I went into Star Trek Into Darkness with extremely high expectations. I was not disappointed.
But let’s go back to the start.
Science fiction is a weird, wonderful, and difficult genre. It breaks off into two main schools: the hard science fiction, exploring the limits of known science, and the soft science fiction, exploring social ideas in alien environments. Star Trek has often straddled the line between the two schools. The first Star Trek film even had Isaac Asimov as a consultant and, as a result, the first Star Trek film is a ponderously dull affair — magnificent in scope and vision, but utterly, spectacularly dull. It’s 132 minutes long, and each one of those minutes lasts about six years. I quite enjoy it (I also enjoy the similar 2001: A Space Odyssey which is also spectacularly dull (I went to a costume party as HAL and nobody knew who I was; when I explained, the common response was that people had fallen asleep by that part of the film)).
2001: A Space Odyssey was released in 1968 while Star Trek: The Motion Picture was released in 1979. I’m always startled to recall that Star Wars — which unabashedly pushes through soft science fiction into the realm of fantasy — was released two years prior to Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Star Wars all but redefined cinema and science fiction for the mass market, yet Star Trek: The Motion Picture feels like it was released the fortnight after 2001. Perhaps Kubrick was ahead of his time. Perhaps Roddenberry was harking back to the 1960s. Perhaps both.
1982’s Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan set in motion the franchise that would continue right up until 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis. Instead of looking at the hard limits of science, the films looked more towards social and moral issues. At the same time, they moved away from the cinematic marvel of Stark Trek: The Motion Picture and became increasingly reminiscent of extended television episodes.
Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan is magnificent, but Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back was released two years earlier and feels much more ‘modern’. Khan isn’t as interested in the general magnificence of space as The Motion Picture, but it also isn’t as interested in that crisp cinematic style of Empire Strikes Back.
Here’s a clip from Khan:
Remember, that was produced two years after this shot from Empire Strikes Back:
The original Star Wars trilogy was cinematically beautiful (indeed, one of my biggest complaints about the prequels is that they aren’t similarly beautiful or innovative). Star Trek, on the other hand, was less interested in cinema.
Compare again with 1984’s, Star Trek: The Search for Spock. While it has more in the way of the ‘majesty of space’ angle, it still isn’t in the same league as the Star Wars films. What is interesting at this point is the shift towards having Star Trek actors move into the director’s chair. Leonard Nemoy directed this one and 1986’s Star Trek: The Voyage Home (the one about the crew of the Enterprise going back in time to save the whales; Nemoy also co-wrote the script).
Shatner directed 1989’s Star Trek: The Final Frontier (and co-wrote the story)… Wait. That should have read: ‘Shatner Shatnered 1989’s Star Trek: The Final Frontier (and co-Shatnered the story).’ He sure did Shatner the hell out of this thing.
But it’s not really their fault that these films are fairly weak. It’s hard to imagine how terrible Star Wars: Return of the Jedi might have been if Harrison Ford had co-written the script and directed. If the worst we had to endure was Ewoks, we escaped relatively unscathed.
Following Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country (1991) and Star Trek: Generations (1994 — a terrible, truly terrible film), the franchise moved on without Kirk, Spock, and the other cast of the Original Series, and instead explored three adventures of The Next Generation (Picard, Riker, et al.). Of these, Star Trek: First Contact is the only crash hot one. Released in 1996 and directed by the guy who played Commander Riker, the film is a lot of fun (despite the complaints that it’s not really a Star Trek film). Mostly because I have a dread fear of the Borg, the film is suspenseful and interesting. At the same time, it still feels like an episode of the television series.
Here’s the trailer:
This came out the same year:
In 2002, Star Trek: Nemesis put an end to the franchise. Again, it felt like an extended episode of the television series, complete with rubber-foreheaded aliens.
It was the early 2000s, so rubber aliens weren’t entirely out, but compare Commander Donatra there with Mystique from 2001’s X-Men:
The theme keeps recurring. Star Trek films had slumped to being B-grade at best. The very worst part about them was that they — with a few exceptions — just weren’t interested in being films. Crappy production values, crappy scripts, and nothing innovative or exciting. And this is across three decades of films.
Seven years after Star Trek: Nemesis confused us all into a bit of a sleep, J.J. Abrams took over with 2009’s Star Trek. The number one complaint I’ve heard from nerds about it?
‘It’s not a real Star Trek movie. It’s a blockbuster.’
Nerds are often the worst people. They complain with people of colour play the roles of comic book characters. They complain when women dress in anything other than painted-on lycra. And they really freaking hate it when non-nerds join in the nerdparty.
2009’s Star Trek was amazing for several reasons. First, it gave me an easy way to share with non-nerds how much fun Star Trek could be. The series was so over the top and mesmerising that it felt natural that the villain of the movie should have a planet-destroying weapon. And while there were enough in-jokes for the benefit of the nerds, the film was inclusive. When the series started, Star Trek was a prime-time television show for the whole family. This film gave Star Trek back to the whole community instead of being the exclusive little domain of nerds.
There were problems with the film, of course. It’s a colossal sausage-fest, for one. But for everything that the film got wrong, the film got something else really right. Best of all, we had a Kirk that was more superhero than Zapp Brannigan.
And now we can return to the start of this review. It is not overstating the excellence of this film to state that Star Trek Into Darkness is to the Star Trek franchise what the Gospels are to the Old Testament. It is not overstating this film to say that it is the best science fiction film of the past decade. It is not overstating this film to say that if I never had to watch another film again, I would be okay with that.
This film is amazing. If you had doubts about seeing the 2009 film, go and race through that just so you can watch Star Trek Into Darkness.
Following the events of the 2009 film, Kirk has somehow retained command of the Enterprise and is off having adventures in space. It’s still not entirely clear how the Federation’s hierarchy works, given that you can go directly from ‘undergraduate on academic suspension’ to ‘acting captain of the best ship in the fleet’. Although there are bajillions of Star Fleet regulations, there’s only one hard and fast law: the Prime Directive. Federation ships are not allowed to make first contact with civilisations that have not developed warp drive technology. Being the cool cat that he is, Kirk thinks that none of the rules — even the Prime Directive — apply to him.
For his consistent disregard for the rules, he is demoted back to the academy as an undergraduate with Admiral Pike saying: ‘Look, we promoted you too quickly.’
Kirk goes to the pub to drown his sorrows, but barely gets in a few shots before a mysterious figure blows up a Federation building. Pike goes to the pub and immediately promotes Kirk back to First Officer on the Enterprise.
Screw the set up. The set up is stupid and it’s over quickly. In five more minutes, Kirk will be back to being captain of the Enterprise. What the set up does do is start off the film’s exploration of its major theme: Should you follow the rules?
The exploration of this issue is sublime. Kirk’s had a bit of a Lazarus moment due to not following the rules. He thinks he’s being doing the right thing, being the cowboy of the universe and sleeping with all the alien babes. When it catches up with him, it’s not because his behaviour resulted in some catastrophic disaster — far from it, his disregard of the rules results in positive outcomes. Instead, the complete disregard for the rules makes it difficult for Kirk to exist within the highly structured framework of Star Fleet.
Kirk is asked to hunt down the mysterious figure who destroyed the Federation building, but the request is not entirely kosher. The mysterious figure has dashed off to Klingon space. Should Star Fleet hunt down the mysterious figure? The relationship between the Federation and the Klingon Empire is frosty — the Klingons won’t consent to the Federation entering its space to hunt down fugitives. On the other hand, simply entering Klingon territory will be seen as a hostile act by the Klingon Empire. So Kirk is asked to keep everything on the down low, hunting down the mysterious figure using subterfuge and not entirely lawful methods.
Kirk, who’s used to bending the rules in order to achieve results, seems okay with this, but he asks his crew to sign off on things which they think are a little bit too dodgy (and downright dangerous), resulting in major conflicts and outright resignations. And when the motivation of the mysterious figure is fully known, Kirk has to explore whether working with the figure is morally justifiable, and whether the enemy of one’s enemy is really one’s friend.
Unlike other films which pretend to ask big philosophical questions, Star Trek Into Darkness does not take its eye off the ball. Far from being the moral exemplar of Batman (The Fideism of Batman: An action is morally justifiable if Batman does it, ‘because I’m Batman’), Kirk screws up and makes mistakes and sometimes has nothing but shitty options. It’s like an entire film of the Koboyashi Maru: he has to decide which action is going to be least bad and then take responsibility for those decisions when it all goes pear-shaped.
Unlike Batman, Kirk can turn to others for support. Kirk and Spock have become increasingly close, learning to navigate their friendship together (yet still stuffing up along the way, like when Kirk figures that Spock will file a misleading report for the sake of their friendship). Similarly, Kirk and Bones have thoroughly concreted the camaraderie established in the first film, and the scenes between Kirk and Scotty are transcendent. Casting Simon Pegg in the role was nothing but inspired.
Female characters are the weak part of this film. Star Trek really has been about boys being boys. Women exist in the Star Trek universe to be family members or sexual partners. In the Original Series, Kirk made out with Uhura (being one of the first interracial kisses on American television– Shatner deliberately screwed up the takes where he didn’t kiss Nicholls just to ensure the producers couldn’t remove the scene). In TNG, Tasha Yar sleeps with the robot, Troi is Riker’s fling, and Dr Crusher is Wesley’s mum. Voyager broke ranks a little bit — female captain, female Klingon, female robot. Even so, women are a bit of an endangered species in space.
Where Uhura was a powerful, fun, interesting character in the first film, Star Trek Into Darkness turns her into a nagging girlfriend. Once her girlfriend nag is over, she basically disappears from the movie. The film introduces a new female character into the Enterprise, but after delivering her lines, she quickly gets turned into a ball for the male characters to fight over.
It’s easy to see why this happens: this is a film about three guys trying to see who is the alpha male. Who has the biggest ship? Who has the fastest ship? Who can punch the hardest? Who’s got the biggest missiles? While it’s done in a very interesting way — through the framework of whether or not we have an obligation to obey the law — it’s clearly gendered. When we talk about whether or not we should obey laws, we’re talking about whether or not messianic male figures can transcend the ordinary morality of the common folk and become gods.
Part of this, no doubt, is the fact that we’re tapping a nostalgic resource from a less gender-sensitive age. We’re seeing it a lot with remakes and comic book adaptions of franchises where men are godlike beings who have pretty women orbiting them. It is a shame that Star Trek Into Darkness couldn’t find a way to mess with the timeline such that we had a Star Trek universe where technology had progressed to the 23rd century gender equality hadn’t halted in the 1950s.
It is weird that the gender aspect remained faithful to the original when Abrams has demonstrated that he is a grand master in adapting, refashioning, and remastering other elements from the franchise. The Klingons look amazing. Subtle references are littered throughout the film to other movies. Scenes are subverted, inverted, and converted to new messages and meanings. The styles and fashions of 23rd century Earth invoke the feeling that we’re going to see 1960s fashions restylised. The use and reuse of existing material is just fantastic.
This is the Star Trek Motion Picture for which we’ve been waiting. It is beautiful, sublime, and intellectually engaging. I can’t recommend it enough.
EDIT: Typos corrected by the very excellent James Ward.
- STAR TREK 3 to be Written by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci; J.J. Abrams Negotiating to Produce (collider.com)
- Jon Chu Rumored To Replace J.J. Abrams for Star Trek (celebnmusic247.com)
- Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci Will Write ‘Star Trek 3′ (slashfilm.com)
- Non-Review Review: Star Trek II – The Wrath of Khan (them0vieblog.com)
- VIDEO: George Takei Talks ALLEGIANCE, STAR TREK, Activism and More on CBS SUNDAY MORNING (broadwayworld.com)
- ‘Star Trek 3′: Kurtzman & Orci Back as Writers; New Director Rumors Surface (screenrant.com)