As I previously did with the first Star Trek movie in this new series, I waited until I could see the new release at the IMAX at the Putnam in 3D before I went to Star Trek Into Darkness (ID). That makes me a little late to the party, but I’m glad I waited. I’m only sorry I won’t have a chance to go back before it moves on to see it that way again. I’ve done some work with still stereophonic photos and I could tell roughly about 75% of the scenes or maybe even more were specifically framed with 3D in mind. It makes a big difference and I’m glad I didn’t see it on a flat screen. I will, however, be discussing what happens so consider this a warning for spoilers if you haven’t watched it yet. This review is a little choppier than the last one, but then so was the movie.
This review is going to be mostly commentary so if what you are looking for is a plot synopsis, read this:
It would also be very helpful to re-watch or at least read the plot synopsis of Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn, before watching the movie, since original timeline events from this movie are referenced heavily throughout:
A Classic Fan’s View
This time my favorite Trekkie cousin couldn’t come along and so my mom went with me. She likes the original Star Trek series, but really has had zero interest in any of the sequels. It definitely held her interest while watching, but she really didn’t come away with a very positive feeling. She objected to the alternative timeline element (“things should be how they really are”) and felt that the balance between shoot’em up type action and philosophical meditations (what would you do?) was badly out of balance. (I would agree with her on the second point and truly hope with J.J. Abrahams departure the series will continue, maintaining the good, but adding more depth to the plot and writing.)
Someone from the production staff of Sherlock (I really think it was probably Mark Gatiss, but since I couldn’t find the article online again that’s not for certain) was recently asked about fanfic and his response was along the line of “what we’re doing is the fanfic” which I think applies equally well to Sherlock and the new Star Trek movies. This is visual fanfic at its best. If you’re unfamiliar with constructs of fanfic, read my review of the first Star Trek movie in this series for an in-depth introduction, but the short version is that it’s as if they’ve used Mr. Peabody’s Should Have Been Time Machine. It’s an alternative world where almost everything we know exists, but is just a little off.
My review of Star Trek (2009):
As someone who appreciates good fanfic (while understanding the majority of it isn’t good) I’m really excited about the decision to take this turn with the Star Trek franchise and to use so many elements from fanfic, particularly all the inside mentions (I love inside mentions even more than a good pun). It really is very clever of them to take this tack with this new series of movies because it opens up a lot of possibilities and allows things to happen that never would in a true on brand Star Trek movie. When a hero looks like they might die or lose, they just might. Not being a red shirt is no longer any guarantee of safety while the original actor lives, as it is with the original movies.
One problem with this movie though is that they are trying to shove too much in. They are basically (minus a few things like the Genesis Device, the Kobayashi Maru which they had already used in the first movie, Kahn’s romance with a crew member, and Kirk’s son David) shoving in all the plots from Kahn original Star Trek appearance in the TV episode “Space Seed” (SS), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn (WoK), and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (SFS) in one movie, with a heavy handed current political message about the War on Terror lathered on top, there’s very little time to take a breath as they hurry to cram everything in. There is a movie called The Bad and the Beautiful about a producer who after a fight with a director about how to do a film dumps the director and does that work himself. His movie is nothing but action and highpoints. Without the off time to develop points and the quiet moments that the original director wanted to put in, the movie didn’t work and the producer recognized it, shelved the project, and apologized to the original director. I think the production staff from this needs to watch The Bad and the Beautiful.
We join the movie at a point that would be about the 45 minute mark of a typical Star Trek TV episode (any version) – a planet is in danger, do they save it and the people who live there, breaking the prime directive, or do they not? Then the situation shifts and do they break it a second more obvious time to save Spock. Spock urges them to let him die, Kirk refuses and saves him only to have Spock report him for breaking the Prime Directive. In this sequence, which has some of the truly most alien vegetation that I’ve ever seen, also has a cliff jump that has to be up there with (but not surpassing) the famous Butch and Sundance cliff leap.
Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn Similarities
Then we move onto the Wrath of Kahn plot, including:
- Kirk is at a transitive place in life (in WoK it was he had become an admiral and regretted giving up command, in ID it was that he was still struggling to find the right balance between honoring and ignoring Star Trek directives as he acted like the rules didn’t apply to him at any time and not just in emergencies)
- The Discovery of the Botany Bay (SS)- a deep sleep freighter with a cargo of genetically modified super humans originally supposed to end all war, it didn’t work and they were left on a freighter, but now somehow even though the Federation really hasn’t started deep space exploration they found the vessel 15 years sooner than they originally were supposed to. This was just talked about in both WoK and ID.
- Dr. Carol Marcus – a scientist joins the crew in trying to solve the problem (in WoK Kirk had known her years before and she is mother of his son David, in ID they just have met but feel an attraction)
- Knowing the ship better (in WoK Kirk knew Starfleet vessels better than Kahn and that let him win, in ID Kahn had helped design the Vengeance which gave him an advantage) – this was one of my favorite parts of WoK and I’m glad they worked it into ID even if it was with a twist. I love a character getting the advantage because they’ve spent time learning something. We need more of that in all sorts of movies and fiction.
- Warpdrive sacrifice (in WoK Spock goes into the radiation flooded area to fix the warp engine and save the ship, literally saying I did what you’d do, Kirk does the same thing in ID)
- Meanwhile Spock out thought and tricked Kahn as Kirk did in WoK
- These separate points are brought together by a desperate run through corridors to reach engineering where in WoK Kirk says goodbye to Spock and in ID Spock says goodbye to Kirk, both have the underlying admission of how much the two men mean to each other.
- The restoration of life via a miracle of modern technology (Spock via the Genesis machine in SFS, Kirk via Kahn’s blood in ID)
- Tribbles – although they shouldn’t have been discovered yet for about 15 years, McCoy has the Tribble, familiar to all fans, be his test subject for Kahn’s blood.
- Kirk as sex symbol – they just don’t seem able to let this one go and while they can’t actually work it into the story this time, they have a gratuitous shot of Kirk in bed with two girls both who have tails.
- Klingons – 1960s Klingons basically look like pseudo-orientals that was standard make up for the day with a little commando black rubbed on over it. When they actually got a decent budget for make-up they created the ridge headed Klingons we’ve known ever since. In the DS-9 (wonderful, terrific, you’ve got to see it if you haven’t) Tribble crossover episode Worf a ridge headed Klingon sees the face blackened kind and waves off questions with a “we don’t talk about it.” So everyone wondered what they would look like in this version. Answer – ridge headed without a mention of how or why. I knew you’d want to know.
Death of Spock
I also want to put in a bit more about the death of Spock. This was a big deal to fans at the time for two reasons. First, Spock stayed dead at the end of the movie, we mourned him from 1982 to 1984 when the sequel that brought him back to life came out. Second, we really believed it was real, not a he will be rescued in the last 5 minutes typical Star Trek main character death. Leonard Nimoy had decided he wanted out of doing everyone’s favorite Vulcan and a recast wasn’t ever considered so he wasn’t even in the early drafts of the script of even Star Trek II. However, when a new script writer came on he got them to offer Nimoy a role in the picture, by offering him a great death scene (apparently a la Janet Leigh in Psycho). Nimoy agreed, but as the script developed Spock’s death kept being pushed farther and farther back to work in the script (with Nimoy’s approval). In fact by the time it was over, Nimoy was enjoying Spock again so much that, together with an offer to direct the third film, he happily re-signed kicking off the next film in the series Star Trek III: The Search for Spock which was all about bringing him back. However, the reality that Nimoy was thought to be leaving added consequence to Spock’s death and leaving him dead at the end of the movie was an important note. It also adds a note of irony that alone of all the original cast Nimoy is the only one still playing his character in the movies (I vote for old Kirk to make an appearance in the next one).
The comparison to Kirk’s death breaks down because before we can do more than get angry like Spock does, Kirk is alive again. I didn’t time it, but his “death” couldn’t have been much longer than 5 minutes. Now they’ve played the death card and brought him back, especially so quickly, it lowers the death stakes again for the whole franchise, which is a disappointment.
Read more about Nimoy’s supposed departure here:
What they got wrong:
- Again the time suppression is a real killer here. If this is truly AU then we the audience should know a lot more about what’s waiting for them in space than they do. It takes time to get into deep space and unless their engines have far out stripped those in the original timeline by a great distance a lot of things that they are showing the characters knowing all about should be a mystery. Every time they do that it throws away a perfectly interesting story. For instance the whole Klingon incursion should have been a plot for a movie by itself. They are running on fastforward and they need to stop burning story unnecessarily. The only way most of these “shouldn’t know about yet” pop-ups really make sense is if there a consequence to them failing to restore the original timeline and time itself is breaking down and suppressing. If this was a series of books or a TV show, I’d think it was building to exactly that kind of conclusion, but I somehow doubt that’s where they are going with this.
- Qo’noS – the Klingon homeworld which we know all about from our beloved Worf, one they set it up both by length of time it takes to get there and by the fact they were able to transport there and that Khan was able to get his crippled ship from the outside there they seemed to imply the Klingons live practically right next door and the neutral zone could be crossed in a nanosecond (which kind of defeats its purpose). Also, it implies that the Klingons are so stupid they don’t have sentry ships patrolling their borders (because the Klingons are so peaceful and trusting I suppose.~ that’s a sarcasm mark if you haven’t run across it before) and that they could be expected to not notice a Federation star ship parked so near their planet just because its attention was focused on a deserted area. This is all symptomatic of cramming too much stuff in so you don’t have time to give the necessary weight to events. I know there were Klingons in WoK, but they should have been left out of ID, or at least it should have been an abandoned outpost colony somewhere, not the Klingon homeworld and you shouldn’t have seen so much about them. That should have been the next movie, just tantalizing hints of Klingons should have made this one.
- Missing the triad – One of the most important parts of the original Star Trek series was the focus on and tension within the classic storytelling triad, with Spock representing the mind and logic, Bones representing the heart and feelings, and Kirk being the balancing point creating a tension in any particular situation he’d lean. The focus in these films is much more on Spock-Kirk with both of them struggling with finding that head-heart balance on their own. It’s not nearly as compelling a plot device and I hope in future films, while I don’t see this Spock ever being the logic only Spock of the original series (and I truly regret that it wasn’t Nurse Chappell who always loved him who got a shot at a Spock who believed he could have a romantic relationship), I hope that in the next film we see more of Bones and that they restore that important balancing element of the trio.
- Sulu – I’m sorry and two films in I doubt they’ll replace him, but I just don’t get a Sulu feeling from this guy. I think it’s something about his eyes, they just don’t seem to convey the lively interest and passion that Sulu put in even just ordinary conversations with Chekov. If I had been Khan and the original Sulu gave that speech to Kahn when he first takes the chair, I might have hesitated, with this Sulu I’m not surprised Khan assumed he could totally blow off and ignore Sulu and his warning, which is exactly what he did. Despite Bones efforts in dialogue to imply it was impressive.
- Philosophy – Philosophy was always important on the TV show versions of Star Trek. The moral quandary was less important in Star Trek movies, but it is something that sets Star Trek apart and should be honored. In this film for deep thought we got “Friends are important” and a political message about current events. That isn’t the same thing and really reminded me of some of the heavy handed spy/communist movies or the anti-war movies of the 1960s. That isn’t the same thing as deep thought. They could be building to a vengeance is always bought at too high a price theme in the third movie, but again I don’t think that’s where they are building to. If they are, I’ll apologize, although that still isn’t much of a deep philosophical question.
What they got right:
- The characters – with the two exceptions I noted above (Sulu’s failure to gel and Spock’s too frequent loss of logic – if it happens constantly there is no impact) they’ve done a great job capturing the characters. As I said in my review of the first movie it’s truly more like they are channeling the original portrayals rather than playing them as new people and I think that has to help people accept these films.
- Cast balance – again except for the lack of Bones equality I reference above, they seem to have jumped in to closer to the end point of the original series and even the movies where all the supporting crew have something important to do and make a major contribution to the plot and to ultimately saving everyone. I’m glad they have built up the importance of the characters who we know, but frankly got the short end of the stick in much of the original series. We love all these characters and it’s great that they all get a chance to shine. These people become a family and that’s fully appreciated and depicted.
- Red shirts – this was a fan term (along with disposable ensigns) that was used to describe a class of characters in the show. It wasn’t used in the series itself, so when they deliberately mention the red shirts (twice) in ID it made me smile.
- The 3D/special effects – even with Star Trek movies as a standard these are very well done. Each scene was visually thought through and most were awe inducing.
- The Five Year mission – although sadly the original never made it that long, each episode started with a declaration that they were on a 5 year exploratory mission (which they weren’t as they frequently returned to known space), but it was a very nice point that at the beginning of the movie Kirk wants the Enterprise assigned to such a mission and at the end they get it.
- Kahn – the brilliant part of them casting Benedict Cumberbatch as Kahn is that he plays the edge between good and bad so perfectly. It’s his truest strength as an actor and as he was widely known as the hero in Sherlock Holmes who also plays that edge, when he started reasonably explaining you kind of starting thinking maybe it was Kirk who had hold of the wrong end of the stick after all. I don’t think anybody else could have played Kahn and succeeded so well at getting the audience on his side for even a little while, especially without the leavening of Kahn’s wife from “Space Seed.”
So overall, I came out really wishing I could have stayed for the second showing and watched it again. It got a lot right and I think has taken just the right note over all. Was it as good as the first one in this series? I’d say no. Is it better than about half of the other Star Trek movies ever made? I’d say yes. I’ll definitely be watching it again when it comes out on DVD (my cousin had a very interesting take on the Scotty plot and I have to see if I see any sign she’s right). It’s a very good movie and a love letter to Star Trek fans and fanfic. However, the pace was too on all the time, you need to have some quiet time for things to build and the plot to work its best, the plot needed more depth, and I really want them to push the edge a little bit more. Spock’s mother dying was an epic change to the timeline, they need to do that more and just shoving stuff at us because we already know about it less (unless they really are headed for a consequence of the timeline shift, but I truly don’t think that’s the plan). This was a very good entry in the series and I can’t wait to see what happens next.