By Jack “Botany Bay” Burton
I am what I like to call a “reformed orthodox Trekkie”. This means that at one time in my life, I was a pathetic, nerdy virgin who could explain how warp drive works, but not how to undo a bra or make out with a girl. And then one day I realized there was other, better science fiction in the world, and I got some perspective and moved on. I eventually met a girl, and discovered the wonders of alcohol. It also didn’t hurt that as a franchise, Star Trek had long since run out of gas and seemingly died the proud, quiet death it had earned. I was okay with that because while the crew of the USS Enterprise will always hold a special place in my heart, with age has come perspective and objectivity, and my fanboy days remain far behind me.
But I can still explain how warp drive works.
So imagine my surprise when, in 2009, wunderkind J J Abrams’ splashy franchise reboot proved to be as fun and engaging as it was. And it was the branchild of someone who apparently didn’t give a shit about Star Trek mythology, so the movie ended up an oddly appealing combination of nerdism and sex appeal. A victory both critically and financially, the film revived the franchise and (mostly) won over its notoriously vocal fan base. Abrams pretty much had free reign to do whatever he wanted to with a sequel. He had a reservoir of goodwill with the fans. He had a universe of stories even bigger than Star Wars right there in his hands, and more than enough creative firepower on his writing team to explore it. And let’s not forget about that big fat check from Paramount with all the zeroes on it.
So imagine my disappointment when he went and jacked it all up.
At least it starts out pretty well. We open on the planet of Nibiru, where the courageous Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and the perpetually grumbling Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) are being chased through a bright crimson forest of…something or other…as angry natives chase them down. Spock (Zachary Quinto) is nearby, walking around inside a raging volcano while Sulu (John Cho) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) wait in a shuttlecraft above. Things go wrong when the shuttle (of course) malfunctions, leaving Spock stranded. Once everyone else is back on the Enterprise, Kirk wants to retrieve Spock immediately, while Spock wants to complete his mission of defusing the volcano and saving the planet (not sure how one volcano destroys a planet and clearly neither were the writers). Both things happen, but not before Kirk reveals the Enterprise to the natives and breaks Starfleet’s highest law, which involves not interfering with primitive cultures.
It’s standard issue opening action, meaning it doesn’t make a lot of sense and the list of reasons why it shouldn’t be happening are longer than the list of reasons why it should. But it grabs you, thrills you, and gains your trust right off the bat. Abrams is good at this, and he’s in top form here.
Upon returning home, Kirk is stripped of his command and chewed out by his mentor, Admiral Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood). The father-son dynamic between them is not subtle, and Kirk and Spock even squabble like brothers as Pike lectures them. It’s these kinds of moments – and I’m saying this now because there are so many things wrong with this movie you might incorrectly assume I hate it (I don’t, I merely loathe it) – that somehow make this film work. Chris Pine takes James T Kirk places Shatner rarely, if ever did. Quinto’s Spock is just shy of superlative. Saldana’s Uhura is a fresh interpretation that retains most of the original character’s groundbreaking qualities. Some of the dialog sounds like it was written by someone for whom English is a second language, but there are several key scenes in this film that are as dramatically arresting as anything most people will see all summer. Then again if you’ve ever been a fan of the original Trek, other parts are a little like getting leftovers two nights in a row – and having to pay for it.
As successful as the 2009 film was, it’s primary weakness was one of the very things that made the franchise irrelevant in the first place. For all the trouble Abrams and his team went through to reboot things, too much fan service forced the story to jump through some unnecessary hoops. This time it’s twice as bad, as the Bad Robot crew make the same mistake too many other Trek films have, which is try and outdo Wrath of Khan. Except this time, they actually USE Khan to do it, and they compounded it with one of the most idiotically unnecessary disinformation campaigns in recent memory. Abrams and his braintrust of Roberto Orci, Damon Lindelof and Alex Kurtzman have made the villain more important than the story itself and in doing so they shortchange us, themselves AND the film they’re attempting to emulate.
The problem isn’t that Benedict Cumberbatch isn’t a serviceable Khan, or even that he looks and sounds nothing like the brown guy with the Spanish accent who played him last time. It’s that there’s no reason for this character to BE Khan. The plot of Into Darkness is a nonsensical pastiche of allegory involving government conspiracy and terrorism that’s equal parts affected AND inane. The movie pinballs between taking outdated swipes at Bush era government policy and trying to shoehorn in an iconic character who belongs in another story entirely. There’s some crap about a militaristic Admiral (Peter Weller) who wants to turn Starfleet into an aggressive strike force worthy of the Klingons, and it’s his cockamamie plan to unfreeze eveyone’s favorite 300 year old genocidal maniac to build comically large, scary looking space ships for him.
The rest of it really doesn’t matter because none of it makes a goddamn bit of sense – and not in the way Michael Bay’s giant fighting robot movies make no sense. It’s as if telling a coherent, logical story was specifically what we wanted to avoid here, in favor of distracting the audience every ten minutes with a dazzling space battle or running gunfight. Even worse, the things that once defined Star Trek – the wonder of scientific discovery and the empowering promise of cultural equality – have been replaced by a world that looks fantastic, but runs on the kind of comic book logic that fuels the Star Wars franchise. And that’s the problem, isn’t it? Abrams makes it a point, every time he’s in front of a camera, to tell us how he never really liked Star Trek, and in fact one gets the impression watching this film that he’d rather be making a Star Wars movie instead.
But despite these flaws, Into Darkness is a mostly enjoyable, action packed, utterly brainless collage of sight, sound, color and glorious stupidity. It hits all the requisite action movie beats – explosions, chases, bloodless fistfights, more explosions, people dangling from things by one arm and falling from absurd heights without getting hurt, still more explosions and yes, a hot chick in her skivvies for no reason (that happened in the first movie too, and I don’t remember anyone complaining then). Story takes a backseat to spectacle, and little touches of logical consistency like how the basic technology works, fundamental units of time and distance and even whether a character is smart or stupid at any given point are all random, fluid things – just like they are in a Star Wars movie.
But this isn’t a Star Wars movie, and Abrams’ obvious desire to audition for one – plus his annoying penchant for needless secrecy weakens his story considerably. Beneath this movie is an uncomfortable eddy of uncertainty, as if the creative team behind it either took their eyes off the ball or simply had no idea what to do with the material. Keeping the villain’s name under wraps in no way served the plot, and secrecy for it’s own sake – and without adequate payoff – is no substitute for good storytelling, nor is it any way to reward the investment you’ve asked of your audience. After all the smoke and mirrors, it was Khan after all, and Khan ended up being the most boring and pointless fan service of all. After going through all that trouble to start over from scratch and make a new sandbox, we find Abrams and Co still playing around with the same sand as everyone before them.
If you’re not a Star Trek fan you will probably have a nice time, but you might also leave the theater confused and wondering what all the fuss was about. If you are a fan, you’ll be amused to see some familiar things and hear some familiar words, but it’s laid out before you like a haphazardly arranged museum whose disinterested curators find both the exhibits AND the patrons equally puzzling. That’s a shame because the characters they’ve (re) created are truly endearing, but the world they inhabit is all 31 flavors of stupid. Now that J J Abrams is moving on to what he REALLY wanted to do all along – making Star Wars – it’ll be up to the next guy to put the brains back into Star Trek. A good foundation has been laid, but aside from the ships and the uniforms it bears very little resemblance to the franchise that for almost 50 years has captivated the imagination of millions.
When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol' Jack Burton always says at a time like that: "Have ya paid your dues, Jack?" "Yessir, the check is in the mail."