What else there is to say about Star Trek Into Darkness (STID)? Everybody has seen it and made their comment. I guess what I’m going to say here will be nothing new after all.
You might have seen my ranking of the best Star Trek movies ever, which starts here and then continued here because I’ve to go watch STID. Simply saying, where does STID stand in my ranking?
I will put STID at number 7 among the best Star Trek movies ever. It certainly is better than that shitty ST5 and all those awful TNG movies, but not as good as the first Abramsverse Star Trek.
STID is a fine action movie with much less plot hole than its predecessor, and is still playing out people’s brand awareness of Star Trek by showing off elements familiar to wider audiences. This time the Klingons and a tribble make an appearance, to evoke the sense that this is still Star Trek after all. I also enjoy very much the role of Uhura in STID, which is considerably more than one can say about Nichelle Nichols’s Uhura’s roles. Here Uhura is a competent linguist and is given an important role to the plot. In fact she has replaced McCoy in the holy trinity of TOS’ three most important character. In the olden days it used to be Kirk, Spock, and McCoy going to an away mission. Now it’s Kirk, Spock, and Uhura. It is also nice to see Sulu in the Captain’s chair, a nod to George Takei’s Sulu who was promoted as Captain of the Excelsior in ST6.
Despite all these, STID still lack an important element that defines Star Trek and separate it from other popular franchise set in space: A compelling human drama and morality play that encourage us to ask what does it mean to be human. STID is all about shoot-’em-up. It’s a good action movie but it’s not Star Trek.
There is an attempt early in the film to mimic another feature of Star Trek: as a commentary to the contemporary social conditions. As I’ve said in my previous writings, a long time ago people noticed that Star Trek was sometimes an allegory to the Cold War. In STID they tried to make some sort of a statement about the war on terror but somehow they went out of the window towards the middle of the story, in order to give way to the action, and Kirk’s question about giving Khan a fair trial was soon forgotten.
What we have instead is a bunch of reference and nod to all things that in the past define Star Trek, just as a fan service and to show that the writers have at least do their homework. What these references lacking are motivations that drive the plot, leaving us instead with parody of Star Trek and guessing game throughout the whole movies: Which Star Trek reference are they going to shove-in next? When Kirk went into the engine room to realign the warp core, and Spock then realized what happened, I was sort of thinking that the only way they can make this parody worse is by making Spock shout Khan’s name in the way only The Shat can pull. I fell into a facepalm when that actually happen.
What makes the death of Spock in ST2 such an important moment that sometimes still bring tears to my eyes, while its homage in STID can only bring me into facepalm? I gues it is because the STID scene lacks motivation and is there just to refer to ST2, and thus is lacking an emotional resonance. In ST2, Spock’s death is important to give Kirk a character arc. Before Spock’s death everything always went alright for him. He never believed in a no-win situation and always bluff and cheat his way out of tight situation. Now he has to face death and lost his dear friend, making him cherish life more. At the end of ST2 Kirk grows a character and became a changed man, symbolized by the birth of the Genesis planet. Kirk’s sacrifice in STID I guess is there to also give him an arc, to make him learn the meaning of sacrifice and dedication, thus transform him from an asshole into Bill Shatner’s Kirk, but it was done by blatantly copying ST2 that it is there merely as a wink-wink moment for those who have watched ST2. The same can be said to the many references to the old Trek in STID: They are there merely as a reference while not giving us any new insight to the characters.
Self-reference is not something new in Star Trek, but it used to be done cleverly. Case in point: In ST3, the self-destruct sequence of the Enterprise was done in a similar way to the sequence enacted in the TOS episode, Let That Be Your Last Battlefield. They even use the same self-destruct code. Both enactment however, have different dramatic functions. While the sequence in the TOS episode is already quite superb, with shots and close-ups that resembles Mexican standoff scenes in western movies, the ST3 sequence also stands out to dramatically depict Kirk and co.’s ultimate sacrifice for their dear comrade. It is not a poor imitation of the original, and the reference is there but subtle enough and not distracting. In STID all those references can be very distracting and serve no purpose.
The plot of STID is more-or-less a rehash of the 2009 Star Trek: Chris Pine’s Kirk having leadership and dedication problem and must learn to roll like The Shat’s Captain Kirk. Spock being a stickler for regulations and feeling conflicted with his human emotions. A villain who is dedicated to something is hell-bent on revenge for being wronged. Old Spock appears again. Why do we need to see the same plot, when the arcs of the main cast have been nicely established in the first movie?
Why must Spock Prime appear again, only to lecture Spock on who Khan really is? Jeez, don’t they read history books? In Space Seed, Khan’s reputation is already documented in the ship’s computer and all they have to do is learn history. Here Spock Prime’s presence is merely to assure us that what we are watching is still Star Trek because Leonard Nimoy is in there.
Four years ago, when Star Trek 2009 came out, I wrote that I was quite happy with the convincing acting of the cast and how normal their interactions are. Despite the humongous plot holes and the fact that it is very far from the ideals of Star Trek, I am willing to accept this new continuity as a mean to bring Star Trek back into the public’s attention in the same way ST4 bring Star Trek outside its fan base. I was hoping that the sequel will take Star Trek back into its root: Musings about the nature of humanity, an optimistic vision of the future of humanity, and the optimistic view of modern technology as a force of good.
Unfortunately this is not the case in STID. In a time like this, STID writers have the chance to provide us with an important commentary on our present society, just like the olden days Star Trek. Science-fiction stories have also for a long time becomes a mean to do that. This opportunity is unfortunately has been passed in order to tell a simple but tired story of good and evil, while referencing the past here and there. The new Star Trek should not keep going back into the past. It should look toward the future, creating new interesting science-fiction stories. Making Star Trek more cerebral is of course a financially risky proposition in times like these, where movies have to quickly make bucks and the economy is uncertain, but I’m pretty sure that a smart writing can in fact make people more interested and make the sequel distinct from its predecessor.
I am quite sure that they are going to make another one, but I’m much less optimistic than in 2009 when the reboot came out. If they keep making Star Trek like this I will certainly skip the next one.