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This time I think I’m going to be less biased. That’s not to say I wasn’t fair to the first J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie; in fact, I thought it was a pretty ingenious way to honor the past while divorcing it from your present. There’s something to be said for discovering that balance between old and new, continuity and change, that’s so hard to find when adapting something as well-chronicled as Star Trek. We’re looking at years of television history, hours of movies, and shelves and shelves of novels to work into the mix, and 2009’s Star Trek managed to juggle all of that to an extent I wouldn’t have expected to work. Of course, it wasn’t perfect, but it tried, and it got the heart of this new universe centered into its own final frontier.
Also, I was in that movie, so like I said, this time I’m going to be less biased.
I have seen Star Trek Into Darkness (no colons needed!) in the finest format I could think of: true IMAX and in real 3D. It was vivid and full of life; as the closing credits rolled and I watched the names of countless CGI artists and editing staff go by, I was once again thinking of that balance between the old and the new. The 2009 Trek brought in boatloads of new fans, a whole new generation to enjoy the adventures of the Starship Enterprise. Die-hard Trekkies and Trekkers had a breath of fresh air and something of their favorite television show back in the public eye, giving us new life and new civilizations to explore. While I’m sure there are plenty of opinionated people on the Internet that prefer one or the other, there’s been a resurgence in the Star Trek community that has benefited from Abrams’ new vision. And as I can wax rhapsodical about what the new movie means and how it will effects fans and the stories to come, it’s really important to take a moment and talk about Star Trek Into Darkness for what it is right here and now. Is this a good movie? Regardless of impact on science fiction or as a litmus test for what the Star Wars franchise is in for now that Abrams is tapped to work in a galaxy far, far away, join me as I look at what we see on screen and if it works just as well the second time around.
WARNING: SPOILERS for Star Trek Into Darkness ahead! Lots and lots of SPOILERS!! We’re talking plot, major scenes and character arcs, so for those who haven’t gotten to see the movie yet, please be warned. Everyone else? Let’s boldly go …
Dividing up the movie into pros and Khans (I couldn’t help myself!), the lists are nearly even in length, although certainly more weighted when it comes to Khan himself. There are some improvements from the first movie: Aesthetically, the Enterprise has lost a little of that Apple Store plastic, and the engine room looks a lot less like the the Budweiser brewery. We continue the trope of “All Starfleet admirals are crazy” in our chief antagonist, so we’re not so removed from our roots. There are some very clear Star Trek-ian principles at work through the narrative, in that we talk about humility, the darker side of humanity and what we do with the fears that haunt us. Star Trek is awesome as a way to look deep inside what makes us human and dress it up in alien garb so it’s a lot easier to talk about and there are thematic moments of that in the character arc of Captain Kirk and Spock. However, I’d say the best arc belongs to Mr. Scott, with Simon Pegg getting much more screen time to be brilliant in the role and add clear motivations to a movie that seemed to really need some.
Yep, the Khans. Or in our case, Khan singular, as the series that blew up Vulcan and left its seven TV series and 10 movies behind in another universe had to reach back and grab one more thing from its past. Don’t get me wrong, Khan Noonien Singh is quite possibly the best Star Trek villain ever created; Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan was smart to draw from the original series to bring back not just the character, but Ricardo Montalban’s rich and passionate performance to enrich our silver screens. But even then, new material was brought to the movie going fans; I’ve talked to people who, like me, had never seen the TOS episode “Space Seed” before they laid eyes on Khan in Star Trek II. You didn’t need context because the narrative allowed for it, and the performance showed how much Khan hated Kirk and would indeed spit at him from Hell’s heart. It was a delicious battle of wills between two men who swore they knew best and would cheat death itself to become the victor. It was tensely driven, with not a single blow exchanged between them in person, but it still felt like these two men were at each other’s throats. Motives were clear, making Khan’s defeat tragic for the Enterprise and giving us a mixed feeling of victory by the closing credits.
Star Trek Into Darkness wants to be this movie, but it has no reason to. Despite that they would go so far as to lift Spock’s famous death scene from their predecessor as well as the famous enraged shout of “KHAAN!”, there’s simply no reason for those characters to make these choices other than for some blatant fan service. Kirk’s sacrifice to save the ship, I’ll give them that despite it being just another reckless act for a man chastised throughout the film for making reckless acts. However, Spock’s emotional breakdown and demands of vengeance seem out of place.
The Next Generation movies, from Star Trek: Generations to Star Trek: Nemesis, seem awkward as we move further away from the series that made these characters legendary. Red Letter Media (better known for their Star Wars prequel critiques) has gone over the TNG movies at length, and one of the notes they made that stuck with me was how out of place Captain Picard felt in his own movies. For a man of outstanding dignity and intellectual pursuit, Movie Picard is always crying or shouting or running or fighting his way through problems he would have more rationally governed over before. This was, in part, due to the studio’s ideas of what an action-adventure movie should be. Thoughtful sci-fi stories about the triumph of the human spirit simply won’t fly without enough bang and boom for your buck.
Abrams’ Trek is full of all the spectacle and action modern audiences crave, and that works because of the divergence from what’s been established. If they want to say the Klingons never had that smooth-headed phase the other series had to account for, it would be perfectly believable because it was a new universe to explore and create in. Khan Noonien Singh could be anyone, but he’s explained to us in terms of what the elder, alternate-universe Spock knows about him. We are forced back in time to understand that a war with the Klingons could be devastating to the Federation because of what we know about how Klingons acted in the previous series. All that fabulous forward momentum is lost because we reached back too far and are now bringing with us the weight of what had come before.
Creating an homage is more difficult than working with an original concept. As well as Ultimate Spider-Man did in refreshing Peter Parker’s image for a modern audience, there were some plot lines that simply were used to remind the audience of what it had read before. In the all-new tales of Miles Morales, we have a greater freedom to do new things and try new concepts while enjoying the safety net of experience. That’s what the 2009 Star Trek did; metaphorically, it was the kids moving out of their parents’ basement and forging a new life in their own place. Star Trek Into Darkness just feels like those kids keep coming home to do laundry and eat all the food. Now that the movie seems to have ended on the promise of a five-year deep-space mission — which … is incorporated into the Captain’s Oath? — maybe this means our kids will be getting a real job on their own and get back to being self-supportive. Star Trek can mean a lot of things to a lot of people but in the end, the best movies are made by exploring the unknown.