Movie: Star Trek Into Darkness
Director: J.J. Abrams
Writers: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof
Release date: May 16, 2013
U.S. box office: $228.7 million (11th best of 2013)
Worldwide box office: $467.4 million (14th best of 2013)
Days in U.S. theatrical release: 120
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 87 percent
Metacritic score: 72
Letterboxd average grade: 3.5/5
“Star Trek Into Darkness refutes 2009’s Star Trek while embracing nearly everything that made it a hit… I just wish the plotting were more flawlessly logical.” —Tasha Robinson
“Into Darkness is a sleek, thrilling epic that’s also a triumphantly witty popcorn morality play. It’s everything you could want in a Star Trek movie.” —Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly
“Abrams and his screenwriters (Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof) are so obsessed with acknowledging and then futzing around with what we already know about Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Uhura, Scotty and company that the movie doesn’t breathe.” —Matt Zoller Seitz, RogerEbert.com
“This is a brawny, mass-audience, popcorn-transmission vehicle, pretty much in the vein of Whedon’s Avengers and Shane Black’s Iron Man 3, and possibly not quite as successful as either. It’s made with verve and gusto—some of the outer-space shots are among the most beautiful to be found in the genre—and an entirely predictable formula.” —Andrew O’Hehir, Salon
In a word: “KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN!” As far back as December 2011—almost 18 months before Star Trek Into Darkness opened in theaters—journalists and movie sites began speculating that Benicio Del Toro (the first actor attached to the role that ultimately went to Benedict Cumberbatch) would play Khan, the villain originated by Ricardo Montalban in the Star Trek episode “Space Seed” and the film Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan. Abrams unequivocally denied the rumors (“Not true,” he told HitFix’s Drew McWeeny), but that didn’t stop the guessing games.
Most of that was Abrams’ fault—if not his plan. Abrams subscribes to a much-publicized “mystery box” theory of filmmaking, in which movies are marketed as tantalizing questions that can only be answered with the price of a ticket. The big question in Star Trek Into Darkness was Cumberbatch’s character, and Abrams and his collaborators fed the speculation by coyly feeding fans drips and drabs of seemingly contradictory information. The first publicity photo from the film identified Cumberbatch as “John Harrison”—a character who’d never appeared in Star Trek before—but six months earlier, co-writer Roberto Orci said in an interview that Cumberbatch’s character was someone from existing Star Trek canon. How could Cumberbatch play a new character and an old one? It was a mystery worthy of the price of admission.
Although McWeeny backed Abrams in his piece, claiming the director had “never directly lied” to him before, Abrams had, in fact, directly lied to him; Cumberbatch was Khan. The strangest part of the whole episode—stranger than Abrams, Cumberbatch, Karl Urban, and Simon Pegg all flat-out lying to journalists to preserve their secret—is how little the subterfuge was necessary, on or offscreen. In the film, Khan is indeed introduced as “John Harrison,” a former Starfleet agent who’s gone rogue and turned on his former bosses. Later, Khan himself explains that he is really a genetically engineered superman from the 1990s frozen and launched into space for hundreds of years and then awoken by war-hungry Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller). The Harrison name was, in Khan’s words, “a smokescreen to conceal my true identity.” And then, with all the intensity Cumberbatch can muster, he glowers at Kirk and Spock and says “My name… is Khan!”
For the nerds in the audience, the line’s intended as a big dramatic reveal. For the characters in the film, it means absolutely nothing. Abrams cuts to Kirk, who registers no reaction to Khan’s name, because he has no idea who Khan is. The “smokescreen,” in other words, was totally unnecessary. If Marcus had told Kirk that his target was a rogue Starfleet officer named Khan Noonien Singh, he would have accepted that at face value as well. The only reason for Marcus to change Khan’s identity is so Paramount could advertise that Cumberbatch was playing someone other than Khan, and Abrams could preserve the sanctity of his mystery box.
In retrospect, Khan was a bad choice for Star Trek Into Darkness—the character doesn’t look or act like the Khan of “Space Seed” or The Wrath Of Khan—and for its director’s obsession with secrecy. As a reveal, the Khan twist is either unsurprising (to fans who expected it) or confusing (to franchise newcomers who don’t know who Khan is or why they should care about him). The most ironic part of the whole Khan fiasco: If Star Trek Into Darkness has a message, it’s a call for more transparency from government. The ultimate villain is not Khan, but Admiral Marcus, who uses Khan’s terrorist acts as a pretext to instigate a war with the Klingons. The movie is deeply skeptical of people in authority, and their tendency to abuse their power in secret. And yet its entire marketing campaign was based on hiding information from the public. It’s not exactly hypocritical, but, to quote an old Vulcan proverb, it is highly fucking illogical.
It’s not hard to see why critics gave Star Trek Into Darkness such positive reviews: In the moment, it’s a breathlessly paced movie. The action starts immediately, with a multilayered setpiece on the alien planet Nibiru, where the crew of the Enterprise try to save a race of primitive aliens from a volcano. Next, the film introduces John Harrison, who soon blows up a secret Starfleet facility. That prompts a meeting of senior Starfleet officials, and Khan shows up there with a stolen ship, which sparks another setpiece.
The movie is packed with thrilling scenes. A few, like Kirk and Khan’s space jump from the Enterprise to Marcus’ ship, the Vengeance, are straight-up rehashes of similar sequences from 2009’s Star Trek—but that doesn’t make them any less suspenseful. The climactic battle, which culminates with the Enterprise falling back to Earth while Kirk and Scotty race through the ship (and sometimes up its walls and ceilings, as it spins through space without artificial gravity) is a knockout. These and other effects are absolutely incredible. When they’re backed by Michael Giacchino’s stirring score, it’s hard not to get swept up in the adventure.
It also helps that Abrams cast such a fabulous group of likable, charismatic actors. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto have perfect oil-and-water chemistry as Kirk and Spock; Karl Urban’s Bones is just as entertainingly crotchety as DeForest Kelley’s. Goofy Simon Pegg and his bad impression of James Doohan’s bad Scottish accent is ideal comic relief; Zoe Saldana, John Cho, and Anton Yelchin add notes of romance, bravery, and dedication.
Into Darkness reaps the benefit of all the work Abrams’ first Star Trek did to put all these pieces into place. After all that setup, this is the payoff. The scale of Abrams’ Star Trek movies could never be replicated on a television series, but his cast is so good, it’s easy to wish Paramount could convince them all to shoot 13 episodes of a new five-year mission for Netflix or HBO or something like that. The time with these actors is time well spent.
Almost everything about Marcus and Khan that doesn’t involve chases, fistfights, or space battles. Star Trek Into Darkness is so fast-paced, it actually outruns its own logic problems, another reason why it received such an unusual combination of initial positive reviews and subsequent negative buzz. Almost everyone who saw the movie enjoyed the experience. They only started to see the plot holes after thinking about it, watching it again, or reading the criticism that slowly started to cohere around the film. This movie is the cinematic equivalent of a Big Mac box: bright, colorful, carefully designed, and intended to be discarded after a single use, without any consideration whatsoever.
I’ve seen Into Darkness three times now, and gone through key scenes on Netflix a few more times, and I still don’t fully understand the details of Marcus and Khan’s plans. So many of them hinge on a wildly convenient, incredibly strange plot device: 72 experimental, long-range torpedoes that Marcus gives to Kirk, which also happen to have the frozen members of Khan’s crew hidden inside them. Marcus wants Kirk to execute Khan and to get caught firing torpedoes at the Klingons in order to start a war; Khan wants the 72 human popsicles inside the torpedoes. But as far as I can tell, neither Marcus nor Khan know Khan’s crew are inside the torpedoes when they’re given to Kirk. (Khan’s exact words: “He used my friends to control me; I tried to smuggle them to safety in the very weapons I had designed. But I was discovered. I had no choice but to escape alone. And when I did, I had every reason to suspect that Marcus had killed every single one of the people I hold most dear. So I responded in kind.”) So Khan’s whole plan was revenge for the murder of people who hadn’t been killed, and Marcus’ whole plan was to give Khan the one thing he wants. None of it holds up to scrutiny, and all of it is unclear.
At least some of the confusion is by design. Star Trek Into Darkness takes Abrams’ mystery-box aesthetic to a whole new level; almost every individual scene is its own miniature mystery box. One sequence after another ends with a “shocking” cliffhanger, and every time viewers think they understand who’s doing what to whom and why, Abrams throws in another monkey wrench. The film is just one “Holy shit!” moment after another. (“Holy shit, Khan got that guy to blow up that building! Holy shit, Khan killed Pike! Holy shit, Scotty just found something behind Jupiter! Holy shit, Khan just surrendered! Holy shit, Khan is Khan!”) Abrams crams in more rug-pulls than a going-out-of-business sale at a carpet warehouse.
Sometimes the twists come so fast they barely have time to register before they’re negated, like Kirk’s lightning-fast demotions and re-promotions. In the first 33 minutes of the film, Kirk holds four different ranks: He’s the captain on Nibiru during the cold-open chase scene, but gets sent “back to the Academy” by an unseen tribunal in the next debriefing scene with Bruce Greenwood’s Admiral Pike. Two scenes later, he’s drowning his sorrows at a bar when Pike shows up and makes him his first officer on the Enterprise; two scenes after that, Admiral Marcus gives him back the Enterprise and his captaincy to go kill Khan. All of these are huge, life-changing moments in Kirk’s life—or at least they would be, if the movie spent even a minute or two contemplating them.
All the chaos is somewhat thrilling the first time through. There’s so much going on, it’s like watching a really talented juggler who keeps recklessly adding flaming swords to his act. Only after the movie’s over is it easy to notice all the times Abrams burned or nicked himself trying to keep everything up in the air. Breathless pacing and shocking twists can make a movie memorable, but combined, they cancel each other out; the speed of the plotting deadens the impact of the twists, like when Kirk dies of radiation poisoning, then comes back to life 10 minutes later.
Star Trek Into Darkness isn’t as great as its reviews suggest—or as bad as its backlash. It was the No. 8 movie on Rotten Tomatoes’ Summer Movie Scorecard, and No. 6 on Metacritic’s Summer Movie Recap—the best reviewed summer blockbuster on either list. (Unless you count Edgar Wright’s The World’s End, which cost about a tenth of STID’s budget.) But by that point, it was also the target of nearly every nitpicking YouTube series on the planet. Honest Trailers eviscerated it on August 20; Everything Wrong With… posted its video on September 19. This movie already has one critical reappraisal, and it’s probably due for another one in a few years when people recognize that, in spite of the wonky plotting, it does have some memorable action beats and wonderful characters.
That’s going to take a while; even some members of Into Darkness’ creative team have distanced themselves from the film. In late August, co-writer Damon Lindelof contributed to a Vulture article about the “new rules of blockbuster screenwriting,” where he pinned some of Into Darkness’ story issues on the “inescapable” requirements of large-scale Hollywood filmmaking. “Did Star Trek Into Darkness need to have a giant starship crashing into San Francisco?” he asked rhetorically. “I’ll never know. But it sure felt like it did.” A few months later, Abrams second-guessed himself in an interview with MTV, saying he came to regret the way he handled the Khan reveal.
In the wake of Lindelof’s article, the backlash began picking up steam. In early September, TrekMovie.com ran an editorial about how Star Trek was “broken;” co-writer Roberto Orci showed up in the comments section to angrily reject the premise. Less than two weeks later, Blastr published a list of 14 things that made Into Darkness so controversial, citing things like Alice Eve’s gratuitous underwear scene and the film’s bastardization of the franchise’s Prime Directive. A few days later, Entertainment Weekly asked why everyone was “so upset” about Star Trek Into Darkness, citing the widely reported results of a vote at a recent Star Trek convention that named Into Darkness the worst film in franchise history. It was a hyperbolic response, motivated as much by the film’s cavalier attitude toward the franchise’s history (and its un-Trek-like action-first, science-second approach), but it speaks to just how quickly and how far the film had fallen in the public’s estimation. By the end of 2013, one of the best-reviewed movies of the summer even showed up on a couple lists of the worst movies of the year.
Though much of Star Trek Into Darkness doesn’t hold up to repeat viewing, a few grace notes only start to emerge from beneath the frantic pile-up of stunts and explosions after a re-watch. The opening sequence on Nibiru, while stupid (cold fusion is not literally cold, you guys), does succinctly establish the continuing dichotomy between Kirk and Spock. The latter must follow the rules, while the former doesn’t know how to. At the disciplinary meeting that follows, Pike reinforces this emerging theme. “It’s a pattern with you! The rules are for other people!” he barks at Kirk before shipping him off to the Academy.
It’s a perfect concept for the sequel: Over the course of the film, Kirk must learn to follow the rules, while Spock must learn how to bend them. But Abrams never pays that idea off; while Spock kinda sorta does trick Khan—giving him back the torpedoes he wants, only to blow them up once they’re on his ship—Kirk never grows in any way. In fact, the end of Into Darkness—where Kirk dies saving the Enterprise, in an inversion of the classic ending of The Wrath Of Khan, then is immediately brought back to life by Khan’s magical blood—arguably regresses his character.
In the beginning of the film, Kirk thinks the rules don’t apply to him. At the end of the film, he’s proven right; not even the rules of death apply to James T. Kirk! In Star Trek Into Darkness, Captain Kirk graduates from simple rule-breaking to irrevocably violating the sacred, fundamental laws of nature. And he’s rewarded for it! That sequence is Star Trek Into Darkness in a nutshell. It’s thrilling and emotional—and also a blatant retread of something from an earlier, better movie that ultimately doesn’t stand up to the slightest bit of scrutiny. (Why not use one of the 72 other crew members’ blood to save Kirk? They even have to take one of Khan’s crew out of his “cryo-tube” to put Kirk in it to keep him alive until Spock retrieves Khan’s blood. Take that guy’s blood while you’re thawing him out! Also, shouldn’t we start using that blood on, y’know, every sick person in the entire world?)
One year after Doctor McCoy cures death forever, Starfleet assembles in San Francisco to remember all those who died (and whom McCoy apparently refused to save?) when Khan crashed Admiral Marcus’ secret ship, the Vengeance, into the city. The symbolism isn’t subtle: When a nation focuses on revenge, it ultimately destroys itself rather than its enemies. We as a people must work together to defeat that urge for vengeance. In his speech to the assembled officers, Kirk recites the famous Star Trek “Captain’s Oath,” describing its words as a “a call for us to remember who we once were, and who we must be again.”
It’s a nice moment—but also a disingenuous one, given that Star Trek Into Darkness is one of the bleaker, more cynical blockbusters in recent years. It’s hard to buy into a hopeful vision for the future when it’s delivered in the final 90 seconds of a two-hour spectacle of death, violence, and destruction on a massive city-wide scale. The whole thing rings hollow, like a speech on the importance of fire safety from a convicted arsonist.
But that’s not what we’re supposed to think about, because we’re not supposed to think about anything while watching Star Trek Into Darkness. We’re just supposed to hear those famous words (“Space, the final frontier…”), smile at the twinge of nostalgia, and leave the theater as quickly and as thoughtlessly as possible. This will be the franchise’s true final frontier with Star Trek 3: to make a movie that’s as fun to think about and revisit as it is to watch the first time.