‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ is somewhat underwhelming and heavily reliant on mimicry

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Star-Trek-PosterStar Trek Into Darkness
Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof
Directed by J.J. Abrams
USA, 2013

The closing moments of the 2009 reboot of Star Trek saw a revival of its source material’s famous slogan regarding the ongoing mission of the Enterprise: “to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life forms and new civilisations; to boldly go where no one has gone before.” Though J.J. Abrams’ film acknowledged the property’s history, the conceit of its alternate timeline story made it so that the film wasn’t actually a prequel to the original series, laying down a path in which the younger versions of the crew could have new adventures with no obligation to align with established Star Trek mythology.

It is notable that the mission statement that closes Abrams’ film should be delivered by Leonard Nimoy’s incarnation of Spock rather than Zachary Quinto’s, or Chris Pine’s Kirk. In hindsight, tying the reboot series to its past one last time, before the apparent venture towards the new, now reads as a forecast of the 2013 sequel’s direction. Rather than relishing in the freedom to introduce fresh ideas and boldly go where no one has gone before, Star Trek Into Darkness is extremely reliant on repeating what has come before in its own franchise.

Some semblance of the new admittedly opens the film, with a pre-credits sequence that, in the fashion of the Indiana Jones series, picks up with the protagonists at the tail end of an exciting adventure on an indigenous planet. Following that set-piece, which involves Kirk breaking protocol in order to save Spock’s life, the story’s back on Earth where the captain is reprimanded and stripped of duty, only to be re-instated within ten minutes of narrative time after attacks by a treacherous Starfleet operative known as John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch, who the camera loves to zoom or linger on for dramatic effect). The location of the escaped Harrison is pinpointed to an unoccupied area of a Klingon planet, and Starfleet’s Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) grants Kirk permission to lead a manhunt, free of other federation assistance so as to avoid war, in order to terminate the mysterious force of terror.

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One might be inclined to view Into Darkness’ preoccupation with terrorism and military action as in spirit with the way Gene Roddenberry’s original TV series would reflect the current events of the time. Execution-wise, however, the revenge-fueled narrative feels less exploratory and more an aping of many blockbusters of late. In one scene, Scotty (Simon Pegg, giving one of the film’s performance highlights) expresses major discomfort with the mission, labeling it a clear military operation and asking, “Is that what we are now? I thought we were explorers.” It almost feels like a question to Into Darkness itself, a film in which – excluding the opening set-piece – one sole, brief trip is made to another world, and where a significant majority of the action takes place either on Earth or in the interiors of two vessels placed directly above the planet. One gets the sense that an epic scope is being aimed for, but the film feels strangely small.

That sense of smallness is only enhanced by the screenplay’s nods to past Trek fare. Regarding the comedic elements, this was an often fun touch in the previous film, but here the vast majority of the humour is entirely based around fan pandering and call-backs, even to specific jokes from the prior film à la Pirates of the Caribbean. This extends beyond the comedy to the film’s dramatic turns, with various iconic elements of earlier films in the franchise – recognisable even to those with only a surface level knowledge of the property from pop culture – explicitly reworked. It’s less a case of subtle homage and more an explicit recreation of earlier material with some re-framing; swapping character roles or slightly altering scenarios. One of these reworkings admittedly leads to what some might call a legitimately ballsy narrative choice for this reboot series, only for its resolution to cause what others might call a case of blue balls.

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The aforementioned issues aside, Star Trek Into Darkness still remains a relatively enjoyable if underwhelming sci-fi spectacle. Cohesively it is probably better overall than its predecessor, and none of its lulls reach the lows of the 2009 film’s painful opening 25 minutes. There are reliably entertaining rapports and performances, and a few thrilling set-pieces in the third act. J.J. Abrams’ hyperactive visual stylings aren’t quite as striking here, and the colour scheme has gone the way of the oft-mocked orange and teal combo, while there are a few examples of glaring gratuity. The whole proceedings early on, for example, with Kirk briefly robbed of his captain post serves to needlessly complicate, while there’s a particularly shameless sequence that has no purpose other than to show new recruit Carol (Alice Eve) in her underwear for a few seconds. Not all of the older characters are served well either; Zoe Saldana’s Uhura gets the short shrift, while the screenwriters frequently seem to forget Anton Yelchin’s Chekov even exists. Since Into Darkness is so reliant on mimicry, it might have been wise to replicate its direct predecessor’s effective balance of its supporting players.

As the film concludes, one beloved character reflects on how everyone is about to venture forth into space for five years, followed by the bemoaning muttering of “God help me”. It’s a sign that a third film may finally go somewhere new, but one wonders if Bones McCoy’s apparent anguish at the idea is also reflective of the film’s creative forces. Sure enough, the show’s mission statement about exploring is repeated again as the credits loom. They’re not delivered by Nimoy this time but by one of the younger cast members, so here’s hoping this timeline doesn’t get stuck in another time loop.

Josh Slater-Williams

8 Comments
  1. Julius says

    I have a similar opinion about this film as Josh Slater-Williams does. It’s hollow. Any allusions to the wisdom or morality of pre-emptive war or drone warfare and are just illusions. This film really just came down to several white guys punching each other.

    J.J. Abrams gets a lot of blame for turning Star Trek into Star Wars but he didn’t write this script or the plot hole filled last one. He did very well with what he had. But the lacks any aspirations beyond popcorn entertainment which is disappointing.

  2. Tim says

    This is a well written review. I’ve seen a lot of similar reviews calling out the same issues with Into Darkness.
    There often also seems to be a continuing theme with people who have issues with such reviews; Without JJ Abrahms, there would be no Star Trek (i.e. he saved it)
    JJ Abrahms basically took something, changed it to something else and then gave it a familiar name. It’s like saying I’m going to save the whales by renaming dolphins to whales and then patting myself on the back for increasing the “whale” population. He has not, is not and will not be saving the Star Trek legacy. What he’s done is, in effect, relabled and repackaged something else, called it Star Trek and then asked you to accept his version of it.
    I’ve been a huge fan of Trek, been to conventions, met the actors and have seen all there is to see. I can tell you that these recent movies, when thought about critically, are nothing more than productions losely inspired by Star Trek but not actually Gene Roddenberry’s Trek. Your review is spot-on regarding the “seek out new life…” line being lost on JJ Abrahms. Let’s call a spade a spade and just change it to “To run around a lot, blow things up and hang around Earth as much as possible.”
    Not saying that people won’t enjoy this movie for what little it is; a mindless popcorn flick filmed inside an Apple store but for those of us who would sacrifice glitter for story telling, it’s not for us.
    Trek ended with Nemesis and that’s okay. Not everything needs to be reimagined, rebooted and shoved down our throats. It’s entirely ok to leave some things alone. Like this and Star Wars.

    1. Willow Catelyn says

      @Tim, thank you for saying the first Abrams Trek film was a mindless popcorn flick filmed inside an apple store. You have made my day.

      Also, good review Josh. Still one of the best I’ve read for Into Darkness so far.

  3. Josh Slater-Williams says

    Thanks for reading the review, folks, but I must take issue with some points in your comments:

    “You call Star Trek (2009) a ‘crappy story’”

    I did not say that anywhere, nor anything about the quality of the first film’s narrative.

    “Well I cant take any critic seriously if he did indeed call Star Trek 2009 crappy.”

    And I also didn’t say this. It is that film’s opening 25 minutes that I do not think are very good, most of the rest of the film is very enjoyable and I am a fan of much of that. I would not consider either of the two Abrams films notably poor overall; as my review reflects, I just don’t think ‘Into Darkness’ is particularly strong as a whole, the many problematic elements overshadowing its highlights.

  4. Twintosser says

    Well I cant take any critic seriously if he did indeed call Star Trek 2009 crappy. I thought it was so well done, and original. But Im not going to argue the point. Clearly the writer of the article doesn’t like either reboot. Which is very sad.

    Obviously Abramms and crew put a lot of effort to keep it true and heck it sure did seem like I was watching Star Trek a new and improved one to be sure. by the way The 1st movie did particularly shameless sequence featuring Uhura in her underwear too. I didn’t complain since we got to see Kirk in his undies too!

  5. Vlad-Drakul says

    Well it’s all a matter of opinion: I think the 2009 ‘Star Trek’ film was a fantastic miracle in the same way the non cinema (ie with the ‘extra’ 40 MINUTES! per film cut out of the cinema versions for commercial reasons) the Lord of the Rings films were. Brilliant poetic films! The cuts and changes to the ‘Lore’ or cannon in both S.T. and LOTR were necessary: I love reading the Tom Bombadil section of the LOTR when reading the book and my boy loves the character too; But even he sees why it was necessary to ‘move on’.
    You call Star Trek (2009) a ‘crappy story’ while I thought it profound and well motivated.where it mattered (planet Vulcans destruction was to FORCE a new dynamic on the ‘reboot’ universe while preserving the elements that make up the original Star Trek; which is superior to Star Wars both intellectually and morally.
    Some want nostalgia; which is creative death; and others it’s opposite; easy mind drifting entertainment which leads to the same mess. In my mind the reboots do both elements well and without a planet of Vulcan both vulcans, the Federation vs Klingons and Romulans and other issues will take on another balance and form; leaving a lot of great possibilities to the future. (for example the Romulan Vulcan connection and new peace/interbreeding possibilities for example!!)
    But you need to continue the moral, personal and emotional qualities of the original Star Trek or you may as well just do something else. JJ Abrams has done that; just as between 2005 and 2009 RT Davis successfully remade and revitalised Dr Who.
    Be grateful that JJ Abrams has chosen to take the necessary risk of destroying something to preserve the marrow of Star Trek for future growth, while making the effort to make sure the characters have the souls of the original TOS (the best!) characters and with the same immortal moral questions to answer.
    This is the only film apart from ‘Lincoln’ that I am really looking forwards to seeing this year, though I do hope to see a few that are great surprises too!

  6. Vlad-Drakul says

    Well it’s all a matter of opinion: I think the 2009 ‘Star Trek’ film was a fantastic miracle in the same way the non cinema (ie with the ‘extra’ 40 MINUTES! per film cut out of the cinema versions for commercial reasons) the Lord of the Rings films were. Brilliant poetic films! The cuts and changes to the ‘Lore’ or cannon in both S.T. and LOTR were necessary: I love reading the Tom Bombadil section of the LOTR when reading the book and my boy loves the character too; But even he sees why it was necessary to ‘move on’.
    You call Star Trek (2009) a ‘crappy story’ while I thought it profound and well motivated.where it mattered (planet Vulcans destruction was to FORCE a new dynamic on the ‘reboot’ universe while preserving the elements that make up the original Star Trek; which is superior to Star Wars both intellectually and morally.
    Some want nostalgia; which is creative death; and others it’s opposite; easy mind drifting entertainment which leads to the same mess. In my mind the reboots do both elements well and without a planet of Vulcan both vulcans, the Federation vs Klingons and Romulans and other issues will take on another balance and form; leaving a lot of great possibilities to the future. (for example the Romulan Vulcan connection and new peace/interbreeding possibilities for example!!)
    But you need to continue the moral , personal and emotional qualities of the original Star Ttrek or you may as well just do something else. JJ Abrams has done that; just as between 2005 and 2009 RT Davis successfully remade and revitalised Dr Who but now under totally new managemne and political masters the show has returned to the ‘child’s entertainment division’ of the new Cameron era as a kind of ‘Downtown Abbey in a Tardis’ and the show is already irrelevant again (line in the Thatcher 1980’s) after having been an international phenomenon reported on even in the NYT and making serious comments on current UK ploitics like the Police state, corruption and Tony Blair (the Master)
    Be grateful that JJ Abrams has chosen to take the necessary risks of destroying something to preserve the marrow of Star Trek for future growth while making the effort to make sure the characters have the souls of the original TOS (the best!) characters and the same moral questions to answer.
    This is the only film apart from ‘Lincoln’ that I am really looking forwards to seeing this year, (though I do hope to see a few I am not expecting to see that are great surprises too).

    1. Vlad-Drakul says

      Well it’s all a matter of opinion: I think the 2009 ‘Star Trek’ film was a fantastic miracle in the same way the non cinema Lord of the Rings films were(ie with the ‘extra’ 40 MINUTES! per film cut out of the cinema versions) Brilliant poetic films! The cuts and changes to the ‘Lore’ or cannon in both S.T. and LOTR were necessary: I love reading the Tom Bombadil section of the LOTR when reading the book and my boy loves the character too; But even he sees why it was necessary to ‘move on’.
      You call Star Trek (2009) a ‘crappy story’ while I thought it profound and well motivated.where it mattered (planet Vulcans destruction was to FORCE a new dynamic on the ‘reboot’ universe while preserving the elements that make up the original Star Trek; which is superior to Star Wars both intellectually and morally.
      Some want nostalgia; which is creative death; and others it’s opposite; easy mind drifting entertainment which leads to the same mess. In my mind the reboots do both elements well and without a planet of Vulcan both vulcans, the Federation vs Klingons and Romulans and other issues will take on another balance and form; leaving a lot of great possibilities to the future. (for example the Romulan Vulcan connection and new peace/interbreeding possibilities for example!!)
      But you need to continue the moral, personal and emotional qualities of the original Star Trek or you may as well just do something else. JJ Abrams has done that; just as between 2005 and 2009 RT Davis successfully remade and revitalised Dr Who.
      Be grateful that JJ Abrams has chosen to take the necessary risk of destroying something to preserve the marrow of Star Trek for future growth, while making the effort to make sure the characters have the souls of the original TOS (the best!) characters and with the same immortal moral questions to answer.
      This is the only film apart from ‘Lincoln’ that I am really looking forwards to seeing this year, though I do hope to see a few that are great surprises too!

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