Why It Didn't Work: STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS
In the third installment of this series of editorials, SauronsBANE1 looks back at another recent, controversial movie that either worked, or completely disappointed. Next up, take an in-depth look at the polarizing movie Star Trek Into Darkness...
The pop-culture icon and cult phenomenon known as Star Trek has captured the minds of countless people around the world, led by very successful debuts in both television and film. After the somewhat controversial Star Trek: Enterprise ended its run on television almost 10 years ago, the public's interest in the Star Trek franchise dimmed.
Everything changed when J.J. Abrams rebooted the series with the successful 2009 prequel, Star Trek. Renewed interest in the series went far beyond the somewhat exclusive, sci-fi loving-crowd that had enjoyed the franchise previously. Star Trek was relevant again.
Which leads us to Star Trek Into Darkness. Ridiculous title aside, expectations were high when the sequel was announced for release earlier this year, and soared even higher when rising star Benedict Cumberbatch was attached to play the secretive villain.
Coming off a clever and ingenious way to make Star Trek fresh, new, and still pay homage to the originals - an alternate timeline - there was no way the highly-anticipated sequel could disappoint, right?
Well, sadly it did.
First off, by no means am I a "Trekkie" or a purist at all. Like much of today's general audience, I finally became interested in the franchise when I saw Abrams' first Star Trek film. So as a disclaimer, this isn't the ramblings of a pissed off fanboy who can't let go of the past nor accept anything new. Far from it.
But as a passionate movie fan...this movie failed to live up to expectations. Was it terrible? Not at all. But to me, the weak parts of the film definitely outweigh the few strong parts. So without any further ado, here's why Star Trek Into Darkness simply did not work:
What Star Trek Into Darkness Did Wrong:
1) Rehashing familiar character arcs.
This might seem like an odd topic to start off with, but it's just as crucial as any other complaint. One of the biggest problems from the get-go is the fact that this movie seeks to go over old, familiar territory that was already covered in the first movie. What do I mean?
Take a look at the first movie, Star Trek.
Focusing on James T. Kirk, a huge part of his story was his growth from an immature, carefree adolescent into a competent, strong, responsible leader. Although some may find his journey a bit rushed (after all, he does go from a rebellious cadet one step away from being busted for cheating, to captain of the prestigious USS Enterprise in a matter of a few days), this progression was handled with great care and attention the first time around.
It's entirely believable that Kirk, inspired by the stories of his father's heroism and helped by Captain Pike's guiding hand, grew as a person and came a long way from who he was at the beginning of the movie.
The problem is, Star Trek Into Darkness seems to forget about all the progress the character made to this point, and unintentionally undermines all the developments that Kirk has made. Let me explain.
This movie starts with the crew members of the Enterprise meddling in the affairs of a doomed, primitive alien race and their planet, which goes against the Prime Directive of Starfleet. Character progression or not, breaking the rules like this is a very 'Kirk' thing to do.
The problem starts, however, when Kirk has to answer to Admiral Pike, and his tepid reaction to Kirk's disobedience. In an admittingly exceptional, very well-acted, intense scene, Pike decides that Kirk isn't ready to be captain of the Enterprise because of his attitude, pride, irresponsibility, and tendency to rebel against the rules.
Just like that, Kirk is suddenly stripped of his title and ship, unfit for command, his entire character arc from the first movie is undone, and the rest of the plot of the movie retreads old, familiar ground by trying to show the audience that Kirk actually can be a good leader...which is something we already knew by the end of the first movie.
While we're on this subject of re-doing old character arcs, let's now take a look at Spock.
In the previous movie, Spock (rather than Kirk) initially is in command of the Enterprise in the absence of Captain Pike. Spock Prime (Leonard Nimoy, who plays the older Spock character from the original timeline) informs Kirk that, in the wake of his homeplanet Vulcan's destruction, he must illicit an emotional response from the usually-stoic Spock. This would cause him to recognize that he is unfit for command, cede command to Kirk, and allow him to launch a rescue mission to save Pike in time.
The underlying theme of this was for Spock, who is half-human and half-Vulcan, to access his human emotions and let it out, which is contrary to the unemotional, detached way of life for all Vulcans. This is shown in a dramatic way when Kirk taunts Spock about how his lack of emotion is proof of his lack of caring about the destruction and death of his planet, most of his race, and his mother.
Does that character arc sound familiar? It should, because Spock does almost the exact same thing this time around, in Star Trek Into Darkness, as well.
Spock and Uhura's lovers quarrel is centered around the idea that Spock didn't show any emotion about almost dying and leaving Uhura alone in the very first scene of the movie, and thus she assumed that he didn't care. Again, the theme of showing his emotions and becoming more 'human' is brought up.
Going even further, Spock's fight against John Harrison in the climax of the movie serves to illustrate this point even further. Consumed with rage by Kirk's supposed death, Spock lets out all of his emotions and mercilessly hunts down and beats up Harrison to avenge his friend.
Yes, Star Trek, we get it.
The audience already knows that Spock needs to learn to be more human, more emotional, more volatile (and thus become more relatable). These repeated attempts to hammer home that idea become distracting and even insulting once one realizes they covered this exact same issue in the first movie.
The Kirk and Spock examples of retreading old ground are signs of poor writing, of playing it safe rather than taking risks, and of a lack of creative vision - all of which hurt the overall quality of the movie in a big way.
2) A messy plot.
An unmistakable trademark of a smart, thrilling, and engaging movie is a deceptively simple, concise plot: a series of clever causes and effects that unfold over the course of the movie, which are direct results of character actions and reactions.
But some movies try to do the opposite; they build an intricate, overly-complicated, mysterious plot just for the heck of it, and there's no emotional or dramatic payoff as a consequence. Characters do things because the plot calls for them to do it, even if the motivations behind the character don't make any sense or are completely nonexistent. Sure, the mysteriousness inherent in all of this is a great marketing tool, drawing audiences to the theater simply to see a reveal of some kind. But it's a massive failure in the understanding of good film-making.
There's two types of films: one that actually has and effectively uses a strong, character-driven plot (The Dark Knight, Iron Man, the original Star Wars, for example) and one that is lazy and just fakes it behind a web of needlessly complicated plot, hoping that the audience won't be able to tell the difference (Man of Steel and Prometheus are the two that immediately jump to mind, in my opinion).
Unfortunately, these are exactly the types of traps that Star Trek Into Darkness falls into as well.
The biggest examples of this are both Admiral Marcus' and John Harrison's respective plans...
...but before we delve into this, let me take a second to say this: it's no secret that literally anyone can nitpick a movie to death. I've written in the past that generally, these little technicalities and semantics shouldn't be considered plot holes and that it's a waste of time to get so wrapped up in them, and I stand by that.
So as I take us through the flaws and illogical aspects of the villains' plans, remember that I'm coming at this from a character motivation point of view. The villain's plans make no sense because the motivations behind the characters make no sense. This isn't nitpicking for the sake of nitpicking. Got it? Okay let's continue.
It's established pretty early on that Admiral Marcus is looking for a fight. The recent destruction of Vulcan combined with the skirmishes and high tensions with the Klingons provide a solid excuse for Marcus to militarize Starfleet and start the war that he's so desperate to have. Why does he want war so bad? It's conveniently never explained. All we know is that he's a war-monger because his character and John Harrison's character told us so. This lazy "Tell, don't show" mentality has lowered the quality of several movies in recent years. But I digress.
When it's finally revealed that Harrison is actually (spoiler alert!) Khan, it becomes slightly more clear that Marcus found Khan and his crew, woke only him up from cryosleep and immediately put his supreme intellect to use by building weapons to further Marcus' cause, using the rest of Khan's captured crew as leverage. For some reason, Khan tries to smuggle his crew out by hiding them in the advanced torpedoes he's built and when he's discovered, he is forced to escape alone, believing his crew to be dead.
This is when he takes the fight to Starfleet by coercing the terrorist attack in London and then attacking the counsel meeting that was assembled in response. When Kirk finally arrests Khan on Kronos, that's when he finds out that Marcus was inexplicably planning on using those same torpedoes, filled with Khan's crew, to kill all of them and tie up any loose ends.
But why hide crewmembers inside live weapons in the first place? Why does Khan escape to Klingon space and force Starfleet to come after him? This was literally the only action he could've done that could lead to all-out war, which Marcus wants. Why would Khan do exactly the one, precise thing that would help his enemy out?
In this film, character motivations are as fuzzy and as vague as they come, which is proof positive of a 'plot-first' mentality, as opposed to 'character-first.' The mysterious natures of Harrison's true identity and Admiral Marcus' true plan is so contrived and so obviously an excuse to have a plot twist for the sake of a plot twist. These types of shallow things don't do any film justice, and it certainly doesn't help here.
3) Rehashing older Star Trek storylines.
A huge complaint about this movie by most Trekkies is the fact that director J.J. Abrams decided to pay homage to a classic Star Trek film, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, by recreating entire scenes from that movie but with slight twists and including other references as well.
These types of scenes included Harrison being revealed to be Khan, Kirk sacrificing himself to save the warp drive and the crew (in Wrath of Khan, the positions the characters were in was reversed), and Spock calling up Spock Prime for advice on Khan. These don't seem so bad, so why include these with things Star Trek Into Darkness did wrong?
With the Khan storyline, ignore the fact that Abrams & Co insulted our intelligence and outright denied the fact that Khan would ever appear in this movie multiple times (despite the fact that fans everywhere had already guessed and were convinced that he would). The movie could have functioned exactly the same, or been even better, had he been an invented, original character with a completely new and more interesting backstory.
Instead, Abrams depended on Trekkies recognizing old characters from the previous Star Trek films and automatically liking this movie because of it. To me, this is similar to director Peter Jackson needlessly re-introducing old characters, weapons, and storylines from the original Lord of the Rings trilogy in his new The Hobbit trilogy. It's a lazy, cheap way of reminding fans of previous works in order to manipulate them into liking the current film.
With Spock and Kirk's role-reversal in the now-infamous radioactive warp drive scene, having some context is important. In The Wrath of Khan, the reason this scene worked so well is because Spock and Kirk had years and years of friendship built up over a significant length of time. Spock sacrificing himself spoke volumes for their relationship, and Kirk's reaction to his death depicted his anguish to the audience in a very intense, personal, intimate way.
In Star Trek Into Darkness, it doesn't feel earned whatsoever. Kirk and Spock have been together for roughly 3-4 hours of screentime, and they've only actually been friends for much less than that. In the first movie, they both hated each other for the majority of the film; in this movie, Kirk is incredibly angry with Spock for stabbing him in the back and reporting to Admiral Pike that Kirk broke the Prime Directive. With so little weight and importance placed on the development of Spock and Kirk's friendship in the Abrams universe, why should we care so much about a recreation of a better executed, more impactful death scene?
The fact that his death is made completely irrelevant 5 minutes later through the use of Khan's "superblood" makes this even worse. Ignoring the fact that using this shortcut solves death forever (as pointed out in many YouTube parodies making fun of the film), it cheapens Kirk's sacrifice and undercuts the emotional drama the filmmakers were trying to create.
The cherry on top is the fact that the movie goes out of its way to get Spock Prime involved in the story somehow. After explicitly stating that he can't give the alternate-timeline Spock any information that would alter their destinies, Spock Prime goes ahead and proceeds to explain (off-screen) how dangerous Khan is and how he defeated him.
This reeks of an attempt to remind older fans of past storylines, pass it off as a simple 'homage' to the classics, and manipulate them into feeling some sort of emotional reaction to this film. Instead of giving us new stories and new characters (the alternate timeline introduced in the first movie gave him the perfect excuse to open up hundreds of possibilities of new places to explore, new characters to meet, etc), Abrams repeatedly falls back on the success of previous films. Rather than trying to "boldly go where no man has gone before," the audience has to spend a tedious 2 hours reliving and rehashing old storylines that we've seen before.
What Star Trek Into Darkness Did Right:
If you're reading this and made it this far, I wouldn't blame you for thinking that I absolutely hated this movie. But I really didn't. As I said before, I'm no Trekkie. The fact that this movie really wasn't a 'Star Trek' movie as much as it was a typical summer action blockbuster doesn't
make much of a difference to me, personally. The recreations of scenes and characters from previous Star Trek movies didn't completely ruin the movie for me, although I certainly agree that it didn't help and I definitely sympathize with those who take exception to it.
Point is, this film was filled with interesting concepts, themes, and goals. It was just the execution of these components that left a little to be desired. Having said that, let's take a quick look at the strengths of the movie.
1) The acting.
I don't think this aspect of the film can be overstated enough. From Chris Pine to Zachary Quinto to Zoe Saldana to Simon Pegg and Benedict Cumberbatch and everyone in between...the cast brought their A-game to this movie.
As Captain Kirk, Chris Pine did fine with the material that he had to work with. The same can be said of Benedict Cumberbatch, who brought a convincingly creepy and sinister presence to every scene he was in. It was ultimately the script that let him down and stops his character from becoming a defining villain for years to come, such the Joker from The Dark Knight or Loki from Thor and The Avengers.
Simon Pegg again proves that he's perfect in the role of Scotty. Although the concept behind Scotty resigning his post is a bit weak, Pegg brought some emotion and well-timed comedy to the character. Bruce Greenwood as Admiral Pike helped provide an emotional core to the movie through the dynamic of Kirk and Pike's father/son relationship, and his death services two different plot threads: it serves as the push Kirk needs to reclaim his title as captain of the Enterprise, and it helps us to relate more with Spock, who mind-melded with Pike in his dying moments. It's safe to say that the great cast of talented, veteran, experienced actors and actresses was one of the movie's biggest assets.
2) The themes.
Although this movie ultimately became a mishmash of several different ideas (part action thriller, part Star Trek wannabe, part fan-service) by the end, the themes that actually were somewhat explored were very intriguing.
The biggest one was "logic vs. morality." The act of doing the 'right' thing even if it results in breaking the rules is embodied by Kirk saving Spock from the volcano in the movie's very first scene. This shows up again and again, such as when, at Spock's insistence, Kirk decides to go in and capture John Harrison rather than killing him without a fair trial. Another example of this is when Scotty refuses to allow the top-secret torpedo technology on the Enterprise without inspecting them first, even though it ultimately cost him his job.
Interesting concepts that, perhaps in different hands, could have really boosted the quality and raised the stakes for a lackluster third act.
The best way to describe Star Trek Into Darkness is to use the example of some simple, crude, unrefined piece of machinery that gets the job done, but only by doing the bare minimum and without much flair. This movie technically did what it was supposed to do, by delivering an action-packed, entertaining follow-up of the first film. But it lacked a certain amount of finesse, skill, and attention to detail - a common similarity between many movies so far this year.
Despite some incredible acting, great action, and visually stunning cinematography, I still have to say that this film just did not work. The potential for a fantastic movie is in there somewhere, but ultimately the results are disappointing. Agree? Completely disagree? Let me hear all about it in the comments below!
**In regards to the 2nd point I made about what didn't work in this film (a messy, convoluted plot), I was very much influenced by a particular article called "The Age of the Convoluted Blockbuster." Written by one of the best movie analysts out there right now, the Film Crit Hulk, he eloquently and succinctly explains his points not only for this movie, but several others as well. Although his unusual writing style takes some getting used to, it's well worth your time.
And for the rest of his articles:
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