Tuesday, December 3, 2013

DVD Review - Star Trek: Into Darkness

I’ll start with a spoiler: Star Trek: Into Darkness is a remake of 1982’s The Wrath of Khan.

Comparing the two films is a case study in how computer graphics have ruined movies: they encourage the filmmaker to let cool space battles carry a film, as if that could compensate for weak plots, childish characters, and insipid dialog.

Star Trek:Into Darkness
Photo source: IMDB
The plots of both movies revolve around the conflict between starship captain James T. Kirk and the genetically-enhanced, power-mad Khan Noonien Singh. In The Wrath of Khan, before the proliferation of computer-generated special effects, this conflict had depth to it. Khan had met Kirk before – in the Original Series episode “Space Seed” – and had been defeated. This pre-existing condition ensured that, to employ a tagline from another movie of that era, this time it’s personal.

By contrast, in the remake, they had never met until well into the film. For Khan, Kirk is just someone he can conveniently use and discard. As for Kirk’s feelings towards Khan, they consist of childishly lashing out, as he lashes out at everyone who disagrees with him.

We see that in the opening scenes, in which Kirk rescues Spock from a volcano on an alien world. Unfortunately, he exposes the Enterprise to the natives in the process and thereby contaminates their culture.

This violates Starfleet’s Prime Directive against interfering with the natural evolution of primitive peoples. Now when I was in the defense industry they told me there’s a difference between a crime and a mistake, but the surest way to turn a mistake into a crime is to try to cover it up. Apparently they don’t teach that at Starfleet Academy. Kirk compounds his error by lying about what happened. Alas the cover-up collapses when Spock puts the truth in a report, explaining to Kirk afterward “I incorrectly assumed that you would be truthful in your captain's log.” Kirk gets all pissy about that. He accuses Spock of “throwing him under the bus,” (Do 23rd Century people with transporter technology know what a bus is?). For good measure, he subjects Spock to an anti-Vulcan slur, “pointy”. So basically Kirk is a dick. When an admiral warns him, “You think the rules don't apply to you…you're going to get yourself and everyone under your command killed,” you can bet that by the end of the movie a valuable lesson will be learned. And sure enough, a valuable lesson is learned – by Spock. Kirk just goes on being a dick.

As in the 2009 Star Trek reboot, Starfleet is mind-numbingly stupid. After a records facility is attacked, the entire senior staff meets to batten down the hatches and plan their response. They hold this meeting in a conference room reminiscent of the war room in Dr. Strangelove, except that it’s on an upper floor of a skyscraper and has a row of picture windows. Not very secret, but convenient for anyone who has an armed shuttlecraft and the inclination to carry out a decapitating strike against Starfleet.

The dialog features an occasional good one-liner from Dr. McCoy (“Don't agree with me, Spock, it makes me very uncomfortable”), but is otherwise forgettable. 2013 Khan’s stiffly-uttered threats (“I will have no choice but to kill you and your entire crew”) pale in comparison to 1982 Khan’s impassioned space-age update of Moby Dick: “He tasks me. He tasks me and I shall have him! I'll chase him 'round the moons of Nibia and 'round the Antares Maelstrom and 'round perdition's flames before I give him up!”

But don’t worry; there are plenty of special effects to distract you from these flaws. With a $190 million budget, they’re pretty amazing. At least I think they’re amazing. Most of the action sequences were dimly lit and I couldn’t see them very well. Apparently the subtitle Into Darkness refers to the ambient lighting.

The set for the Enterprise’s warp core was particularly impressive: warp core scenes were filmed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's National Ignition Facility (NIF). Since the $4 billion of government funds spent on the nuclear fusion facility haven’t actually led to any ignition, it’s nice that the taxpayers at least got a movie out of it.

There are two saving graces. First, Alice Eve, who plays Dr. Carol Marcus has a stunningly beautiful body which we get a look at during a completely gratuitous underwear scene (the best kind). Second, in an obvious allusion to Obama’s drone-strike policy, Spock questions an order to assassinate Khan by remote control, without benefit of trial. In light of Hollywood’s usual slavish obsequiousness towards the Obama administration, the writers deserve some credit for their independence. Assuming they didn’t think it was Bush they were attacking.

In any case, if you’re going to spend a couple hours watching a Star Trek movie, I recommend you stick with the original Wrath of Khan. It’s on Netflix Streaming and there’s a reason it’s a classic.

Michael Isenberg is the author of Full Asylum, a novel about espionage and hospital gowns. Available at Amazon.com


  1. Mike, this is an excellent review. On 5/13/2013, J. J. Abrams said to Jon Stewart, "When I was a kid, I never liked Star Trek. … I couldn't get into it. My friends loved it, and I would, like, try. I'd watch epidoses. It always felt too philosophical for me. … The goal was to make a film for moviegoers, not for Star Trek fans."

    So all the pesky Trek philosophy, character development, and willingness to question our cultural assumptions gets replaced under Abrams by special effects that are hard to see through all the shaky-cam and dramatic lens flare. What could a true Star Trek fan have done for $190 million? We will never know, because Hollywood doesn't give that kind of money for anything other than a mindless roller-coaster ride movie.

  2. And here I thought J.J.Abrams just didn't have a good sense of storytelling. I didn't realize that he was also taking out his childhood feelings of exclusion on the franchise.