So I recently watched Star Trek Into Darkness (and this seems to have won out as the proper stylization) and found myself having strong feelings (or I suppose if I want to get tech blog credit, “feels”) about it. And before you claim I’m overthinking it, or far too much of a Trekkie, let me explain myself
- I mostly enjoyed the movie in the theater (with some exceptions)
- I like Star Trek, but I’m probably a “Diet” Trekkie at best since I’ve really only seen The Next Generation (and still technically not all of it), Voyager, and Enterprise and little bits of Deep Space Nine and the original series (and read none of the novels or other things). For Trekkies who generally love DS9 more than Voyager, realize the preference there is related more to by bed time in elementary school when both of those were on. (Wow, I just admitted a bed time on the Internet, that was unexpected. Also, I just learned virtually every episode of every Star Trek series is on Netflix, so this excuse probably doesn’t hold anymore)
- I do think there’s a difference between a good individual movie and a movie that’s supposed to fit into a franchise
So let’s talk about the experience in the theater as a singular movie. First, the pros. It delivered as an action movie and was a decent science fiction movie. Having only really seen Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock, it was interesting to see him play such a physical character. Spock, Kirk, and Scotty were all great and Scotty was pretty fun to watch when he was off on his own. But let’s also get to the two big things that really threw me off during the movie.
First, the entire opening scene was unintentionally hilarious to me. The trailer clip of Bones and Kirk running in a gorgeous red rainforest is the start. And that was fine (wow, for once a trailer in recent memeory that didn’t spoil). But it turns out they jump off a cliff because the Enterprise is underwater? We find out the reason the crew is even on the planet is because a volcano is about to erupt and it threatens to wipe out a primitive alien species. Kirk and Bones are running because they stole some sacred scroll from the aliens and the chase would draw the tribe farther away from the volcano. We then find out Spock is in the volcano, preparing a cold fusion device. I’m not joking, that’s official. Okay, that sounds weird because cold fusion isn’t “cold”, it’s just fusion that takes place at like room temperature instead of the temperature inside the heart of a star. Like the arc reactor in Iron Man. That’s cold fusion (plus magic comic book science, but technically cold fusion). But okay, maybe I’ll give it a pass, this is like the far future so maybe it’ll do something like how the US government hoped to use nuclear bombs for constructive purposes. Then we see it go off. And the cold fusion device seems to cause the magma to ice over. Yep, okay, it’s as stupid as I thought. (Slight spoilers immediately after the cut, bigger spoilers further down)
Also, evidently the transporter doesn’t work here, except when it does. Enterprise is under water because they had to be that close to beam Spock into the volcano because the planet has a very strong magnetic field. But you can beam things out near black holes? (Which technically don’t have magnetic fields, but should generate lots of radiation as matter falls in and heats up.) But then they can’t beam Spock out as the volcano starts to erupt because it causes even more magnetic interference (is that the new buzzword in Abrams’ version of Star Trek?) but if they get out of the water and expose the Enterprise to this entire primitive culture that does not know about aliens, they can suddenly beam him out before the cold fusion bomb turns him into a Spocksicle. Did the water make a difference? I am so incredibly confused. I’ll admit the reaction to this scene is kind of nit-picky, but I was so confused. And honestly, I would have been happy with a stupid explanation filled with technobabble, but it just seemed like Abrams wanted a dramatic scene and didn’t really care about any internal logic needed to support it.
(Bigger spoilers starting here)
The other thing that surprised me is how utterly defenseless Earth and Starfleet headquarters seem to be. After John Harrison (Cumberbatch) convinces someone to blow up a Starfleet archive, all the admirals meet at HQ. After some commenting on how random of a target that was, Kirk suddenly thinks it may have been a trap because surely Harrison would know that procedure requires the admirals to meet after a suspected attack. And literally right after Kirk says that, we see a helicopter come up to the windows of the meeting room and open fire. Okay, the trope was well done here. But what confused me was the response. Security only starts shooting after Harrison already shot into the building. In fact, when Kirk runs off to the side to move Pike away and get a view of Harrison, we don’t see any aerial emergency response or even gunfire form below. Is there literally no defense around the building? Near the end of the movie, Harrison manages to crash a giant prototype starship into the San Francisco Bay and encounters no resistance (unless one counts the viscosity of water).
Seriously? A plane just veering off its flight path in Washington, D.C now runs the risk of being shot out of the sky by fighter jets. One could say 23rd century Earth is too peaceful for Starfleet to worry about attacks from on the planet, but that doesn’t fit into the new Abrams canon, post-Nero. It’s become fanon, if not actual canon, that the destruction of the Kelvin in the first film led to Starfleet becoming more militaristic than in the original series. And I’d also think that after Vulcan was blown up in the last film and Earth nearly was (and that point of attack was also Starfleet HQ), Starfleet should have some defenses in place to make sure it doesn’t lose even more infrastructure. It just seems like a major plot hole for there to be nothing fighting back and diminishes the sense of a Federation on the verge of war.
Now I want to share my issues with the movie as part of a rebooted Star Trek franchise. I was really excited about the idea of a reboot when it was first announced. Voyager and Deep Space 9 didn’t lead to clear sequel series and Enterprise seemed to prove that it’s hard to make an interesting prequel for a series with as much backstory as Star Trek. And being a bit lazy about my media, I also liked the idea of most of the canon being wiped clean and being able to catch the new series from the start. The 2009 movie was a good start at a new series, and plot definitely set it up to be a distinct story.
People much more knowledgeable about race issues than me have pointed out how problematic casting Cumberbatch as a character clearly identified as Indian (and probably a Sikh) is. And they point out that Roddenberry intentionally made Khan a non-European character because he thought that turned the racist ideals of eugenics on their head. Though I do want to add one point I haven’t seen addressed in regard to co-producer and co-writer Bob Orci’s comment that “it became uncomfortable for me to support demonizing anyone of color, particularly any one of Middle Eastern descent or anyone evoking that. One of the points of the movie is that we must be careful about the villain within US, not some other race.” But the movie definitely shows Khan to be a sympathetic villain, and the main reason he turned against the Federation is because Admiral Marcus was a jerk to him. And Admiral Marcus is pretty white bread, so even if fans still considered an obviously Sikh Khan an “other” it seems quite clear they should realize Marcus is definitely an internal threat.
But my biggest question is why Khan? There’s good point that we just didn’t even need Khan in this film. Abrams made clear his movies are a reboot, not a remake, which means he doesn’t need to redo every plot. If they really wanted Cumberbatch after Benicio del Toro fell through, why did they need to keep Khan as the villain? There are like 70 other augments they could have chosen if they wanted the basic plot. It could have been really cool for new Trek to have a distinct superhuman as a villain instead of just bringing back the most famous one from the original series. Or it didn’t even have to be an augment. I was kind of interpreting the trailers as the Enterprise needing to fight a saboteur or traitor within the Federation, and given the immense secrecy about “John Harrison” and him only being seen in dark colors, I was thinking he might a spy from Section 31, Starfleet’s questionable CIA/FBI/NSA/scary-acronym-agency, gone rogue (although I guess that later part did turn out right). The entire alternate reality could provide great motivation for that plot, since the Federation suffered two attacks they clearly were not prepared for and the whole militaristic bent could lead Section 31 to become way more dominant earlier on.
I didn’t even realize in the theater that Carol Wallace Marcus is, well, Carol Marcus (from Wrath of Khan, which I have still not watched in a single sitting as a failure of a Trekkie). Her character is different, but again, why did she need to be Carol Marcus? Couldn’t any applied physicist related to the crazy admiral have worked? JJ Abrams, I’m not expecting to see remixes of the original movies; I want to see new plots with the crew of the Enterprise. Like i09 points out, it’s hard for us to have the same emotional reaction to the same plots from old Trek when we’ve only known the crew of Abrams’ Trek for a few hours. Abrams wants to focus on the Kirk-Spock bromance, which isn’t a bad idea. But so far, we’ve just seen them mostly hate each other in the 2009 movie and nothing that seemed much more notable than basic military comraderie in Into Darkness.
And this makes me kind of worry about the new Trek movie series. Nearly all of the previous Star Trek movies are action-filled fights against defined villains, so that’s not bad. But the core was always that we knew these characters from TV shows which had them boldly going where no person had gone before. It was about exploration, not just being a space navy. That could be a really interesting story, and evidently one that was considered at some point. And we could actually care about characters dying because we knew them really well from 50+ hours of stories on television, not just a few hours every few years on the silver screen. I feel like I know Kirk (although his characterization at the start seemed like it took a few steps backward from the end of the first movie) and sort of know Spock, but the rest of the Abrams’ Enterprise crew is mostly a mystery (even Bones, and he was just as much a part of the wry observation triumvirate with Kirk and Spock that many original series episodes focused on).
So it’d be really great if we could get a TV series going so we can that get sense of exploration and also more character development. Although I admit I have no idea how you get enough money for a TV series with Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, and Simon Pegg. Put it on HBO? (Damn, did I just price myself out of a show I want to watch?) I think Abrams, or at least his Enterprise crew, would like to get there too. In fact, one of the things I did like about this as a Star Trek film was the theme of the conflict between the exploration/science and military aspects of the Federation. Physicist Carol helps Kirk uncover her father’s plot. Engineer Scotty manages to disable the terrifying deathship Vengeance (and he resigned because he couldn’t in good conscience let unknown weapons on the ship). I believe Kirk even says at one point something like war isn’t supposed to be the point of Starfleet. And we end with the start of a five-year mission, just like what we saw in the original series. To borrow the words of a captain of a later Enterprise, “Abrams, make it so.”