The latest Star Trek movie in JJ Abrams’ rebooted franchise is titled ‘Into Darkness’. It could just as easily be titled ‘Through the Looking Glass’.
I’ll avoid direct spoilers here, but as many production details over the last year suggested, Into Darkness is a remake of sorts of Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan. Except after the chronology break that occurred because of the time travel in the last movie, most of the important points are reversed. It’s an innovative, but extremely risky move, especially since Wrath of Khan is viewed by many Trek fans as the best film in the over 30-year franchise.
The plot of Into Darkness on paper is excellent. Everything fits into place in sequence and with a purpose, but most of it feels like a puzzle that’s been fit together out of lots of shiny pieces rather than a picture that started off whole but made of individual components. Loud chase sequence(s), classic Trek villain, the Enterprise in peril, flagrant violation of Starfleet regulations, logic vs intuition debates, obligatory “GRAB MY HAND!1!!” falling scene, inappropriate one-liners, it’s all there. But it doesn’t feel like it comes together to make one cohesive whole.
The perfect example of this is the opening sequence. The crew of the Enterprise is surveying a primitive alien planet and hides the ship…underwater just offshore of a massive volcano threatening all life on this world. Decisions are made (after much Vulcan protestation, of course), and the Enterprise emerges from the ocean in order to save the life of a crew member (JUST! IN! TIME!, complete with the first of several countdown clocks used in the film), exposing the pre-industrial civilization to the existence of the space ship, violating the Prime Directive of the Federation. It’s done in a way that connects the dots, but it feels like just that. Like they wanted a land-based chase, a scary volcano eruption, the Enterprise floating up out of water, so they wrote a script that included all those things and made it work narratively. I realize that’s probably how most movies are made these days. But the great ones don’t feel like it.
Light spoiler territory below (not about the villain)
In the end, a major problem here is also part of a larger trend in recent big action movies: no one important ever really dies. Sure they might “die”, but, like Monty Python’s plague victims, they get better. Yes, we’re in sci-fi futuristic comic book territory where such things are technically possible, but they’ve been used as a crutch for lazy screenwriters in everything lately. Agent Coulson “died” in the Avengers last year, but he’s coming back for the television series this fall. Pepper Potts and Happy Hogan seem to “die” in Iron Man 3, but both make a miraculous recovery just before the end. Batman sacrifices himself for Gotham at the end of The Dark Knight Rises, but then Bruce Wayne is back at the end. The same happens here. In the “original” Wrath of Khan, Spock sacrifices himself to save the Enterprise. He dies and is fired off the ship in a torpedo casket onto a planet being terraformed. We found out a few years later in The Search for Spock, that the Genesis project at work on that planet when Spock was laid to rest brought him back, in a sense. But at least we had to deal with the finality of his death for a while. That experience never lasts for more than a few minutes within modern sci-fi/fantasy/superhero movies.
Now, there’s plenty of anonymous mortal consequence. Buildings are destroyed, ships crash, terrorism occurs, but, with one relatively inconsequential exception, it’s never anyone we know or care about. Just narrative collateral damage.
Another risk taken in this Star Trek series, having other actors play iconic, stylized characters, is starting to take its toll in this second re-iteration. Some of the portrayals of the main Enterprise crew are becoming little more than impersonations. Kirk’s character is the only one that I think is done properly. He has the same character traits as the original, but Chris Pine doesn’t (or Abrams doesn’t make him) copy William Shatner’s mannerisms and speech patterns. To even attempt to do so after Shatner would be madness, but Abrams maintains it with the rest of the characters. Bones, Checkov, and Scotty are becoming nearly intolerable in their mimicry of the original actors voices and verbal ticks. Most of this is the script attempting to rely on nostalgia with these characters instead of moving them forward, as they do with Kirk and Spock. Uhura and Sulu are both used very well, but partially because they’re both treated like blank slates, keeping almost nothing from their original iterations. If this series is to survive, it must start…boldly going where no one has gone before, rather than mirroring the fondly-remembered past and adding new computer tricks.