the criteria you use to measure the film. To me, it is simply part of the Trek formula. However, I do think the closing scenes could have done a little more to emphasize how the events of the film have changed and affected them. The information is there, but some of it is perhaps too subtextual and reliant on viewers’ pre-understanding of the characters. Also, there are a couple of moments in the last third of the film which, while not inappropriate, are such deliberate callbacks to earlier Trek that I could only experience their emotional impact in terms of the plot AFTER recognizing them as references or quotations. Does that make these moments forced? That’s debatable; they are appropriate to the scenes in which they appear, but there is no escaping that they are also clearly designed to remind fans of other Trek installments. That’s a fine line to walk, and for the most part I think Into Darkness does it well. But there is a case to be made for at least two moments that take things a little beyond homage. As fun as the film was, I do hope that in the next film the writers are comfortable enough with the characters and franchise to develop a wholly original story for the characters rather than relying so heavily on existing plot lines.

Measured against the rest of the Star Trek franchise, Into Darkness is a solid entry in the long-running series. It is not the best Trek film of all time (oh boy is that a post for another time), but it shows the revived franchise taking another step in the right direction.

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Responses

  1. Great review. You hit on a lot of things that I felt while watching and thinking about it afterward.

    Do you really feel like every Trek movie is an extended episode? Because the only one that feels that way to me is Insurrection. Maaaaybe The Undiscovered Country if I’m feeling generous. That’s actually one of my big gripes about some of the movies; they’re clearly features and bring along with them certain movie trappings. Not all of them, mind you, but at least 3 of them come to mind. The Voyage Home, First Contact, and Nemesis suffered a lot in that regard.

    Aaaaaaanyways…I loved Into Darkness. Having really hated the ’09 Trek, I can’t tell you how relieved and pumped up I was leaving the theater this time. Most of the really shitty science is gone (minus the entire beginning), and the main characters are given a lot of room to breathe.

    I can understand if some people don’t like the way they shook up old plot lines, but I thought it was brilliant. Seeing characters and roles switched around and an entirely different story based on previous entries worked extremely well. I agree, there are a few parts that I could have done without, but nothing seriously derailed the experience for me.

    • Thanks! Yeah, I probably over-generalized in saying that Trek movies are by nature episodic, and for those that are or aren’t it isn’t always a clear-cut good or bad thing. I do think in terms of story structure they usually owe a lot to the series’ TV roots though. But the best Trek movies are the ones that remind me of the series not for nuts-and-bolts structural/narrative reasons, but for thematic reasons. For example I actually have come to really like The Motion Picture (especially the director’s cut) in spite of its many problems, because it really does tackle the sort of questions about humanity and exploration that I associate with the best of the original series.

      • Oh, I think The Motion Picture is really good. It’s not my favorite, but it’s not the boring snooze fest a lot of people complain about. It’s slower paced, but so is a lot of older, great sci-fi. Hell, Robert Wise also directed The Andromeda Strain, which I love.

        Yea, in that light, I know what you mean about the movies and the series. Out of every Trek movie ever made, the only one I really hate is The Voyage Home. Just….argh, everything about it is awful and dated. The moment they set foot in modern times, it becomes more about the fish out of water experience than whatever else the story is about.

        I’ll stop, because I could just complain about that movie all day.

      • Hahaha I actually enjoy The Voyage Home, although it probably feels least like Classic Trek. An aside: I adore The Andromeda Strain. Really good film, and the novel is my favorite by Michael Crichton.

      • Have you seen the newer version of Andromeda Strain? I think it’s a mini-series or something. Pretty sure it came out in the 2000s. I’ve been curious about it for a while.

      • It is a miniseries – I remember when it came out, but I haven’t seen it. I recall hearing that they made some significant changes to the story.

      • Hmm, that’s fine with me as long as it’s cool. I’ll see if I can find it.


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