Star Trek XII: The Wrath of Insurrection
Star Trek: Into Darkness was released on May 16, 2013. My initial reaction? My summary review? It was entertaining, even if it was too reliant upon what we'd already seen.
The opening ten minutes of the film is super-strong, and I can empathize with those who feel it should've been the focus of a Star Trek film. After that intro however, I had two 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. First off, 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 a Khan was just fan service for fans who didn't need to see Khan again. "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.
I had plenty of other nit-picky complaints that resonate with me because I'm a hard-core Star Trek fan. "Transwarp beaming" returns: a technology so significant to the Star Trek universe it turns upside down the very concept of needing starships. Khan's magic, healing, life-giving blood is a plot-breaking device if ever there was one. The hand-waving over "unscannable" torpedoes, Chekov's unexplainable promotion to chief engineer over every other engineer aboard, the mangling of the established rules of warp drive, and many more that stand out as I re-watch the film.
Is it a good film? Yes. 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? Eh… It's not the unmitigated mess of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, but it sure leans much heavier on mass-market appeal than Trekkie appeal.
Believe it or not, this was the tl;dr version of my review. Keep reading for a more in-depth discussion of the film.
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 spotting the Enterprise leaving and disregarding their sacred artifact in favor of drawing the ship in the dirt echoed The Next Generation's "Who Watches the Watchers" where 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, 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 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 them 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 kind of 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. There's two in the warp core image above. 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!
Seriously, Into Darkness. "Kronos"? You know better.
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.
The trick where McCoy uses the thingy to open a hole in the brig "wall" is pretty cool. Why they're not using forcefields, I don't know. Continuing on though, why does McCoy need a blood sample? Is he testing for contaminants? Is this a standard quarantine procedure for unknown peoples brought aboard? It's not explained. It is, of course, so McCoy can discover the magical healing properties of Khan's blood.
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.
The Vengeance certainly is big, black, and imposing, isn't it? Running commentary until something big comes along: (1) What's Marcus wearing? It doesn't look like any of the many various Starfleet uniforms we've seen so far. (2) "Oh shit. You talked to him." Masterfully delivered. (3) Okay, so 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‽ (4) Holy crap I'm only halfway through the film and have written reams already. (5) 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. I'm getting tired of reviewing all the inconsistencies.
One thing these films do great are ship battle sequences. The sounds, the visuals, the effects all come together and really have a weight about them. More running commentary: (6) I wonder what happens when you're sucked out of the ship into subspace? (7) The effect of the Enterprise being knocked out of warp by the Vengeance has a very "quantum slipstream" feel to it (experimental technology from Star Trek: Voyager). 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. (8) I'm not quite two-thirds through the film. (9) I love the diversity of the bridge crew. The black lady with the shaved head, the android-lookin' dude, the girl with the shock-white hair, the alien that sits at the back sorta behind Sulu.
I've gotta stop. I've been writing this for months at this point, and I just can't write any more. I hope you enjoyed what I wrote, and take away that I still enjoyed the film despite nit-picking everything to death. I'll continue to try and work on my reviewing, but not with this film. It's suffered enough.
As consolation for quitting this review, watch instead How It Should Have Ended's take on Star Trek Into Darkness. It's right on, much more concise, and a great deal funnier than I am.
image credit: Star Trek Into Darkness by Paramount Pictures (© 2013)