Director: J. J. Abrams
By Roderick Heath
I know modern movies are essentially treated by many viewers as dialogue filler between action sequences: certainly young audiences in movie theatres act that way. But I’m still stuck back in the age of storytelling, antediluvian-hearted animal that I am. When I wrote about the first entry in J. J. Abrams’ cycle back to a retrofitted version of the original Star Trek in 2009, I commented that although the USS Enterprise was back boldly going where no one had gone before, what it seemed likely to find was far more limited and generic than in Gene Roddenberry’s epochal, probing, often weirdly poetic TV classic. To a great extent, Star Trek: Into Darkness realized my expectations, provoking schismatic reactions in me.
Abrams offers fun and derring-do with only a thin veneer of the inquisitive humanism and speculative eccentricity that was the point of Roddenberry’s creation. This edition provokes suspicion, reinforced by Abrams’ own admissions, that he uses the superstructure of the Trek mythos in service to space opera malarkey whilst ignoring the richer and stranger texture of the source, the patina of flower-child idealism emphasising the multitudinous possibilities for contact and communication in the universe. Of course, that tone coexisted in a vision of the future with corny politics, guys in polyester stockings wrestling with men in plastic lizard suits, and storylines synthesised to justify whatever spare costumes and sets were lying around the Paramount backlot, from Nazi uniforms to gangster threads. The best movies in the Trek cinematic strand are essentially fast-paced pulp yarns that play ably on the fact that with all of the elements of essential drama long in place, it was easy to whip through worlds and ideas.
A greater problem that Abrams courts here is having his take compared to Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), a gold standard of scifi and franchise filmmaking. The stature of The Wrath of Khan lay in the near-perfection of its balance of character, theme, action, and plot rather than in its wobbly production, making it the complete opposite to so much big-budget fare today. The older film’s balance came to a certain extent from the accumulated affection for its cast and the substance of its repeated motifs, something a relatively callow franchise can’t swing nearly so confidently, especially one that has to fight for space on the multiplex screens and win over the popcorn crowd. Into Darkness doesn’t compete in regards to storytelling skill or provocation of wistful emotion. On the other hand, Meyer invested a depth into the characters that they’d never really had before, and played up their aging, worrisome quirks to deliver that rarest of creations, a zippy pop-culture work that grazed the edges of tragedy and myth. Therein lay a contradiction: Meyer both fulfilled and reinvented the brand. Abrams does the same thing, by dealing with a version of the characters defined by youthful volatility and the struggle to learn who they are, rather than the warhorses of the older movies and the crisp professionals of the series. Abrams’ signature touch at the start of his first instalment, one indeed he’s finding hard to top, was an epic sequence of generational loss and birth, signalling his intent to annex Star Trek as a place for genuine character drama. With its early reliance on broad stereotypes and the later series’ generally flaccid placeholders, the human element has always been the weak point of Trek, ironically only really gaining urgency through the perspective of characters who were not human, but who sought to understand that state, like Spock and The Next Generation’s Data.
Never mind the old show: some of the best qualities Abrams and company instilled in their revision aren’t really done further justice. John Cho’s butched-up Sulu, Zoë Saldana’s substantial Uhura, Karl Urban’s DeForest Kelley-by-way-of-Robert Newton take on Bones McCoy, and Anton Yelchin’s comedic Chekhov, all ripe for expanded roles, get odd moments of action, but are all somewhat left holding the bag. Abrams concentrates again on the Kirk and Spock Dioscuri, though the tricky relationship dynamic of Spock and Uhura—sage and communicator—pays off with a satisfying sop to the strength of mutual care. Klingons make it into this entry, but they’re just swarthy menaces who provide story fodder and a fight scene without much chance to show off their weirdly specific, perverse warrior pride and intelligence. Okay, one could wax lyrical about how Into Darkness doesn’t encompass the old Trek brand. It’s still enjoyable, an impeccably manufactured action flick that follows its predecessor and tries to surpass it with mixed results. It does stand up with John Carter (2012) in breathing some life back into the near-asphyxiated field of mainstream scifi spectacle, purely through the vivacity of its visuals and pacing and the energy of its conceptual universe, coming at a time when scifi spectacle has seen entertaining entries like Avatar (2009) and Oblivion (2013) that are nonetheless strikingly derivative. Rejigging Trek for the umpteenth time is also derivative, but Abrams, having jolted the timeline of the series into an alternative reality for the sake of giving a shock to the material (and to the inertia of fan-obsessive continuity), at least has a sense of purpose, glazed in a sense of colour, light, humour, and movement that approximates the best of the old popcorn flicks we all watched as kids.
However, Abrams’ screenwriters, Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci, and Alex Kurtzman, having proven themselves gifted at harvesting the tropes and ideas of other, better writers and remixing them into superficially clever narratives, have benefited greatly from the annexation of scifi properties by blockbuster cinema. Lindelof’s incoherent screenplay for last year’s Prometheus pointed sadly to just how much artisanal love and craft have deserted the medium. Yet Star Trek has a strong, but malleable, bedrock of lore that can accommodate almost any mode of storytelling, whilst Abram’s gusto and love for his medium is reliable. Abrams dumps the audience into an extended fusion of Indiana Jones adventure and the TV show’s cheerily tacky evocation of the alien as James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Bones distract a hostile aboriginal tribe on a far-flung planet long enough for Spock (Zachary Quinto) to drop a cold fusion device into an erupting volcano that’s threatening to wipe the planet out. Spock takes a tumble into the volcano’s mouth and expects to die. After escaping the natives, Kirk violates the Starfleet Prime Directive of not interfering with the evolution of species, and reveals the Enterprise in order to beam Spock aboard. Spock officiously reports the incident to Starfleet: Kirk is dressed down by his mentor Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) and fired from his captaincy. Pike takes over the Enterprise and rehires a chastened Kirk as first officer. But a mysterious schemer named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) has engineered a terrorist attack that decimates a Starfleet facility in London, and a meeting is called of senior commanders to consider the danger.
Evoking The Godfather Part III (1990), Harrison assaults the meeting with a hovering attack ship, killing Pike and other Starfleet grandees. Senior commander Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) survives and gives Kirk the Enterprise to chase Harrison to where he’s fled: Kronos, the home world of the ever-ornery Klingons. Marcus equips Kirk with a number of drone photon torpedos to decimate the remote region in which Harrison is hiding. Scotty (Simon Pegg) and Spock argue the foolishness of such an act when relations with the Klingons are so fragile, and Kirk relents, choosing instead to capture Harrison with the help of Spock and Uhura. The Klingons are less than welcoming, and the trio are forced to fight, only to be saved by an awesomely talented warrior who proves to be Harrison. Harrison surrenders to Kirk upon learning of his strange cargo, and reveals his true identity: he’s Khan, a genetically engineered, super being exiled from Earth three centuries before. He was reawakened when the spaceship taking him and his fellow genetically engineered savants into exile was rediscovered in deep space, and Khan’s intelligence had been put to use by Marcus. The torpedoes actually contain his shipmates, held hostage to the Admiral’s nefarious designs.
The opening sets a template Abrams follows efficiently: essential Star Trek tropes are employed in a witty style that doesn’t forestall serial-like escapades, paying off in a boiled-down version of many an episode’s lesson, as the natives have an epiphany, drawing the image of the Enterprise in the dirt as a new sky-god. Abrams’ attempts to dovetail the TV show’s traditional themes with a good-humoured, spring-heeled approach are at their most successful here. The consequences of Kirk’s brazen style, in saving Spock who had been entirely willing to die according to the limits of his role, are also followed through in a way that the series rarely required of Kirk. This rule evoked the similar ones holding Superman and Doctor Who at bay from dabbling in social engineering. A hesitation here is that Kirk’s actions are only reprehensible from a strict rule-book perspective: he saves a native species and his first officer both from annihilation at the small expense of providing the natives with a glimpse of things strange and wonder-provoking, a possibly mixed blessing. Kirk’s disgrace puts in motion a drama about the inefficacy of always obeying seniors, even as Kirk has an extended crisis about his own leadership capacity clashing with his tendency to buckaroo improvisation: “I don’t know what I should do,” he says to Spock at a crucial juncture, “I only know what I can do.”
The original Star Trek asked questions redolent of the era’s concerns regarding race, war, and society: what constitutes “humanity” and life worthy of respect? How does one maintain a balance of peace against inimical opponents? Does one intervene in societies beset by growing pains or keep hands off for fear of playing god? What indeed is “god” in such a universe? Stirring and engaging as these questions were in such a medium, they were already pretty old-hat for science fiction by the 1960s. Whilst ethical and scientific inquiries are far less important in the context of Abrams’ films, here the questions are manifested in the push and pull of the Kirk-Spock relationship, with a new third corner in Khan, relating to morality and responsibility in leadership, whilst the larger story almost too obviously seeks to channel anxiety over terrorist blowback, manufactured war-justifying threats, and drone warfare. This “dark” slant of terrorist supervillains and warmongers is actually thematically similar to Meyer’s other Trek film, The Undiscovered Country (1992), which reconstructed the Cold War endgame into scifi argot. Into Darkness’ assumptions about institutional power are, at least before the plot cleans up neatly, far from the semi-utopian assumptions of the old Trek. But it does give a new urgency to Kirk’s desire to puzzle out how to do the most good when the responsibility is his, one Spock reiterates in the classic formula from The Wrath of Khan, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.”
Roddenberry’s patina of idealism was also always inseparable from the surprising rigidity and old-fashioned facet of its space-age notions of hierarchy and responsibility, something Meyer recognised when he played up Starfleet’s Hornblower qualities, and which Abrams tweaks here to more menacing purpose. Starfleet’s attitude and costuming are becoming distinctly more militarised: Kirk and his crew now occasionally wear peaked caps, which hint this future is now only a stone’s throw from the overt fascism of Starship Troopers (1997), and Scotty quits the Enterprise crew in protest of this creeping militarisation. Here, much of the leadership of Starfleet is exterminated, except for the very head honcho who proves to be a ranting General Ripper-esque psycho. Thus, Kirk and company find themselves caught between two different versions of the same evil. This narrative is definitely more sceptical than the traditional Trek story, but not necessarily more cynical. What’s more frustrating about Into Darkness is that where Abrams proved with his extended movie brat homage Super 8 (2011) that he could replicate the careful unfolding of narrative that made the brand of Spielberg et al. so powerful back in the day, here he’s still at the mercy of the lazier reflexes of the contemporary blockbuster. Khan’s motivation, history, and perspective aren’t gradually and effectively revealed, but dumped in an exposition speech delivered in the now-compulsory interlude where the villain is briefly imprisoned, as per The Dark Knight (2008), Skyfall, and The Avengers (both 2012).
The story is complex, but all of its elements are essentially in place already as the film jumps into it. Khan is awake. His crew are already stowed in cryogenic chambers hidden in photon torpedos with no convincing explanation for this strange choice of hiding place, nor how Marcus found them. Marcus’ plot has already largely progressed, and he chooses the least sensible patsy imaginable to deliver his Pearl Harbor/Gulf of Tonkin/9-11 on the Klingons. Khan and his crew’s backstory begs so many questions, most of which remain unanswered, that it could cause your forehead to turn inside out if you think about it too much. Into Darkness exacerbates an ever-more apparent problem with a lot of contemporary screenwriting—a story that is at once dense but also essentially treated as baggage. The story has already happened: Kirk and company are roped-in patsies who have to mop up the debris. What is left, then, is basically an extended third act of chase and battle. Whereas in The Wrath of Khan, the war to control the Genesis device was beautifully contoured into the story on several levels, providing thematic gravity, motive, and payoff, here Khan himself is turned into a variation on the device—apt as he is always associated with cyclical destruction and rebirth, which give the Vedic overtones of his name some coherence, with his blood possessing incredible healing properties. At the film’s outset he gains himself a suicide bomber (Thomas Harewood) by saving his deathly ill daughter with a transfusion, whilst this element bides time to provide a deus-ex-machina in the finale. The larger drama in play—Marcus’ attempt to force a war between the Federation and the Klingons—is timely, but not forceful, a significant idea dismissed as mere plot device.
But there I go again comparing, and to a large extent that’s unfair. I can only illustrate why it’s unfair by example: it’s akin to faulting Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) for not concentrating on the same elements of an evident inspiration like Only Angels Have Wings (1939). Whilst definably linked by aspects of character and image and genre, the older film is an exotic adventure movie, but also a situation-comedy about character, whereas the later movie is a full-throttle action film built around linked set-pieces. There’s still room for character and thematic depth in the action film, but it’s subordinated to an ethic of rolling cliffhangers. The problem here is that we already have so many would-be roller-coaster rides on modern cinema screens, making one ache for a more considered brand of genre delight. The positive aspect is that so many of those rides suck, whereas Star Trek’s rigid place in the pop cultural firmament helps give this style rare integrity and power. The day when Kirk and Khan could not only trade physical blows, but also blows of wit and ego laced with literary references seem sadly gone. One of the reasons Khan made such an impact on Trekkies and casual fans alike was because his leonine intellectualism, as well as great physical strength, made him a rare kind of villain befitting a show with a penchant for cerebral stimulation. Khan’s genius is stated, but scarcely given real scope: the film is filled with products of his brilliance, like the souped-up warship he’s designed for Marcus, but again, they’re already present and ready for use.
In its middle third, Into Darkness does shift into the kind of strategic gamesmanship The Wrath of Khan did so well, once again forcing the heroes to take on an enemy who seems to have all the advantages. A seemingly impossible situation is set up, which must be solved with both grit and smarts—a common quality of all versions of the series. Caught in deep space, sabotaged by Marcus in his plan to make them magnets for punitive Klingon action, the Enterprise crew first have to get their ship going, but then are chased by Marcus in the massive and lethal new Dreadnought-class spaceship Vengeance Khan designed. The Vengeance knocks the Enterprise out of warp close to Earth, and only the fact that Scotty has smuggled himself aboard prevents the Enterprise’s complete destruction. Kirk forges a brittle alliance with Khan to take out their mutual enemy, and the two make a thrilling, high-speed flight through a debris field to plunge into a narrow airlock that Scotty has to pop whilst under guard. Khan unleashes unvarnished, megalomaniacal rage, crushing Marcus’ head with his bare hands in another movie nod (to Blade Runner, 1982) and forcing the Enterprise to beam over the torpedoes containing his frozen friends. However, Bones and Sulu pull off a (not too) malicious switcheroo, allowing them to blow Khan out of the sky just as he fires on them.
Into Darkness pulls off something that some other recent films, like the awful Robert Downey Sherlock Holmes series, have tried but not quite swung: putting characters better known for brains into situations requiring brawn, whilst not entirely asking them to abandon the former. Casting Cumberbatch, who plays a modernised Holmes on television, as Khan suggests a move towards embracing the intellectual as well as violent kind of villainy and in keeping with Ricardo Montalban’s characterisation of Khan as a wily, chess-playing, Moriarty-ish kind of enemy as well as a bristling he-man who delighted in his prowess and competitiveness but could only find the satisfaction of exercising his gifts against challenging opponents. That promise doesn’t really eventuate here, in part because he’s bestowed with a new trait that makes him less Nietzschean but also a more apt, shadowy doppelganger to Kirk: he’s consumed by his sense of care and duty toward his fellow mutants as a crew equal that dampens his capacity to act according to the ruthless predatory instincts of his genetic programming. This is a clever exacerbation of the basic theme flowing throughout Abrams’ Star Trek: finding drama in two inimical versions of the same sense of duty. The Kirk-Khan death dance takes on new dimensions, then, as each is forced into positions and choices that test their essential makeup. Cumberbatch invests Khan with pride and an exclusive variety of empathic feeling reserved strictly for his fellow übermensch, but also apocalyptic anger when offended. The “otherness” of Khan, with his distinct ethnic identity, has been removed, relying rather on Cumberbatch, with a mop of black hair and a deep, mordant voice, to embody malefic brilliance. That voice is capable of the same purr, redolent of a panther starting to think about its next meal, that made a star of Alan Rickman. Cumberbatch, whose early roles mostly stuck him playing swots and bluebloods, was hitherto best used for villainous purposes in Atonement (2007). I half-hoped he could find someone on the Enterprise to enjoin, “You have to bite it!” Even if Khan can’t be all that he should be in a modern multiplex blockbuster, Cumberbatch still inflates himself to fill Montalban’s large shoes.
Likewise Quinto, who doesn’t possess Leonard Nimoy’s lode of abyss-throated gravitas, makes up for it with his poise. Some have said that the new Trek has essentially become Spock’s series, and there’s a lot of truth to this, if only because the contemporary sensibility finds the internally divided, outwardly stoic figure much more compelling than the squarer Kirk. This seems to be the season for digging up fallen ’80s heroes, following William Sadler and Miguel Ferrer’s contributions to Iron Man 3; Abrams goes one much better in giving former Robocop Weller a lip-smacking bad-guy role. Rounding out the cast is Alice Eve, playing Marcus’ daughter Carol, a scientist who gets aboard the Enterprise to find out what her father’s up to: according to Trek lore, of course, she’s destined to be the mother of Kirk’s son David and supply a dash of silly cheesecake to a Peeping Tom Kirk, suggesting sexuality in Hollywood hasn’t progressed beyond the 1950s. Also, why Admiral Marcus has an American accent and Carol a British one is left unexplained.
Chris Pine’s performance is stretched in ways here that threaten to reveal its limitation: Shatner’s Kirk was always smug, but supremely competent, a man who wore his captaincy naturally. Pine’s, on the other hand, still feels a bit too much like a high school football captain suddenly beset by existential angst about life after graduation. But he and Quinto do still pull off the propulsive aspect of mutual reliance and affection in spite of violently contrasting temperaments. The harum-scarum rush of bluff and double-dealing, mixed with intense, vivid, physical action, is pretty tremendous stuff, and once Abrams is in his action element, Into Darkness rips and roars. The major set-pieces of the finale see Abrams trying to one-up the crashing spaceship sequence of George Lucas’ Star Wars – Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005), first by having the Enterprise go into free-fall in Earth’s atmosphere, the heroes caught inside what amounts to a colossal tumble-dryer, and then Khan crashing the Dreadnought into San Francisco Bay in a suicide run at Starfleet Headquarters.
Abrams revels here in the scale and detail and force of what the contemporary special-effects palette can do for him, rejoicing in assaulting the prim environs of the Enterprise and the whole idea of colossal battleships in space, and subjecting them to violence on a grand and entertaining scale. Abrams, a famously transplanted TV talent, has been displaying ever-evolving cinematic gifts since his debut, the strong Mission: Impossible III (2006), a film driven by a peculiar tension between his grasp of kinetic pace and the sense-battering editing endemic to contemporary Hollywood. Abrams has been conquering the latter trait, and though his first Star Trek still displayed those bad habits. The classicism he forced on himself with Super 8 has paid dividends here: the spectacle is gorgeous and the fighting mostly comprehensible. But what really keeps Into Darkness humming is the clarity of Abrams’ focus on emotion that, in spite of the whiz-bang elements, still provides a sturdy superstructure. Where the first instalment ran with one of Abrams’ favourite themes—personality crises in the young and talented played out through the heightening tropes of genre urgency—here the crux is rites of passage that could also be life climaxes. Kirk loses Pike, the last link to his youth, right after he’s sent back to the minors, and, as in The Avengers, the swaggering hero is forced to make the ultimate sacrifice, saved only by convenient screenwriting (and the mutual model for both films is, again, The Wrath of Khan).
The gag is that whereas The Wrath of Khan saw Spock giving his life to restart the Enterprise’s engines, here it’s Kirk, building to an outrageously conceited yet peculiarly stirring mirroring scene to the older film’s climax. Spock sets off in vengeful pursuit of Khan culminating in an essentially superfluous but aptly grandiose and thrilling chase across the futuristic San Francisco skyline, battling on the backs of flying vehicles hundreds of feet above the ground, with Khan’s super-strength, lethal to humans, checked by Spock’s alien physique and way with a mind-meld. The beauty of this battle is twofold: the running theme of Abrams’ films—Spock’s deep-buried, but powerful sense of rage and feeling for his friends—is stoked and leashed upon an apt opponent. And, of course, there’s the sneaky joy of Spock, killed by Khan’s machinations in another reality, now kicking the superman’s ass, with some help from Uhura.
What’s ultimately true here is that Abrams has made a spectacular, bouncy, ripping-paced swashbuckler, largely transcending its flaws and niggling disappointments, but not the moment of its creation. Whether anyone will still watch this in 30 years’ time like they do The Wrath of Khan is a minor point; perhaps more important is that we’ll be watching it for different reasons if we are. The film’s very rushed wrap-up dismisses Kirk’s revival from the dead like something that happens every day, flinging Khan back into deep freeze and sending the crew off on their canonical five-year mission without any note of promise, mystery, or new horizons. By any standard, this is a weak and frustrating conclusion to a good ride, one that again reminds me too sharply of how much emotional fullness and storytelling relish are held as less important than getting the film wrapped up in the permitted running time. Even at its corniest, Star Trek was about wonderment, curiosity, and awe, but these seem to be aspects our screen culture has lost. At least we have gained a good action series.