"Star Trek Into Darkness" Can't Escape the Gravitational Pull of What Came Before Review

Star Trek Into Darkness intends to evoke, presumably, the idea that catastrophe lurks around the corner, that the hair-raising events of 2009’s Star Trek were child’s play compared to what happens now; that the proverbial shit has gotten real. A more defensible interpretation would be that the title refers to the franchise reboot’s continued slide into the shadow of previous movies.

Director JJ Abrams' latest fare is a fun movie; Star Trek Into Darkness represents what most people want from a summer movie: beautiful to look at, engaging action scenes, epic scale, and humor. There are familiar actors doing familiar things in an entertaining way and really, right there this movie has exceeded 80 to 90 percent of movies released in the last eight months. If you enjoyed Star Trek, there’s an excellent chance you’ll enjoy this movie as well... just not as much.

One of the enticing, special qualities of Star Trek was that reboots are fun; origin stories for heroes are often more interesting than their subsequent exploits. In Star Trek, we got to revisit the origin stories for a fascinating crew that had previously been showcased on a low-budget 60s TV show. Obviously the franchise gained traction and popularity with a string of movies in the 1980s, but while each of those movies clearly had a vastly larger budget than a single episode of a show, they were more limited in terms of time they had to tell a story; with Star Trek, those characters were given a breath of fresh air for a new generation of fans. Additionally, Star Trek told it’s own story because who in their right mind would re-interpret the awful slog of Star Trek: The Motion Picture? It was exciting and new and likely only disappointing to the most devoted of Trekkies.

***SPOILERS AHEAD - STOP READING NOW IF YOU FEAR SPOILAGE***

Star Trek Into Darkness, however, regresses toward referencing what has come before. This movie reintroduces the franchise’s most popular and recognizable villain, Khan Noonien Singh. Awesome, right? Who doesn't love Khan? Well, part of the trap of rebooting the franchise as an alternate universe/timeline is that if you reintroduce old characters like Khan, you make it impossible to avoid comparisons between your interpretation of that character and the previous interpretation of that character. Anyone that’s seen Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan will be unable to see Star Trek Into Darkness without constantly mentally referring to the original.

This is a risky and ambitious step to take when Wrath of Khan is arguably the best movie in the Star Trek franchise (Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and Star Trek: First Contact are the only other two in the discussion and really it’s an uphill battle making an argument for them versus Wrath of Khan). One of the best aspects of Wrath of Khan, for instance, is Khan. Ricardo Montalban is absolutely mesmerizing as the charismatic, superhuman Khan who wants revenge against Kirk reaaaally bad. How does the new Khan, Benedict Cumberbatch, compare? Well, he basically comes across as a really mean version of Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes from the BBC’s Sherlock. He’s got superhuman strength, homicidal tendencies, and some rage issues, but is otherwise a cold, super smart, British guy. The main difference between the two is that Montalban’s rendition is considerably more charismatic, a fact that I think is attributable to a few factors: Montalban gets more screen time in his version, has better dialogue, and seems, at times, to be a vaguely normal person. Cumberbatch comes off as distant and hard to relate to. He doesn't do a bad job, it’s just not as good, which comes back to the inherent risk in making the movie this way.

Neither Montalban or Cumberbatch, it should be noted, are even remotely Indian. Casting a character named Khan Noonien Singh who is explicitly from northern India as, respectively, a Mexican man and a British man seems silly to me, but hey, I’m not a successful movie executive so what do I know, right?

Star Trek Into Darkness even wants you to make comparisons to Wrath of Khan, which frequent references and callbacks to 80s movie including snippets of dialogue (“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,”) and the ending. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it just represents a curious cinematic case of a movie that is simultaneously a sequel to one movie and a remake of another, but neither of the movie’s it’s linked to are related except in terms of setting. It’s odd. There ways in which Star Trek Into Darkness succeeds in ways that Wrath of Khan does not. For instance, Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto make a better Captain Kirk and Spock, respectively, than William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. Bruce Greenwood gets just the right amount of time on screen to make you really like Captain Pike without getting sick of him.

While it should be obvious by now that I think Star Trek and Wrath of Khan are better movies, I do strongly recommend seeing Star Trek Into Darkness, it was an engaging, fun experience which is really what we’re looking for from movies anyway. The last ten minutes or so of the movie feel somewhat rushed, as if Abrams is trying to rush us out the door.

Or perhaps he’s eager to move on to completely new plots, characters, worlds and situations, to boldly go where’s he’s never gone before.

"Star Trek Into Darkness" opens May 17, 2013 and is rated PG13. Action. Directed by JJ Abrams. Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelhof. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto.

May
17
2013
Richard Procter • Staff Writer

Richard Procter enjoys writing words about stuff he is interested in, and has done so for a variety of publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco magazine, and Decades magazine. He has an abiding love of portmanteaus and has never had a donut. Really. 

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