Analysis: Star Trek Into Darkness

This is my analysis of Star Trek Into Darkness.  Click here to read my spoiler-free review of the film.

I’ve documented my dislike for 2009’s Star Trek in a couple of places.  But to understand my more in-depth opinions on Star Trek Into Darkness I feel like I should summarize my general feelings about this “reboot;” feelings which carry over into this new film.  The gist of it is this: I wish that they had not chosen to use the time travel/alternate universe story telling device.

They really had three options if they wanted to do a story based on a young Kirk and his crew.  The first option was to simply do a prequel film, set within the timeline and beholden to everything we’d already seen in the various incarnations of Star Trek.  I can completely understand why they chose not to do this.  It would be very restrictive, with 10 films and 28 seasons of television that their prequels would have to respect and fit into.  It would be a chore simply to ensure accuracy, much less to write an enjoyable film within those rules.  And while many fans would surely have loved to see the Kirk that we love in Starfleet Academy, it’s probably for the best that they chose not to go this route.

The best option, in my opinion, would have been to opt for a complete reboot.  They could have just treated it like Batman Begins, which took the characters we know and rewrote them to be whatever they liked, without bothering to relate to any previous incarnation of the story.  (I am not a fan of Batman Begins, but my issues are unrelated to the fact that it’s a clean reboot.)  This would have given J. J. Abrams, who has said that he was never a Star Trek fan, the ability to play around with the universe in any way he liked.  It would be it’s own thing, and could stand alone.

Instead what we were left with was this hybrid, which instead of giving us the best of both worlds has actually given us the worst.  Yes, we have an alternate timeline, which allows the characters to be different, yet they also had to cast actors similar to the originals.  They couldn’t, for instance, have made Spock a woman or made Scotty black, because there is no way that the changes to the timeline could have affected things like that.  In fact, by the time of Into Darkness, we’ve only had about 30 years of divergence from the prime timeline.  This means that everything that happened prior to Nero’s ship emerging from the “lightning storm in space” happened exactly the way it was shown.  Whether that’s the adventures of the NX-01, or the events of Star Trek: First Contact, everything was the same until Nero’s ship appeared.

I understand why the time travel/alternate universe scenario was appealing.  It allowed Leonard Nimoy to play Spock (something any Trekkie would be happy about), it gives the movie some added weight by tying it into the existing Trek history, and it allows them leeway to rewrite events as they see fit (killing Kirk’s father, destroying Vulcan, etc.).  But this creates so many more problems than the benefits that it offers that I wish they’d chosen something else.  So without further ado, let’s get to Into Darkness, where be warned THERE ARE SPOILERS AHEAD!

So, the obvious place to start is with the inclusion of Khan in Into Darkness.  Many of the plot holes and such have been covered in other places (see this article at Entertainment Weekly, for example), so I’ll mostly steer clear of those.  Though EW is right in wondering why a Starfleet Admiral would need to revive someone who has been asleep for 200 years in order to build weapons (even considering his superior intellect).  But with Khan is where the alternate timeline fails.

The filmmakers went to great lengths to cast an Enterprise crew that resembled the one from the 60s, both in voice and appearance.  It makes sense, given their rules, because the timeline split shouldn’t have altered that.  However, they break their own rules by casting a caucasian Brit as Khan.  I like Benedict Cumberbatch as much as the next non-Sherlock-obsessed person.  But Khan is described in the shooting script for “Space Seed” (his first appearance) as being of North Indian ancestry and is played by Ricardo Montalban, a Mexican.  Considering that the events of Khan’s rule on Earth happened long before the timeline split, Khan should still have looked and sounded like he did while being portrayed by Montalban.

A pure reboot would have allowed for the casting of Cumberbatch with no problems, but the continuity that they created for the films doesn’t allow for it.  Perhaps if they had gone with their original casting choice of Benicio Del Toro, things might have gone a little better, though that wouldn’t have helped the script.  Khan, in “Space Seed” and in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, was a brilliant tactician, and a formidable warrior.  He was a passionate leader, who had once ruled a quarter of the globe.  He could be charming and charismatic or ruthless and powerful depending on the circumstances.  He was never, as he describes himself in Into Darkness, a savage.  I also have a hard time seeing him as a terrorist.

His motivations in the film are also mostly unexplored, in a way that makes him less interesting.  Obviously he cares about his “family” and wants to see them awakened and returned to him, but his methods make no sense.  He flees to Kronos, hiding the cryotubes inside missiles, and hopes that Kirk will disobey orders and not fire the missiles at him.  At this point Khan has never met Kirk, and we are never given any indication as to why he trusted Kirk enough to risk the deaths of his fellow supersoldiers.  My point is, generally there was nothing about this Khan that required the character to be Khan at all.  The film could just have easily been served by creating a new villain, and it would have changed nothing substantial about it.  In fact, if they had wanted to reference Khan, why not have “John Harrison” be simply a member of Khan’s group, on a quest to awaken his leader (leaving Khan for a future movie).  Especially when you consider all the secrecy and misdirection that was put out, trying to make people figure out whether Cumberbatch was playing Khan at all, it just made it all kind of a waste.

This goes back to the reboot idea, but the filmmakers need to decide whether they want these new movies to stand on their own.  I actually feel like the first film did a better job in this regard, at least attempting to integrate the established franchise into their story while trying to “do their own thing.”  Into Darkness could have blazed its own trail, telling new stories with familiar characters, but instead it whitewashed a familiar villain and repossessed entire scenes from Wrath of Khan.  The entire sequence when Kirk sacrifices himself felt unnecessary.

Why did the writers choose to include such an copy of Wrath of Khan?  I understand why they thought it would be clever to reverse the roles and switch Spock and Kirk, but I don’t get why they felt the need to include such a direct recreation of the scene.  The first time around, Spock’s sacrifice helped Kirk to grow, and to confront a situation he’d never acknowledged.  The dialogue reflected this, with Spock helping to prepare Kirk for what he’s about to face.  “Do not grieve, it is logical,” he said.  This time around Kirk dies saving the ship, and Spock is supposed to learn a lesson in humanity and friendship, to understand why Kirk couldn’t just let Spock die in the volcano in the beginning of the film.  It’s certainly emotional for us to watch Spock get in touch with his human side, but then to have him scream out “Khaaaaan!” in an homage to William Shatner’s scream from Wrath of Khan made the whole thing entirely silly.  It made the entire scene feel like parody, especially when you know that Kirk will be alive again before the end of the film.

The question that kept floating through my head as I watched it was simply, “Why?”  Why did the writers go to all that trouble to duplicate a scene and situation from a 30 year old film, particularly such a famous scene?  Why not come up with an original way for the characters to grow instead of just repeating something we’ve seen before?  Reusing something like that does not make the scene more meaningful; it makes it less.  If I wanted to watch scenes from Wrath of Khan, I’d just go watch Wrath of Khan, which is a far better movie anyway.

I feel like the two new Star Trek films are trying so hard to be their own thing but then seem afraid to truly let loose and do something different.  Early in the film, the Enterprise is trying to save the indigenous population of a planet by stopping a volcanic eruption.  When Kirk flies the Enterprise over the heads of the natives, Spock gives him a lecture on the Prime Directive, to which Kirk basically replies, “Who cares?”  Kirk’s point is that his friend is more important to him than any rules.

I understand where they’re trying to go with this, but the original Kirk had a different attitude than this one does.  “But this Kirk had a different life and is therefore different than the original!” you might say.  I agree with that but the writers seem to have a constant internal struggle over how to balance the classic with the new.  The whole rescue sequence and its dialogue felt like an intentional insult to fans of classic Trek, like they were saying, “all of that stuff you cared about, that characters would sit around debating?  Yeah, none of that is important and it’s all actually kind of silly.”

It was like they were spitting on the idea of a Prime Directive at all.  Of course, Star Trek isn’t Star Trek without the Prime Directive, and I don’t have much interest in watching the story of a Starfleet without rules, but I could at least respect them for being bold.  Yet ten minutes later Kirk gets lectured about the Prime Directive from Pike, and it’s almost as if the writers are backtracking on their boldness.  In the end we’re left with the impression that there are rules and the rules are important, but that the “cool kids” can just disregard them whenever they please.  Picard spent lots of time debating the Prime Directive over 7 seasons, and the times he violated it were never easy decisions.  Kirk was, of course, a different sort of captain than Picard, but even he had a respect for the rules, and broke them when they needed to be broken, not simply when he wanted them to be.

As for the characterization of Kirk in these new movies, I actually find him to be rather off putting.  Obviously we’re still seeing him grow into a leader, but his attitude is such that it sometimes makes him unappealing to watch.  His relations with women are particularly bad.  I know the original Kirk was quite the ladies’ man, but he was never such a womanizer.  The new Kirk is kind of a douche, and the idea that he would be allowed to command the Federation flagship is more than a little insulting.  When you combine Kirk’s attitude with Uhura being reduced to Spock’s girlfriend (particularly appalling considering the character’s importance in TV history and Nichelle Nichols’s performance) and the especially gratuitous shots of women in their underwear in both films (read the writer’s response here), you come away with a picture of women that is in stark contrast to what Star Trek stands for.  Women in Star Trek were sexually liberated adults, not objects of teenage boys’ drool.  (Here’s a good article about that.)

This feeds into my main complaint with the new Star Trek films, and it’s one that many people have voiced.  These movies don’t seem to be about anything.  There’s no greater depth to the universe.  Star Trek’s exploration of big ideas and deep characters is what set it apart from the other science fiction stories out there.  Obviously this is more obvious in the TV episodes than the films, which tend to be more action oriented, but even the films were deeper than what we have now.  Into Darkness is so crammed full of quips, explosions, bone crunching fights and lens flares that there seems to be no time for anything else.  It makes the new films seem hopelessly shallow.

Over the weekend I watched Star Trek II-IV, and was struck by something.  Into Darkness runs 20 minutes longer than Wrath of Khan, yet it feels like there’s less in it.  So much happens in the movie, yet none of it seems to matter much.  It’s all sound and fury, signifying nothing.  Wrath of Khan is slowly paced, with only two real action sequences, and even those are equally slowly paced.  What we get instead is dialogue and character development, with ruminations on old age, life and death, revenge, and how we find a balance within ourselves.  The original Star Trek movies were about something, something more than just plot.  This is a problem not just limited to the new Star Trek films, but Star Trek was always supposed to stand out from the rest.  Gene Roddenberry had no reservations about daring to be different.  I’ll touch upon this issue a bit more in this week’s Friday Favorite, but needless to say it’s disappointing to see Star Trek reduced to an action extravaganza.

There’s a lot more I could talk about, from Admiral Marcus’s plot to start a war to the generally vengeful attitude of Starfleet.  I could complain about the ridiculous product placement, which makes no sense in Star Trek’s socialism economy.  As I said earlier, I’m going to just ignore the plot holes, because others have covered it better than I could (magic blood!).  Allow me in closing just to say this.  I actually enjoy watching these new movies.  They’re mildly entertaining for a couple of hours, and I have no problem with people liking them.  There’s always a place in the summer movie season for a diverting action/special effects film.

However, these films have effectively killed off classic Trek.  We’re never going to get any more sequels to the Next Generation era of stories, or a resurrection of the unfairly cancelled Enterprise prequel series.  The success of these films have effectively established the alternate universe as the only setting for Star Trek stories for the foreseeable future.  And what I can not forgive is that the name of Star Trek is being wasted on movies that are so much beneath its promise.  If we’re only going to get one incarnation of Star Trek for the future, than it needs to do much better than it has.  Let someone else make loud, action-focused, plot-hole-ridden, shallow popcorn movies that objectify women.  Star Trek should be better than that.  It has to be better than that.

What do you think?  Was this post way too long?  Am I taking this all too seriously?  Should I just get with the times?  Should I console myself with the thought that these new movies might lead people to real Star Trek?  Do I come off sounding like a grumpy old man, yelling at kids to get off my lawn?  Anyone care to make an impassioned defense of the new films?  Hit me up in the comments!

27 thoughts on “Analysis: Star Trek Into Darkness

  1. Pingback: Review: Star Trek Into Darkness | Love Pirate's Ship's Log

  2. “Why did the writers go to all that trouble to duplicate a scene and situation from a 30 year old film, particularly such a famous scene? Why not come up with an original way for the characters to grow instead of just repeating something we’ve seen before?” –This is what I’m talking about when I say it felt like fan fic. (Only usually the fan fic adds something like a happier ending or a sex scene or, ya know, something.)

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  4. You have valid points about the reboot but your “analysis” seems very limited to this one point. In fact everything in your analysis has the undercurrent of backing up your opinion that the alternate timeline was a mistake. There is no critique of the acting, directing, character developement, etc.

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    • I covered acting, directing and character development in my review. My analyses are more to cover the topics I want to discuss in more depth than just in a standard review. As for it being my opinion, well of course it is. I spent most of my Iron Man 3 analysis discussing Tony Stark’s character development, and didn’t spend much time on anything else. So I’d suggest you check out my review for my thoughts (somewhat simplified) on acting, directing, etc. Thanks for your comment!

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  6. This movie is not about what it appears to be on the surface. There are many subliminal messages underneath all of its symbolisms. The message here concerns the advancement of the human race out of the Kali Yuga or “dark ages” of spiritual depravity. It concerns “The Great Year” – a 26,000 year cycle where humans move from a “Golden Age” of spiritual advancement (living in harmony with the planet and each other) into an age of spiritual depravity or darkness (Bronze or Metal Ages) and back again (which is where we’re headed now). This movie is an attempt to subconsciously suspend our movement out of Darkness. Khan’s people in this movie and in the original Star Trek episode “Space Seed” number 72 in all. This is an astronomical number. Every 72 years we progress 1 degree towards completing the 26,000 year cycle of the Great year. This is a lot more explaining to do but this is a start.

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  9. My main problems with INTO DARKNESS has more to do with the representation of the main characters. I’m a bit tired of seeing James Kirk portrayed like a pouty, spoiled high school boy. I know he is supposed to be the young rebellious Kirk, but honestly, I wouldn’t trust this Kirk with the keys to my car, let alone the keys to a Star Ship. I’m also bugged by the lack of any real sense of Star Fleet as a real military organization. Gene Roddenberry was in the Army Air Corps and flew missions in the Pacific theater during WWII and understood how to write for military personnel, JJ Abrams basically went to college and into movie writing. That’s why his Star Trek characters all talk like high school and college kids rather than as military officers on a mission. Also explains why the scenes between Spock and Uhura feels more like they were written for an episode of Felicity. This lack of gravitas makes everyone – except for Cumberbatch who I thought gave the best performance in the movie – all seem like trivial and foolish people as opposed to real future explorers, and thus robs us of a sense of truth and believability. Thanks

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    • Those are all very good points. I think Abrams wasn’t interested in being true to the characters, which is part of why he went with the alternate timeline plot device. It “allows” him to do whatever he want and justify it by saying it’s a different timeline. I agree about pouty, spoiled high school Kirk. I don’t find him interesting at all. (I complained about Kirk’s portrayal in particular in this post, though with regards to one specific example: https://lovepirate77.wordpress.com/2013/05/10/friday-favorites-favorite-scene-star-trek-ii-the-wrath-of-khan/ ) I also think the new series is very inconsistent with the way it shows the Federation and Starfleet. I wouldn’t categorize classic Trek (or Next Generation) as military, but the universe had a vision to it that the new films lack.
      Thanks for the comment!

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  10. Correction on HarriKhan’s plan; when he fled to Qo’noS, he supposedly had no idea his crew were still alive. He’d hid them in the torpedoes, been found out, assumed they’d been killed, and thus decided to fuck Starfleet’s shit up. Why he thought they were dead when Marcus apparently didn’t bother to remove the crew from the torpedoes and might not have even known about them is never explained, nor is it explained why a supposed super-genius didn’t think to add more torpedoes so it wasn’t as blatantly obvious that he was trying to smuggle his crew out.

    According to an interview with the writers, they originally wrote the script without John Harrison actually being Khan, but when they finished, they realized that he fit perfectly into the villain role. Which just boggles me, because the only essential thing John Harrison has in common with Khan is being an Augment, and as Enterprise showed, it’s perfectly possibly to write a story with Augment villains without making one of them Khan.

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    • I think you’re exactly right. There are plenty of ways to tell an Augment story without it having to be Khan. It felt like Khan was chosen simply to get people talking, and as a way to allow them to put in all of the callbacks to Star Trek II, but without anything interesting to say about the characters. Thanks for the comment!

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