In the months leading up to the release of Star Trek Into Darkness, I made a bet with a friend that J.J. Abrams would not try to reboot the Khan story. I had hoped that if Abrams were to revisit elements of Trek’s original series, he’d avoid inviting comparisons to something many already considered a classic. I figured rebooting Khan would induce more groans that glee.
I was wrong on both counts, however, and now I owe my friend a cup of coffee.
It was a close match—groans made a late surge in the third quarter and threatened to edge glee out of a hard-fought win. Despite some close calls, glee ran down the clock with more points on the board. So let’s check out the highlights.
Star Trek Into Darkness invites comparisons right at tip-off—you can’t help but think about Doctor Who.
In the opening sequence, the Enterprise lifts off from beneath the ocean of an alien world, startling its native inhabitants and inspiring the primitive folk to draw the ship’s likeness in the dirt. Among some of the hand wringing involved with violating Starfleet’s Prime Directive, we’re left to wonder if the natives intend to deify the starship much in the way a family in Pompeii once deified a heroic time lord.
The very next sequence brings you face to face with Mickey Smith. You remember Micky—Rose’s cowardly boyfriend who later found himself in an alternate timeline before he finally found his courage.
In the Trek universe, the man that shares Mickey’s face is a Starfleet officer, and the father of a terminally ill child. A Starfleet rogue named John Harrison offers him a cure, but it carries a price: the man with Micky’s face marches into a Starfleet base and detonates himself. His desperate act begs the question that runs throughout the film—what would you do to save your family?
That question confronts each of the film’s major players. It’s important to remember that Abrams’ films take place roughly ten years before we met everyone in the original series. This crew is still getting to know each other, and because of the reboot, it’s a very different crew in many respects. And this is a very different universe. The Starfleet of this universe doesn’t reflect the bright idealism of its forebearer. Secret men have hatched dark machinations, and Harrison sits at the center of their plots. After a daring assault that cuts right to the heart of Kirk’s world, Starfleet sends him to find Harrison, and end him.
Thus begins a current of moral challenges that run throughout the film. It recalls and questions some of the conceits we hear about in the news every so often. When a villain shows us his teeth, what is the appropriate response? The film suggests an aversion to the moral equivalence that calls one man’s terrorist another man’s hero. It speaks instead to the challenge of finding the best choice in a pile of bad options. And it does so with great bursts of thunder and noise.
The problems creep in as the film’s second act winds to a close. One last event invokes another staple of Doctor Who—the idea that some events remain fixed in time. Kirk and Spock find themselves in a situation that mirrors events fans will remember very well. While it might work as a clever homage on one hand, it takes things one step too far on the other. Spock doesn’t yell. He has always had to wrestle with the emotion of his half-human side, and in this universe, maybe he has decided to embrace his human mother’s sensibilities more than the his predecessor. His outburst in this instance, however, robs the character of his dignity and invites a more dreaded comparison: Darth Vader’s cringe-worthy shouts of “No!”
Then there’s the problem with the tribble. Basic storytelling dictates that the third act solution to the crisis introduced at the close of the second act ought to build on facets established in the first act. The film had already fleshed out a solution in the first act just before the father blew himself up to save his daughter. Revisiting this would have strengthened the overall integrity of the film. Instead, the film shoehorns an out-of-place tribble midway through the second act, and achieves its third act solution from that.
The climax delivers plenty of action and thrills, though the curtain call comes a half-step too soon. I could have used another minute or two of resolution. The original films sometimes treated the Enterprise itself as character just as important as Kirk or Spock. This film needed just a moment of that. By the time the credits roll, each of the players has turned in a satisfying performance, Michael Giachinno has improved upon the musical template established in the previous film, and the story leaves our characters at the start of a brand new mission into the uncharted reaches of deep space. It was a fun time at the movies. I only wish that it hadn’t waited till the end to promise me that the next adventure would boldly go where no one has gone before.
That’s where I wanted to go this time. That’s why I lost the bet.
Based on “Star Trek” created by Gene Roddenberry
Directed by J.J. Abrams