When setting out to create a new Star Trek film, JJ Abrams has a delicate dance to choreograph. He must simultaneously respect the passions of the loyal, existing fan base while also striking out on new territory to show that his films are not the same Star Trek that has already been done so many times before. Blending the old with the new is difficult. Trying to avoid stepping on toes is darn near impossible.
In his first Star Trek film, released in 2009, Abrams presented a compelling story that deliberately broke from the past by creating an “alternate timeline”, allowing events in the new film series to be distinct from the original. Yet, as numerous “mirror universe” episodes of various Star Trek TV shows argued, small changes in history can have lasting and widespread effects, but they don’t change everything. Similarly, the rather drastic changes to the universe created by Abrams leave the essence of the characters intact, while allowing events to unfold very differently from before.
With Star Trek: Into Darkness, Abrams relies on the essence of several big names from Star Trek lore, which on the one hand addresses a weakness of the film’s predecessor and runs the risk of bothering long-time fans. Like the people who complain when a movie doesn’t live up to the book on which it is based—and how could it?—many people who see Into Darkness will compare it with the film it in some ways replaces. The trick to understanding the new film is to separate it from its predecessor and allow it to stand alone. The trouble is, the movie’s script makes that separation almost impossible. But before I get into the trouble with the script, let me emphasize why the characters work very, very well here.
The biggest frustration with the 2009 film installment came from the so-called villain, Nero. Mostly absent from the film, he had too little screen time to establish a strong presence. His brief appearances ranged from the absurdly comical (starting a comm conversation with, “Hello, Christopher. I’m Nero.”) to the absurdly aggressive (yelling at Pike for suggesting Romulus hadn’t been destroyed). His ship may have been intimidating, but he was largely forgettable. If the 2009 film existed to establish the new cast, the villain might be less important than the crew of the Enterprise. But a little more time with him rather than, say, the CGI monsters chasing Kirk across a frozen wasteland, would have created a clearer sense of us vs. them instead of simply a sense of us.
Speaking of Kirk, Into Darkness goes to great lengths to portray him as a “unprincipled, insubordinate, career-minded opportunist with a history of violating the chain of command whenever it suited him” (according to a Klingon prosecutor in The Undiscovered Country). He gets stripped of his rank fairly early on, but in my mind, he regains his position far too easily. When Kirk is demoted, Pike (who passes along the news) very effectively says he can do nothing to help, and that Kirk is on his own to manage the consequences. It’s the first time we see humility in the character, and it was long overdue. Unfortunately, that same Pike takes Kirk on as first officer, and later Kirk is sent on a special mission by some of the very people who demoted him. It’s as though the universe can’t make up its mind whether to punish or praise him. (The second time we see humility in him, he tells Spock he’s scared. It’s a simple line that goes a long way toward building the characters’ relationship. But just as easily, he later assures Bones that he’s having super-human delusions “no more than normal.” What was gained was easily lost.)
Overall, this 2013 film does away with concern about weak villains by bringing in one of the most memorable and revered villains in all of Star Trek. And it handles that character very, very well, doing justice to the potential, the history, and the influence of what had been built before while allowing the character to act out in new and surprising ways. They took a character with whom most long-time Trek fans are familiar and allowed that character to run rampant in a new environment. The characters you’re supposed to hate have understandable motives, and those you’re supposed to love make mistakes. It works very, very well. To a point.
The screenwriters of Into Darkness chose to pay extended tribute to the original-cast version of the story being retold here by making events in this timeline parallel those from the original show, but with lines being said by different officers. Just as this crew was establishing itself as different and fresh—no real throwbacks had been used in quite some time—the writers looped events back around to where they had gone before…in some cases, word for word. This decision created an interesting situation where the climax of the film was both novel and familiar, though unfortunately far more familiar than novel. It’s as though they had just found their stride and started to enjoy their freedom, only to get locked back into repeating what had happened in an earlier film. It reminds me of a comic routine from Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. In it, an elderly prisoner happens to find himself accidentally released from his cage, only to be re-incarcerated moments later, just as accidentally. This happens two or three times in the film.
Like that old prisoner, the writers of Into Darkness found themselves free of the thinking of the original cast, only to slip themselves right boack into it with deliberate mirroring/echoing of one of Trek’s most memorable moment. Sure, the line, “You would have done the same,” really resonated because of the duplication. But this iteration of the Star Trek universe was ready to fly solo. Taking characters makes sense because they have a history that adds depth to their involvement. But taking quotes reduces the sense of difference and keeps the original on the minds of the audience. Tying this film so closely to the past at a critical moment in the story actually weakened it, rather than adding a level of depth or intrigue.
Like the script, the film’s score suffered from an over-reliance on its predecessor. Except in this case, the source material is the 2009 film, not the one from 1982. The music from Star Trek (2009) was grand and strong for the main titles and sufficiently beautiful during intimate moments (like the birth of James Kirk) that the director wisely chose to muffle all other effects and audio during the segment. Giacchino did fantastic work creating a theme and a feel that could incorporate the original score from the 1960s TV show for familiarity but break out on solid footing with a sound that is new and bold for the reboot.
To be sure, the score for Into Darkness is just as bold, strong, and grand. That’s mostly because it’s more a duplication than a new iteration. This film lacks an identifiable sound that distinguishes it from its predecessor. The title themes of the two films are identical, to the point that through the opening logos, the sound is virtually indistinguishable. That similarity continues throughout, many times leaving me wonder whether the latest movie’s score was composed using the copy/paste functions on Giacchino’s computer.
My criticism is most definitely too harsh for the score as a whole, as the incidental music works very well for the film. The “London Calling” piano piece in particular offers a lovely and subtle break from the intensity of the action, much like “Labor of Love” from 2009 stands out for being quiet and filled with emotion. The rest of the score though, while interesting during the film, is largely unmemorable as a standalone work.
The visual effects in the film are, well, effective. They convincingly draw the audience into the action without distracting attention through their novelty. Effects shots blended naturally with live shots work well to help tell the story. Very little seems unnecessary.
One exception is notable, and it’s more staging issue than one of effects. The Enterprise loses power, including to gravitational systems (which is an interesting point, as we’ve seen numerous ships lose power, and it was only in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country that we see the occupants of such a ship cope with weightlessness). But with the gravity systems non-functional, rather than drifting into weightlessness, the crew endures shifting gravity while the Enterprise tumbles, as though the planet somehow pulls on the people more strongly than on their ship. To me, this physical issue causes two problems: 1) the visual representation of lost gravity seemed forced, rather than believable, and 2) the substantial pull of the planet made me think they were closer to the surface than they really were.
Rather than having visual effects create sequences of weightlessness like Star Trek VI or Inception, Abrams decided to simply have actors throw themselves against predetermined walls at designated times. Seemed a little silly. And because of the force with which people and props were being tossed around, I kept thinking they were nearly on the surface, even though the sequence took some 10 or so minutes to see through. I know, I know…I’m being picky. The turning forces made for a fun action sequence (that looked good in 3-D), but it seemed overly dramatic for what should have been going on, which is weightlessness.
But I digress.
In summary, I thoroughly enjoyed the film. I got annoyed by the incessant connections to the previous generation of movies, but this one is a good show in its own right.