'Star Trek: Into Darkness' Review

There’s no way to review this movie without spoiling it, so in short: it’s got a few laughs and a couple of good action scenes, but it’s a warp-speed train wreck of bad writing, vastly inferior to its goofy but fun 2009 predecessor.  Fans waited a long time for this movie, and deserved better.  Benedict Cumberbatch needs to have a long talk with his agent.

Spoilers will soon follow, so if you want to avoid them, click away now.

The original Star Trek series was the apotheosis of Golden Age science fiction, which was generally upbeat and optimistic.  The early sci-fi writers really wanted to live in that future of flying cars and cities on Mars.  They thought science would build a better future, although they didn’t expect it to be perfect.

Golden Age science fiction also had pulp influences, and Star Trek came to television in the age of the Western.  Its creator, Gene Roddenberry, pitched it to studio executives as a Western in space.  The writers and actors came from the World War II generation – James Doohan, who played Scotty the engineer, caught some bullets storming the beaches of Normandy.  They were a brawny, rough-and-tumble team.

So that original Star Trek crew represented an enlightened Federation in a bright human future, but they were also heavily armed and ready for trouble as they explored the Final Frontier.  (And, because it was a TV show from the heyday of the Western, they got into an awful lot of fistfights.)  They had a mature attitude about the necessity of self-defense.  The USS Enterprise was both a science vessel and a warship, fitting comfortably into both roles.  Of course it had deflector shields, phasers, and photon torpedoes.  It’s a dangerous galaxy out there.

The second stage of Star Trek came with the astoundingly long run of “Next Generation” TV shows and films.  The futuristic Federation became a lot more perfect, and quite a bit more prissy.  The Enterprise had a full-time psychologist on the bridge.  The captain held a lot of conferences.  There were children on board.

The best episodes of “Next Generation” Trek came when the Federation faced enormous physical and ethical challenges.  Every one of those latter-day series had a couple of sterling episodes along these lines.  The signature enemy of the new shows, the horrible cybernetic Borg, appeared for the first time when a powerful alien entity decided the Federation was insufferably smug and needed to be taken down a few pegs.  A long tradition of Prime Directive paradoxes, revolving around the strict rule against mucking around with the development of civilizations that had not yet developed interstellar travel, continued throughout the new shows.  A memorable episode of “Star Trek: Voyager” involved a desperate Federation ship that had abandoned all the rules and become lawless brigands, determined to complete an agonizingly long voyage home at any cost.

“Star Trek: Into Darkness” wants to tell that kind of story, while observing the original series’ tradition of using sci-fi to examine current real-world issues.  Unfortunately, it’s written by graceless dimwits who can’t even be bothered to keep track of where the spaceships are during the battle scenes.  (The Enterprise’s abrupt crash-dive into Earth atmosphere, after it loses power, is one of the most nonsensical scenes ever filmed.)  This film has a good cast, capable direction, and top-notch production values, but it’s betrayed by sloppy writers who bit off far more than they could chew.

This movie seems to see itself as a parable for the War on Terror, a statement against militarism.  There’s a terrorist who doesn’t quite see himself as a terrorist – he’s just taking care of his “family.”  The villain is the latest in a long line of corrupt Starfleet admirals – they turn evil and/or nuts with disturbing frequency, in every era of Trek.  His rather convoluted plan involves provoking a war with the Klingons, who appear here as ineffectual, forgettable, generic thugs, without one percent of the personality they had during a five-minute appearance at the beginning of the very first Star Trek movie.  

This war will give the nutso admiral the leverage he needs to militarize Starfleet.  At one point, Mr. Scott – played now by comedic actor Simon Pegg, rather than a veteran of the Normandy invasion – rages against taking powerful weapons aboard to complete a military mission, wailing “I thought we were explorers!”

You know what would have convinced me to arm my “explorers” to the teeth, beyond the simple common sense that they need protection against the unknown menaces of deep space?  A hyper-advanced Romulan warship popping back from a century in the future and blowing the entire Starfleet to pieces.  Did the people who wrote “Into Darkness” not remember the plot of its 2009 predecessor?  Why would anyone in the galaxy need further convincing that strong defenses are necessary?  (And why doesn’t the Earth seem to have any orbital defenses at all, even after the aforementioned time-travelling Romulan ship almost destroyed it a few years previously?)  Who needs to provoke a war with the Klingons when you can just point at the big hole Captain Nero blew in the bottom of the San Francisco bay, right next to Starfleet headquarters?

“Into Darkness” is packed full of stupid plot devices, from the forehead-slamming inconsistency of transporter technology (“We can’t beam anyone up, but we can beam people down!”) to a massive warship, somehow constructed in secret and crewed not by Starfleet officers but rented thugs, which can be effectively piloted in combat by one person.  Golly, I wonder if that’s going to come back to bite anyone in the butt during the big finale?  

The final showdown has Doctor McCoy shouting to forces on the ground that a certain person must be brought back to the Enterprise alive, immediately, because his blood is vitally needed.  There are seventy-two other people with the same type of blood in cryogenic capsules visible behind McCoy as he is speaking.

What’s the best way to board an enemy ship that has been temporarily disabled, assuming those ever-unreliable transporters have been taken offline by the plot again?  Would you: 1) hop in one of the numerous available shuttlecraft and fly over there with a boarding party, knowing that the enemy ship cannot use its weapons at the moment, or 2) put two guys in spacesuits and shoot them out of a cannon for a reprise of the most exciting scene from the previous Star Trek movie?

So no, this is not a parable about anything significant, and it doesn’t stand anywhere near the classic Trek episodes that bravely tackled momentous issues of the day.  Those scripts were written by people who quoted Shakespeare and Melville.  This script was written by people who quote Star Trek movies from 30 years ago.  

And brother, do they ever quote one in particular.  

They made a gigantic mistake by stripping the very best Star Trek movie for parts, as though it were a fine old automobile – let’s say one with seats of rich Corinthian leather – left on a dark corner in a bad neighborhood.  “Into Darkness” needlessly diminishes itself even further by turning into a half-assed remake of a far superior work, right down to swiping key lines of dialogue, without capturing their resonance.  Poor Zachary Quinto, otherwise excellent as Mr. Spock, is forced to… no, I could never capture the cringe factor by merely describing it.  It’s supposed to be a moment of high drama, but it’s laugh-out-loud funny.

And as fine an actor as Benedict Cumberbatch is… no.  No, no, no.  A thousand times no.  He deserved better than this.  He deserved better than to growl his way through a “big dramatic reveal” that holds absolutely no drama for the characters, because none of them knows why it’s significant.  Except some of them should, because they still teach history at Starfleet Academy, right?

This movie is two hours of people explaining how whatever they’re about to do is a crazy long shot that probably won’t work.  There is lots of running and shouting and shooting, and a huge amount of falling – seriously, every character in this movie seems to fall from a great height at least twice – which is probably supposed to be symbolic of falling from grace.  But no one really falls from grace, and the title of the movie doesn’t even make any sense, because there’s no soul-shattering journey into darkness.  The Federation’s philosophy is not challenged in any meaningful way.  If J.J. Abrams and his team of 14-year-old screenwriters can’t come up with anything original for the crew of the Enterprise to do, after four years spent developing this sequel, it’s time to give someone else a try.