“My. Name. Is. [John Harrison?].” – Star Trek Into Darkness
I rewatched 2009’s Star Trek a few nights ago, to both go into Star Trek Into Darkness with a running start and see if my feelings about it still hold four years after its release. They do. It was and is a fun, energetic resuscitation of a flailing franchise, one that injected sex, color and, most importantly, youth into a body that was coding out on the table. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto stepped into iconography with aplomb, reigniting a bromance that could always transcend whiz-bang special effects. What man can watch Kirk and Spock’s glass-partitioned Wrath of Khan farewell and not tear up? That J.J. Abrams brought that back to the pop entertainment fore is a good deed that can’t be lightly cast aside.
Star Trek was a nitpickers smorgasbord, though, with problems big (Kirk, a cadet, is made Enterprise captain at movie’s end? Didn’t he once get demoted after Earth-saving derring-do?) and small (How did Nero know that Kirk’s father was on the Kelvin, so that he could taunt him with that fact while strangling him later? Should we really have to read a comic prequel to fully understand our villain’s motivation? Why has Orion slave girl makeup technology regressed in the last forty years? THE BRIDGE IS SO BRIGHT IT BURNS RETINAS.). Yes, it was fun, and deserved the boffo box office returns it got. But the good ship Enterprise had these assorted anchors, which kept her (new) maiden voyage from going where no Trek film had gone before. (It also left this viewer with this lingering sadness: A film like A Voyage Home, a Star Trek light comedy about saving whales of all things, will never get a greenlight in this movie climate. If the script doesn’t devolve into guns firing and people punching each other, than it need not apply.)
Perhaps the reboot’s greatest service was getting all our old familiar players in their familiar spots by the time the credits rolled, which meant that the next time — and of course there would be a next time — we would get the full-bore Kirk-Spock-McCoy-etc. adventure we really want, with everyone in the right color uniforms from beginning to end. Which is what Star Trek Into Darkness (a stupid title in desperate need of a colon) purports to be. A Star Trek in Full. Does it outrun the failings of its predecessor? Is it better? Worse?
Darkness is a step backwards, a shameless rejiggering of things that were done much better thirty years ago. I swear, there was a moment towards the end of this movie when I wanted to stand up and yell “HOW DARE YOU!?” at the screen. You might have a similar reaction. The people behind this film have no shame. Even worse, they have no fresh ideas. In their stead they crawl inside frameworks of yore and try to make them their own, like plot hermit crabs, stealing lines that have deep meaning for fans of the material, reassigning them and thereby robbing them of emotional heft. These gambits fail. The plot trips over itself at every turn, and things don’t really make a great deal of sense. This is by no means a complete disaster of a movie — it’s far too slick for that — but it’s a letdown. Star Trek Backwards.
I have some thoughts, and it’s impossible to really sink my arms elbow-deep in the dung without getting a tad spoilery. I’ve kept the big stuff in bullets 6-10, so avoid those if you’d like. The rest are fairly innocuous, and please feel free to come back and read the more revealing bits after you’ve seen the movie. I’m always curious to hear what people think, whether they agree or not.
- If there’s one thing very right in Darkness, it’s Benedict Cumberbatch as John Harrison, the man at the center of feverish internet-wide speculation since this project first started coming together. I confess to not being overly familiar with him as an actor, having mainly (but briefly) seen him in the modern-day Sherlock. He’s magnificent and revelatory, delivering every line so that it drips with icy contempt and disdain. My goodness, what a villain — he might very well be worth the price of admission alone, despite the regurgitated plot around him. More on him in a moment.
- All the stars seem very comfortable now in their new roles, and the Kirk/Spock friendship remains at the core of it all, as it should be. That Pine and Quinto have so seamlessly stepped into these shoes shouldn’t go unappreciated. Spock even gets a chance to be the big action hero here, displaying balls-out hustle you might not expect from the Vulcan. Spock Hard: With a Vengeance. Yet the Spock/Uhura romance, a new wrinkle in this alternate universe, feels very forced, and at times it’s infuriating. There’s a key moment, while they’re on a dangerous away mission into hostile territory, where they take some time to have a lover’s quarrel. Does this new Starfleet have any professionalism? Are there rules about fraternization? Shouldn’t there be? Is this Twilight all of a sudden? Star Trek Into Spats.
- There’s so much Just Because in this story, I wouldn’t even nowhere to start. Let’s have the Enterprise underwater. Why? Because! Let’s have the ship’s doctor go on a two-person away mission to disarm a torpedo. Why? Because! Let’s give some familiar lines to different characters. Why? Because! Let’s bust Kirk back to a cadet — no wait, he can be the first officer no he’s captain again. Why? Because! The poor Enterprise is reduced to little more than a punching bag, and spends most of the time falling apart at the seams. I guess that’s Just Because too.
- Bruce Greenwood returns as Christopher Pike, and he remains an underused adult presence in this universe. His man-to-man barroom sitdown with a bloody, beaten Kirk remains one of the brighter scenes in the first new Trek, and it’s reprised here. Greenwood is one of the finer character actors working today. We should be thankful he’s been along for this ride.
- Has the Klingon homeworld always been about two minutes away from Earth? It is now. Is the Neutral Zone a foot wide?
- Now for details. You have been warned. And first up: Yes, John Harrison is Khan. Not Gary Mitchell, like some fans were convinced he’d be. Not more laughable theories, like Garth of Izar or some future-Picard. Really, did anyone think the people behind Darkness could resist going the Khan route? To do so — to pass by the most recognizable single villain in all the lore — would take a measure of fortitude beyond most in today’s Hollywood. That said, Cumberbatch is a great Khan, one not just woken up, one not deranged after decades marooned on a dying planet. He’s a co-opted, unwilling Starfleet weapon, consumed with saving his kith and kin still held in stasis. He can shift from utter calm to absolute savagery at warp speed. He also has a special way for dispatching those he hates the most, which reminds me a bit of the big bad in the old Batman graphic novel Son of the Demon. (Those who have seen this movie and read that book will understand what I’m talking about.) Sadly, his inclusion hampers the creativity of the plot, and only telegraphs the utter lack of storytelling guts that we’ll see. But he does the late, great Ricardo Montalban proud. (An aside: Wasn’t Khan sort of a big deal before he was frozen? No one seems to know who the hell he was, not even the highly knowledgeable — and, one would assume, very well read — Mr. Spock. Didn’t he rule a chunk of the Earth in his history? Does anyone care?)
- One of the dangers of having the real Spock in this new reality is that he could function as a backstory fallback, and the temptation would always be there for the characters and filmmakers to go to that well. They do here, in what amounts to a minute-long Skype chat. All it does is pull us out of the movie — like so many things do during the runtime — and remind us of the old things that made us love Star Trek in the first place. Spock-Prime (ugh), after saying that he vowed to never interfere in this new reality, proceeds to spill a few Khan beans. In my review for Iron Man 3, I talked about how Tony Stark’s bajillion remote-controlled suits amounted to video game cheat codes. That’s what our old, beloved Spock has been reduced too — a cheat code. Let the poor man rest, folks. Mr. Nimoy had a good innings, and we’ve already said our goodbyes.
- Peter Weller as Admiral Marcus — Carol’s father — is the real villain here, a man consumed with the Klingon bogeyman and desperate to ignite a war while Starfleet can win. Put it this way: You don’t have to be a bloodhound to sniff out something fishy with him. He’s the one who unfroze Khan, and it’s him who, for a brief spell, forces Kirk and Khan into an uneasy alliance. You know what? We’ve seen this before, in Star Trek VI, only it was Brock Peters as the Admiral-gone-bad. Did the writing team order the entire Star Trek movie plot menu? (Marcus does have one hell of a ship, though.)
- The movie lost me completely when it pilfered the great takeaway scene from The Wrath of Khan, only reversing the two players. It’s not like I’m giving anything away, since they pretty much revealed this with the very first trailer. When there two hands separated by glass and one is giving the Vulcan salute, what the hell are we supposed to think, you know? Yes, Kirk dies. And then he’s revived moments later, thanks to a transfusion of Khan’s super-blood. Maybe I could have lived with Kirk making the classic engineering sacrifice if it had some legs, but you knew this wasn’t going in that direction. When Spock died, there was a whole other movie devoted to dragging him back to the land of the living, and that was no guarantee of that when Khan came to a close. Not here, though. Nothing matters. There are no consequences. I don’t know that I’ve ever had a sequence piss me off more than this insulting garbage. Again: HOW DARE YOU!?
- You want to know why The Wrath of Khan was so great? It was about aging. It was about death being the one thing no man, no matter how gifted and lucky, no matter how special, can cheat. It was about the errors of your past coming back to haunt you. It was about loves lost and found. It was about the soul. It was about life. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… I defy you to find those things in this lamely reshuffled deck, written by the people behind the unfathomably stupid Transformers sequels. I defy you.
I remember seeing a quote from Michael Dorn once, shortly after it was announced that the reboot of Star Trek was going to go back to the early days of Kirk and Co. While wishing everyone the best, he expressed his belief that Trek should always be moving forward. I’m not saying that we should all guide our lives be WWWD (What Would Worf Do) principles, but he made a valid point. Star Trek is a franchise always, at its core, way down beneath the interplay of characters, about the exploration of ideas. When we turn away from that exploration and try to go backwards, we run the risk of trampling over things long cherished. That’s what this movie does, despite some solid performances and effects work (honestly, though, much of the action is underwhelming). If you thought Star Trek was dumbed down, Star Trek Into Darkness might feel like a lobotomy. Star Trek Into Lazy Lowest Common Denominators. I hope there are more films — there’s so much potential with this cast. But I also hope the people behind the cameras put on their thinking caps. And maybe have more than one draft.
Two and a half “John Harrison” scowls out of five: