Some road trip: Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), Lt Uhura (Zoe Saldana), and First Officer Spock (Zachary Quinto) are reminded that life aboard a Federation starship isn’t all skittles and Romulan ale when they chase an intergalactic terrorist to a supposedly uninhabited Klingon moon in one of the exciting chapters in J.J. Abrams’ Saturday morning movie serial-like Star Trek Into Darkness.
J.J.Abrams, the director of Star Trek Into Darkness and Hollywood’s new go-to guy for re-booting Gen Xer’s childhoods now that he has in his hands both the Trek and the Star Wars franchises, has notoriously admitted to never having liked Star Trek when he was growing up.
“Too philosophical,” for him, he says.
Which will sound to real Star Trek fans as if he’s confused the original series with the Next Generation.
There’s little philosophy in the new installment of Abrams’ Star Trek reboot. The most philosophically profound thing any one says is in a speech Admiral Pike gives to Captain Kirk and it’s a long-winded, tin-eared reiteration of Uncle Ben’s “With great responsibility” speech to Peter Parker that Kirk shrugs off and Abrams gives only cursory attention to for the rest of film.
But judging by other things that are there and not there in Into Darkness, here are some other complaints I think Abrams has about the original Trek:
Spock was just too darn logical and emotionless and that whole pon farr business was nonsense. He’s half-human, which means he ought to be horny all the time not just for a few days every seven years.
And Kirk, the youngest starship captain, didn’t act young. He was always so responsible. Thirty-two year olds are practically kids, dammit, and they should behave like kids.
McCoy wasn’t enough of a lech. Scotty and Chekhov weren’t big enough clowns. Sulu occasionally played an important role in the story.
And Uhura just had way too much to do and what she did took away time she should have spent being awestruck by the male heroes.
Not *enough* red shirts died every episode.
Nobody wore goofy hats!
If you’re a Star Trek fan or even just a thoughtful and relatively mature-minded moviegoer, you might deduce from this list that Abrams’ main complaint with the original television series and the movies that followed is there were too many grown-ups.
Abrams appears to have decided that he hadn’t dealt with that his first time around by making his main characters young enough and this time they’d all get to let their inner adolescent really show.
Star Trek Into Darkness is a fun movie---at least, I had fun while watching it---made by a smart and talented director of less than lofty artistic vision and ambition who seems to have as his guiding aesthetic the belief that the highest form of cinematic achievement is something critics will praise as “rip-roaring” and “rollicking”, “full of spine-tingling excitement” that “keeps you on the edge of your seat” and “rooting for more.”
Abrams might not have liked Star Trek fan when he was a kid, but he was clearly devoted to Star Wars. He’s said proudly that George Lucas was his first filmmaker idol and, although he probably didn’t know it would be coming his way when he was working on Into Darkness, parts of the movie are practically test reels for his Star Wars. One of the best sequences owes a lot to the chase through the asteroid field in The Empire Strikes Back, not just in its rip-roaring, rollicking, edge-of-your-seat visual excitement but in the banter going on between Han, Chewie, and Leia…sorry. Between Kirk, Spock, and Uhura. Steven Spielberg has obviously been a major influence, as well. Jaws-ET-Raiders of the Lost Ark-A.I.-Minority Report Spielberg not Schindler’s List-Saving Private Ryan-Munich-Lincoln Spielberg.
Structurally Into Darkness’ story arc breaks down into self-contained chapters like the Saturday movie serials that inspired Lucas when he set out to make Star Wars and him and Spielberg when they worked on the Indiana Jones adventures. (The first chapter is the best and would have made a good Star Trek episode all on its own and I wish Abrams had made that movie instead. But I’m getting ahead of myself.) And Into Darkness is mostly worthy of its models.
It’s a well-crafted action-adventure movie “fun for the whole family” but it doesn’t bear thinking about, especially if you’re thinking like a Star Trek fan, which I’m about to demonstrate.
By now, most of you probably know that the villain played by the magnificently scene-stealing Benedict Cumberbatch is supposed to be You Know Who. I’ll try to be careful about it, in case you don’t, but really it won’t be much of a spoiler if I slip up because by the time of the big reveal it’s already established that even if he calls himself by that iconic name he isn’t that character.
He doesn’t have his background, his motivations, his biological origins, his personality, his wit, his erudition, or his ambition. That ambition makes You Know Who a tragic villain. Cumberbatch’s version is a stock action-adventure villain in his ambition. He wants what he wants because the plot needs him to want it and because in his going after it lots of minor characters will die and lots of things will get blown up and our heroes will have a hard time stopping him and so we get something resembling a story out of him. In other words, he’s a plot device.
Who mourns for a plot device?
(A prize to the first reader who identifies the episode referenced above, which is not the episode that introduces You Know Who. By the way, Todd B? I haven’t forgotten I owe you a prize for being the first to name the first movie Robert Redford and Susan Sarandon made together.)
In fact, Cumberbatch’s villain is so much not that character that the spoilage is caused by knowing the original at all. You’re better off not knowing, better off not ever having seen or even heard of him. You won’t miss out on anything. Knowing doesn’t add to enjoying or following the movie. In fact, if you do know, you should try to make yourself forget him, at least for the duration of the film just so you don’t waste a lot of time wondering why Abrams bothered naming him after that character.
I suspect one of the reasons he did was to get it out of the way.
Almost immediately after the initial reboot hit the theaters many fans began calling for Abrams to include You Know Who in the next movie. I don’t know why. And I don’t know why Abrams would have listened to them. I thought that in Star Trek he’d screwed up the timeline to give himself a Get Out of the Official Canon Free card. He had room to take the Enterprise and boldly go wherever he wanted without having to worry about obsessive fans complaining that the “real” Kirk or the “real” Spock or the “real” McCoy, Scotty, Uhura or whoever would never have done that or if they had they’d done it on some other planet at some other stardate. It wouldn’t matter if Kirk’s brother Sam didn’t die until later or that Carol Marcus was never a member of Starfleet or how Harry Mudd wound up being the one who unleashed the plague of Tribbles instead of Cyrano Jones. He was free not to ever mention You Know Who.
(The Spock-Uhura romance is different and more problematic and I’m going to deal with in a follow-up post.)
The point was---or at least I thought it was the point---for Abrams and any directors who followed him where no Roddenberry had gone before to be able to tell all new stories, not to rehash favorite episodes in ways seemingly intended to annoy old fans.
Abrams has been clear that he’s not making these movies for fans or not just for fans. He’s aiming for a much larger audience that would include a lot of people all around the world who not only had only a slight acquaintance with the original series but may never have seen a single episode and were only getting to know Kirk and his crew through Abrams’ movies. It wouldn’t matter to them and might actually get in their way if he constantly and punctiliously referenced the show and adhered over-faithfully to all its tropes.
So then why did he do it? Rehash a favorite story in a way seemingly intended to annoy old fans and, on top of that, in a way that would add nothing to the enjoyment of people in the audience who weren’t fans and didn’t know and didn’t care about the show?
It may have been a clumsy and clueless attempt to prove his bona fides to fans, like a B-student determined to prove to a professor he doesn’t much like or respect that he really has done all the required reading.
But I’m more than half-convinced he really did do it to annoy the fans. It was his way of telling us that Star Trek belongs to him now. And, yes, I think Abrams is that arrogant and that immature, which, surprise, I’ll deal with in another follow up post.
Annoying as it is, though, it really matters in and mars only one of Into Darkness’ chapters. And annoying as it is, it isn’t as annoying as how Abrams and his screenwriters handle---or actually don’t handle---the with great power comes great responsibility theme which, as it applies in Into Darkness, is really another way saying it’s time to grow up, Jim.
The most significant effect of the alteration of the timeline is that the main characters are on board the Enterprise six or seven years younger than they were at the beginning of the TV series. This is less of an issue for Scotty and Bones, for whom it’s a matter of the difference between being, say, fifty and forty-three for Scotty and forty-five and thirty-eight for Bones---their knees and back are in better shape---than it is for Kirk and Spock, for whom it’s the difference between being twenty-three or so and thirty, which is to say barely out of college and about to enter middle-age or being still in many ways a kid and being adults in their primes.
Abrams seems to have decided that Vulcans mature emotionally and intellectually at the same rate as humans, which isn’t necessarily at odds with how things are in the original series. The very wise and grown up Vulcans we’ve met, like Spock’s father Sarek and the high priestess T’Pau have been maturing for a couple hundred years. Even the original Spock (known in Abrams’ rebooted universe as Spock Prime) had some growing up to do yet when we met him, which explains his big, goofy smile in the original pilot episode. Zachary Quinto’s Spock doesn’t have the command of his emotions that Leonard Nimoy’s Spock had, but there were plenty of times in the original series when were shown that that command was far from complete.
This is a personal problem for Spock. It mainly affects his friendship with Kirk and his romance with Uhura. It’s potentially a professional disaster for Kirk.
Some fans and critics have complained that in Into Darkness Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk acts like a great big arrogant jerk. Of course he does. That’s because what he’s really acting like is a very smart, very talented, very young man who has been given a job he doesn’t know he’s very far from ready for.
Shatner’s Kirk took command of the Enterprise after having spent ten years as a junior officer on board other starships, during which time he learned most of what he needed to know in order to be the smartest adult on the bridge, including what it means to be the Captain.
Pine’s Kirk assumed command right out of grad school when he was already convinced he was smarter than all the other grown-ups aboard any ship. As far as he’s concerned being captain means being able to show everybody else up while having the freedom and power to do whatever you want to do, especially, have some fun.
But Shatner’s Kirk was raised by a pair of scientist parents. Pine’s Kirk grew up in the shadow of his martyred military hero father, apparently raised by no one in particular, his mother having disappeared without explanation or without being much mourned or missed, sometime between the day he was born and when he turned twelve.
(Abrams has a habit of making mothers disappear. Spock’s mother vanishes in the first movie. Super 8 is all about missing mothers. And in Into Darkness Carol Marcus, the most important woman in Kirk’s life and one of the most brilliant scientists in the 23rd Century, is primarily defined as the ultimate Daddy’s Girl, her mother having no apparent presence in her or her father’s lives or thought.)
So it’s no wonder Pine’s Kirk has such a big chip on his shoulder and that’s he self-reliant to a fault. Adults have never had much worthwhile to teach him and he’s learned to disregard their advice and listen only to himself. In short, it’s no wonder he’s a big, swaggering, self-indulgent, self-satisfied jerk.
Fortunately, that’s far from all he is.
He’s also a pirate.
He’s the Kirk who would steal the Enterprise to go rescue Spock on the Genesis planet. The Kirk who would know how to demand a piece of the action from Bela Okmyx and the other mob bosses running Sigma Iotia II. The Kirk who would get a kick out Harry Mudd no matter how much trouble he’s causing.
The Kirk who would violate the Prime Directive by unleashing those serpents in the garden of Eden.
Of course, Shatner will always be the “real” James T. Kirk to me. But only in the way Christopher Reeve is the “real” Superman and Jeremy Brett the “real “ Sherlock Holmes. The characters exist in their own “reality” apart from any actors who play them and so the actors who have come after Reeve and Brett should be free to interpret those characters in their own ways. I like what Pine’s doing with Kirk. The difference between Shatner’s interpretation and his is a matter of emphasis.
Shatner’s Kirk is an overgrown Boy Scout and science nerd (with a minor in history geek) who learns to embrace his inner pirate. Pine’s Kirk is a swashbuckling rogue when we meet him who so far has yet to realize he has any Boy Scout or scientist in him. I smiled when in Into Darkness Pine’s Kirk gets excited at the prospect of the Enterprise’s being given its iconic five year mission to explore strange new worlds and seek out new life and new civilizations because being an explorer is the essence of Jim Kirk. He’s not a military man or a pirate. He’s not a Henry Morgan or a Stephen Decatur. He’s James Cook.
I wasn’t surprised or disappointed when it became quickly clear Pine’s Kirk has no clue as to what it means to be an explorer. He doesn’t see it as either a job or a vocation. He takes it more as having permission to go on a long road trip using Mom and Dad’s credit card to pay for the gas, hotel bills, food, and Romulan ale. I figured that one of the things we were going to see happen was Kirk learning the joys and importance of boldly going where no one has gone just for the sake of learning what’s out there.
In Into Darkness, Abrams sets up Kirk to learn a number of lessons about what it means to be the Captain, which basically translates into what it means to be a grown-up with a real job that has people relying on your good judgment, and then doesn’t have him learn any of them.
Nothing happens, nothing is solved or left unsolved, in Into Darkness, because Kirk learns or fails to learn any grown-up lessons. He and the plot just careen along, with Kirk acting more like Han Solo and Indiana Jones than like the James T. Kirk of old, getting by on sheer grit and pure luck, and if he never says in answer to someone asking what’s his plan, “I don’t know, I’m making it up as I go,” it’s because Abrams lost his nerve or had to leave that scene on the cutting room floor.
(Shatner’s Kirk always had a plan. He didn’t believe there was anything you couldn’t plan for. That was his genius and his tragic flaw.)
Pine’s Kirk winds up being the same big swaggering jerk from beginning to end. (This is one of the reasons I think Into Darkness and Iron Man 3 make a good double feature. In Iron Man 3, Tony Stark is set up to learn some of the same lessons about growing up that Kirk is in Into Darkness. But we get to see Tony learn them.) The script pays lip service to Kirk’s supposedly learning lessons in responsibility but the movie itself seems perfectly content with his not actually having to learn them. In fact, it’s Spock who learns the big lesson---how much fun and satisfying it is not to have to act like a grown-up.
It’s past the point of cliché to say that in the original Star Trek McCoy was the heart and Spock was the head and Kirk was at his best when he listened to and combined the advice of both.
But there’s another dynamic at work.
In the original, Kirk, McCoy, and Spock were continually learning from each other.
In Into Darkness, all the learning goes one way, from Kirk to Spock.
Nimoy’s Spock was learning from Kirk and McCoy to listen to his heart and combine its advice with what’s in his head. This is finally worked out in the fourth movie, The Voyage Home, when the adult Spock finally learns to listen to is…his mother.
Quinto’s Spock doesn’t have a mother. And as our old blogging buddy and fellow Star Trek geek Jaquandor has complained, Abrams doesn’t seem to realize that McCoy is the third lead. In Into Darkness, McCoy is important to the plot but not to the story. But the lesson Spock learns isn’t one he has to learn from an adult anyway.
Spock learns from Kirk and Uhura, that is, from his cool big man on campus best bud and his hot cheerleader girlfriend, that he needs to loosen up.
When the time comes for Spock to do his part to save the day he doesn’t do it with SCIENCE or logic. He does it with his fists. The nerd learns he has reach.
Like I said, Into Darkness doesn’t bear much thinking about and, fortunately, I didn’t think much of this while I was watching. I was drawn in from the star and if I wasn’t on the edge of my seat the whole way that’s mainly because that’s a very uncomfortable position to watch a movie from.
Apart from my grumpy fanboy afterthoughts, though, there is something disappointing about Into Darkness that you don’t have to be a grumpy fanboy or girl overthinking the movie afterwards to notice and feel.
Abrams inexcusably underuses his supporting players.
I like the new crew, Pine and Quinto and Karl Urban especially, but Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, and Anton Yelich more than meet my expectations as Uhura, Scotty, Sulu, and Chekhov. The best thing Abrams did with his first Star Trek was cast these actors, and here he’s gone and neglected them.
Cho is pretty much ignored. Yelchin is plucky comic relief. Urban, who spookily channeled the ghost of DeForest Kelly as McCoy last time out, is reduced to playing Bones as a caricature. Saldana is great no matter what the script gives her to do, which in Into Darkness is be the girlfriend.
Only Pegg gets significant work. It’s amazing how without looking, sounding, or carrying himself at all like James Doohan, Pegg still manages to be the “real” Scotty. Somehow he taps into the essence of the character as Doohan created him. He’s more of a clown, even more of a Nervous Nellie, but I still “see” him as “our” Scotty. I even buy that our Scotty, whose idea of an exciting shore leave is to spend it in his quarters reading up on the latest technical journals, would wind up at a 23rd Century version of a disco wearing a 1970s vintage shirt and scarf so garish and ugly they’d have been rejected by the entire casts of What’s Happening!! and Welcome Back, Kotter, even Horshack.
The actors who carry Into Darkness are Pine---like I said, I don’t mind his Kirk acts like a big swaggering jerk much of the time. I mind that Abrams doesn’t have him show he’s learning the lessons he’s said to be learning.---and Cumberbatch.
Even though he isn’t playing You Know Who in any way like the You Know Who we know---to the point, I have to repeat, that he might as well not be thought of as You Know Who---Cumberbatch makes the villain he is playing, whatever his name, deliciously sinister. He’s charismatic, compelling, seductive. He’s not so much a swashbuckling rogue as he is the perfect dark shadow of one.
Mostly it’s the voice. He and Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin in Iron Man 3 should have a contest for plumiest villain’s voice of the summer.
But it’s also the fact that, all too often, he’s the only real grown-up on the screen.
The blonde’s blurb: Benedict Cumberbatch is pure evil and that’s what’s to love about him!
Second half of the double feature: Big Man in a Suit of Armor, my review of Iron Man 3.
Star Trek Into Darkness, directed by J.J. Abrams, screenplay by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof. Starring Chris Pine, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, John Cho, Simon Pegg, Alice Eve, Karl Urban, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, and Peter Weller.