#12 in my Ranking of all Star Trek films.
I was willing to chalk up a lot of the faults in 2009’s Star Trek to the writer’s strike that prevented rewrites, but the even larger issues with the follow up are a glaring signal that none of those issues with the previous film would have been fixed without the strike.
I haven’t seen the movie since it came out in theaters, but I distinctly remember liking it, enjoying it, and defending it to a certain degree over the last few years. However, as the movie started for this rewatch, I began to get a sinking feeling. The opening scene is dizzying and thinly entertaining, but it jumps between breezy fun and super serious really quickly. The super serious stuff feels unsupported and a bit flat. The movie continues on and the further into the movie we get the less important that opening becomes. The planet gets mentioned once more. The moral issue about applying the Prime Directive is gone by the thirty-minute point. The central conflict between Kirk’s skirting of the rules and Spock’s blind adherence to them is beyond muddled by the halfway point.
And the tone never lightens up. One of the great appeals of J.J. Abrams’ first Star Trek is its light and breezy tone that jumps from one impossible situation to the other. It makes taking some of its ridiculousness easier because the film wasn’t asking us to take it that seriously but as popcorn entertainment. Into Darkness, though, is asking us to take things seriously. Very seriously. It just can’t decide what it wants us to take seriously.
The Prime Directive? The question of how closely to rules must we operate in order to be a good person? Drone strikes? Executions without due process? The militarization of Starfleet? Ship manifest integrity? Kidnapping frozen men and forcing them to build weapons for you? False flag operations in order to start a war? Literally every idea is there and treated equally, which means that we never get a sense of what this movie wants to say when it so obviously wants to say something.
There’s a great lesson in this film about showing not telling, the old writing rule of thumb about involving an audience in the actions of the film. Early, Kirk goes to Admiral Marcus after the terrorist we all know is Khan but no one else does has killed a bunch in Starfleet command, and Marcus tells Kirk that a war with the Klingons is inevitable. It’s almost a throwaway line, but as the movie enters its third act an hour later, we realize that its central to Marcus’ actions. The problem is, in this universe of films, we haven’t seen the Klingons yet. They were mentioned a few times in the first movie and this scene in Marcus’ office is the first time we’ve heard of it. If this is a man’s motivation to undermine everything he believes in by militarizing an exploratory organization, are we the audience supposed to believe it or not?
That display in Marcus’ office is largely the level of thought put into every major moral question the movie throws at its characters. It feels like something a fifteen year old would write late into the night and hopped up on Red Bull. “And then this, and then this, oh! And then this!” It reminds me a bit of the movie Van Helsing, but that creature feature never thought it was anything other than dumb fun and sort of works because of it. Into Darkness seems to think that it is a very serious movie indeed, and because it can’t figure out what to say, the movie ends up feeling really flat.
And that flatness really drags the movie down. It could have been fun. I still really liked the cast. Alice Eve is a winning addition as Carol Marcus. Benedict Cumberbatch is very good at chewing the scenery in a big emotional way as Khan. The original cast is largely good, though Chris Pine seems to have some trouble with the more serious things he needs to do. Overall, it’s a good cast.
The movie also looks great. I genuinely enjoy a few of the action sequences, especially the bit where Kirk and Khan fly from the Enterprise to Marcus’ ship through the debris field.
I want to end with a quick note about marketing. I’m always surprised at the number of people who hold a movie’s marketing against a movie. The King Arthur movie from the mid 00’s was billed as the “real story”, but it’s really just a late-Roman telling of Arthur. Maybe it’s closer to the idea of who Arthur actually was, but it’s still just as fictional as Camelot. The movie itself never mentions the idea, and yet people hold that against the film. Maybe it’s an excuse because they have trouble explaining why they don’t like movies for specific reasons, but I still find it odd.
In this case, Into Darkness‘s marketing hid the fact that Benedict Cumberbatch was playing Khan. For the first half of the movie he’s called John Harrison, and the marketing never broke from that fiction in the first half. Still, hiding Khan’s identity from the characters made a certain amount of sense in the film. Khan Noonian Singh was a famous figure from the late 20th century in this universe. Having him interact with people using his own name would have raised flags. It’s a fig leaf towards an explanation, though. They really could have just called him Khan and saved us the unintentionally amusing scene where he reveals his true identity to Kirk who then just keeps talking like Khan has said nothing particularly interesting, even though there’s a pregnant dramatic pause after the line. I don’t think it was a great decision to keep Khan’s identity secret (I think the character is actually decently used overall in the film), but it probably should have just been avoided.
Netflix Rating: 2/5
Quality Rating: 1.5/4
Originally published here.