Before I saw Star Trek Into Darkness I saw someone sum up the film as “A fun film. Not a good film, but fun.” While I tried to avoid learning too much about it before seeing it, I learned things here and there, and was not encouraged by what I’d learned. Finally I saw it last weekend, and I’d say it’s certainly not a good film, but it has its fun moments. It also drags in places, and the screenplay is a complete disaster of plot, pacing and characterization. It’s certainly a big step down from 2009’s Star Trek (which has grown on me since I originally saw it).
Spoilers ahead, Captain.
As I said, the screenplay is a mess, so let’s start with that: The opening sequence, where Kirk violates the Prime Directive saving a primitive species from destruction, is exciting but ridiculous; not just because of the “cold fusion” bomb that shuts down the volcano, and not just because of the ludicrous notion of hiding the Enterprise in the ocean (why???), but because Kirk (Chris Pine) acting like a reckless oaf just runs over the same ground that the first film covered. (And how much time has passed since the first film? If a couple of months, then fine. If a few years, then how the heck has Starfleet been putting up with Kirk all this time?) The sequence is important to demonstrate to Spock (Zachary Quinto) the importance of their friendship to Kirk, but it’s very clumsy. Sure, Kirk has always been a cowboy, and at this point in his career he hasn’t quite earned the right (in Starfleet’s eyes) to act that way, but since the first film was Kirk growing up and becoming responsible, starting the second film in the same vein is just repetitive.
After the opening sequence, the film is all over the place, with: The villain, Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), staging an attack on Starfleet, in which he kills Kirk’s mentor, Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood); the Enterprise pursuing him to the Klingon homeworld; the ship being crippled and then attacked by Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller), who’s masterminding a secret plot to start a war with the Klingons and has been using Khan to create advanced weapons like his massive dreadnought; Scotty shutting off the dreadnought’s power and Kirk and Khan jumping through space to capture it; Khan taking over the dreadnought until Spock figures out how to turn the tables on him; and Spock pursuing Khan through the streets of San Francisco. It’s a series of set-pieces designed to set up some action and comedy scenes. The first film was a series of set-pieces, too, but it flowed much more smoothly; only Kirk’s exile to the ice world – a pretext for him to meet old Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Scotty (Simon Pegg) – felt particularly forced.
The first film’s story was smoother because its villain had a simple plan and was executing it while the heroes tried to stop him (disrupted considerably by their own internal strife). In this film, no one seems to have much a plan: Khan tries to kill the Starfleet brass, fails, then flees (you’d think the “superior intellect” would have had a back-up plan). Admiral Marcus tries to get Kirk to execute Khan, but when that fails he has to get his hands dirty – but it’s not like he would have been revealing anything by sending a more substantial task force to kill Khan, or even leading it himself. This leads to a decidedly unsatisfying space battle in which not one but both ships end up being crippled (why can’t Star Trek films ever have a nice fair fight between ships where one side just has to outmaneuver the other rather than resorting to trickery? The closest I think we’ve seen was the climax of Nemesis). Other than Khan’s initial assault, it seems like everyone’s winging it all the time.
What this film really needed was a gradually building intensity rather than careening from one set-piece to another. Give Khan a more substantive plan, developing over time while Kirk and company try to figure out what he’s up to and why. Then perhaps learn that he’s somehow co-opted Marcus’ conspiracy from within (maybe Marcus set him up with a false identity but didn’t let the other conspirators in on who he was). Give the overall story some structure so that it’s actually going somewhere, and jettison all the stuff with Kirk losing his command. Seeing the crew act like they’re fresh out of the academy (which they were) was fun once, but once was enough.
Here’s a thought experiment: Where do you think the basic idea for this film come from? It’s not a typical high concept Hollywood blockbuster. Did it start as an homage to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (with Khan as the villain and with a recreation of Spock’s death scene)? As an homage to Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (with the Enterprise sneaking around Klingon space, and a subversive pro-war group within Starfleet)? As a film in which Kirk loses his command due to his immaturity, then loses his mentor, then has to fight to win back his command and avenge Pike’s death? As a sort of parable about terrorism and what motivates a man to engage in it? All of those elements are here (along with the Enterprise falling into a planet’s gravity well a la Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, not to mention Scotty disabling the enemy ship from within), and they coexist uncomfortably.
Thematically, the film is most closely aligned to TWOK, in which Kirk tries to bend and break the rules, doesn’t get away with it, and pays a very high price because of it (Spock’s life in the original film, his command – briefly – and then a very hard road to walk here). The difference is that in TWOK Kirk has a lifetime of bending the rules behind him, is going through a mid-life crisis due to having made some career choices he regrets, and has to use all his resources to get out of the situation he gets the ship into. Here it’s played as a growth experience for the young Kirk, learning the nuances of doing the right thing and that one doesn’t always get rewarded for doing it, as well as cementing his friendship with Spock. But the film feels uncomfortable with its themes, as if they’re present by accident and it really just wants to be an action flick.
Other than his death scene (which, to be fair, is genuinely moving, more for the new material written for it than for parroting Spock’s death in TWOK), Kirk doesn’t actually get the best moments in the film’s third act. Spock is the one who shines, with his solution to take out the dreadnought, and his showdown with Khan. I rather wonder whether the germ of this film was to depict a showdown between these two supermen, since TWOK never had the principals face each other in person (which was a clever conceit of that film, really). In TWOK, the key to defeating Khan (which young Spock asks old Spock here, though we don’t hear the latter’s reply) is that Khan is “intelligent, but not experienced [at commanding a starship]”. Here Khan has the intelligence, and no one has the experience, so the lesson is, what; that Spock can just out-think everyone else? If so, it would have been more fun to see Spock figure out how to overcome his limitations and figure out how to take Khan down without Uhura (Zoe Saldana) having to beam down to help him.
Some other details: I’m annoyed that they killed off Pike, since Bruce Greenwood is the only actor who brings any gravitas to these films (I’d still watch a Star Trek series starring him). I found Cumberbatch to be rather stiff as Khan – to some extent that’s how the role was written, but it didn’t give him a lot to do. It was also jarring to see Khan depicted as a detached, calculating, white Englishman rather than the passionate, savage Hispanic which Ricardo Montalban portrayed so well. (See also: “Star Trek: Into Whiteness”.) They could have tightened up the film by cutting some of the moments that dragged (the whole jump from the Enterprise to the dreadnought went on wa-a-ay too long).
The film is not quite as terrible as I’m making it out to be – as an action film it is amusing and tense and at times a fun ride – but it is a mess. It takes its cues more from a half-century of James Bond films (action and quips) than from Star Trek. My guess is it won’t have as much re-watch value as the first film did.