Undoubtedly one of the biggest blockbusters of the year, Star Trek Into Darkness has now been in New Zealand theatres for a week, so I think we can stop tip-toeing around some of its heretofore closely-guarded secrets.
In this blog I'm going to examine what I felt did and didn't work in the film with the benefit of being able to discuss it in its entirety – I'll save the really spoilery stuff until the end, so if you haven't seen it yet, feel free to keep reading until you spot the Spoiler Warning...
1. Pace is not an issue for J.J. Abrams
In the world of big blockbusters, nobody keeps things moving like J. J. Abrams. All his movies as director – especially Star Trek Into Darkness – rocket along at a thoroughbred's gait. It makes for an exciting film-going experience, but also means the viewer doesn't get much of a chance to consider the grander picture until the movie finishes.
Hence this blog entry.
2. Star Wars VII is gonna be great
Despite his wide-ranging nerd credentials, Abrams admitted to not being a Star Trek guy when he committed to helming the 2009 reboot. He accessed the material by 'Star Wars-ing' it up with incredibly entertaining results. Surely this bodes well for the upcoming Star Wars film that Abrams is making?
Star Trek Into Darkness feels even more Star Wars-y than the first film - its grasp of large scale action mechanics; eye-popping design and exciting space-bound theatrics all demonstrate that Abrams is a fine (if obvious) choice to make the new Star Wars. I just hope he can slow things down a little.
3. The title has no meaning
A big-budget sequel without a colon in the title!? Star Trek Into Darkness seemed like a pretty intriguing title when it was first announced, considering the unprecedented grammatical agility it displayed (for a studio sequel) by not adding a subtitle or a number but rather extending the name of the franchise into some sort of crazy mini-sentence. (Upcoming: Jurassic Park Over There; Iron Man I'm Tired; Captain America The Beautiful; G.I. Joe The Plumber; A Good Day To Die Hard).
This move made me think hard about the title and what it could possibly hint at.
Now that I've seen the movie, I'm struggling to see any justification beyond it sounding cool.
I mean, bad stuff happens of course, which I suppose constitutes 'darkness'; but bad stuff happens in every single movie that has ever been made. I was hoping that the film might reveal a grander meaning to the 'Into Darkness' part of the title, even on a thematic level. No such luck. The story goes in and out of darkness at least seven or eight times with no particular darkness seeming significantly darker than any other darkness.
The residual feeling is that that title came out of a fruitful brainstorm and sounded good in the moment but ultimately means nothing. Like everything cool that ever happened on Lost.
The tagline on many of the posters – 'Earth Will Fall' – is almost as redundant. One of the most visible posters features Benedict Cumberbatch against what looks like a scorched Earth. The film reveals this to merely be London after a bomb goes off.
There is never a question of Earth 'falling' at any point during this movie. Stuff falls on to Earth at times, but the global peril suggested by this tagline has no direct presence in this film. Am I being pedantic?
It reminds me of idiotic tagline used on the international poster for Paul Verhoeven's 1997 masterpiece Starship Troopers.
It reads "Since his existence, man has ruled the Earth. In the future, the rules will change". Did the people who came up with that even see the movie? Mankind remains very much in charge of Earth for the whole film, and all the battles occur on distant planet. I know I am being pedantic.
4. Secrecy is all good and well but...
If there's one modern director who's really benefitted from keeping their cards close to their chest, it's J.J. Abrams. In today's information and hype-soaked media landscape, advance knowledge can drastically affect one's experience of a film.
J.J. appreciates this, and often exploits it to beneficial ends for the viewer. I respect him for it.
Abrams' secretive nature greatly enhanced Cloverfield (which he produced) and Super 8, but I feel his emphasis on secret-keeping has backfired a bit with Star Trek Into Darkness.
WARNING - BIG SPOILERS FROM HERE ON IN!
Ahead of time, there was endless speculation about the nature of Benedict Cumberbatch's character, particularly as to whether or not he was Abrams' version of Khan, the villain from 1982's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (the first second Star Trek movie?), unquestionably the most well-regarded of all the original films.
Star Trek Into Darkness sustains and indeed revels in the mystery about his character, until about half-way through the movie when it is revealed that Cumberbatch is indeed playing Khan. This is clearly designed to be a major moment in the film – all of the tension thus far hangs on the reveal, which feels anti-climactic to say the least. All the speculation pointed to him being Khan. He turns out to be Khan. Hooray.
If Abrams and company had just gotten over their borderline phobic need to not say anything and revealed earlier on in the process that Cumberbatch was indeed playing Khan, the film could've spent less time teasing his true identity and focused a bit more on establishing a more tangible backstory for the character.
Speaking of which...
5. Reverence is all good and well, but....
One of the main reasons Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan worked so well is that the villain had already been introduced in an episode of the original series. Khan had history with Captain Kirk, who'd left the genetic superman and his kin stranded on a remote planet at the end of their first meeting. This backstory made Khan's motivation clear to fans and casual cinemagoers alike – revenge.
Revenge is the stated goal of Cumberbatch's Khan as well. But we only know this because he never stops going on about it. Although he poses them considerable threat, his beef isn't directly with Kirk and company. Thus the personal nature of Khan's villainy (arguably his greatest strength as a character) is nowhere to be found in the new film, and it suffers for it.
Abrams was justly celebrated for the deft way he incorporated existing Trek mythology into his first Star Trek film while also setting the reboot off on its own path. In bending over backwards to pay creative homage to The Wrath of Khan, Into Darkness undermines the new path being trod by the rebooted saga. By serving these nostalgic ends above almost everything else, Abrams makes the new film feel less like its own thing, and more like an imitation of something greater.
The brief section of the film in which Kirk teams up with Khan hinted at an exciting new direction for this story to go in, but alas, Khan gets all mean again before long.
Furthermore (seriously, major spoilers ahead!), Into Darkness attempts to both incorporate and subvert the most memorable moment in The Wrath of Khan (and indeed the original series as a whole): when Spock sacrifices his own life to save Kirk and the Enterprise crew.
In the new film however, it is Kirk who sacrifices himself, and while the development adds to the Kirk/Spock friendship storyline that forms the (admittedly affecting) emotional spine of the movie, it's a moment that exists to play off the established mythology above all else.
Any power the moment has in its own right is wholly undermined by having Kirk revived moments later thanks to Khan's genetic super-blood. If the filmmakers really had the balls to follow through on their otherwise sterling commitment to evoking The Wrath of Khan, they would've ended the movie with Kirk dead – just as The Wrath of Khan ended with Spock totes not alive – and then come up with a more creative way of bringing him back in part three.
It further demonstrates to me Star Trek Into Darkness' ultimate inability to properly balance reverent re-interpretation and original storytelling.
Also they totally discover a cure for death. Which seems like it should be a significant development, but isn't treated so by the movie. Hey maybe the 'Darkness' from the title refers to Kirk's time while he was dead? I could totally see J.J. Abrams as a Flatliners fan.
I really enjoyed watching Star Trek Into Darkness – it's a extremely well put together ride which I am looking forward to viewing again. My complaints here could easily be dismissed as movie nerd quibbling, but I just can't shake the feeling that some of the film's priorities were in the wrong place.
Plus quibbling is fun.
Agree/disagree? Seen Star Trek Into Darkness? Thoughts? Is it churlish to complain about a film's title in this way? It's not like Charlies Angels: Full Throttle really went full throttle or anything. Comment Below!