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“Into Darkness”: please, don’t call it “Star Trek”

Background: Several months ago I was contacted by the official Italian Star Trek Magazine to write a review of Star Trek Into Darkness. The magazine explicitly asked me to write an extended negative review (the editors knew how I felt about the movie), intending to publish it alongside a favorable one in the same issue so as to encourage a debate on the merits of Into Darkness. I wrote my review in Italian and then translated it into English, since all official Star Trek magazine material has to be translated for approval by the US headquarters. I have just been told that my review has not been approved, so I am now free to post it here (the Italian version is here). Feel free to agree or disagree with it.

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.


Do you have any idea how ridiculous it is to hide a starship on the bottom of the ocean?” exclaims a furious Scotty shortly after the beginning of Into Darkness.

Yes, Scotty, we do. We realize all too well. It's supremely ridiculous, and that's exactly the problem. It makes no sense in the movie's context and it's blindingly obvious that the scene was conceived merely because having the Enterprise rise out of the water would look so cool. With this single line, Into Darkness has defined itself perfectly and completely: a series of spectacular but totally absurd scenes. I have known and loved Star Trek for forty years, and this, I'm sad to say, is not Star Trek.

Star Trek has always had a special place in my heart, as a fan of science fiction, because it was the exact opposite of this movie: it presented situations that were seldom spectacular but almost always had a deep meaning. It made you think. It didn't really matter that the sets were clearly made of papier-mâché and the phaser beams made little squiggly splashes, because the stories (not all of them, but nearly all) left something in you. Alongside the wonder of cosmic adventure there was a morality play.

Bele and Lokai (Let That Be Your Last Battlefield) pointed out the hypocritical absurdity of racism and of all discrimination. The pointlessness of the Cold War was the theme of A Taste of Armageddon; more recently, the Next Generation episode The Measure of a Man made us think about how we define being human, with all its implications for slavery and for intelligence in other living creatures (and, in the future, in artificial life), and Voyager's Tuvix raised the question of the right to life with the tangible drama of an example that only a science fiction context could provide. And then there were characters that you grew fond of because they had depth: they were imperfect, fallible, torn by inner conflicts: in other words, human.


There's none of this in Into Darkness. I'll steer clear of the tirades, already made eloquently by other commentators, on the lens flares that dazzle you obsessively and on the huge plot holes. A model of the top-secret dreadnought in full view in the Starfleet conference room? Never mind. There's a portable transporter device that can reach instantly the heart of the Klingon Empire from Earth, yet everyone insists on flying around in starships? Oh, well. With all of Starfleet's technology, with cellphones that can call the other side of the galactic quadrant, there's no way to rig a remote control, a timer or a robot to activate the bomb on Nibiru and a human being has to be lowered into the volcano? And there's no one apart from Spock who can perform this simple task? I'll turn a blind eye. All Star Trek movies have inconsistencies of this kind, if you delve deep enough. Sure, here the inconsistencies hit you like a spade in the face, with no delving required, but let he who is without sin cast the first stone. As always, one can dismiss these things if the story as a whole works, has an enthralling theme and intriguing characters.

The trouble with Into Darkness is that the story just doesn't work at all (despite the actors, especially Benedict Cumberbatch, doing their very best with what little they're given): there's no underlying theme. The characters are cookie-cutter surrogates that do whatever the script requires. A few examples: McCoy, in the midst of a crisis, with Khan next to him in Sickbay arguing with Kirk, starts messing about with infusions of Khan's blood in a dead tribble. Does he really have to do that right now? Well, yes, because the script requires it: he'll soon need this totally irrelevant tinkering to revive Kirk. Other than that, the scene makes no sense at all. Spock Prime says that he has made a vow not to reveal the future, but then he backpedals abruptly and spills the beans about Khan. So much for Vulcan vows, then. Young Spock doesn't tell Kirk that there's an impostor on board (the advanced weapons specialist, no less) because he was waiting for this news to become “relevant”. Because having an impostor on the Enterprise in the midst of a covert operation isn't necessarily relevant. Seriously?

However, for a lifelong fan like myself, the worst sin of Into Darkness is that it takes characters as cherished by generations of fans as Spock, Kirk and McCoy and abuses them completely. In the fundamental metaphor of Star Trek, Spock represents the cold rationality of a brilliant mind, McCoy stands for the emotions of a person who thinks with his heart first, and Kirk is the balance and ideal blending of both. He listens to both his heart and his reason and then decides. That's why Kirk, Spock and McCoy have worked so well as characters for decades: they reflect and embody our timeless inner dilemmas. But in Into Darkness, Spock is just a generic, pedantic alien who defeats Khan not with his intellect, but in a fist fight, and who upon seeing Pike about to die rapes him with a forced mind-meld. McCoy is there just to make grumpy one-liners (oh, and to inject Khan blood into dead tribbles for the heck of it). Kirk is a scared kid, unable to decide and incompetent, but he's so cute and blessed by outrageous good luck; there's no inkling of his future greatness.

Remember Original Series Kirk's words to Carolyn Palamas in Who Mourns for Adonais? When he reminds her that we're ephemeral creatures, briefly suspended in an infinite universe, and that therefore all that really matters is that fleeting moment of humanity shared with the ones we love? Or his speech to the inhabitants of Vendikar and Eminiar about the need to return them to the horrors of real war in order to induce them to make peace? Powerful, stirring words, that make the audience think while they carry the story to its conclusion. Now compare these examples with Kirk's lines in Into Darkness. Go on, do it. I'll wait here.

Done? Now listen to the ending of the movie, when Kirk recites the Captain's Oath. This is supposed to be the final moral of Into Darkness, indeed its call, as Kirk defines it, but listen to it carefully. Here it is verbatim: Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Her five-year mission: to explore strange, new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no one has gone before. What? All Starfleet captains take the oath by referencing the voyages of the Enterprise? Actually, that's not even an oath at all. Moreover, Spock says shortly after that theirs is the first five-year mission ever. Then why is it already mentioned in the Captain's Oath? These script lines make no sense. They called it Into Darkness because they wrote it while fumbling in the dark.

These are not the characters, the themes and the stories that we Trekkers have grown to love. They're poorly written travesties peddled as replacement for the originals. Maybe for those of you who aren't familiar with those originals this is not a problem. But I have to say, honestly and with regret, that I feel betrayed. Call it anything you want, but don't call it Star Trek, because it's not Star Trek. It's just the umpteenth spectacular movie with explosions and fights in a sci-fi context that's been overused. Khan kills Marcus by crushing the admiral's head with his bare hands? Blade Runner. The heroes are chased by primitive natives from which they've stolen a sacred artifact? Raiders of the Lost Ark. The spaceship narrowly squeezes through a tight passage? Return of the Jedi. There's a bomb to be defused by working delicately on its mechanisms? Don't worry: yanking all the wires at the last minute will save the day, as usual.

With this kind of totally predictable cliches, with rambling dialog of this sort, there's no surprise, no tension, no feeling that something other than the obvious will happen. Interrupting dialog with an explosion is not a brilliant directing masterstroke that creates drama: it shows the need to resort to loud bangs for lack of better material and decent scriptwriting. And after the third time it gets boring.

On the topic of cliches, let's discuss the Great Plot Twist, shall we? One of the most moving scenes from The Wrath of Khan, the one in which Spock dies in front of a helpless Kirk and declares his deep friendship for his captain, is reversed: Kirk dies instead as Spock looks on helplessly. What a brilliant idea. What creative effort. How original. Especially since any real drama is sucked out of this scene because in Into Darkness Kirk comes back to life even before the end of the movie, instead of being almost certainly dead until the sequel, as happened to Spock in Wrath of Khan. We vintage Trekkers waited and worried for two years to know whether Spock would be back or not (and knowing Leonard Nimoy, quitting the role forever was quite possible at that time); those who watch Into Darkness suffer (so to speak) for all of nine minutes. Nine. Yes, I checked with a stopwatch.

The ultimate slap on the face is having Spock scream “Khaaaan!” instead of Kirk. Maybe it didn't work the same with you, but when I saw that memorable original scene being butchered my inner scream was a heartfelt, unstoppable...


... “Aaaabraaaaams!”.

I'm not done yet (well, you did ask for a negative review, right?). Into Darkness betrays Star Trek not only in its dialogs and characterization, but also in its ideals. The women in Into Darkness are basically ornaments who do virtually nothing apart from getting in Kirk's bed, moaning about the lack of emotions of their Vulcan partner (what did Uhura expect from a Vulcan, morning serenades and rose petals on her console?), and gratuitously stripping for the audience. In this movie all the decisions are taken by men and all action (positive or negative) is carried out by men: women are relegated to the role of decorative background or damsels in distress. What happened to the push for equality that was one of the subversive innovations of the Original Series, so much that it dared (in the Sixties) to feature a woman as second in command of the Enterprise (The Menagerie) and as a Romulan captain (The Enterprise Incident) and many other female characters who were professional, competent and not submissive and were sexy without having to give up their brains?

Finally, there's another betrayed ideal, and it's the one that personally irks me the most. The original Star Trek showed characters who solved crises mostly with their intelligence and smart thinking (and a good punch at the right moment), tapping into their skills and training. Nobody was born ready for command: everyone had to slog and study hard to earn it. In Into Darkness, instead, everything is solved by battles, shootouts and fistfights and everybody is instinctively capable of doing anything without even getting his or her hair messed up.

Chekov needs to replace Scotty? No problem: it's like sending a plumber into a baby delivery room, but it's so cool. Kirk is totally undisciplined and insubordinate; he even violates the Prime Directive. Sure, so does the original Kirk, but at least he doesn't do it for dumb reasons: in Into Darkness, on Nibiru all they had to do was fly at night; nobody would have seen anything. But since this Kirk is so handsome and blatantly sponsored by Pike, he still gets to command the Enterprise. One of the key themes of the Original Series was use your brains, study and you'll be rewarded; the new Star Trek loudly says,if you're easy on the eyes you don't need to study and brains are optional: you can always pick other people's brains. The series that was a symbol and a shelter for nerds has become a new source of humiliation.

Yes, I know, Into Darkness and the movie that preceded it have the merit of making the Star Trek brand popular again. After seeing this movie, new fans will be intrigued and maybe will discover the Original Series, the Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and the other movies and series, which feature less popcorn-oriented stories and characters. But if reviving Star Trek entails resorting to tribble blood infusions and disregarding its values so radically, maybe the price to pay is too high. Or maybe you've just read the rant of an old nerd who's too attached to the past and who still likes thought-provoking stories and characters who don't need 3D goggles to come alive out of the screen.
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Commenti
Commenti (6)
Piccolo refuso: "it presented situations that were seldom spectacular but almost always has a deep meaning"
Refuso sistemato, grazie!
Thankfully, I never treated my decades of viewing Star Trek with any such "religious deference", so I was more entertained than offended by the movie.
Thankfully, I never treated my decades of viewing Star Trek with any such "religious deference", so I was more entertained than offended by the movie.

Actually, I've never treated ST with religious deference: I've simply appreciated the fact that it had more depth than the usual TV scifi show of the time. If you take that depth away, it's no longer Star Trek, it's "Generic Characters in Space Fight Generic Villain with Big Explosions". I can enjoy that kind of entertainment, too, but when I watch Star Trek I expect to be more than just entertained.
Unfortunately.. I cannot argue against any of the criticism leveled in this review. You are spot on. I guess I've just been hungry for more Trek since Enterprise left the air that I took the movies for what they were. I liked that they did something different with the first movie (though I lament for my poor Romulan Star Empire.. Between Abrams and Nemesis they have been thoroughly gutted as a race and antagonists).

The problem is they need to keep doing something different. Get on with the damn 5 year mission and tell some different stories. Trek is bloated by the sheer amount of accumulated story minutia that writers get painted into corners. I was excited for the reboot because it signaled possible new stories, but we can stop right now if we are only going to rehash the great stories that came before.
Galaxy Quest is more a Star Trek movie than both of those 2 travesties.