Star Trek Into Darkness is a decent enough action film, but it’s not a good “Star Trek” film. On the level of pure spectacle, I probably enjoyed this film more than the 2009 reboot. However, Into Darkness suffers from basic storytelling problems. There are some interesting ideas in the film, but it’s as if the writers didn’t know what to do with them.
SPOILER WARNING: I’ll be discussing spoilers, so tread cautiously if you haven’t seen this movie. One character revelation in particular will probably prove maddening to older Trek fans.
I love the opening scene of this movie. While exploring a strange new world, Kirk violates the Prime Directive in order to save Spock. As a result, a race of pre-warp aliens sees the Enterprise, which has predictably negative consequences for their culture. When the Enterprise returns to Earth, Spock reports Kirk’s violation to Starfleet Command. Starfleet demotes Kirk to commander. Captain Christopher Pike, Kirk’s mentor from the previous film, warns him that Kirk has to learn to some humility and stop being so reckless. It’s an intriguing premise. If the 2009 film was Kirk’s origin story, Into Darkness seemed to be a story about how Kirk earned his command.
Unfortunately, Into Darkness doesn’t really know what to do with this premise and quickly abandons it. Instead, the majority of the film is a half-hearted social commentary about terrorism. Admiral Marcus orders the Enterprise to the Klingon homeworld to stop “rogue Starfleet officer” John Harrison, who commits several acts of terrorism against Starfleet. Again, not a horrible premise, but the script takes far too many leaps of logic to set everything up. Kirk is promoted to captain, just a few minutes after being demoted, completely undermining the importance of the opening act. Harrison uses a long-range transporter so he can reach the Klingon homeworld, ignoring the fact that a transport capable of such long distances would obviate the need for starships. Of course, because this is an action film, it appears Starfleet and the Federation never bothered to submit an extradition request to the Klingon government (Harrison after all is their without the knowledge or permission of the Klingons). Moreover, this is all apparently part of an elaborate and devious plan by Admiral Marcus to start a war with the Klingon Empire. It’s all extremely convoluted and took me out of the movie.
The story ultimately collapses when it pivots yet again to become an extended homage (or, less charitably, rehash) of The Wrath of Khan. Halfway through the film we learn that Harrison (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is actually Khan Noonien Singh. While this should have come as a mind-blowing revelation, it turns out to have almost no impact on the story. The movie doesn’t bother to explain Khan’s backstory to Kirk, much less viewers who hadn’t seen The Wrath of Khan. Cumberbatch’s Khan is a very different character from Ricardo Montalban’s Khan. Whereas Montalbano’s Khan had grandiose ambitions to rule the galaxy, Cumberbatch’s Khan simply wants to rescue his shipmates (Marcus held them hostage in order to force Khan to work for a secret weapons program). Cumberbatch is one of the few actors who could exhibit enough menace and charisma to play a genetically enhanced supervillain, but it’s not Khan.
Fortunately, the crew of the Enterprise fares better, for the most part. As with Abrams’ Star Trek, I’m impressed with how well the new actors mimic their counterparts from The Original Series. I have no problem seeing these characters as Chekov, Uhura, and McCoy. That said, Into Darkness doesn’t give the ensemble much to do. Each crew member has at least a moment or two, but this film is primarily about the Kirk-Spock bromance.
That’s a problem because Into Darkness doesn’t do justice to Kirk and Spock. Given the events of the 2009 reboot, it makes sense that Chris Pine’s Kirk isn’t the same as William Shatner’s. This Kirk had a different childhood and has more of a rebellious streak. That said, Kirk in Into Darkness is simply not worthy of command or the viewers’ respect. He comes across as a glorified frat boy who gives into his base emotions. He’s an incompetent captain and not a particularly admirable human being (I cringed when he punched Khan after the latter had surrendered). The first few scenes in the movie seemed to admit that Kirk needs to grow up, but it’s not clear that he ever does.
I found Spock’s character arc even more troubling. Again, Zachary Quinto’s Spock is undoubtedly different from Leonard Nimoy’s. Quinto’s Spock witness the destruction of Vulcan and death of his mother. He doesn’t have nearly as much control over his emotions as Nimoy’s. “Overly emotional” is Spock’s default setting in this movie. He’s constantly bickering with Kirk or Uhura (their lover’s spat during an away mission came across as extremely unprofessional). This becomes especially problematic near the end. In a twist on The Wrath of Khan, Kirk dies when he fixes the warp core. Spock channels Shatner and yells “KHAAAAAN!” He then chases Khan and beats him into a bloody pulp in a particularly disturbing scene (with plenty of disaster porn in the background).
The genius of the original Spock was that Nimoy never played him as emotionless, but rather as a man trying to suppress deep emotions. Spock would sometimes loose control, but such moments were always rare and powerful. By contrast, we never see Quinto’s Spock as the cool, logical Vulcan from the original TV series. Into Darkness doesn’t try to reconcile Spock’s violence with the character. Spock never shows any shame or introspection about his emotional outbursts. The movie doesn’t earn Spock’s emotional outbursts because it never developed the relationship between Kirk and Spock. We’ve seen Kirk and Spock fight several times, but never had any indication that the two men were friends. By contrast, Spock’s death in The Wrath of Khan was so meaningful because Shatner and Nimoy’s characters had years of history and a clear bond.
History has not been kind to Into Darkness. Fans have voted it the worst Trek movie ever made. In a world where Star Trek: The Final Frontier exists, that’s quite damning. As a piece of entertainment, Into Darkness works fine, so long as you turn off your brain for a few hours. After all, every movie has some plot holes. What I think fans find so offensive about Into Darkness is just how much it violates the core principles of the franchise. Gene Roddenberry famously advocated secular humanism, a vision of the future in which mankind could strive to be better through the power of human intellect and optimism. As its name implies, Into Darkness wallows in the darkness. Kirk and Spock seem far too comfortable with violence. The movie seems to disdain science, and arguably promotes conspiracy theories about 9/11 being an inside job. While I don’t have high expectations for Star Trek Beyond, I hope it at least captures the spirit of Star Trek.