If the 2009 Star Trek achieved anything it was finding an excellent cast to continue the adventures of the old crew in new times. But now the crew has been established, can Into Darkness find a way forward for them?
Pre-Existing Prejudices: All together now: KKKkhhhhaaaaannnnnn! Yes, it’s the most notorious of the three Abramsverse movies, and probably the most controversial. There are accusations of whitewashing, with Ricardo Montalban’s charismatic take being replaced by This Year’s Thing, Benedict Cumberbatch. There’s sexism, with the gratuitous Carol-Marcus-in-underwear scene. There’s the… well, actually is it plagiarism of The Wrath Of Khan? Not really I guess, since it’s an intentional reinterpretation of those events. Eh, anyway, it’s that movie.
What’s It All About, JG?
Kirk and co piddle about in a minor save-the-locals story which ends up with Kirk losing command of the Enterprise because he broke the Prime Directive. Fortunately, John Harrison has launched a one-man war against the Federation to drag Kirk back into action – firstly by blowing up an apparently-innocent archive, then assassinating a bunch of captains and first officers before (sigh) beaming himself to Kronos, the Klingon homeworld. Kirk pursues with orders to kill but instead captures Harrison who – brace for the surprise absolutely everyone and their granny knew was coming – turns out to be Khan, a genetically-engineered superman frozen in cryosleep but awoken by Admiral Marcus. The admiral is trying to provoke a war with the Klingons he thinks is coming anyway, and is using this as an excuse for a strike. His ship attacks the Enterprise which struggles back to Earth and which Kirk is able to save but at the cost of his life. Spock goes off the deep end at this and pursues Khan and beats him to a no-score draw while Kirk is revived by Khan’s blood or something. Anyway, they’re all OK at the end.
Any Other Business:
- As a piece of anti-colonial legislation, the Prime Directive is a good idea. Don’t interfere in other planets or cultures, because we’re more than likely going to fuck it up. Fine. Learning from history, great. But when that extends to “let a bunch of innocent primitives die even though we could actually save them but won’t because reasons” it’s shit. Imagine how much less damage would have been done in the pre-credits sequence if Kirk had been able to just help but without all that faffing about with secrecy and hiding the Enterprsie underwater.
- Oh right, the Enterprise underwater. Not a great idea.
- Kirk gets busted down to first officer and Pike is reinstated as the Enterprise’s captain. So that’s him doomed then…
- Oh hey it’s Mickey off of Doctor Who! He gives an almost wordless performance, but he’s good, is Noel Clarke. And he joins the relatively small cadre of actors who have appeared in both Doctor Who and Star Trek (see also: Pegg, Simon)
- The “contrive a way to get everyone in one place, then open fire from a ship outside the window” beat is lifted wholesale from the Voyager episode “Alliances”.
- Yes, about that. Admiral Marcus’s plan is that Harrison/Khan (look I’m just gonna call him Khan from now on. The Harrison persona wasn’t even convincing prior to the movie’s release, never mind now) will open fire into a room full of senior personnel and take them out. Well, Ok, whatever. But… he’s in that room? He must have a lot of faith in Khan’s ability to not hit him, especially since as far as we can see Khan opens fire at point-blank range and at random.
- I like Kirk taking him out with a fire-hose though, that’s funny and inventive, and a smart piece of characterisation for Kirk as he’s the only one to figure out how to bring down Khan’s ship.
- Khan beams himself to Kronos. Bull. Shit. But also, maybe Old Spock from the last movie might have considered what introducing tech like that into a time that’s 100 years prior to his own might actually do? Or did he think that because they seem to have gotten away with the whole “transparent aluminum” wheeze from The Voyage Home that it’ll be fine? Stupid, Spock. Stupid.
- Scotty won’t sign for something. Dramatic! But it gets him out the way so he can find the dreadnaught ship later, so OK.
- Remember last movie when I said how nice it was to be able to bask in actually seeing the sets? That didn’t last long.
- The fight on Kronos (both the ship chase and the fisticuffs) is really good though, and it’s nice to see Uhura’s language skills be used for more than a couple of cheap laughs. And Khan’s surrender at the end of it is genuinely unexpected and effective.
- Then we get two big reveals for the price of one! Harrison is (shock!) Khan, and the rest of his crew are in the 72 torpedoes that Scotty wouldn’t sign for earlier. I’m not totally sold on this in the “Admiral Marcus thought it was a good idea” sense, but the subversion of this later in the movie – Khan demands the return of the torpedoes, Spock returns them and with perfect honesty says he has done so (but not the crew inside) then detonates them to destroy the dreadnaught – is a really smart piece of writing. It’s great to see our heroes actually figure shit out rather than relying on punching or shooting things (though we get that too), or wave after wave of bafflegab. Spock outthinks Khan, pure and simple.
- I should probably say something about Carol Marcus, who is in this. Right, well that’s that done then. She’s not much of a presence, neither bad nor especially noticeable. The underwear scene is gratuitous, though she’s at least allowed to be seen as intelligent enough to do the torpedo surgery and makes a real effort to try and save the ship later on. Turns out her daddy isn’t that fussed if she lives or dies, and for all the impact the character has on this movie, that’s not a completely unfair judgement. Tellingly, she wont be back in Beyond.
- More lifting! The flying-through-space scene is an expanded version of what happens to Data in Nemesis.
- Once again, not one other ship appears to be anywhere in the vicinity of Earth to help out the Enterprise.
- Well I guess we had better do the reverse-Kkkkhhhaaannn (not as fun as it sounds). It’s not Quinto’s finest moment in the movie, not least because he plays it straight whereas in the original Kirk is hamming it up for Khan’s benefit. He does his best, though it’s doubtful anyone could have pulled that off.
- One way that Into Darkness scores over The Wrath Of Khan is we actually get to see what’s done in order to save the ship. In the original, Spock fiddled about inside a tube thing and ta-da! Engines back on line! Here we get to see the toll saving the ship physically and mentally takes on Kirk as he tries to realign the warp core (the lone time the Engineering-as-power-plant works since the scale feels appropriate) and not just the aftermath. Pine’s great in these scenes, and if the Kirk-dies is a reversal of Spock-dies then we do at least get some great chemistry during the death scene between him and Quinto.
- Cameo from Leonard Nimoy! *shrugs* He doesn’t need to be in this, he shouldn’t be in this. He got a solid exit last movie out, that was enough.
- Then Khan crashes into San Francisco and it all goes a bit… silly, really. Yes, even by Star Trek standards. I understand that they didn’t want to have exactly the same conclusion as The Wrath Of Khan, and the effects work here is really good, but it’s also… I dunno. Daft, but not in an especially compelling way. And when we end up with a Donkey Kong fight as Khan and Spock jump between flying ships the laws of physics (momentum, specifically) take more of a pounding than even sodding transwarp transporters could provide.
- Kirk being saved in this movie, rather than hanging it over to the next one, as per The Search For Spock, is the correct move. I mean, he didn’t need to be killed off or anything, but since he was…
- And then Kirk gets the ship back and they’re off on the five-year mission! Oh, is that… not what they were on in the pre-credits sequence? Well Ok then…
There is a slight insecurity that lurks in the heart of all three Abramsverse movies, and none of them demonstrate it more than the gnomically-titled Into Darkness. All of the movies in this timeline desperately want to be their own thing – bright new adventures, bright new cast, bright new effects – but they seem unable to commit to completely cutting the cord that connects them to TOS. The most obvious manifestation of this is the inclusion of Nimoy’s Spock, lurking over the first two movies as an ever-present reminder that this is not the original. Nimoy’s Spock isn’t especially required for either film and his inclusion here is especially gratuitous. “Have you met Khan before?” Quinto’s Spock asks him. “Yup, and we kicked his ass, though I’m not really supposed to tell you how, though I will” Nimoy’s Spock replies. It’s… not helpful. Even putting aside this film as remodelling of The Wrath Of Khan, the exchange adds nothing beyond a hey-it’s-Nimoy cameo and it actively undermines Qunito’s Spock. He should have been allowed to work out the torpedo thing entirely by himself, so we have faith that this version of the character is just as wily (he didn’t lie even if he wasn’t exactly forthcoming) and smart as the original. But no. Instead we must refer back to the original as if it were a comfort blanket for the new series of movies. They want to be their own thing but still need to wrap themselves in the shroud of TOS. The manifestation of that insecurity – not just in Nimoy’s presence – provides a gravity from which the Abramsverse movies really struggle to escape.
Which is a shame, because despite its heavy reliance on The Wrath Of Khan as its source material – not that The Wrath Of Khan was a paragon of originality either – there’s a genuinely compelling moral argument going on at the heart of Into Darkness which neither of the movies either side of it have. This movie is actually about something in the way that neither the 2009 movie nor Beyond is, and in that it is, of the three Abramsverse movies, the one that actually comes closest to invoking the real spirit of TOS. What we have here is a take on the then-current political climate, dressed up in sci-fi drag, and set off into the world with a bunch of shiny spaceships and explosions. Even if the character played by Benedict Cumberbatch was actually John Harrison rather than Khan this would function. Admiral Marcus’s attempts to provoke a war “for the greater good” obviously has connotations to the Bush Whitehouse in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and by picking an enemy like the Klingons, who are not shown to be active aggressors here but rather a convenient symbol/target, we also get a Bush-era appropriate deflection. Marcus himself is an easy stand in for a Dick Cheney-style uber-hawk – not quite at the top of the tree (allowing just enough wiggle room for plausible deniability) but able to wield power with what amounts to no oversight in pursuit of his goals. And of course, he’s in command of a massive military he can apparently control as if it were his private army.
All of this puts him in direct line with post-9/11 politics and naturally at odds with what it is the Federation stands for. Where this becomes interesting is that the film is quite prepared to show the attractiveness of this approach. The death of Pike gives Kirk some very real, very personal stakes in bringing down Khan so when he’s given orders to go kill him – even inside enemy territory and at the cost of potentially starting a war – Kirk goes along with it, blinded by his grief and using duty as a cover for it. The allure of revenge is powerful and the film actively shows how easy it is to slip from decency to moral failure, especially when being led by the siren song of “doing the right thing” and “avenging the fallen”. The parallels with the Bush era couldn’t really be clearer.
But alongside this the film also uses this approach to really build the relationship between Kirk and Spock. For much of the last film and for the Big Demotion in this one Spock has been shown to be rigid and inflexible, a pain in Kirk’s ass. So when he starts bleating on about how sending a Starfleet officer on a mission of murder goes against everything they are supposed to stand for it’s easy to dismiss his point of view. Damn Vulcan, picking points when there’s some fightin’ to be done! And the audience is actively encouraged to read it that way and side with Kirk, who wants to head out and bang heads together. But, ultimately, Spock’s words do get through to him. Kirk can’t, in the end, blindly go on a murder mission, and Spock reaching the decent man inside Kirk allows their relationship and mutual respect to build while at the same time aligning with Star Trek’s broader philosophy – hate cannot be allowed to win, and it is by staying true to their beliefs rather than abandoning them for revenge that Kirk and Spock are able to defeat Marcus, revealing his deception over Khan. “Well shit, you talked to him,” says a resigned Marcus after Kirk informs him that he knows it’s Khan, not Harrison, that’s languishing in the brig. The gig’s up. Kirk comes to rely on Spock’s moral judgement and Spock learns to trust Kirk will do the right thing – exactly as their relationship should be characterised. By holding true to Star Trek’s moral core, and by showing us (not telling us or pre-establishing) Kirk and Spock coming to respect each other, we get the development and growth we need to really give the movie purpose.
Well, in theory. The problem is that Into Darkness (and again, this is hardly a unique sin for a Star Trek movie) badly needs a script editor. Like, really badly. Because everything in the last paragraph is true, but the script is just incredibly muddled in the way it tries to deliver any of its thematic points. They’re all there, just somewhere short of clarity and whole galaxies away from being properly articulated. And what gets in the way, absolutely every time, is The Wrath Of Khan. Even putting aside my own antipathy to that movie, when Into Darkness tries to replicate points from that movie it stumbles and falls, and when it embraces its own sense of being it manages to be much better. This movie would have been substantially improved if Harrison really had been Harrison rather than a poorly-thought-out attempt to obscure his real identity. A disillusioned Federation citizen who decided to take matters into their own hands. Or just someone in the military in cahoots with Marcus. It would remove the most derivative elements of this film, tighten the script up, and give Benedict Cumberbatch the chance to actually invest in a new character rather than being hamstrung by an old one.
Cumberbatch, for what it’s worth, is fine here. It’s hardy his most measured performance, but then against it’s hardly a role that calls for any kind measure. He’s most effective when doing cold fury or simply taunting the various people around him, and least effective when going for growling over-the-top scenery chewing. And he has enough screen presence to hold himself well against the rest of the cast. Khan is allowed a degree of honour (of sorts) and openly admits he’s assisting Marcus simply because he’s being blackmailed by dint of Marcus holding the rest of his crew hostage. He’s as manipulated in Kirk in all of this, leading to their uneasy alliance as they board the dreadnaught, a nice change for the character that gets away from boring power-lust for its own sake. It’s not enough to make him a sympathetic character but it also adds to our understanding of him or, in other words, it gives the character a degree of motivation beyond “generic nutter”.
As for the whole whitewashing conversation, replacing Montalban’s non-white version of the character with the none-more-whiter Cumberbatch… in the end there’s just not a lot to the debate. Complaints about whitewashing only really hold if the original was ever anything more than a cut-and-paste “exotic foreigner” and he simply wasn’t. The Khan of “Space Seed” is just a shifty-foreigner cliché and The Wrath Of Khan makes no effort to expand on that. The strength of Montalban’s performance almost always occludes this, but Khan was never in any meaningful sense a non-white character at all and had no traits, culture or way of being presented that in any way suggested he was more than This Week’s Bad Guy – he even read the same books as Kirk, not dignified with a single volume that didn’t come from the Great White Liberal Arts Tradition™. Khan could have been played by anyone in the 1960’s and now in the 2010’s he has been. These movies generally do pretty well when it comes to race, with a massively expanded role for Uhura and lightly expanded roles for Sulu and Chekov so it’s tough to sell the films as especially problematic in terms of their presentation of race, and equally the optics of having your terrorist be a non-white character might not be the best look given the political areas the film wades into. Ultimately, Cumberbatch makes a decent if comparatively unremarkable Khan and it works for the film and beyond that there’s really very little to say.
The rest of the supporting cast are pretty great. Special props, naturally, to Peter Weller as Admiral Robocop. Erm, Marcus. He’s a great choice for the role, gruffly authoritative in a way that’s easy to buy and he has a natural authority about him. He’s got a nice line in relaxed charisma as well that makes it easy to see why Kirk would buy into what he’s selling after Pike’s death. That’s really important – the death of Kirk’s mentor is shown to have a real emotional impact on him, so when Marcus uses that as a way of manipulating Kirk into his murder mission its necessary to have someone with the force of personality to pull that off without it simply seeming like Kirk has to do it because he’s following orders. And crucially, just before the attack, Marcus gives Kirk the chance to speak up in the meeting and listen to him despite his demotion so Marcus has already shrewdly given Kirk a reason to invest in him. It’s a really deft piece of characterisation, and Weller’s excellent at delivering on it. Even his resignation once his plans are revealed at the end sits well with him, a sort of I-thought-this-might-happen and his death – his head crushed by an enraged Khan – is a suitably nasty ending for the character. Throughout the film Weller constantly refines his performance and he easily proves to be the most memorable villain of the three Abramsverse movies.
For the rest, everyone is fine. In fact, occasional over-the-top Cumberbatch moments aside (and they’re mostly just funny rather than bad) everyone is pretty on-point here. As Carol Marcus, Alice Eve is probably the weakest link here – not bad as such, but a bit miscast. She’s a bit difficult to buy as a scientist – Bibi Besch wasn’t amazing in the original role either, but she had a certain stern mumsy-ness about her that at least gave her a bit of authority, like she might actually have some idea of what she was talking about. Eve is perky and bright, which is fine, but struggles to sound that convincing when asked to deliver anything more than go-there-do-that lines. She also has to contend with the indignity of having to unexpectedly peel off her clothes in a shuttlecraft, which needs to be addressed.
It’s not hard to understand why the scene is there. It’s trying to key into another element of TOS, demonstrating Kirk’s horndog tendencies and giving us a bit of on-screen flesh to look at. Except it’s not 1967 any more. The rest of the Abramsverse movies generally do a good job of keeping close to TOS while updating things for the 2010’s, but this is one clanging exception. I mean, Kirk’s horndog tendencies have already been established, and it’s worth pointing out that there’s much more flesh on display in the 2009 movie but handled with much less prurience. If you simply had to have this scene in this movie – which you don’t – then it would be easy to cut around it, with Kirk taking a crafty peek but holding on Kirk’s raised eyebrows, say, rather than cutting back to Eve looking like a lingerie model (she even strikes a pose, for fuck’s sake). It’s a very short moment on screen, just a couple of seconds really, but it stands out because it’s a very clumsy moment in a series of films that largely avoids being that clumsy. A lot has been written about such a short moment (see also Beyond for more of this when get to the Sulu-is-gay discussion) and while it deserves to be called out, we don’t need to especially linger on it any further. It was a mistake, don’t do it again, move on.
The sins of Into Darkness are relatively easy to sum up. There’s no real need to rework The Wrath Of Khan, though beyond the title character, the save-the-ship/Khhhhaaaaannn! moment that – somehow – has become a pop-cultural icon and Carol Marcus, the films have surprisingly little in common. There are mild controversies around casting and sexism. It’s a bit long. None of these things are enough to quite drag the film down to being a failure, though they absolutely stop it from being top-tier Star Trek as well. The sincere effort to actually have Into Darkness be about something goes a long way to making up for the more visible deficiencies and it feels like it would take fairly little effort for the failings of this film to be addressed. That’s why it’s a fairly frustrating film. Nothing on Earth was going to save dreck like Generations, so no amount of tweaking and adjusting would make any difference. Here that’s not the case. It’s easy to imagine this as a film about a misguided Admiral and his subordinate, John Harrison, who go too far in trying to defend the Federation and lose sight of what it was about in the first place. The enemy within. And that’s basically what we have. But then – for reasons that still smack of insecurity – we have all the baggage of The Wrath Of Khan layered on top of it and it actively works to undermine the otherwise very solid story in the middle of all this.
As per last time, the regular cast are great. I haven’t mentioned John Cho or Anton Yelchin yet, but both are reliably dependent as Sulu and Chekov respectively, and give a familiar feel to their characters that makes them easy to like. Last time out Sulu had a bit more to do, this time out it’s Chekov. Both remain secondary member of the crew but they continue to fulfil their roles in the ensemble well. The effects work remains impressive. There are a few funny moments, a few exciting scenes, and the spirit of TOS is absolutely kept alive. All the elements are here to make a really knock-out film, but they just never combine while never quite falling apart either. Still, though the qualitative differences between them are very slight, I’ll take this over the 2009 movie simply because this makes the effort to do more than just be brightly entertaining. It’s that as well, but having an actual moral discussion makes a difference. The 2009 film is undeniably better structured, but Into Darkness at least tries something. It’s just a pity that what’s surrounds that isn’t a little better handled.
What Percentage Of This Film Could Be Cut?
The climax can largely go, which is a worrying sign. To be strictly fair, you could get away with the crash-into-San-Francisco if you really had to have it, but I’d much rather Khan had either been trapped inside the ship with Spock pursuing through the wreckage, or get captured after the street sprinting. The whole thing about them jumping between ships just rubs the wrong way, and it’s mostly because of physics. Transwarp transporters are bullshit, but they’re made-up science for the sake of a science fiction show, so if you want to hand-wave them you can. Momentum is an Actual Thing so seeing shots of actors sliding around on the roofs of moving vehicles and not falling off or rolling when they should looks wrong in a way that just materialising on an alien planet doesn’t. Uhura beaming down to pull Spock back from the (emotional) edge as he pounds Khan? Great – a good use of her character and their existing relationship. But having it happen on top of a speeding vehicle hundreds of meters in the air does not lend credibility to the scene. The opening pre-credits sequence is mostly unimportant but it’s good fun and feels very TOS so I wouldn’t want to lose it. Let’s say 7% then.
How Shatner-y Is Pine?
Much more, but Pine is doing a really terrific job of channelling Shatner here. There’s lots – and lots – of Shatner in the pre-credits sequence, but this makes sense. Kirk is cocky, confident, in charge and having fun, and so the relaxed, Shatnerian side of Kirk comes flooding out. But when Pike chews him out and Kirk needs to look defiant but clearly hurt it’s all Pine’s version of the character and he lands it well. It’s tough to imagine Shatner in that scene – maybe something like his admission of breaking the rules in The Undiscovered Country? – but that’s why Pine is a good choice for Kirk. We get to see new dimensions to the character while remaining consistent with what we’ve seen before. The conflicts with Spock never feel like complete restaging of what Shatner and Nimoy had together (can you imagine the three-way fight in the shuttlecraft on Kronos with Shatner, Nimoy and Nichols?) even when, as in Kirk’s death, it is exactly a restaging. Pine brings a different energy to that scene (as indeed does Quinto), which makes sense since it is different, but at the same time the idea that Kirk would sacrifice himself for the Enterprise and its crew? Well of course he would. And Pine does get inside that part of the character well, even as by the time of the film’s end we’re channelling the “jaunty final joke on the bridge” vibe from TOS. And as we do so we go back to Shatner emerging from Pine’s performance.
Fanwankometer Reading, Captain
Oh fine we can have a Fanwankometer Reading. I was going to do How Silly Does All This Get but I’m already over 5000 words for this review and I don’t feel the need to double its length. In fact, the fanwank here is pretty much in line with what you would expect with a big dump of The Wrath Of Khan being in the mix. Naturally the most visible items are Khan himself and Carol Marcus. We don’t get an actual affair between Kirk and Marcus here (divergent timelines apparently meaning that this version of Kirk will have to find someone else’s bed under which to store his boots) so things aren’t simply following exactly the same path as they did in The Wrath Of Khan. Marcus remains a science officer here, so that’s consistent, just as Khan remains a genetically engineered super-warrior. Shorn of the revenge plot he was given last time out, and denied the chance to do much more than follow orders, we don’t get a clear sense of Khan’s own agenda. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing – as mentioned he has clear, almost obsessive loyalty to his crew which, though technically true before, really gets heavily emphasised here. It’s a good move – it lets him be more than just a villain while also being… you know. A villain. Nothing we get here obviously contradicts what we got in The Wrath Of Khan, but it’s a different timeline so even if it had it doesn’t especially matter. For some Abramsverse cross-movie continuity Kirk listens to the Beastie Boys again, which unexpectedly becomes A Thing across all three movies, and makes a change from the usual references to music or pop culture in Star Trek. Elsewhere we have stray references to tribbles and Section 31, neither of which amount to anything more than recognize-this-thing. You could argue that by aligning Marcus with Section 31 and by having Marcus being an explicitly Cheney-like character that, by extension, Section 31 is slyly rebranded as Future-FBI but the film doesn’t work to make that connection so I’m not going to either. Oh and of course we get to see Kronos! Well, an abandoned bit of it at any rate. The Klingons and Birds Of Prey here are broadly in line with what we would expect – no Discovery massive redesign here – slightly modified in a let-the-designer-have-a-go-at-this way rather than trying to make them functionally different. They’re fine.
I think Quinto can have it this time. During the last outing I gave it to Pine and I stand by what I said there – while both are very good, I think ultimately Pine had the harder task. But Qunito is really terrific here, and in ways that are fully deserving of praise. Even something as simple as the way Spock mild-melds with Pine as Pine dies gives him the chance to do some wordless acting and he’s terrific at it. He also has to do Spock’s rage – not something that Nimoy often had to contend with – and he really brings out that side of the character as well. Quinto’s also able to make the Uhura relationship seem real – the Uhura of the TV show was attracted to Spock but in a fairly low-key way (something that sometimes gets forgotten when discussing the Spock/Uhrua romance – this is not an invention of the Abramsverse movies) but Uhrua, as the least developed of the original cast, has the space to be able to make this work. Qunito’s Spock, following on from his father to fall for a human woman, makes this come alive and remains character-consistent for Spock while also allowing that side of the relationship to seem real. That’s not to denigrate Zoe Saldana, who is for the second time great as Uhura, but again that’s a more open-ended character because it’s been relatively under-developed. Spock is a very specific character, and Qunto fully inhabits that. Was it necessary to have this romance at all? Well probably not, but since we do have it we can at least say that Quinto makes it work and for that he most certainly deserves credit.
- The Undiscovered Country
- First Contact
- The Voyage Home
- The Search For Spock
- Star Trek: Into Darkness
- Star Trek
- The Final Frontier
- The Wrath Of Khan
- The Motion Picture