Sunday, June 2, 2013

Some thoughts on "Star Trek: Into Darkness"

(Some people have asked whether I've seen "Star Trek: Into Darkness" yet, and if so, what I thought of it. I think the question arises from my strongly negative and disappointed reaction to the first J.J. Abrams attempt to do a "Star Trek" movie. (You can find these comments in three separate blog posts:,, and Well, I have seen "Into Darkness" -- twice, in fact, to try to give myself the opportunity to see if what I perceived on first viewing held up on the second -- and the fact is that this movie just left me… dispassionate. I just couldn't get myself too worked up about it. Perhaps it's because it almost exactly fit what I was expecting, after the first one. Anyway, I suppose I should say something about it, if only to go on record. So here goes…)

Ever have a "jaw-dropping" moment? You know, when you see or hear or read or realize something so momentarily stunning that your mouth opens involuntarily, your jaw literally pivoting downward? It happens sometimes in movies… like back in 1976 when the first "Star Wars" opened with that amazing scene of the rebel ship fleeing before the Imperial Star Destroyer which looms onto the screen from above, and just keeps coming, and coming, and coming… or when the Tyrannosaurus Rex steps through the ruined security fence in the first "Jurassic Park"... or when the armies of men and elves clash with the forces of Mordor on a huge, teeming battlefield in the prologue to the first "Lord of the Rings" movie.

Sadly, these days, it all too often happens not because something is visually stunning or conceptually mind-blowing, but because it is just staggeringly stupid. Or lazy. Or both.

I had at least one of those jaw-dropping experiences a few weeks ago when I went with my wife to see the new movie with the title "Star Trek: Into Darkness". Sorry… I just can't bring myself to call it "the new "Star Trek" movie", because -- like J.J. Abrams first attempt -- it is not, to me at least, a "Star Trek" movie. It embraces practically none of the essential spirit of "Star Trek" as I comprehend it. Instead, it strikes me more like a movie made by someone who has had "Star Trek" described to him a few times, so he gets some of the basic stuff (there's a spaceship called the Enterprise, it's captained by a guy named Jim Kirk who has a Vulcan first officer named Spock, and a ship's doctor named McCoy, and there are enemy aliens called the Klingons, and so on) but he doesn't really grasp the whole picture.

Much like the first of J.J. Abrams' movies with "Star Trek" in the title, his second one -- "Star Trek: Into Darkness" -- is a noisy, fast-moving, entertaining mess. I have to praise the visual effects and special effects artists working on this movie, as they did some great stuff. The shots of the Enterprise emerging from the ocean were quite spectacular, for example. However, as very often happens these days, the visuals far outstrip the story and the script in quality and coherence. I'll try to touch on a handful of examples. (This is by no means an exhaustive list.)

In the beginning of the film, as Kirk is running through the red jungle, a large creature rears up in front of him, and he stuns it with his phaser. Dr. McCoy steps up from behind the downed creature and says "You just stunned our ride!" Then they continue to run through the jungle for another minute or so before deliberately leaping off a cliff into the ocean, following which we see them zooming under the surface (using some kind of turbo-boots or something) toward the submerged USS Enterprise. The question then arises: If that beast Kirk stunned was their "ride", where -- given what followed that scene -- were they planning to ride it to?

(I should also make note of the bizarre throwaway line from Kirk, referring to the scroll-like artifact he's carrying as he runs from the alien natives, about how he earlier saw them bowing and/or praying to it... so he just stole it. Huh?)

I won't go into detail about how stupid the "Cold Fusion" device to stop the volcanic eruption is, except to point out that if you are going to invent a ridiculously dubious, mostly magical technology, perhaps it would be a good idea to create a name to go along with it which does not already exist and which refers to something completely different.

While the hand phasers still have the physical parts which spin around to change power settings, at least in this movie they don't show this dorky bit of pointless action happening.

There are still some shots of what is supposed to be the engineering deck of the Enterprise which appear to be filmed in some kind of lightly redressed brewery. This was beyond ridiculous in the first film, and seems even more so here.

What the heck IS "transwarp beaming", anyway? I thought that it was established in the first movie as a way of successfully beaming someone or something onto a ship traveling at warp speed. Well, in this new movie, it apparently has evolved to the point where it allows someone to be beamed from Earth all the way to the home world of the Klingon empire, which I believe is way the heck off in space. (Of course, maybe it isn't, in this new and illogical "Star Trek"-inspired universe, as -- near the end of the movie -- it only takes the Enterprise and that other ship (the name of which I forget right now) a few minutes to travel by warp all the way from that Klingon home world to Earth.)

The Spock-Uhura romance thing is just as silly as in the first movie -- maybe even a bit sillier, with their relationship basically played for a few lame laughs as they bicker pointlessly.

Abrams seems to think that having the characters in this movie shout their lines most of the time and spend a lot of their time on-screen running around really fast and shooting big guns that make loud noises is a great way to make an action-packed movie. Well, I guess for some people that is exactly the way to go about it. I prefer a little more thought to be put into my action movies. For example, when someone yells "Fire phasers!", I expect to see beams of light blaze forth from a starship's phaser emitters -- NOT some silly-looking rockets trailing smoke. This actually happens -- in a scene near the end of the movie, I think it's Admiral Marcus who, on the bridge of the USS Bigger Than The Enterprise yells out "Fire phasers!", and the very next shot is a cut to the exterior of his ship… and a bunch of what look like little rockets, trailing smoke, come zooming out of his ship toward the Enterprise. How does something that dumb make it through to the final edit of a film like this?

So we get near the end of the movie, and the Enterprise is going to be destroyed unless Kirk can kick -- yes, literally KICK -- a misaligned piece of hardware back into place, hardware which is unfortunately inside a chamber flooded with dangerous radiation. Set aside for the moment the incredulity you might feel about this highly advanced starship not having remote-controlled devices which could accomplish this basic physical act without exposing any of the crew to fatal doses of radiation… and instead marvel at the fact that J.J. Abrams somehow got the "powers that be" who own the "Star Trek" property to agree that ripping off the key, climactic moment from the earlier (and far superior in almost every way) "Star Trek" movie "The Wrath of Khan" and pasting it into the end of his movie was actually a good idea.

Seriously, as I watched this bit, my jaw literally dropped. The only significant difference between the actions in this scene and the one from "Wrath of Khan" is that it is Kirk, instead of Spock, who sacrifices himself to save the ship. And then, watching Kirk die (well, he is really -- as famously described in "The Princess Bride" -- only "mostly dead", saved by an injection of Khan's "super blood" moments later), Spock, the emotionless Vulcan CRIES. He's only known Kirk for a few months, maybe… and he CRIES??? Everything about this scene is forced. Everything about it feels contrived, and not cleverly so.

It worked wonderfully in "Wrath of Khan" because it made sense, and because it built on three years of the original "Star Trek" TV series and the relationship of respect and affection between Kirk and Spock which was developed over those three years through multiple adventures. In addition, it dovetailed beautifully into the advancing age of both the characters and the actors playing them, with the subtext of how one faces death. It wasn't a forced cheat like it is in this new movie.

I hope I live long enough to see this "rebooted" "Star Trek" rebooted yet again by someone who actually cares about the universe of "Star Trek" which existed before and also cares about good storytelling. I am not going to hold my breath, but who knows? As the line from "Wrath of Khan" goes, "There are always possibilities…". -- PL 


jstr4life said...

Yeah, the things that bugged me were the lame attempts to seemingly shoehorn every other Trek movie into this one. The Pike/Kirk relationship kinda mirrored Kirk/Decker in ST:TMP, Pike even had the line, "They gave her back to me," that Kirk says to Scotty in TMP. They preform surgery on the torpedoes, alla ST VI. I'm sure there are links to others (even, oddly what seems to be a reference to a deleted scene in Nemesis with the seat belts on the Enterprise.)but they are lost on me. For a film that's Star Trek in name only to attempt to call back to these (in many cases superior) movies just rang false to me.

Dion said...

Hear Hear,

I've been confused by the amount of love this movie is getting.

Once it became obvious where the 'sacrifice' scene was going it took me right out of the movie. It's like a deliberate sabotage to any Trek fan who may have been so bold as to wander into the cinema to check this movie out. When we had the death scene (sorry almost death with the Dues Ex Machina blood which really has no basis to be reanimating dead tissue)I actually said out loud, 'For F#@k's sake' and earned an elbow from my wife.

Andrew NDB said...

Everything about this movie was ghastly aside from how beautifully it was shot.