Star Trek, the 2009 movie directed by J.J. Abrams, deserved a free pass even though the villain was forgettable and there was no need to drill to the center of Vulcan if the Red Matter would just create a black hole wherever you dropped it. (Surely a black hole on the surface of a planet would destroy it too, right?) These were real problems, but they were worth ignoring, because what Star Trek did right was introduce a fine cast of actors to fill the shoes of the iconic original crew, and establish a new timeline for these characters that miraculously left the original franchise intact. Star Trek was the successful proof of concept, leaving it up to Star Trek Into Darkness to actually tell a significant story with this new(ish) crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise.
In other words, Star Trek Into Darkness is a sequel that absolutely had to surpass its predecessor in order to justify its own existence. Since the Star Trek movies only come out every few years, at best, anything less than a rock solid adventure would have been an enormous waste of more than half a decade, since that’s how long audiences would have to wait between Star Trek and Star Trek 3.
Consider that time wasted.
Despite the still-exceptional cast and a few moments of geek orgasm material, Star Trek Into Darkness is one of the worst films in this long-running franchise. Star Trek established the characters and set them off on their first adventure. Star Trek Into Darkness does exactly same thing, but it lacks the perfectly good excuse that it needed to. Star Trek Into Darkness idles its warp drive for over two hours, and disguises this laziness in a revamped classic storyline told with only a few key differences. The approach might have even worked if those differences weren’t entirely superficial.
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As for which classic story is being told, J.J. Abrams & Co. have gone to great lengths to hide the obvious answer through plausible deniability. The story of Star Trek Into Darkess conceals the identity of Benedict Cumberbatch’s villain for half the film, and when that identity is finally revealed, it’s insultingly obvious. Imagine going to a Batman movie where the villain was kept secret for years until opening weekend, only to discover it was the Joker all along.
The makers of Star Trek Into Darkness have made the most straightforward choices imaginable, and try to pretend that they’re clever by making audiences think that maybe, just maybe, they’ll actually be clever. Revealing this villain’s “duh” identity earlier, in trailers and the film itself, would have only increased interest in Star Trek Into Darkness, and bolstered that villain’s credibility in the first act of the film, where he is only a vague entity, and of little or no interest beyond Benedict Cumberbatch’s casting.
The plot of Star Trek Into Darkness kicks off when Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) disobeys the Prime Directive, revealing the Starship Enterprise to a pre-industrial alien civilization, and gets demoted to first officer after his supposed best friend, Spock (Zachary Quinto), doesn’t stick up for him at the official inquiry. None of that actually matters, of course, since a terrorist attack on the Federation by “John Harrison” (Benedict Cumberbatch, not playing John Harrison) immediately puts Kirk back in the Captain’s seat of the Enterprise, wasting an entire first act on meaningless filler material. And Kirk’s mission? It’s just revenge.
“Revenge” is a pretty severe mission statement for a Starfleet Officer, considering that the organization is not a branch of the military. But revenge it is for the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise, who embark on a dangerous mission and risk starting a war with the Klingon Empire in order to bring this “John Harrison” to justice.
To their credit, the makers of Star Trek Into Darkness seem to know that the militarization of Starfleet betrays the franchise’s fundamental optimism for mankind’s future, and the plot of the film eventually teaches everyone a valuable lesson about why the original approach to Star Trek is superior to traditional action movie cynicism. But Star Trek Into Darkness makes that point by operating as a traditional, cynical action movie, completely negating its own intentions. If the classic philosophy of Gene Roddenberry’s creation is so superior, then why dedicate so much time and energy to making a film that only entertains by indulging in the polar opposite of that philosophy?
The terrorist attack, the foray into enemy territory, and the conspiracy theories at the heart of Star Trek Into Darkness evoke obvious parallels to 9/11, Osama bin Laden, and various “Truther” suspicions about the government’s involvement in justifying the Iraq War, and to be fair, that is perfectly reasonable fodder for the franchise. Klingons were originally a stand-in for the Soviet Russia, after all. The series and original films made no excuses for their obvious contemporary political allegories.
Using Star Trek Into Darkness as a political commentary is a perfectly reasonable approach, but making it incredibly dull was completely unnecessary. When the action sequences in Star Trek Into Darkness aren’t arbitrary, they are often based on the inherent stupidity of the characters, and therefore difficult to get excited about. In either case, they are almost always edited into jarring, ugly confusion. At times, Star Trek Into Darkness can be a hard film to watch in a very literal sense.
Star Trek Into Darkness is also a hard film to watch in a figurative sense, since the film goes through the motions of a previous, famous storyline in the franchise without ever capturing the original’s dramatic heft. That this new series would create parallels to classic stories implies a great respect and fealty to its predecessors, and perhaps even raises questions about the impact of destiny on the lives of Star Trek Into Darkness’s protagonists.
But these questions are never explored, and ultimately seem hollow. This is the same story you’ve seen before, altered slightly, and culminating so much faster than the original that emotional involvement is nearly null and void. It’s roughly equivalent to rewriting The Searchers so John Wayne finds Natalie Wood ten minutes after she’s kidnapped. The journey to resolve the plot point is rendered meaningless, so the plot point itself becomes equally meaningless.
But beyond the conceptual nightmares, the egregious plot holes and boring action sequences, the cast of Star Trek Into Darkness deserves credit for bringing their iconic personae to life in a continually engaging way. Their chemistry is second to none, to the extent that one wishes this series would just migrate to television so we could visit them every single week, and a disappointing installment like Star Trek Into Darkess would constitute a minor blip between better episodes released immediately before and afterwards.
Instead, we have to wait several years just to see Kirk and Spock and McCoy interact again, and only hope that next story will be better. Benedict Cumberbatch, tragically, is completely adrift in Star Trek Into Darkness. He’s fully capable of playing this familiar character the way he needs to be played, but the actor is given motivations and dialogue that are entirely inferior to the ones written 30 and 45 years earlier for a different actor. It’s still the role of a lifetime. Sadly, it’s the role of someone else’s lifetime.
Star Trek Into Darkness is not the absolute nadir of this motion picture franchise. It never quite reaches the utter insipidness of Star Trek: Insurrection, nor does it succumb to the hokey asides of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, but it shares with those bombs a “filler” mentality. Effort is made to turn Star Trek Into Darkness into a meaningful motion picture, with genuine stakes for the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise, but by the end of the film very little is lost, and nothing is gained that wasn’t already set in motion by the previous Star Trek.
The implication is that – finally – the five-year mission can begin. That was the implication four years ago as well. It took us four years to get where we were four years ago, and to tell a story that had already been told, better, decades ago. And all of this is in service of a plot that negates itself, and literally calls back to the original franchise to make sure it ends the exactly same way as before.
As time goes by and the years of build-up wash away into memory, any surprise J.J. Abrams & Co. get from their “mystery box” revelations in Star Trek Into Darkness will similarly dissipate, leaving audiences with a rote retread of familiar concepts that have been done before, and better, within the same franchise. Into darkness it should go, where no one can see it, so we can all wait for this new Star Trek series to finally begin.
Star Trek Into Darkness Posters
William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline's Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast, co-star of The Trailer Hitch, and the writer of The Test of Time. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.