J. J. Abrams’ latest film, Star Trek Into Darkness, delivers on many levels. It is a great action film with suspense and enough plot twists to keep any fan of the franchise interested. The production quality and special effects are of the highest quality, and the performances are, in the context of an action film, good, and in some instances (see Benedict Cumberbatch and Peter Weller) great. There are problems with the film, however, and like in the first film of the series, the viewer is required to ignore certain plot points while the film misses out on a couple of opportunities to showcase some interesting and potentially entertaining drama.
One aspect of the film that didn’t work for me was the chemistry between the characters. In the original Star Trek films, viewers had the entire original series to draw on, both in terms of history and character relations. Viewers knew and saw Spock to be lacking any outward sign of emotion. There was a history there, and so, in dramatic scenes in the original films when Spock showed emotion, they served as good drama for fans of the franchise. This new series does not have that same history to draw on, and so, when Spock does show emotion in the film, it does not carry the same weight. Instead of seeing a man who has, for years, demonstrated a seeming lack of emotion, who finally breaks down and gives into his feelings, we see a young man who claims to show no emotion, but fails in the attempt less than two hours in. There is also the issue that despite his long-standing close relationship with Admiral Pike and his current romantic relationship with Uhura, it is only where Kirk is concerned that Spock shows emotion. This lack of chemistry wasn’t an issue in the first film because the characters were just being introduced to each other. Spock and Kirk shared a contentious relationship in the first film, which is all the more reason to doubt the chemistry in this film because even though they each earned the other’s respect in the last one, the past conflicts remained.
This lack of on-screen history also serves to dilute the chemistry between the characters. We see over the course of 79 television episodes and several movies that Kirk and Spock develop a relationship that is both comically frustrating and endearing. The dialogue in this films fits with that, but we have not seen enough of their interactions to really buy into this, though an entertaining effort is made to establish this in the opening sequences of the film with some success. Actors Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto who play Kirk and Spock respectively, do a good job in their roles, it’s just that there isn’t a history present to help reinforce their chemistry. Likewise the chemistry between Dr. McCoy, aka Bones, played by Karl Urban and Spock fails to carry the same magic as the original cast, and Kirk’s chemistry with Bones also seems artificial. That said, Quinto and Zoe Saldana have excellent on-screen chemistry in the one relationship that is unique to the film and provide some comic relief and authenticity.
There also seems to be a lack of some original content. I think this, in part, is more appropriation or rather homage meant to satisfy fans of the franchise, but when we hear lines like: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”, one is almost tempted to roll one’s eyes, especially since it appears so early in the film and was a key piece of dialogue in the original film series. It is akin to hearing Spider-Man repeat the phrase: “With great power comes great responsibility.” We get it the first time… and second… and third. There is also a parallel scene with the warp core and the epic screaming of the name “Kahn” thrown in with some role reversals. Again, they seem meant to mirror the original works in a manner of homage for fans of the franchise, but they come across as uninspired.
Abrams seemed to miss out on some great drama as well. A fight scene between Spock and Kahn seems uninspiring and clichéd at best, though still mildly entertaining, but in the scene it is required that Spock capture Kahn alive. The reason? Kahn’s genetically engineered blood apparently helps to cure all ailments including radiation poisoning. It is apparent when Kahn’s blood is used to bring a tribble back to life that this will be a plot point later in the film. This becomes frustrating for three reasons. Firstly, the audience knows even as a sacrifice is being made that the sacrifice will be nullified. Secondly, Abrams skipped to include the scene where the would-be martyr is brought back to life, which has much room for drama, and thirdly, there was no need to get Kahn at all as there were 72 other genetically engineered humans with the same blood that Bones could have drawn from to help Kirk immediately rather than waiting for Kahn’s capture. This also leads to one of the flawed plot points. The Kahn’s crew is left in cryogenic hibernation at the end of the film when their blood is apparently able to cure radiation poisoning. Why wouldn’t the federation wake these people up and synthesize their blood to cure any number of ailments? And why are they left in cryogenic hibernation at all? Are they to be left in this state for eternity?
There is also a matter of Kahn’s perception of losing his crew. Though the audience knows at this point that Kahn’s crew is safe and unharmed, as far as Kahn knows his crew has been killed, and has been killed by Spock. When the two meet, it seems ripe for some great drama and dialogue. There is none though. Even after hearing how important his crew was to him, we hear not a word of anger from Kahn regarding the perceived death of his crew. Instead we are giving an uninspired chase scene and an imitative fight scene. I don’t expect every chase scene to be original, nor every fight scene, but at the same time these small details are what separates good action films from great action films. A chase scene on foot can be boring to say the least, but they can be made interesting (see the chase scene at the beginning of Casino Royale, and how it made great use of parkour). Abrams does not do this, and while a fight scene on top of a moving platform does add some drama, it is not something unique to the film.
(The aforementioned chase scene from Casino Royale)
For all the problems that weigh the film down, it is buoyed by a number of great components. For one there is a plot twist completely absent from the trailers for the film which helps to make the film far more interesting than it would have otherwise been. The plot twist allows us to humanize Kahn and identify with him, and Cumberbatch makes the most of this. His performance is unsurpassed in the film. He appears cold and brilliant and resourceful and vengeful and everything that makes for a great hero and an even better villain. Peter Weller, who plays Admiral Marcus, is uncompromisingly firm and seemingly heroic himself, but ultimately comes across as a 23rd century incarnation of Dick Cheney. Both Weller and Cumberbatch make for great antagonists in the film.
It is not only the villains who make for great performances in this film. Pine and Quinto are certainly competent in their roles, as is Bruce Greenwood as admiral Pike, but Zoe Saldana and Simon Pegg are perhaps the highlights. With a domestic dispute brewing, Saldana masterfully balances the comedic with the dramatic, and she speaks Klingon! Simon Pegg does much the same, though his dramatic performance is reserved for only one scene. His comedic timing is impeccable, as one might imagine, and he serves to provide some great comic relief whilst also creating a believable chemistry between both he and Kirk as well he and his side kick Keenser, played by Deep Roy who reinvented the Umpa Lumpa in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Even in heavy make-up and with no lines, Pegg and Roy create a believable and entertaining chemistry. John Cho also proves more than adequate in the captain’s chair in one of his too-few scenes.
The film has something else to it though. There seems a clear parallel with the narrative in the film, and the current ‘war on terror’ (for an indepth look at this aspect click here and/or here). Kahn seems to be a manifestation of a terrorist. If a star ship crashing into buildings on a suicide mission isn’t enough for one to see parallels between this narrative and the ‘war on terror’, I don’t know what is, but I expect that Abrams figured this connection would be hard for some to make since he also dedicated the film, in the closing credits, to post 9/11 veterans. Indeed, just as Admiral Marcus seems to be a 23rd century version of Dick Cheney, so to does Kahn seem to be a 23rd century reincarnation of Osama bin Laden. Recruited by the federation, just as bin Laden was recruited by the US military during the 80’s conflict in Afghanistan, Kahn helps the federation, but eventually sees them as the enemy that is harming his own people and so attacks them. It is an interesting parallel that gives the film some depth, but depth that I expect will be missed or ignored by many.
At the end of the film, though highly entertained, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed. There were a number of instances of homage to the original cast and narrative, but they seem, for the most part, uninspired (though it was nice to see the stunning Alice Eve as Carol Marcus, who fans know to be the future mother of Kirk’s love child). I wanted to see more use of the 3D effects, and more space scenes and starships. I was happy to see some Klingons, but disappointed in their limited role, and it seemed that other species were peppered throughout the film without really being explored. Part of the magic of the franchise is the alien species, but they are left largely unexplored in this film. They are peripheral characters at best and distractions at worst. In focusing on Kahn, it is perhaps unfair to expect a number of aliens, and it is unfair to ask a director to make a film different than the one he or she is making. With pressure to appease fans of the franchise and bring characters they love to the screen, it seems fair for Abrams to focus in characters already established through the franchise, but at the same time I’m hungry to see something new. Weller’s Marcus was certainly a fine example of that, but I can’t help walking away from the film wanting more. Abrams has a unique vision and is more than capable of creating amazing character and imaginative narratives and my hope is that in future he embraces this and isn’t weighed down too much by the history he has inherited. He needs to make Star Trek his own and not a regurgitation of what fans have already seen, even if doing so means alienating some long time fans.