If you’ve not seen Star Trek Into Darkness, then you may wish to check out my non-spoiler review here. In the mean time, progress on to this review only if you’ve seen the movie as I will be discussing most of the major plot twists at some point.
The Pitch: Set phasers to stupid.
Review Angry Spoiler-Based Rant: I’m a Trekkie. None of this “Trekker” nonsense as if I’m ashamed of it, I owned all of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine (and a fair chunk of Voyager) on VHS – and still have the first seven movies in that format, even though I can’t watch them – and could name just about any episode from seeing a few seconds while channel flicking. I’ve been to a convention or two, I had a cardboard cut-out of Major Kira in my university bedroom and… well, you get the idea. So you must understand that I come to Star Trek with great difficulty, not least to be impartial and dispassionate, but also that the burden of expectation is necessarily higher than for your average movie. My delight over the Star Trek reboot of 2009 was tempered by the fact that there were odd moments of stupidity, and that I was happy to look the other way to protect in my own mind a rollicking entertainment that made interesting choices and wasn’t afraid to upset a little of its original fanbase. My fear in approaching this sequel, or twelvequel, or Episode 12, or whatever, was that all the signs suggested that stupidity was about to be ramped up to Idiot Factor 9, and my worst fears were realised. What’s amazing is that there are so many different varieties of dumb available in just a two hour running time: remarkably shoddy plotting, a lack of understanding of basic science, the confusion of science and magic, historical ignorance and an insult to the emotional intelligence of anyone watching. Quite an achievement.
For the shoddy plotting, you need look no further than the pre-titles sequence. The Enterprise has travelled to a primitive planet where an active volcano is threatening the population. To stop the volcano erupting, Spock is lowered in by a shuttlecraft while Kirk and McCoy get chased by natives on the surface. When Spock’s life is threatened, Kirk flies the Enterprise out of the nearby ocean where it had been hiding to be able to transport him on board, thus revealing the Enterprise to the natives and breaking the Federation’s Prime Directive of non-interference with undeveloped alien worlds (the movie assumes you know what the Prime Directive is, never explaining it that clearly). Where do we start with this? Why does Spock need to be lowered into the volcano, when the device he’s detonating can seemingly be dropped from a height and it would have been just as effective? Why does Spock think that revealing the Enterprise will break the Prime Directive, when two clearly non-indigenous humanoids have been running about on the surface anyway? If the Enterprise has to avoid being seen, how does it get in the water in the first place? Why does it even have to be in the water, when it’s a SPACE SHIP and could have much more easily avoided detection IN SPACE? Have shuttlecraft now become so short range that they can’t be more than 10 km from the mothership? How does the Enterprise, which is a SPACE SHIP, manoeuvre in water? How does detonating a cold fusion device – which is a thermonuclear reaction theoretically taking place at room temperature – cause magma to suddenly revert to being solid rock? And that’s just the first scene; the rest of the movie is littered with similarly poorly thought through decision making by every single character.
The last of those questions is more of a “basic science” flaw than a plotting one, which leads me nicely into the general lack of scientific understanding on display. Don’t get me wrong, Star Trek is what’s known as “made up”; we can’t actually disassemble and reassemble our atoms or warp space to effectively travel faster than the speed of light, but forty-five years of storytelling have created a believable universe in which such things can be taken to be possible. Let’s not forget that transporters were only originally woven into the fabric of the Star Trek universe to avoid repeated expensive use of shuttles on a TV budget. Even so, there are some grating uses of that existing technology within Into Darkness. For example, the Enterprise is returning from Kronos to Earth and is attacked by the Vengeance mid-warp, causing it to fall out of warp. You’d presume the ship was heading back to Earth and was stopped part way, but the distance from Earth is given – very specifically – as 237,000 km. There is no real need to specify a distance, but that distance is closer than the Moon to Earth, so one would presume they’d got pretty close. But the Enterprise is also travelling at warp – i.e. effectively faster than light – and the speed of light is around 300,000 km/s. So the Enterprise was around 0.8 seconds from dropping out of warp anyway, otherwise it would have either overshot by a solar system or slammed into Earth and made one heck of a dent. The understanding of warp travel is also fairly shaky, as this Enterprise – based on the fact it can get between any two points in the galaxy in the time it takes to have a single conversation – seems to have a default setting of Warp 9.99975. (Warp measurements don’t tend to get mentioned much any more, which might be for the best given how many times the warp factor scale has been recalibrated over the years, but we’ve now apparently been reduced to “STOP” and “GO REALLY REALLY RIDICULOUSLY FAST”, also known as the Punch-It setting.)
Bad science is one thing: confusing science and magic is entirely another. Consider two separate plot points within the movie. Firstly, Harrison / Khan has been able to adapt transporter technology previously upgraded by Scotty to the point where he can now teleport from Earth to Kronos using a transporter small enough to fit in a craft smaller than a shuttle. Secondly, to defeat Khan when he’s on the Vengeance, Spock beams back the photon torpedoes to the Vengeance (having taken the frozen people out first), but arms them before beaming so they detonate on the Vengeance. Apart from the fact that, once upon a time, photon torpedoes were matter / antimatter explosives, and you couldn’t actually transport antimatter, we now have no reason to have starships. The Vengeance is an utterly pointless exercise – why not just arm up a bunch of photon torpedoes and beam them to Kronos? Job done. Star Trek over the years has done a reasonable job of striking a balance between offering futuristic technology and still presenting obstacles for the characters to overcome, but this is a world in which you can do anything. Literally anything. Science has now effectively become magic, and Star Trek in theory has less rules than comic books or Harry Potter.
That’s not even the worst bit of science in the film: that comes when a respectable doctor injects the blood of a terrorist into a dead animal. (Say WHATNOW?) Surely the only reason possible for injecting blood into a dead organism, in this case a poor, defenceless Tribble, which has no circulation and consequently won’t do anything with the blood, is because you believe (for no reason whatsoever) that this blood has life-restoring properties. Well, turns out it does. Yes, Khan’s blood is effectively the fountain of youth, the secret of eternal life – or at least, living to old age successfully – so we now live in a universe where we can cure death. Barely dead, no matter what you say Bones, is still dead in my book, so we can now live forever. Trek has form in this area – for example, there’s an episode of Voyager where being able to travel at infinite speed causes you to turn into a horny lizard, in a process which is entirely reversible with no apparent side effects, so why wouldn’t you do it if you were stranded seventy years from home?! – but on such occasions, episodes have been almost universally derided by fans. There’s no reason at all why Into Darkness shouldn’t be held at a similar level of utter contempt.
Which brings me nicely to Khan himself, and firstly the historical stupidity. Into Darkness does its best to gloss over exactly where Admiral Marcus found Khan and his 72 super-buddies; turns out they’d been floating in deep space for nearly 300 years. That would be about right, since the Eugenics Wars of the 1990s were where Khan and his mates first came to power. What’s up? Don’t remember a war that enabled super-powerd humans and gave them blood with remarkable healing properties? That’s because *gets out Back To The Future 2 chalkboard* effectively we live in an alternate universe to Star Trek, one which branched off in the 1960s and has been increasingly divergent ever since. So 300 years before current Star Trek – which is set in 2259, so about 1959?! – these super space men were blasted into space in cryogenic suspension (oh, and we also had to invent that at some point in the past). But the Khan of the original Trek timeline, the one which diverged again when Kirk Sr. bought the big one last time out, met Kirk twice. Now, thanks to circumstances and stuff, Khan still turns out to be bad, but now – despite being the same person – he’s Benedict Cumberbatch instead of Ricardo Montalban. I guess this is about the level we should expect from film makers that can casually recast a Japanese character as a Korean and is happy to ignore an American admiral with an English daughter. (At least that one might be explained by an expensive boarding school.)
All of the other Khan business feels incidental when it comes to the real kicker: the excuse to play out the same events of the climax of Wrath Of Khan, but – and get this, but hold your sides first, or they might split as it’s so hilariously clever – Kirk is the one that dies this time, and Spock gets to shout “KHAAAAAAN!” In the original, Kirk’s mortality issues were underpinned by the Kobayashi Maru test, but we’ve already shot that bolt in this universe, so now Spock gets angrier than he did when his planet was exploded and his mother along with it just because his captain dies and he had a mind-meld with a nearly dead guy? (Also, how dead is Pike? Maybe it’s not too late for some magic blood? But I digress.) The biggest insult, though, is the reveal of what Bones is up to, making it clear from the first moment that Kirk steps through the door of the radiation-filled engine room that he’s not going to stay dead. Hence you, as a viewer, are expected to feel the emotions of watching Kirk die when you know full well he’ll be up and about again by the movie’s end.
Now this might feel like a whole load of nit-picking, but that’s what we Trekkies do best. I’m also not averse to stupid as a principle in film making, relishing as I am seeing Fast & Furious 6 later this week. But when this just seems to be a rehash of The Motion Picture (faceless, uninteresting Klingons), Generations (crashing a starship into a planet and thinking that saying “shit” is funny and clever) and the previous Star Trek (let’s do a space jump – but this time, it’s SIDEWAYS!!!), and when the clear opportunities for a great movie were there, it becomes all the more frustrating. Take out Khan completely, and put the Enterprise in the middle of a war between Section 31 and some properly developed Klingons, and there’s a great movie to be had, with character development opportunities, and one which would have subtly built on established Trek lore while exploring new directions, rather than attempting to eat its own space tail. Whoever takes the reins of the next instalment, please stop and think before you engage warp drive.
The Score: 4/10 (because I’m a hopeless Trekkie and I couldn’t bring myself to hate it as much as Nemesis or The Final Frontier. Maybe in time.)