Note: This is a spoiler-heavy review. If you want a spoiler-lite recommendation, click here. If not, continue at your own risk.
Towards the climax of Star Trek: Into Darkness, Kirk and the Enterprise flee an aggressor by entering warp. At that speed, several factors the speed of light itself, they surmise that they must be safe from their pursuer. Of course, they prove to be wrong – brutally so. Everything in Into Darkness moves fast, so fast that the Enterprise’s top speed seems more like a casual jog than a breakneck acceleration. The plot rockets along with incredible speed, from plot point to plot point, counting on the momentum to sustain the film and carry it across the line.
There is enough material here to produce a trilogy of films. Indeed, cynics might suggest that a lot of the movie’s iconography and plot points are indeed recycled from the central “trilogy” of the original Star Trek films, running from the homages to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan right down a climactic visual reference to Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Abrams and his team of writer continue their work from 2009’s breakout blockbuster Star Trek by putting the franchise’s most compelling images and cues into a high-speed blender.
Into Darkness just substantially increases the concentration.
Put simply, Into Darkness feels more “Trekkian” – for lack of a better word – than its direct predecessor. It feels more firmly anchored in the lore and philosophy of the sixties television show and its 700+ episodes of spin-offs and tie-ins than the 2009 Star Trek reboot was. While this film’s predecessor felt like a very clean break from the forty-odd years of history built up since William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy first appeared on screen, Into Darkness feels more firmly anchored the show and its own history.
Jaded commentators will argue that the connection is a cynical attempt to play on familiar images and characters. In hindsight, using Khan as the movie’s villain seems almost inevitable. He is, after all, one of the franchise’s few headline villains with any name recognition among the wider public. Rebooting the film franchise gave Abrams and his colleagues the opportunity to play with all the items in the Star Trek toy box, so using Khan seemed logical. And Cumberbatch makes a suitably convincing foil for Chris Pine’s Kirk, offering a sense of a poise and dignity that lends the role a gravitas close to that of Ricardo Montalban.
My inner cynical may ponder the political correctness of casting a British actor as an Indian Sikh. Of course, Montalban was a Mexican actor, so it’s hardly as if there isn’t historical precedent for this sort of casting. That said, the original Star Trek television show was the product of a very different time, and one might hope that modern Hollywood would be less insensitive. There is something decidedly “safe” in the film’s attempts to offset the recharacterisation of Khan from a deposed despot to a blood-thirsty terrorist by falling back on the old “evil Briton” cliché.
And the use of Khan points to both the strengths and the weaknesses of Into Darkness. On the one level, it’s smart to use an iconic and recognisable villain, and Abrams has recruited a talented actor for the part. He shuffles things up just enough to keep it interesting. Khan gets to do a lot more here than he did in both Space Seed and The Wrath of Khan. While casting a white actor in the role of an Indian Sikh has unfortunate implications, it makes sense to reimagine this fugitive from a more brutal past as a terrorist insurgent.
And the idea of forcing Kirk to team up with Khan in the movie’s second act is absolutely brilliant. Ricardo Montalban infused the character with a romantic sense of tragedy that helped mask his brutal and thuggish nature. In fact, probably the weirdest shift in the characterisation of this version of Khan is the way that he embraces his savagery, rather than concealing it. As played by Montalban, Khan was a strong-armed thug who thought himself the pinnacle of human accomplishment, his grand statements undermined by his base nature. It seems like Cumberbatch’s Khan has no such illusions.
While Montalban’s Khan was as likely to launch into Milton or Melville as he was to launch torpedoes, Cumberbatch’s Khan is more honest about what he is – conceding his savagery is what Marcus wanted to harness. Montalban’s Khan was just as much a brutal thug, but he masked it was a grin like that of a hungry shark. Cumberbatch’s Khan does not smile at all. Montalban’s Khan makes grand justifications for his brutality, while Cumberbatch’s Khan doesn’t flinch when Spock accuses him of plotting genocide. It’s a great performance, one which acknowledges the heart of the character, but feels like more than shallow imitation. Cumberbatch makes this version of Khan his own, and the movie is the better for it.
And yet Into Darkness cleverly plays with the notion that Khan is more than just a villain. He’s a terrorist, a man responsible for mass murder. As Spock points out, allowing Khan to go free will probably result in genocide. However, the movie is careful enough to give Khan a sympathetic motivation (“is there anything you would not do for your family?”) and to allow him the benefit of the doubt. He cooperates with Kirk in storming the Vengeance. “I thought he was helping us,” Scotty protests.
Kirk smartly acknowledges that Khan probably can’t be trusted. “I have a feeling we’re helping him,” he clarifies. However, the film doesn’t give Khan the opportunity to cold-bloodedly betray Kirk. Instead, Kirk and Scotty betray Khan first. It’s more than likely Khan would readily have killed Kirk and stolen the Vengeance, but the film frames it in such a way that he doesn’t seem like a monster, despite his brutality. For a man who crushes skulls with his bare hands, that’s quite a feat. You almost pity him. Almost.
While Space Seed allowed Kirk and his crew to romanticise Khan, something made possible by Montalban’s poised performance, Into Darkness instead uses the plot to render Khan almost sympathetic. Whether or not Khan would commit genocide, his attack on Section 31 is close to justifiable. Admiral Marcus gets to take the brunt of the movie’s two-dimensional villainy. (Although his motivations are still clear enough, if a little bloodthirsty.) Khan’s suicide run on San Francisco is conducted in the midst of an emotional breakdown following what he believes to be the mass-murder of his family. He’s a bad guy, but a multi-faceted one.
The film also cleverly contrasts Kirk with Khan, actually expanding on the parallels at the core of The Wrath of Khan. Like Kirk, Khan is a commander who knows the burdens and responsibilities of protecting those under his command. “My crew is my family,” he explains. Like Kirk, Khan is arrogant and overbearing – resourceful and improvisational. Pine and Cumberbatch play very well off one another, and it would be a shame if Cumberbatch weren’t revived for the follow-up film.
However, Khan is also symptomatic of the script’s biggest weakness. Despite all this, he still feels rather shallow, as if he’s being used because he’s iconic rather than because the script needs him. You can see it in the early scenes with Kirk and Spock, after he confesses his identity. Khan is most iconic as the villain of The Wrath of Khan, a superman waging revenge in a stolen ship against people he feels have betrayed him. So, in order to make this reimagined Khan as iconic as possible, Into Darkness rushes to get that point.
There’s a lot of clumsy exposition as Khan recounts his back story. His origins and his early encounters with Starfleet are covered in a few awkward lines of dialogue, a story for another time it would seem. In the previous continuity, this narrative gap was filled by the wonderful Space Seed. Trying to skip over a villain’s entire origin in order to get to “the good stuff” robs these symbolic Star Trek images and iconography of some of their power.
However, although Khan is probably going to be the focal point of discussion about this film, he’s not really the heart of Into Darkness. He’s a nice vehicle to explore the movie’s strengths and weaknesses, but he isn’t the strongest connection to the franchise’s roots. He’ll draw the most discussion and debate, and he’ll serve as the focus of various fandom arguments, but he’s not really what makes Into Darkness feel so “Trekkian.” He is, to quote the man himself, “a smokescreen” – a distraction and a decoy.
Instead, Into Darkness makes a very conscious effort to connect the franchise’s long and distinguished history of social commentary. In its heyday, Star Trek was a vehicle for raising big questions and for pushing the envelope in ways that many contemporary television drama either would not or could not do. Stories like Errand of Mercy and A Taste of Armageddon offered a condemnation of the Cold War mentality. Plato’s Stepchildren featured one of the very first interracial kisses on prime time network television.
It’s a long and distinguished tradition for the franchise, and even extended to the spin-offs. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine even managed to offer a thoughtful exploration of the war on terror before the term was popularly used. In a manner that might seem heavy-handed but for the fact that it aired in the nineties, the franchise’s oft-overlooked live action spin-off explored the lengths that humanity would go to in order to protect their utopia.
Perhaps appropriately, then, there’s quite a lot of that to be found in Into Darkness. JJ Abrams’ two films opted – rather wisely – to selectively pick and chose from the most memorable or distinguished imagery from the show’s extended history. The uniforms are the bright primary colours seem in the sixties, airing on a show produced by a network to convince viewers to invest in colour televisions manufactured by its parent company. However, the movie borrows iconography from all eras of the franchise, reaching into the collective popular unconsciousness to formulate a version of Star Trek distilled for casual movie-goers.
The film’s climax borrows heavily from The Wrath of Khan. Spock even recites his catchphrase from the film. (“The needs of the many…”) However, the Enterprise also plummets to Earth in a sequence designed to evoke the most iconic moments from Star Trek III: The Search For Spock. A hijacked ship plunges into San Francisco Bay, as it did at the climax of The Voyage Home. McCoy even appears to have a pet Tribble. He performs surgery on a torpedo, as he did at the climax of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.
There’s a reference to “the Mudd incident” and a shout-out to Sulu’s potential future as a starship commander (“Captain has a nice ring to it”). The movie even finds time to play with the infamous “red shirt” phenomenon, the tendency for random extras in the red security uniforms to die quickly to raise the suspense. Forced to name an interim engineer, Kirk picks Chekov. “Go put a red shirt on,” he instructs, and the look of abject terror on Anton Yelchin’s face is hilarious. Wisely, the first instruction Kirk gives to the two security guards heading down to Qo’nos with him is to take off their red shirts.
However, Abrams and his team wisely realise that they have a much larger pool to mine. References to Deep Space Nine‘s shadowy “Section 31” work their way into the script, suggesting a rather cynical view of the United Federation of Planets. Kirk finds himself racing another Starfleet ship under the command of a rogue militant admiral back to Earth with evidence of a military conspiracy, in a moment which feels like an homage the same show’s Paradise Lost.
Kirk even finds himself wrestling with the same questions of liberty and security in the face of terrorism which confronted Benjamin Sisko. Klingons attacking Kirk and his away team on Qo’nos use weapons very clearly designed to evoke the Klingon Bat’leth as familiar to even casual viewers of The Next Generation. Admiral Marcus’ plan for a “more militarised Starfleet” recalls several familiar Star Trek plot lines and episodes, especially that aforementioned Deep Space Nine story arc.
There are even lots of production in-jokes which make it obvious that the writers know their Star Trek lore. Khan’s alias (“John Harrison”) feels like an amalgamation of various early iterations of the character’s name in the first drafts of Space Seed (“John Erickson” and “Harold Erickson“) and even an extra present on the bridge in that episode. Carol Marcus boards the ship giving the fake name of Carol Wallace, claiming it as her mother’s name. The writers of The Wrath of Khan had considered using a pre-existing Janice Wallace from The Deadly Years in an early draft of that screenplay.
On some level, this is occasionally frustrating. It feels like – at points – Abrams and his writers are simply breaking down the show’s iconography and recycling the “best of” moments using superior special effects and much more impressive budget. There’s even a completely superfluous cameo from Leonard Nimoy which feels rather unnecessarily self-referential. And I love Leonard Nimoy, but falling back on “calling dad when we get into trouble” weakens the climax quite a bit.
More than that, the movie’s climax suffers a great deal from Abrams’ desire to both emulate The Wrath of Khan and distinguish himself from it. He flips the iconic death scene around, with Kirk replacing Spock in the radiation chamber. It’s a nice enough scene (even if having Quinto yell “Khaaaaaan!” over-eggs the pudding slightly), but it also undermines a lot of what was so effective about the climax of The Wrath of Khan.
The Wrath of Khan, like Into Darkness, was about humbling Kirk a great deal. In Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the franchise conceded that Kirk could be opportunist and arrogant and self-centred despite being a damn fine officer. It was hinted at throughout the original television show, and it’s a major influence on Chris Pine and JJ Abrams’ take on Kirk. So there’s a nice thematic overlap between the two films, as Kirk is forced to face the fact that he can’t always win. He’s forced to confront the Kobyashi Maru, which is a dilemma he had refused to believe might exist.
As Pike tells Kirk early in Into Darkness, “There’s greatness in you… but there’s not an ounce of humility.” In order to really become the man he needs to be, Kirk needs to learn that humility. In The Wrath of Khan, several dirty little secrets from his past ambush him. He has a son he never knew about. Oh, and that romantic superhuman Kirk secretly stranded on a distant world has come back for revenge. Had Kirk followed procedures at the end of Space Seed and handed Kirk over to the authorities, The Wrath of Khan would never have happened.
That movie is about Kirk facing the consequences of his decisions. And Into Darkness teases that possibility quite well. The cold open superbly demonstrates just how short-sighted Kirk actually is, as he has a profound influence on a developing culture without any real thought or consideration. And, at the end, Kirk is forced to step up and to make the sacrifice to save his ship and his crew. Except that is a massive cop out.
The worst thing that could happen to a commanding officer is not dying in the line of duty to save the men and women under his command. It’s pretty crap, but it’s a noble and romantic end. The worst thing that could happen is alluded to in Pike’s early lecture to Kirk. “You think you can’t make mistakes. But there is going to come a moment when you realize you are wrong about that. And you are going to get yourself, and everyone under your command killed.” The absolute worst thing that can happen to a commanding officer is watching the people you trusted you to lead them dying because you made a mistake.
And The Wrath of Khan strikes that note perfectly. Spock sacrifices himself to save the Enterprise, and it is – in a significant way – Kirk’s fault. Kirk made the decisions which led to this point. Kirk facing up to those consequences himself would give him a sense of nobility. However, having his best friend pay the price elevates the film to grand tragedy. That’s why the moment is so powerful, and that’s why Kirk sacrificing himself doesn’t quite resonate on the same level.
Kirk’s death here is also undermined by the fact it’s immediately undone. Khan’s blood is set up quite well as a magical elixir, and I’d actually feel that his resurrection was relatively well-earned, if it wasn’t a direct homage to The Wrath of the Khan. Even though Leonard Nimoy had decided to return to the role before the movie even hit cinemas, there was still a sense of suspense about his death. The audience knew that he wouldn’t stay dead, but there was a hook and a sense that he would be absent for some time.
Even if you knew he would be back in two years (in the next film), his death still carried some weight. Indeed, it feels like a bit of a missed opportunity, with the franchise’s fiftieth anniversary around the corner. Imagine getting the third rebooted film out the fiftieth anniversary, based entirely around the resurrection of James T. Kirk. Not only would it lend the conclusion of Into Darkness a bit more emotional torque, it would also be one hell of a way of piquing interest in the franchise’s golden anniversary.
If you are going to borrow from the rich history of earlier adventures, then it might be better to jump in with both hands. And, to be fair, Into Darkness manages to balance both reference and reverence quite well for most of its runtime. Like the use of Khan, it makes sense for Abrams to mine the franchise’s rich iconography. These images endure because they are iconic, and Into Darkness is presenting them to an audience who would be mostly unfamiliar with their origins.
As with its predecessor, one of the most remarkable skills of Into Darkness is an uncanny ability to take a franchise that had been niche and geeky, and to make it fit for mass consumption. To recognise the value in these original set pieces and images, and to realise that they can be skilfully incorporated into a film which appeals beyond a core demographic. I’ve never understood how any Star Trek fan could resent that. Even the most jaded old-school aficionado should appreciate that Abrams is sharing something very wonderful with a broad audience.
However, this use of imagery and these internal references aren’t what makes Into Darkness feel so closely connected with the show that spawned it. It’s the way that Into Darkness tries to engage with modern political ideas, and dares to thread some social and moral commentary into its impressive tapestry. Given the realities of commercial film-making, Star Trek has always handled these issues better on the small screen. The most political that the film franchise ever got was with the fourth instalment, which wholeheartedly embraced the hardly controversial “save the whales” eco-politics of the eighties.
Into Darkness doesn’t always tackle its political subtext gracefully. It’s often quite clumsy, as Harrison makes grandiose statements about “an uncivilised threat in a civilised world.” The high watermark for political commentary inside a commercial blockbuster remains The Dark Knight and the rest of Nolan’s Batman films. However, it is nice that Into Darkness makes the effort to be more than just a loud summer blockbuster.
More than that, though, it ties in quite well with its direct predecessor. 2009’s Star Trek was essentially a blockbuster for the Obama generation. It makes sense, given the links between the original Star Trek and Kennedy’s Camelot, and the attempts made to compare Obama to Kennedy. Abrams’ original Star Trek might not have had the strongest political commentary, but it did have a very optimistic core. Star Trek was a bright ode to optimism, cast in whites and primary colours, standing in contrast to the dour and greyed out colour schemes of most contemporary blockbusters.
Despite its title Into Darkness retains that optimism, and very strongly embraces the liberal philosophy upon which the classic show was based. As the name implies, there are hints of cynicism here, a sense of darkness and ambiguity creeping in around the edge. The movie features an early suicide bombing in a major metropolitan hub, which turns out to be a ruse so a second (more brutal) assault can be mounted by the terrorist mastermind.
Kirk is assigned a mission of vengeance to hunt down a terrorist. When he finds John Harrison, he is instructed to kill the murderer, using long-range torpedoes launched into enemy territory, recalling drone strikes. Harrison will be summarily executed, without trial. The climax features a craft piloted directly into skyscrapers in an attempt to cause as much suffering and damage as possible. It is hardly subtle.
However, Into Darkness only uses this premise to rail against. It doesn’t embrace cynicism, it challenges it in a way that would make its televisual roots quite proud. “Is that what we are now?” Scotty demands as the military weapons are loaded on board. “Because I thought we were explorers.” Throughout Into Darkness, the optimism of the Starfleet crew is continually reaffirmed against all the darkness the universe can offer. Cornered by Klingon ships, Kirk considers a suicidal last stand with his phaser. Uhura offers an alternative. “You brought me here because I could speak Klingon. Let me speak Klingon.” Let’s talk it out.
Towards the end of the film, humbled by all that has been lost, the captain of the Enterprise reflects on “the captain’s oath.” It’s a solemn vow taken by Starfleet commanders, one familiar to virtually everybody in the audience. It’s a cheesy moment, but also a strangely heart-felt one. It’s sincere and optimistic, and it feels like a fitting acknowledgement of the show’s long history. It’s nice to hear Chris Pine deliver his take on the classic “space…” monologue.
Discussing that iconic introduction, reflecting on all that has been lost, the captain of the Federation flagship observes, “I see it as a call to remember who we once were and who we must be again.” It feels like Abrams is effectively reinforcing the optimism of Star Trek, suggesting that holding it up against the darkness of the world makes the show’s optimism more valuable (and more worth protecting) than ever.
Outside of the firmer connection to the movie’s roots, Abrams and his writers bring back a lot of what made their first adventure so compelling. Like 2009’s Star Trek, Into Darkness is mostly driven by character beats, with the primary cast each given something to do. It’s worth noting that Abrams continues to develop the peripheral cast much better than any of the original Star Trek television show (or even the films) really did.
Although this is still very much the Kirk and Spock show, Scotty, Uhura and Bones all get a decent amount to do. Indeed, it seems like Bones has been edged out of the franchise’s “trinity” a bit, replaced by Uhura, perhaps an acknowledgement by JJ Abrams that mainstream cinema needs more well-developed female roles. That probably also accounts for the introduction of Carol Marcus, played by Alice Eve. However, despite the welcome addition of another significant female cast member, Marcus’ arrival overcrowds the film quite a bit, not helped by the fact that Eve is the weakest member of the ensemble.
Still, the focus is on Kirk and Spock, and it’s here that Into Darkness feels a little rushed and a little too compressed. The opening half-hour sets the two at odds in a way that seems logical and makes a great deal of sense, but it gets brushed aside rather quickly. Kirk and Spock could both actually use more room to breathe in the film, and to develop as characters. The conflict between the two is interesting, but is almost fleeting. It’s a shame, because that conflict was one of the best aspects of the first film.
There are lots of nice little touches. I like, for example, the acknowledgement of the Spock and Kirk bromance. At one point, Kirk and Uhura sympathise over how tough it can be to get along with Spock. “Are you two fighting?” Kirk asks. “What is that even like?” Uhura doesn’t respond that he probably has a very good idea of what it’s like to have a relationship breakdown with Spock, but the film hints in that direction.
Certainly, it seems like the only thing that could possibly overwhelm Spock’s emotional control is a threat to Jim. “You can’t even break rules,” Khan taunts at one point. “How could you be expected to break bones?” Naturally, when Khan kills Kirk, he finds out what happens when you push Spock’s buttons too hard. That is, as you might expect, bad news for him. Pitting Spock against Khan makes for a fine spectacle, but it is a bit disappointing that – after taking such care to contrast Kirk and Khan – that they don’t share the final confrontation.
There are some plot holes. How come Bones needs Khan’s blood? Surely any of the other augments could revive Kirk? And why does Khan beam to Qo’nos. I can understand that he might hope to provoke a war between the Federation and the Klingon Empire, but he must realise that Marcus would use his crew as leverage. If anybody but Kirk had been sent, and if Spock and Scotty hadn’t talked him out of following Marcus’ orders, Khan and his followers would all be dead. Khan is a master strategist, but there seem to be too many variables to plausibly accept that everything went according to plan.
Abrams is able to gloss over these minor problems with a practised ease. As with the other entries in his filmography, there’s a very clear influence of seventies visionaries in Abrams’ work. Star Trek called to mind Star Wars, Super 8 evoked Spielberg. The opening scene of Into Darkness, which ranks among the best fifteen minutes the almost-fifty-year-old franchise has produced, evokes Raiders of the Lost Ark. Abrams has a knack for movement, and the film rockets along through a variety of set pieces and with enough humour and charm to overwhelm any niggling uncertainties. One such highlight includes a sky-diving scene which manages to surpass Iron Man 3‘s wonderful “barrel of monkeys” sequence.
Into Darkness is great fun. It is a bit rushed in places, and it does lean a bit too heavily on nods and references to previous films and adventures. However, it’s fun and fast-paced and it represents an attempt to engage with modern political and social issues, making a considered defence of the franchise’s trademark optimism. It’s hard to resist that.
Check out our reviews of JJ Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek series:
- Star Trek
- Star Trek: Into Darkness
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews Tagged: | Benedict Cumberbatch, chris pine, Darkness, J Abrams, J. J. Abrams, james t. kirk, khan, kirk, Leonard Nimoy, spock, star trek, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek III: The Search For Spock, Star Trek Into Darkness, star trek iv the voyage home, star trek: enterprise, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, star trek: the original series, StarTrek, Taste of Armageddon, twitter, United Federation of Planets, William Shatner