After Star Trek’s unfeasibly fantastic return to the cinema’s solar system in 2009, expectations were naturally high for a sequel in which we all hoped we’d get more breezy camaraderie, awesome space battles and more Zachary Quinto Spock facial expressions that suggest rather than trying to process something illogical, he’s just caught a whiff of a particularly bad bowel movement. However, after settling down to watch Into Darkness, fans didn’t feel like living long and prospering much, with some even denouncing it as the worst Star Trek movie of all time, ranking it below a movie where Worf once had to go through puberty.
What the hell went wrong? Or in fact did anything go wrong? Well, yes, something definitely went wrong – but it seems that the biggest sin the twelfth outing of the franchise committed was there in the title all along…
After a indulging in a mission that skirts horribly on the borders of the Federation’s Prime Directive (abridged version: don’t screw with primitive cultures), James T. Kirk and Spock find themselves at odds when, instead of displaying visible gratitude for Kirk breaking the rules and saving him from a volcano, the Vulcan science officer instead flies an accurate account of events, effectively grassing Kirk up. Their rift is further widened when Kirk subsequently loses his captaincy of the Enterprise and the two are commissioned to different ships, but any personal feelings have to be put on the backburner when a terrorist John Harrison blows up an archive in London, straifes Starfleet headquarters with laser fire and then buggers off via teleporter to take refuge on the homeworld of the warlike Klingons.
This stirs the ire of big shot Starfleet Admiral Marcus who tasks Kirk and co with the decidedly iffy mission of flying to the edge of Klingon space, shooting an experimental homing torpedo at Harrison’s location and then promptly sodding off before they cause an all out war. This, of course, causes some issues with the morals of the crew who plead with a vengeful Jim to see sense and start questioning the obviously questionable orders he’s been given – so after a sudden, very Kirk-ish 180⁰ turn, the crew defy orders and attempt to take Harrison alive in order to give him his day in court.
However, what the crew of the Enterprise has unwittingly warped into is a world choking on its own secrets and revelations that could tear Starfleet apart and John Harrison’s real identity may not mean anything in particular to our heroes here in the “Kelvin Timeline”, but anyone who knows their Trek knows that the name “Kahn” means some pretty serious shit is about to go down…
When the alternate, Kelvin timeline was jump started with the absurdly slick reboot, director J.J. Abrams was given a chance to start over and mold things to suit a more modern audience and while it borrowed liberally from Star Wars to create a more actiony kind of tone, watching these new versions of beloved characters meeting and interacting for the “first” time still kept things firmly in the world of Star Trek. However, not only does Into Darkness go too far into that world, but it clumsily attempts to chuck a sizable dose of Nolan in there too, riffing on the Dark Knight trilogy to beef up a political angle. Now all this wouldn’t be so bad normally (Star Trek has always been a commentary about the times we live in) and God knows the movies have had dodgy Starfleet officers before, but the plot of a morally corrupt Admiral having not only already amassed and created massive weapons of mass destruction but defrosting and enlisting a genetically enhanced war criminal, is barely subtext. Simply put, a Starfleet corrupted to this level simply goes against everything the franchise has stood for and to compound the problem is that the screenwriters have also felt compelled to akwkwardly cram in as many references to Star Trek II as humanly possible. Villain actor Benedict Cumberbatch is a coldly efficient John Harrison, but he’s no Kahn Noonien Singh (especially with some bizarre gurning during the final third) and the laboured attempts to mirror the greatest Trek ever made fall flatter than a trodden on Tribble and even veers into blasphemy with a cringe inducing redux of the “KAAAAAHHHHN!” moment.
Adding even more problems to the misjudged Wrath Of Kahn worship and the heavy handed political references is also the fact that the movie attempts to pull off shocking plot twists and plot resolutions with some staggeringly lazy script writing (Bigger, evil Enterprise; character reviving smart blood; unnecessary destruction; Spock going full beast mode) with result in turning a truly joyful reboot into just another explosion obsessed blockbuster.
However, as laboured as the film is, none of it can be blamed on the lush visuals, cracking score or any the cast, who still have that striking chemistry in place despite all the present gloom and the film even manages to open with a stunningly amazing pre-credits sequence that arguably stands as possibly the single greatest Trek set piece ever filmed. The brief adventure sees the entire crew battling to extinguish a volatile volcano before it erupts and destroys the primitive culture who inhabit the planet and in nine short minutes shows us how frustratingly perfect the film could have been if they’d actually bothered to make an actual Star Trek movie. All the crew manage to get a look in, it’s funny, touching, exciting and has a killer denouement as Kirk desperately tries to dance between the raindrops of the Prime Directive while looking to have his moral cake and eat it.
I mean – there’s other good stuff too… The action is robust, the scale is huge and we even get a meaty supporting role for Peter Weller, but despite being fairly watchable, Into Darkness’ choice to avoid seeking out new life and new civilisations in favour of being caught between outing a shitty government and capturing a sci-fi Bin Laden surrogate simply just feels like a lazy and overdone plot trope. So worst Trek ever? Of course not, Star Trek Into Darkness still boldly goes, it’s just a massive disappointment that it’s mostly in the wrong direction.