Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013)

Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013)

Warning: This post contains major spoilers…

Let's get this out of the way first. Director J.J. Abrams spent so much time and energy denying the identity of the villain of Star Trek: Into Darkness that when it was revealed that Benedict Cumberbatch was indeed playing Khan [Noonien Singh], this seems to have engendered a bit of a backlash, judging from some of the negative reviews on the Web. I don't entirely blame Abrams for trying to keep this a secret. It's kind of a major plot twist. But once it was revealed in-movie, The Wrath of Khan references came in so thick and fast that it began to be a little distracting.

By casting Cumberbatch, TPTB have whitewashed one of the franchise's most compelling and ethnically daring casting choices. Avoiding a backlash for the whitewashing may have been another reason for keeping the villain's identity under wraps. But overall, I did enjoy Cumberbatch's performance. Instead of a charismatic, scheming warlord, nu Khan is more of a violent sociopath with a penchant for mesmerizing those around him with his intense gaze. The movie gets a lot of mileage out of that. But if the studio was going to alter Khan's racial profile, why couldn't they bother to update his origin? It's odd that in 2013 he's still a survivor of the 1990s Eugenics War exiled into space.

The opening scene kind of confused me. The Enterprise crew is trying to save the inhabitants of a planet without violating the Prime Directive (huh?) and their actions don't make much sense. Why did Captain Kirk steal something from the natives? Why did the Enterprise have to hide underwater instead of being in orbit? Why did Commander Spock have to jump into a volcano? It's kind of cool that the Prime Directive is even mentioned, though it's raised mainly as an example of why Kirk is such a reckless bastard, then quietly dropped once the story moves on to its central topic. As with Abram's first effort, off course is about Terrorism.

That terrorism is such an overwhelming concern is unsurprising coming from a major Hollywood production. It warps the traditional purpose of Star Fleet (not to mention the 60s-era progressivism underlying the franchise), and militarizes them, even more so than usual. Spock and Chief Engineer Scotty are troubled by this development and become vocal objectors. The Enterprise gets shot at more times than in all 3 seasons of the original Star Trek TV series. Downtown San Francisco is leveled in a suicide run involving a massive starship. And all the leads get to be in at least one action sequence were they're put in mortal danger. Trek fans looking for more introspective philosophical discussions might come away a little disappointed. Not that terrorism is the only contributing factor. The militarization of the Trek movie series has been going on ever since Captain Picard spent more time kicking ass than asking tough questions in The Next Generation films. The movies are designed to be spectacle aimed at pleasing the mass audience. Into Darkness is, if nothing else, gorgeous eye candy.

For what its worth the Klingons, what little we do see of them, look pretty intriguing.

Going back to The Wrath of Khan references, the film's climax is such egregious fan service that it pretty much robs it of its intended emotional impact. But it also doesn't help that nu Kirk and nu Spock don't have the easy camaraderie that comes from years of casual interaction. Maybe Kirk's self-sacrifice is consistent with his overall impetuous behavior. But Spock's anguished reaction feels strangely forced. And the less said about Kirk's ludicrously quick resurrection, the better.

While this did dampen my enthusiasm for the movie, I still consider myself well entertained. It ends with the sweet promise of a new five-year mission to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, and to boldly go where no one has gone before. Wouldn't it be wonderful if this was truly the case for Star Trek's next outing?