This summer director J.J. Abrams takes “Star Trek Into Darkness” as the young officers of The U.S.S. Enterprise set course for their most epic journey yet. Abrams reunites with the team that created the fun, the humor, and the spirit of 2009’s acclaimed hit reboot of the beloved franchise. On this second voyage, they’ve amped the action, raised the emotional stakes and launched the Enterprise into a high-wire, life-or-death game of chess with an unstoppable force of destruction. With everything the men and women of The Enterprise believe on the line, love will be challenged, friendships will be torn and sacrifices must be made for the only family Captain Kirk has left: the crew he commands.
It begins with a homecoming, as The Enterprise returns to earth in the wake of a controversial galactic incident, its brash Captain still itching to head back into the stars on a longer mission of peace and exploration. But all is not well on the Blue Planet. A devastating act of terror has exposed an alarming reality: Starfleet is being attacked from within and the fall-out will leave the entire world in crisis. Captain Kirk leads the Enterprise on a mission like no other spanning from the Klingon homeworld to the San Francisco Bay. Aboard The Enterprise the enemy among them has a shocking talent for destruction. Kirk will lead them into a shadowy mirror-realm of doubts where they’ve never gone before – navigating the razor-thin lines between friends and enemies, revenge and justice, all-out war and the infinite potential of a united future. – Paramount
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Our Score: 92/100
I have to be honest, as much of a fan of Star Trek that I am (to the point where I have a room in my house dedicated to my fandom, I paid for a lifetime membership to Star Trek: Online before it was free-to-play and I have gone to Star Trek Conventions every year since 2003), after the first installment from J.J. Abrams of the rebooted franchise, I wasn’t really expecting that much from Star Trek Into Darkness. Don’t get me wrong, the first film was a lot of fun and it was certainly great to see the franchise being given the big-budget treatment it deserves and has been lacking and it was also great to see Trek introduced to a whole new generation who overwhelmingly embraced the 2009 film (to the tune of almost $400 million worldwide). When I reviewed the first film, however, my biggest complaints were that Abrams was playing it safe (other than the gratuitous and unnecessary destruction of Vulcan) and basically delivering us a cookie-cutter summer blockbuster that was really shiny but lacked substance with its plot and had holes big enough to drive a truck through.
Four years later, although I stand by that assessment, I’ve realized that upon reflection, there were a lot of things about the first movie (that I generously gave a 7.5/10 when I reviewed it) that didn’t sit well with me and mostly because it appeared that though Abrams and his go-to-team of Damon Lindelhof, Alex Kurtzman, Robert Orci and Bryan Burk (who are all admittedly passionate fans) had an appreciation and reverence for the franchise as a pop-culture icon, they didn’t seem to have any interest in keeping the core principles and concepts of the franchise intact. Granted, Star Trek was created for television and television shows never translate well to feature film (see: Star Trek: Insurrection which is basically a two-hour episode of the Star Trek: The Next Generation with a $58 million budget) and the price of making a successful Trek film is that you have to sacrifice a lot of what the franchise is about to capture the imagination of the audience.
That being said, just looking back at the first nine films (as far as I’m concerned Star Trek: Nemesis never happened), even though they lacked a lot of the more cerebral elements and social commentary that the franchise is known for, they still had the sense of adventure and exploration that are certainly hallmarks in their own right. This wasn’t the case with Abrams’ Star Trek (2009) and all indications were that this new film was going to be more of the same and although I expected it was going to be big and loud (and mind you, I do love big and loud), it wasn’t going to have much in the way of substance or plot.
I couldn’t have been more wrong, and old-school Trek fans who hate the Abramsverse are going to hate this review and me by the end of it.
STID begins with a fantastic opening action sequence a la the Mission Impossible films with Kirk (Chris Pine) and McCoy (Karl Urban) being chased by a bunch of less-than-friendly natives who are obviously part of a primitive aboriginal society. In the background, there’s a pissed-off volcano that’s ready to blow. Through all of the madness we discover that Kirk and McCoy (who were in robes to hide their identities) are frantically trying to avoid contact with this alien culture in order to not violate the Prime Directive. For those who aren’t Trek fans, the Prime Directive is the most sacred law in Starfleet. General Order One prohibits, among other things, interference with the natural development and evolution of less-developed cultures. So, while all this is going on there’s a little bit of exposition and they explain why they are trying to avoid the native folks and why it’s so important. As a Trek fan, I sat there, cautiously optimistic and thinking,”OK… this is a good start. They’ve incorporated the Prime Directive and they are more-or-less accurately explaining it.”
Then the other shoe drops…
Kirk and McCoy manage to make it back to the Enterprise by jumping off of a cliff into the water and swimming to her. Y’see, they hid the Enterprise underwater. Now, unlike the other butt-hurt fans out there who have been bitching about this scene for the last six months or so, I don’t really have a problem with that because other than an episode of Star Trek: Voyager (30 Days) where they had to send a shuttle into a planet that was basically a big ball of water floating in space because Voyager couldn’t handle the pressure of the water at a significant depth, there has never been anything mentioned in the franchise that said it was impossible for a starship to be submerged underwater (seriously, it can travel exponentially beyond the speed of light through the pressures of the vacuum of space but the damned thing can’t survive in a few feet of water?). No, what I had a problem with was what came next and we find out what the true purpose of their mission was: to go into the volcano and put a device in there that will render the volcano inert, thereby saving the lives of the primitive culture.
Stop. Right. There.
Just when I was thinking that they had FINALLY gotten the essence of Trek right (open with a scene exploring a planet, inclusion of the Prime Directive), they have Spock (Zachary Quinto) intentionally violating the Prime Directive… which they had just said they were trying to adhere to no matter what the cost. This really caught my attention because the dilemma of allowing a culture to go extinct in order to follow the Prime Directive’s position of the natural development of said culture has come up on more than one occasion on Trek and it’s been dealt with in a variety of ways. The difference between how the issue has been dealt with before and this time, however, is that in the past they at least acknowledged the conflict with the Prime Directive, sometimes followed the Prime Directive despite the ethical conflict and sometimes just said, “F*ck it… we’re violating the Prime Directive.” Kirk, McCoy and Spock in this film, on the other hand, are yapping incessantly about how important the Prime Directive is in these sequences when the concern is about being seen… and then they don’t even acknowledge that they are violating it by saving these people to begin with.
What the holy f*ck was that? At this point, I started looking at my clock on my phone and wondered how much longer I was going to have to sit through this nonsense… and then it happened; the most important scene of the film (that most people probably didn’t realize was the most important scene) and how I knew STID was vastly superior to its predecessor.
After the scene was over and Kirk again violates the Prime Directive by flying the Enterprise out of the water in order to save Spock from inside of the volcano in the nick of time (thereby exposing the big freaking spaceship to the guys in loin-cloths with spears… whoops!) they go back to Earth and Spock is mad because Kirk violated the Prime Directive to save him and Kirk is annoyed because Spock doesn’t seem to understand that saving his friends is far more important to him than that pesky Prime Directive. They both get called into Admiral Pike’s (Bruce Greenwood) office and he dresses both of them down for the violation of the Prime Directive (and the fact that Kirk lied in his Captain’s Log about the incident… again… whoops!). Pike explains (basically to the audience) that their mission was ONLY to observe and report. Kirk objects asking if he was supposed to let those people die and Pike tells him, “Yes!” which is exactly what he should have told him. So now, as Pike explains, there are consequences. Kirk gets his command of the Enterprise taken away and is ordered to go back to Starfleet Academy to finish his coursework (remember, they give him a field commission at the end of the first film in his third year).
So, not only did the film redeem itself by addressing the morally questionable side of the Prime Directive, it also addressed the issue of consequences for following a moral code that is sometimes in contradiction with your orders. This sets the tone for the entire film. Classic Kirk, classic Trek. Bravo, and it’s about flippin’ time.
It only gets better from there, with a storyline full of moral conflicts, wonderful references to fan-favorite aspects of the franchise spanning everything from the Klingon homeworld (although, it’s Qo’noS not Kronos, you dopes) to model ships of the NX-01 Enterprise (Star Trek: Enterprise), the Phoenix (Star Trek: First Contact), The XCV-330 (an Original Matt Jefferies design for use in a Gene Roddenberry project that never happened in the 1970s ) and the NX-Alpha (from the ENT episode First Flight) as set pieces and of course an epic adventure spanning across the stars (you’ll recall that the space adventure of the last film was fly to Vulcan, watch it blow up, maroon Kirk on Hoth to get eaten by a vagina monster and then they go back to Earth). But the best fan-favorite inclusion in this film and perhaps of any Trek film ever is the active role of Section 31, the rogue, technically non-existent, clandestine shadow organization operating within Starfleet Intelligence first seen in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that is determined to protect the the Federation regardless of the costs, how many laws it breaks or how many people it kills. It’s one of the darkest and most unseemly aspects in the Trek Universe and it’s in complete contradiction with all of the values and principles of the Federation and Starfleet… which is exactly why we love it.
One of the great things about this film from the perspective of a Trek fan that wasn’t really present during the first go-around is that these actors, although bringing their own unique style and personalities to these classic characters, really feel like their beloved original counterparts from the original series and the original feature films. Chris Pine is a young James Kirk, Zachary Quinto is a young Spock, Karl Urban… well it is quite possible that Karl Urban is actively channeling the spirit of DeForest Kelley and he may have been doing so since he learned the role was available and lobbied for it. He’s even more McCoy-like in this film (as if it was possible) than he was in the last one. With the exception of Urban, this “becoming the character” didn’t happen in the last film. Yes, Chris Pine may have been called James T. Kirk, but I really didn’t feel that he was Kirk. This positive development of the characters was present for the entire ensemble cast. Zoe Saldana is very convincing as the self-assured and passionate Uhura, Anton Yelchin plays the part of the brilliant, albeit young and self-conscious Pavel Chekov with aplomb and Simon Pegg nails Montgomery Scott (Scotty) as well as James Doohan did, bringing a sense of comic relief while at the same time applying his brilliant engineering skills to prove to be the miracle worker he is known for being. And yes, I know that’s blasphemy to even suggest.
As far as villains go, this time around we are given two of them but in true Trek-fashion, they are very complicated, shades-of-gray adversaries… again, as opposed to the very one-dimensional, bent-on-revenge Nero (Eric Bana) from the first film. Peter Weller makes his mark on the franchise again (he also appeared as the main villain, John Frederick Paxton in the ENT penultimate two-parter Demons and Terra Prime, arguably, the two best episodes of the series) by playing the dedicated but ruthless Admiral Marcus whose goals are slowly revealed to the audience. Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) plays the mysterious and elusive Starfleet Officer John Harrison who is responsible for a horrific terrorist attack and finds an unlikely ally with Kirk and crew until his true identity is ultimately revealed as is the danger he presents.
Is the film perfect? Please, it’s a summer blockbuster and a Trek film… how could it possibly be perfect? Even if you’re not a Trek fan, you have to laugh at some of the absurdity when it comes to the science in the film. I was hoping to forget about Scotty’s magical transporter that can “beam” people across the galaxy and even onto starships traveling at high warp speed, but of course they had to use that dopey piece of tech again in ST:ID. I’m just wondering: has it occurred to anyone that a transporter capable of doing this would make starships completely unnecessary, and thus, make Starfleet pointless? And I seriously could do with a whole lot less of Spock crying. Spock is only allowed to cry when he is under the influence of a space virus that makes him drunk. He is not allowed to cry simply because he is sad.
If you are a Trek fan like myself, there are plenty of cringe-worthy moments that induce serious eyeball-rolling where they just absolutely rape the original source material with their references to the original series and films (these moments are VERY integral to the film and not casual) and to be quite honest it seems intentional. It’s kind of a big “F*CK YOU” to the old-school Trek fans who are critical of the Abramsverse and hate it for the sake of hating it. On the other hand, looking at these references from the perspective of objectivity, the truth is that no one except for the most dedicated fan would know any different (they dipped their toe in the water in the first film with this approach with the Kobayashi Maru scene but it wasn’t very effective because there was no context). The real purpose of these references, however, which we grant completely violate the established storyline (because… y’know… the franchise has NEVER contradicted itself over the past 46-plus years) is to make a very strong statement to the fandom about where these new adventures fit within the franchise. You’re right, this is not the Star Trek that you remember but it is indeed Star Trek and we are firmly establishing ourselves within the franchise by taking the spirit, theme, characters and even the established plotlines and re-envisioning them all for a contemporary audience while staying true to the original principles of the franchise… and you’d better get used to it because the fact of the matter is that your kids like our new Star Trek far more than your old Star Trek.
The bottom-line, though, is that as much as the old guard fandom complains about nonsense like the overuse of the “lens flare” effect technique (it’s been four f*cking years… sing another tune, already), the Anheuser Busch brewery used as the engineering set (which no one would have even known about to complain about if the producers hadn’t made such a big deal about it during the last film), the design of the Enterprise herself, experimentation on Tribbles, the ship in the water, the obnoxiously oversized U.S.S. Vengeance and of course all of the other goofiness that does rear its head in the film that I spoke about, none of these issues detract in any meaningful way from the quality of the film and its “Trekness,” as it were. This film is so well-done that I’ve even come to accept the biggest blasphemy of the first film, the destruction of Vulcan, which is something that I never thought I would accept. To make matters worse for the anti-Abramsverse Trek fan, audiences love these films and by the end of the summer, these first two Trek films by Abrams will mostly likely have grossed more globally than the previous ten films combined… which brings me to the portion of the show where I address the fanbase directly.
As noted by the four year campaign of hate against the Abramsverse films, some corners of Star Trek fandom continue to be under the impression that hundreds of millions of dollars should be spent to make the Star Trek movie that coincides with THEIR vision of what the franchise should be about. This makes me giggle to no end because not only has that never been the case in the films (following the formula of Crisis/Introduction of Villain, Action, Resolution, Roll Credits), but it was also never the case for the television franchise.
At the height of the franchise’s popularity, Star Trek: The Next Generation was getting 14 million viewers per week; guess what percentage were actually “fans,” i.e., those viewers who followed the franchise religiously and spent money on the merchandising…
It was 2%… and do you know why? Because the franchise on television, like ALL television shows that’s not on a niche network wasn’t and isn’t made for niche science fiction audiences or even the Star Trek fans. It’s made for the general 18 – 49 demographic with the purpose of getting as many of those viewers watching from week-to-week as possible because that’s what advertisers pay the big bucks for.
Advertisers do not give two-shits about 2% of the viewing audience, they care about the other 98% and how many of them fall into that coveted demographic. Ergo, Paramount/CBS Television or whoever is producing the shows don’t give two-shits about the fans, either. What they care about is producing a show that makes them as much money as possible from advertisers and that means that the primary goal in production is to have as much mass-appeal as possible.
It is no different for the Abramsverse films or the ten films that came before them. We as Trek fans seriously need to get the f*ck over ourselves and understand the reality of the situation: Star Trek is not only not specifically made for us, but the fact is that it’s made for everyone else BUT us, regardless of the visual medium. Hell, the first film (Star Trek: The Motion Picture, 1979) was produced as a response to the success of Star Wars and its mass-appeal, not because Paramount thought to themselves, “We have to bring this franchise back because a cult fanbase is clamoring for it.” They weren’t looking to get Trek fans into the theater, they were looking to get EVERYONE into the theater… just like Star Wars did.
And not for nothing, but Trek fans should be worshipping the ground that Abrams walks on because he was the only one with any clout in Hollywood who saw any value left in what was a completely dead franchise after the disasters of both ENT and ST: NEM.
And why were they such disasters? Because producer and Roddenberry heir apparent to the franchise, Rick Berman, was so obsessed with this nostalgic notion of remaining true to Roddenberry’s vision to the exclusion of all else that he allowed the franchise to be stuck perpetually in 1990 well into the new millennium. The 18 – 49 demographic evolved generationally and their tastes changed while Trek stood still. No offense is intended toward Berman (who many fans do hate) who is responsible for many great things in the franchise but the facts are the facts.
Don’t want to believe it? Just look up some interviews with Ronald D. Moore (former writer/producer on TNG, DS9 and VOY and creator of the Battlestar Galactica reboot) as to why he was so frustrated on TNG and VOY and why he ultimately left VOY. He talks about it at length with Rod Roddenberry (Gene Roddenberry’s son) on the Trek Nation documentary but if you really want to get some insight, just listen to the audio commentary on the Battlestar Galactica DVD/Blu-ray sets.
Moore recognized how stale and repetitive the franchise had become by the mid-1990s and understood that it was not keeping up with the changing tastes of its target audience. As he explains it, he wanted to do the things on VOY that he ultimately did on BSG but was told he couldn’t because it wasn’t in strict keeping with Roddenberry’s vision. The result: Trek goes into a 10-year tailspin culminating with the untimely cancellation after a mere four seasons of its last series that was getting a lousy two million viewers per week (ENT).
And what does Moore think about Star Trek (2009)?:
“The bottom line was, it really worked. I enjoyed it. I think most people enjoyed it. And I think it opened the door to a new generation of fans, because the franchise up to that point, as I said earlier, was so encumbered by its own continuity and its own back stories that I think it was really, really difficult to get new people to try Star Trek, because there was just such a huge learning curve they had to go through. Now, with the re-imagining of it, people could just start over and enjoy it and then go discover all the various permutations and spin-offs later on. It has to be inviting for people to sample it for the first time, and it did.”
Star Trek (2009) made nearly three times as much money as its next closest competitor within the franchise. It’s not Roddenberry’s vision? Good. The reality is that audiences (excluding the insignificant numbers that comprise Trek fandom) don’t want Roddenberry’s vision of how a Trek show or film should be made anymore. It’s old, tired and outdated and it doesn’t coincide with their worldview or expectations when it comes to television and film viewing options. It’s simply not sophisticated enough for today’s contemporary audience and it certainly doesn’t work on television when audiences have 500 channels to choose from.
That being said, they do once again want Trek and regardless of whatever anyone may think about the content of these new films, it is simply foolish to not recognize the positive role that Abrams has played in reviving this, until recently, very dead franchise.
Trek fans who hate the Abrams vision need to go see STID twice, maybe even three times and bring three friends each time because how well this film does will have a direct impact on the possibility of Trek returning to television in the near future (where it truly belongs to begin with). But whatever the pouty fandom does, it’s in their best interest to get over their inflated sense of self-importance, stop complaining and simply be thankful that Trek has a future now thanks to the likes of Abrams… which is something that couldn’t be said five years ago.