Star Trek XII: The Wrath of Insurrection
Star Trek Into Darkness was released on May 16, 2013. My initial reaction? It was entertaining, even if it was too reliant upon what we'd already seen. I had three overall problems with this installment in the new Trek.
Firstly, the story of the Starfleet admiral going rogue and violating core precepts of the Federation was already done in Star Trek: Insurrection. When Admiral Marcus dropped lines like "All-out war with the Klingons is inevitable", I heard Admiral Dougherty rationalizing the forced removal of the Bak'u people. Both admirals are power-tripping, both are doing what they feel they have to for the good of the Federation, both ally themselves with untrustworthy associates, and both are killed by those associates later in the film. These similarities don't break the film, and I can see them not being a concern for the general movie-going audience, but to me (a dyed-in-the-wool Trekkie) they stood out strongly.
Secondly, there was too much Wrath of Khan in my Into Darkness. I don't think having Khan in the second film was necessary. You could've told the same story with an alien, or just a really skilled member of Starfleet gone rogue. Bringing in Khan was just fan service for fans who didn't need to see Khan again. The original episode "Space Seed" and The Wrath of Khan were excellent for the character. We didn't need to see Khan again. Then, the scenes of Kirk's sacrifice and Spock's screaming "Khan!": it wasn't an homage, it wasn't a reference, it was simply outright theft of the same scene in Wrath of Khan, albeit with the roles reversed. Furthermore, the scene doesn't work when compared to the original. Kirk and Spock do not have years and years of experience and bonding together, they do not have the level of friendship that evolved between the original characters. It means that there's no emotional weight in these stolen scenes. We know Kirk will survive, we know the Enterprise won't crash into Earth, and we know that Spock's scream is simply there because it's iconic in The Wrath of Khan.
Thirdly, the film takes far too many shortcuts, bypassing simple logic and Star Trek canon. I can make excuses for films jumping over logical gaps easily enough; I'm something of a master of rationalization in these matters. But Into Darkness not only disregards long-reaching tenants of Star Trek for its convenience, but overlooks huge gaps in basic storytelling that don't hold up.
What follows is a rather deeper and definitely more spoilery review than this. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty I enjoyed about the film and I do touch on some of that, but as a Trekkie I cannot ignore this film's many sins, and they are laid bare here.
I've seen it said that the first 20 minutes or so of Star Trek Into Darkness should have been stretched out as the whole film. I wouldn't go that far, but it certainly began on a strong note and stumbled from there.
I was taken aback at Kirk's wanton disregard for the Prime Directive in the intro, but it is in keeping with the characterization established in the previous film. This Kirk is younger, more impulsive, and untempered by years of rising through the ranks. The Enterprise sits in a Nibiru ocean, hiding from the natives while Spock endeavors to stop a volcanic eruption which endangers the local population. We're given to assume this volcano would eradicate the entire civilization and not just the small band of locals we see, but it's never explicitly stated.
The natives who spot the Enterprise leaving and disregard their sacred artifact in favor of drawing the ship in the dirt echoed The Next Generation's "Who Watches the Watchers". In that episode a primitive peoples see Picard and company and begin to revere them as gods. Unlike the episode however, there's no follow-up, so we're to assume that the Nibiru people will now develop a civilization based on their ocean/sky god, the Enterprise. It's unsatisfying, and when Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood) is upbraiding Kirk for his reckless actions, a line dropped about the Federation now having to repair the cultural damage, or at least monitoring the situation would have been nice. (Also, Pike's cane was a nice touch.)
Spock's characterization fits in nicely with the established new canon, too. Filing a 100%-honest report with Starfleet and assuming Kirk had done the same after breaking the Prime Directive is a good touch of naiveté evidencing their still-forming bond. Kirk's subsequent demotion to commander and first officer of the Enterprise feels right and is a short-lived nod to his ridiculously meteoric rise to the captaincy in the first film.
I don't have any problem with Harrison inducing Noel Clarke's character to blow up the secret Section 31 installation, though I seriously question the explosive capacity of one ring and one glass of water. The storyline about the dying daughter and Harrison's coming to the rescue is however tainted by the first appearance of Harrison's magic, healing, life-giving blood. More on this later once I can call Harrison by his true name of Khan.
The bar scene with Pike and Kirk is a nice call-back to the previous film, and it transitions nicely to the great meeting room scene. Pike and Marcus' handling of Kirk in the meeting is great, the revelation is great, and the action scene is great. It builds and then explodes wonderfully on the screen. Spock's mind-meld with Pike is nice, and I wish they'd done more with it. Then we come to the revelation that Harrison used Scotty's "transwarp beaming" to beam himself from Earth to Qo'noS (the Klingon homeworld).
When Spock Prime gave Scotty the transwarp beaming equation in the previous film, it was a deus ex machina to get Kirk and Scott back to the Enterprise. What should have happened is that Star Trek should be changed forever. Why does Marcus need the Enterprise to lug 72 torpedoes all the way to Qo'noS when they could just beam them to Harrison's location? How many episodes of Star Trek featured traveling from planet to planet only to have something happen in-between? It's such a mind-boggling transformative technology that I cannot fathom the changes that would occur within the Federation and Starfleet. I had hoped that something would happen to the equation after the previous film. Maybe it's unstable or unsafe, or maybe it only works under rare circumstances, or perhaps Spock Prime left out certain details that would make it replicable. Instead it makes a roaring comeback in Into Darkness as an almost casual technology that's hardly remarked upon.
Anyway, so Harrison has gone to the Klingon homeworld. Admiral Marcus using Kirk as a part of his plan makes more sense later when you realize that the latter is perceived as a hot-headed, impulsive, revenge-seeking Starfleet officer. Marcus can choose him to attack Qo'noS and expect that he will to avenge Admiral Pike's death at the hands of Harrison. Thus bringing about the war that Marcus expects is inevitable. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Section 31 was a nice reference to the series, even if it was botched. In Deep Space Nine, Section 31 is so top secret that only a few people know about it, and yet Admiral Marcus is telling all about it to Kirk and Spock. It's just a small thing that feels off, but I wanted to call it out. I guess the only consolation is that Marcus expects them to be wiped out by Klingons in the not-too-distant future.
I'm okay that Scotty objects to the torpedoes, and I even find it in-character for him to be so very stubborn about it, but it's not explained why the chief engineer has anything to do with torpedoes in the first place. Why are they in engineering? Shouldn't they be taken from wherever they came onboard to the weapons bay? Engineering is in the bowels of the ship; it's not like they need to make a pit-stop there. And finally, Scotty is not the cargo manifest officer; nobody should need his signature for anything related to torpedoes or bringing them aboard. It's all a hackneyed way to get Scotty and Keenser off the ship, and I felt they could have done better. Hell, have Scotty learn about their mission to assassinate Harrison and have him object on moral grounds. That would have felt better than the nonetheless very well-acted scenes they used. One line of Scotty's really resonated with me: "This is clearly a military operation. Is that what we are now? 'Cause I thought we were explorers." I thought so too, Mr. Scott.
An aside from the previous scene. I absolutely love the warp core in Into Darkness. It's industrial, it's complicated, it's huge, and it looks like something taken from CERN. I've always been a fan of engineering in Star Treks past, and I've appreciated how slick and simple the layout was to best understand the treknology behind it. But this, this feels like the kind of sophisticated, intricate, and dangerous sort of technology a warp core would be. It has a scale about it that just draws the eye. That is all. Continuing on.
How many engineers must the Enterprise have? I saw four alone when Scotty resigned. Let's go with four. There are four engineers (not counting Scotty and Keenser who just resigned) in all of the Enterprise. Wouldn't any of those four have been the reasonable replacement for chief engineer rather than Chekov‽ Well, Chekov has been "shadowing" Scotty and is "familiar" with the engineering systems; I guess that makes him wholly more appropriate for the position than an actual engineer! There's patently no need for this except to have a top-billed name in the engineering scenes that will follow, and it is ridiculous! A few scenes later when the Enterprise drops out of warp because there's a coolant leak in engineering, thank goodness we have our navigator down there to fix it!
I could have done without the Spock-Uhura banter in the shuttle. It's built up in the comics really well, actually. Spock becomes increasingly reckless and rationalizes it with logic, and Uhura is witness to the increasing destabilization of her boyfriend. Yet watching the film on its own, this awkward detente feels wildly out of place.
The Klingon ships look great! The Klingons themselves have been… well, decorated.
Actually, the design of the Klingons themselves in Into Darkness is an interesting quandary in Star Trekdom. In the original Star Trek series, the Klingons had no head ridges because there wasn't much money in the budget for fancy alien makeup. Once The Motion Picture came out, with the increased budget the Klingons began developing head ridges as a distinctive feature. According to the Deep Space Nine episode "Trials and Tribble-ations" however, the lack of ridges in 23rd century Klingons is canon; in the Star Trek universe itself, Klingons actually once lacked their head ridges. Star Trek Enterprise went even further and had a (pretty good) two-parter devoted to explaining why the Klingons went from ridged to unridged in the first place. Now, because Star Trek Enterprise took place in this alternate timeline, the Klingons encountered by the new crew (in Into Darkness) should actually not have ridges, but because the ridged Klingon has become the norm by which the general public recognizes what a Klingon is, they received their ridges for Into Darkness. I can understand the concession (if it ever even came up) in the interest of filmmaking, but it makes for difficult rationalization by Trekkies. My own take on the situation is that not all Klingons were affected by the virus that de-ridged them. There was a sort of quarantine instituted that kept the infected Klingons away from Qo'noS (and the empire at large) and out on long-range assignments. This also explains why the 1960s Enterprise only encountered ridgeless Klingons; they were sort of banished, kept from returning home because of their Typhoid Mary status.
So Marcus sabotaged the Enterprise to strand them on the edge of the Neutral Zone when they were supposed to fire the torpedoes. This would've ended Khan, his crew, and made the Enterprise and her revenge-thirsty captain at fault. Does this mean the torpedoes aren't untraceable after all? Because if they were, the Klingons wouldn't find the Enterprise, and wouldn't have any explanation for the explosion that killed 73 Humans in an otherwise uninhabited section of Qo'noS. So the torpedoes are traceable and Marcus lied to Kirk. Fine. One final thought: how powerful can these torpedoes be if most of them is taken up by person? There's gotta be fuel, navigational equipment, and a warhead, but the Khansicles take up most of the space. Carol Marcus says they removed the fuel compartment to fit the body, but if there was no fuel, how was Kirk supposed to fire them at Qo'noS? That was the plan, wasn't it?
Marcus is developing the Vengeance somewhere in orbit of Jupiter, in secret with the collaboration of Section 31. Okay, but how is he supposed to explain this new übership when the war began? Surely somebody would ask, "Gee Admiral, that new ship is all great and all for fighting Klingons, but WHERE THE HELL DID IT COME FROM?" Never addressed.
How top-secret can it be when Admiral Marcus has a model on display in his office?
The Vengeance certainly is big, black, and imposing, isn't it? The discussion between Marcus and Kirk is enlightening. Not only was Marcus's line of "oh shit. You talked to him" masterfully delivered, but it explains that Marcus knew Khan's crew was in the torpedoes. That means he knew the torpedoes couldn't fire because they have no fuel. What exactly was his original plan, then‽
I love the "going-to-warp" effect of the new films. There's never any mention of "maximum warp" or different warp speeds, just being "at warp". The premise seems to be that "at warp" is a set velocity which cannot be outpaced. This allows for the Vengeance to have "advanced warp capabilities" which can catch up to another ship at warp. It doesn't make sense, it doesn't fit in with any canon, but whatever.
The effect of the Enterprise being knocked out of warp by the Vengeance has a very "quantum slipstream" feel to it. This would explain the ship's fantastically ridiculous speed to and from Vulcan in the first film and Qo'noS in this one. I doubt that though; I imagine instead that the warp engines now simply operate at the speed of plot.
Ah, there's Scotty. Welcome back to the film! Just in time to be our deus ex machina, too. No explanation of how he got aboard the Vengeance, a top-secret vessel under construction by the most top-secret of Federation agencies. Screw it, he's there, he's acting the hell out of his scenes, and it's always a breath of fresh air to have Scotty on screen.
Oh jeez, and let's not forget the interjection of the McCoy scene where he—for reasons that are beyond comprehension both with and without the suspension of disbelief—is injecting a Tribble with Khan's blood. Oh, he says that "Khan's cells regenerate at an exponential rate blah blah blah", but upon repeat viewings it simply stands out as a hopeless attempt to rationalize Kirk's resurrection later in the film.
Welcome back to relevance, Benedict Cumberbatch. So Khan and Kirk are going to 'jump through space' onto the 'enemy location' and try to disable it from within. Why does this sound familiar? Oh right, it's a direct lift from the previous film when they space jumped onto the enemy platform to disable it from within! Don't get me wrong, the scenes are full of technical wizardry, great visual effects, and even a little tension, but it simply reeks of being copied and pasted from the previous Star Trek. They do lampshade that he's done this before, but that doesn't forgive actually doing the same thing two films in a row.
Speaking of copying things from the previous film, the scene with Spock Prime (Leonard Nimoy) was not only gratuitous, but wholly unnecessary. We already know that Khan is a bad guy; what does conferring with old Spock give us other than another reference to Star Trek of yore? It felt special to have Nimoy in the previous film; now it just feels like they trotted him out for another token appearance.
Just for kicks and giggles, I took note of when Scotty said they'd be able to destroy the Enterprise in three minutes. The space jump and the running-about on the Vengeance took up almost exactly nine minutes before Marcus' goons brought power back online. This is a small nit to pick, but it stood out to me upon repeat viewing.
The movie plays out predictably from here on out. Khan betrays Kirk, Spock outthinks Khan by using his devotion to his crew against him, and interspersed is some more space battling. Then main power goes out on the Enterprise and we come to the single worst aspect of the film.
As Spock in The Wrath of Khan sacrificed himself to fatal radiation poisoning to restore power to the Enterprise, so too does Kirk do the exact same thing in this film. That's not a reference, or an homage, or a tribute to The Wrath of Khan, it was simply wholesale theft of the scene. It's made even worse by the complete lack of emotional investment of the audience in the scene. In 1982, there was no history of Star Trek films, there'd just been the one before Wrath. The audiences had no way of knowing that after Spock died saving the Enterprise that there'd be any more films to bring him back. It was serious, it was heavy, and it was an emotional moment for the audience when Spock said, "I have been, and always shall be, your friend." Spock and Kirk had years upon years together on the Enterprise to build up a relationship in which the audience was similarly invested.
In Into Darkness, we started out the film explicitly demonstrating that Spock and Kirk do not have a working relationship, much less a personal one. Yet the film expects us to believe, in an hour and forty-five minutes, that Spock and Kirk have such a strong bonded relationship that Spock's Vulcan façade is shattered such that he breaks down and screams Khan's name in another shamelessly copied bit from Wrath of Khan. It's ridiculous, and only exists to bring more of the original, superior film into this one.
Speaking of emotional weight, the scenes of the Vengeance crashing into San Fransisco really should have carried more weight than they did. Khan killed untold thousands, perhaps millions, of people with crashing the ship, yet the film treats is as just spectacle to be marveled at.
Spock continues to indulge his out-of-character emotional breakdown by hunting down Khan in the now-ruins of San Francisco and beating the tar out of him, but let's let that gaping wound in the movie rest for now and move on to my favorite plot element of the film: Khan's magic blood!
Remember that Tribble that McCoy injected with Khan's blood? Guess what? It brought it back to life! Forget the fact that we can now resurrect the captain (despite being irradiated like a TV dinner); we've solved death! Nobody need die ever again now that we can synthesize a serum that brings back the dead! It's like the transwarp beaming from earlier: a wholly universe-breaking phenomenon that's glossed over like it's no big deal. No. Big. Deal. It heals the sick, resurrects the dead, and probably has a sweet cherry flavor, too. I'm mind-boggled at how anybody let this get past the draft stages. The most galling part of it is that the whole thing hinges on aping The Wrath of Khan. If we weren't so busy making sure somebody died like Spock did in the original film, we wouldn't need a magical MacGuffin to save the day and put a stopper in death as we know it.
Yes there's an epilogue, yes the Enterprise is fixed back up, and yes they end the film again with the "where no man has gone before" speech.
Is it a good film? Probably. Box office returns certainly seemed to indicate it is. I enjoy watching it, I bought it on Blu-ray to see whenever I like, and hell, I even went to the trouble of writing all about it. Is it a good Star Trek film? I'd argue no. There was no exploring strange new worlds, there was no seeking out new life and new civilizations, and there certainly wasn't any going where no man has gone before.