STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS: SPOILER REVIEW
In brief: a mixed bag. More than a few letdowns, a few flashes of brilliance.
In went into STID deliberately having avoided spoilers for the past couple of months. I really wanted to adore this film – not merely to like it. I thought that STAR TREK ’09 was a mixed bag as well – a yeoman’s effort, to be sure, but with obvious flaws. My hope was that STID would amplify the successful elements of its predecessor and tone down the flaws.
By that standard, I came away a trifle disappointed.
STID contained nothing truly cringe-worthy, à la major parts of GENERATIONS and nearly all of INSURRECTION. But the near pitch-perfect tone of the TOS movies, or BEST OF BOTH WORLDS/ALL GOOD THINGS, or much of ENTERPRISE season four? These eluded JJ Abrams. Granted, a *lot* has to go right for any film to be pitch-perfect. But STAR TREK has pulled it off before, and given the obvious excitement behind the marketing campaign for STID, I think high expectations were warranted.
On to specifics: what I disliked, what I liked, then a wrap-up.
1. KHAN. First off, I didn’t buy Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan. Don’t get me wrong – Benedict Cumberbatch’s villIain was memorable. But he was playing a strange character we’ve never met before – not Khan.
Yes, I felt this way in part because Khan is simply not a northern European. One review I read brushed this point off with, “face it, Khan is British in the Abramsverse”;
I beg to differ. Khan’s Sikh heritage is integral to the character “[Sikhs] were the most fantastic warriors,” said Marla McGivers in “Space Seed.” I would have liked to see a Punjabi actor in the role, or barring that, at least a Latino actor with an explanation that Khan was of mixed ethnicity or spent some of his formative years in Latin America (note that this was the backstory for Captain Robau in ST09).
Hollywood has a dishonorable tradition of casting Western actors in Asian roles. BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S is the quintessential example. Even granting that performances such as that of Yul Brinner in THE KING AND I may have been mesmerizing – not unlike Cumberbatch’s – this racist tradition belongs in the past.
Yes, there may be in-universe explanations for Khan’s appearance. Perhaps Khan’s right-hand man Joachim, to whom Cumberbatch bears a distinct resemblance, appropriated Khan’s identity in the Abrams universe. Or perhaps Admiral Marcus had Khan surgically altered to disguise his identity. (Seventy years after WWII, everyone still knows what Hitler looked like; it wouldn’t be surprising if Khan is similarly recognizable 200 years after the Eugenics Wars.)
But these in-universe explanations miss the point. It’s not merely Khan’s *ethnicity* that Abrams got wrong, but his *personality*.
Khan was supposed to be calculating, and Cumberbatch captured that. But he was also supposed to be intensely charismatic – not distant. People were eager to follow him, because “he offered the world order.” Cumberbatch’s Khan is not one that people want to follow. Does anyone really think that Cumberbatch’s Khan would have charmed McGivers into betraying the Enterprise crew? (CumberKhan would have broken her leg, apparently.) Or that he could have held his own at the captain’s table during the banquet that Kirk threw in his honor?
Nor was the TOS Khan a genocidal maniac—at least, not before his exile on Ceti Alpha. “There were no massacres under his rule,” according to Scotty in “Space Seed.” Again, Khan’s flaw was offering the world order *at the price of tyranny.* He was much more Napoleon or Ceasar, or even Vladimir Putin, than Hitler or Pol Pot. Ricardo Montalban’s Khan was not the type to set off random bombs in London and San Francisco – that’s offering the world chaos, not order.
None of this is to deny that Cumberbatch’s villain was mesmerizing in his own way. He absolutely was. But he was playing a new villain, not Khan. Abrams should have taken that fact and run with it. What’s especially frustrating is that it was *very* easy to see Cumberbatch’s character as a young Garth of Izar, a Starfleet officer – “one of our own” – who *did* go insane and morph into a genocidal maniac. The tale of a renegade Starfleet officer is a meaty one. (Look how well it was handled in TNG “The Wounded” or “Pegasus,” two of TNG’s best outings, or even Admiral Marcus here.)
And given that *Kirk* (Pine’s Kirk, anyway) is something of a renegade, the juxtaposition of Kirk against Harrison/Garth would have been especially powerful. We’d *see* how Kirk learns that Starfleet procedures are important – that you file those mission reports for a reason. We do see this learning curve in any event, but it would have been stronger with an antagonist that was genuinely “one of our own.”
2. PACING. I found the frenetic pace a tad disconcerting. In particular, I still don’t follow the logic as to why Admiral Weller had Khan find a henchman to bomb Section 31 in London. (Frankly, I don’t understand why Section 31 was even involved here, other than as an “easter egg” for fans of DS9.)
Now, in general, I *like* movies with plots intricate enough to demand a second viewing. I’m not sure that’s the issue here, however. It seems more like a case of TRANSFORMERS syndrome: action scenes strung together by the weakest of plot threads. I’m certainly not demanding the stately place of 2001 or THE MOTION PICTURE; but there’s a balance to be crafted here, and I think STID missed the mark.
To give another example: I don’t have the faintest idea, for example, of the logic of how cooperating with a bunch of Augments prepared Starfleet for a coming war with the Klingons. Augments may be physically powerful, but their spacefaring technology was 200 years out of date. It’s hard to see what they offer Starfleet in way of military technology. (And on the “physically powerful” note – look, augments are supposed to be just that – better, stronger, and faster, but not invincible. So it was hard to accept that Kirk could beat Khan up without inflicting a scratch. The ENTERPRISE trilogy pulled this concept off much more effectively.)
Some reviews note that the frenetic pacing was necessary to capture the teenage audience. But argument confuses *action* with *pacing*. It’s very possible to combine a thought-provoking film with satisfying action scenes – see SKYFALL, or THE DARK KNIGHT movies, or TERMINATOR 2. The key to success is *believable* action. It’s the difference between the CGI action in DIE ANOTHER DAY and the more physical action in the Daniel Craig Bond movies that followed. STID didn’t quite descend into DIE ANOTHER DAY territory, but we could have savored the choreography in the climax much more without the CGI background noise.
Enough with the negative, for now. On to what I thought the movie did well.
1. PIKE-KIRK RELATIONSHIP. I loved the Pike-as-father-figure to Kirk relationship, particularly when juxtaposed against the troubled father-daughter relationship between Admiral Marcus and Carol.
One of the most frustrating points from ST09 was the “cadet-to-captain in a day” theme. Fictional universe or not, midshipmen just don’t get handed the captaincy of a battleship in a day. And fictional universe or not, you don’t file false mission reports and expect to keep your command. Period. The Pike-Kirk scenes went a long way towards fixing that – “you’re not ready to command,” Pike said to Kirk, and he’s absolutely right.
I’m glad JJ Abrams chose to acknowledge this flaw from ST09 and address it head-on, rather than sweep it under the rug. The Kirk we know from TOS was never “the bad boy of Starfleet.” And you get the impression that by the end of this film, Kirk realizes – after the death of his mentor, Pike – that his handling of the Nibiru mission reports was purile and unprofessional. Chris Pine continues to impress as Kirk; the look on face when he learned he was losing his command was haunting.
(There were a couple of other places where the Enterprise crew acted unprofessionally. You don’t launch into a lovers’ quarrel in the middle of a combat mission, and Kirk looked incompetent for letting that happen. And the non-engineer Chekhov as temporary head of engineering? Really?)
2. KIRK’S DEATH SCENE. JJ Abrams, whatever his other faults, has a way of forging an emotional connection between his audience and Starfleet crews in a way that no previous incarnation of Trek (save perhaps TWOK) has pulled off. I’m thinking specifically of the Kelvin scenes in ST09, or the scene in which Spock lost his mother and lamented, “I am now a member of an endangered species.” The ability to bring teenage girls to tears in a STAR TREK movie is no mean feat!
Kirk’s death scene was in much the same vein. Yes, it was an homage to an earlier film; but like the Aston-Martin scene in SKYFALL, the movie was stronger for it. I can easily see this homage falling flat with less adroit actors, but here it worked (*).
Did the scene carry *quite* the same emotional punch as its counterpart in TWOK? Perhaps not, if only because we all know Kirk would somehow be resurrected. But I’m more-or-less OK with that. As another reviewer noted, the death scene in TWOK was the *culmination* of the Kirk-Spock friendship, whereas the STID scene *catalyzed* that friendship. And that’s what STID is about, at its core: how these one-time rivals forge a shaky friendship that ripens into a profoundly deep one.
Now, this comes with a mighty big asterisk. That asterisk was Spock’s “Khaaaaaaan” scream, which was jarringly out of place. The scream broke the poignancy of the moment for me, tainting the otherwise excellent scene with more than a whiff of caricature. Frankly, I had to restrain myself from laughing.
In TWOK, Kirk’s scream of frustration I could easily buy. Spock shedding a tear in spite of his Vulcan heritage I can easily buy. He is part human, after all. But not this; this was farce. (Spock’s reaction to Pike’s death – a mind meld – was much more in keeping with the character. It’s a pity that we didn’t see an agitated Spock repeatedly trying to do the same with Kirk, only to be thwarted by the glass panel.)
3. OTHER ENTERPRISE CREW. Third, I enjoyed (with the exception of Chekhov’s lame-brained promotion to chief engineer) the fact that all the bridge officers had something substantive to *do*. In particular, Karl Urban as McCoy and – surprisingly – John Cho as Sulu both rose to the occasion. Sulu, in particular, bowled me over during his dialog with John Harrison. This is what “nerves of steel” looks like, folks. *This* is what Starfleet professionalism and competence is supposed to be. My only question: why the hell didn’t Starfleet give the Enterprise to John Cho’s *Sulu*?
Scotty’s beefier role was, more or less, a welcome break from the Scotty-as-comic-relief motif that plagued ST09. (Admittedly, some blame for that motif goes to the TOS movies and the “if it ain’t Scottish, it’s crap” SNL skits.) As another reviewer pointed out, Scotty became the moral center of the crew here, which was an intriguing choice. I’ve often thought that someone could interpret Scotty, rather than Bones, as the third member of the Kirk-Spock triad; unlike the logical Spock, Scotty often sees science through an emotional prism – “my wee bairns,” and all that. STID doesn’t go that route, but it does expand on the original character in a positive way. Kudos for that.
Much the same applies to Uhura. Abrams got Uhura wrong in ST09, where she was a sassy character that lacked any of the quiet elegance of Nichelle Nichols’ interpretation. (In that film, Uhura, the lone female bridge officer, basically won her ENTERPRISE posting by virtue of the fact she was sleeping with the first officer – yikes.) Thankfully, in STID, we saw Uhura shine. We saw a lot more of that Uhura piose when she confronted the Klingons.
As for Karl Urban: more than anyone else in the cast, he slips into the skin of his precedessor, DeForest Kelley, effortlessly. Abrams may have had trouble capturing the spirit of Khan; fortunately, he’s gotten markedly more comfortable with the Enterprise crew. That bodes well for the third movie.
4. THE MARCUS CLAN. My initial reaction to Carol Marcus was that – like Khan – this character was Carol Marcus in name only. The Carol Marcus from TWOK was a molecular biologist, not a particle physicist. (Nor was she British, but since the Marcus character is less iconic than Khan, I found this change less important.) More to the point, the TWOK Marcus wasn’t Starfleet. She wasn’t Kirk’s protégé. She excelled in her career, Kirk in his, and neither was willing to abandon that career for the sake of a relationship.
But after a few hours to mull it over, I’m becoming more of a fan of Alice Eve’s performance. Yes, this Carol Marcus was more like Elizabeth Dehner or Ann Mulhall than her Prime Universe counterpart; but I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.
Coming off of ST09 – with Kirk’s greenness, Scotty’s buffoonery, Chekhov’s sudden engineering talent, and Uhura’s sleep-with-the-boss gimmick – the bridge crew desperately needed another officer who, like Sulu and McCoy, exuded competence and professionalism *from the get go*, as opposed to acquiring these qualities during the movie. Carol Marcus filled that role, in no small part due to Alice Eve’s intensity. If her career path intersects with Kirk’s more than in the Prime Universe, so be it.
Finally, Peter Weller. He portrayed one of Star Trek’ s most under-rated and compelling villains in ENT “Terra Prime,” and he lived up to that portrayal here. Admiral Marcus’ description of Pike as his protégé – much as Kirk had been Pike’s – was particularly poignant. Later in the film, I’d have preferred to see his motivations later in the film as slightly less over-the-top, perhaps; but I still think there was meaty stuff, here.
So, to wrap up – we had a Trek installment here that wasn’t terrible. The core story about Kirk’s maturing into the role of captain, and consolidating his friendship with Spock, worked. As for the supporting case, Sulu and McCoy shone, and except for Chekhov, the others, who seemed mildly awkward in ST09, improved greatly; they feel more like a professional crew now, and less like frat buddies. And Alice Eve’s character, even if she’s not Carol Marcus, was a welcome addition.
At the same time, STID suffered from an unconvincing, miscast antagonist. (And to be sure, Abrams otherwise has a penchant for casting these movies, which made Khan all the more a letdown.) Cumberbatch’s casting aside, we didn’t *need* a Khan story at all. Khan’s story has been told. As a story truly about “battling one of our own,” STID could have been pitch-perfect, and to the extent it failed to live up to expectations – well, that was disappointing. We’ll see whether it improves with a second viewing; it may, if I go into the theater knowing that John Harrison is really Khan.
And I sincerely hope it’s a box-office smash. If we’re to get more Trek in the future – and I’m confident that a future installment *will* be pitch-perfect – it must be. I’ve never quite understood those who say Abrams has no respect for Star Trek; clearly he adores the source material, what with all the “easter eggs” he seeded throughout STID. But that doesn’t mean he’s the person to serve as caretaker for the franchise. For now, I wouldn’t mind seeing a different director (Bryan Singer, Manny Coto, or Neil Blokamp, anyone?) take the helm for ST13.
Let’s call it a 6 out of 10.