Review by Ken Burke Star Trek into Darkness
J.J. Abrams continues his successful reboot of the Star Trek movie franchise with an epic battle between the Enterprise crew and their deadly foe, the mighty Khan.
[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews. This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.]
Let me begin by admitting to the Trekkies (or Trekkers or whatever nomenclature those of you who are of the orthodox Trek faith would prefer) that I’ve seen only a few of the original Gene Roddenberry TV Star Trek episodes from 1966-1969 (sorry, but I was a college undergraduate in those days with little access to a TV set), even fewer of the Star Trek: The New Generation episodes from 1987-1994 (by that time I was working at my current job at Mills College, Oakland CA, with little time to watch the TV set that I did have access to), and absolutely none of the other Trek TV manifestations, although I have seen all 11 of the previous movies, from the original Robert Wise Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) to the J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot in 2009 (where he cleverly included a time-space-anomaly-shift so that everything that had previously taken place after the events of what is essentially a prequel to most everything else we’ve ever seen in the various Star Trek narratives [except for possibly those times when Federation troopers made their way back into the past—often our present, as in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home [Leonard Nimoy,1986]—is now no longer required to happen so that occurrences can be modified as Abrams and future directors might see fit as they rework the lives of Kirk, Spock, etc. [even with such life-changing new situations as the destruction of the planet Vulcan in the 2009 Trek continuity (which may demonstrate even further that Abrams is the right guy to be directing the new Disney franchise of Star Wars—disturbance in The Force with the destruction of planet Alderaan, anyone?)]), so please forgive me from the beginning if I fail to even be aware of how the current Star Trek into Darkness might reference all sorts of Trek-lore that the fully-initiated among you would easily recognize and expect for me to cite. (I even had to do some research to realize that Ricardo Montalbán played the original version of Khan in both the first TV series and in the first sequel of the previous Trek-movie-cluster, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan [Nicholas Meyer, 1982]—oops, have I already gotten into Spoiler Alert territory here? Well, if so, I compliment my readers for somehow having avoided all of the other Kahn revelations put forth by now in endless commentary in various media, but I was just confident that this is no longer much of a secret. To my credit, I did understand the Tribble’s [look it up if you must, possibly starting with http://www.startrek.com/database_article/ tribble] appearance in the current movie, so maybe I’m not totally hopeless.) However, even if I don’t note “the obvious” in my review of this latest manifestation of the Federation’s universe (or maybe it’s just our galaxy, as is the celestial limit of travel in that long ago and far away location of the Star Wars narratives—for which I again admit my limitations, having only seen the mainline films, not all of the TV series nor read all of the many sanctioned books that have probed far in the past and future of what is presented in the days of the father-and-son Skywalker clan) I've still found plenty to appreciate in this adventures of Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), First Officer Spock (Zachary Quinto), and the rest of the highly-familiar crew of the Starship Enterprise as they encounter the newest level of danger that they could hardly be able to imagine while collectively finding ways to triumph over it, even as death literally hangs in the balance.
Given that we all know by now that the villain in Star Trek into Darkness is the fiendish, almost-invincible Kahn Noonien Singh (Benedict Cumberbatch), what really needs to be explored here is how effective he is as a challenge to the Federation and the crew of the good ship Enterprise; for me, he’s marvelous in being a complete and consistent manifestation of the genetically-superior being that he was bred to be back in our present day, given that this movie begins in 2259 and he’s been in deep-freeze suspended animation for 300 years. I must admit that it’s been a loonng time since I’ve seen Star Trek II so I can’t give an easy comparison between Cumberbatch and Montalbán (except for remembering those muscles, those muscles on Ricardo as he finds himself in battle-to-the-death-combat with Kirk and company; from what I’ve read those pecs were all his, so I guess that’s why he covered them up with such nice suits when he was hosting guests as Mr. Roarke on Fantasy Island [1977-1984] and hawking Chrysler Cordoba cars with their “soft Corinthian leather” back in the mid-‘70s), although I’ll say that based on imperfect recall and just-completed viewing I’d rate them equal in terms of sinister persona, highest level of danger for our intrepid protagonists, and compelling presence as a villain who gives you every reason to believe that all hope is lost for our heroes. Kahn is one superior specimen, so physically evolved compared to ordinary humans that when Kirk tries to punch him out after his capture about mid-way into the story he just absorbs the blows as if they were coming from a skinny teenager rather than the macho Captain of the Enterprise. We learn as the plot unfolds that Starfleet head, Admiral Alexander Marcus (Peter Weller), thawed out Kahn in hopes that his extraordinary abilities would better allow Starfleet to upgrade its mission from galaxy explorations to military defense when the inevitable war with the Klingons comes to haunt the “love-is-all-you-need” idealists of the Federation, but Kahn and his several dozen equally-engineered colleagues wrecked havoc back in their origin days as their lofty abilities made them intolerant of those lesser than themselves (another play on the Nietzchean concept of the “superman,” which was nicely explored for its grossly-flawed philosophy in Hitchcock’s 1948 Rope, adapted from the 1929 Patrick Hamilton play inspired by the 1924 murder of a teenage boy by University of Chicago students Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb), so they were frozen in an attempt to keep them from causing further homicidal disruption in our time or the Trek era. Sure enough, after working for awhile with Admiral Marcus under the assumed identity of John Harrison, Kahn gets restless again and decides that the resuscitation of his comrades isn’t going to come about as planned so he goes renegade, destroying a secret Federation installation in London, followed by an attack on Starfleet Headquarters in San Francisco (a scene right out of The Godfather: Part III [Francis Ford Coppola, 1990] with a helicopter attack on the High Command, resulting in the death of Kirk’s mentor, Admiral Christopher Pike [Bruce Greenwood]—which raises the revenge stakes for Kirk because Pike was not only instrumental in getting jumpin’ Jim into Starfleet but also kept him on active duty after this movie’s opening snafu on planet Nibiru [more on that below]), then hiding on the Klingon home planet of Kronos under the assumption that Starfleet wouldn’t dare invade such touchy territory (sort of like the Seventh Fleet just sailing into a North Korean harbor in our day) for fear of starting all-out war between the Federation and those imposing, hostile aliens.
Marcus is quite willing to begin such an altercation, however, being of the belief that such a war is inevitable so he wants to initiate a first strike, catching the enemy off-guard, thereby (in a strategy known fully only to the Admiral) sending Kirk and the Enterprise to unload 72 newly-created photon torpedoes just on Kahn (and we complain when a couple of drones are used for targeted combat purposes—sorry, I know that’s a controversial subject right now). However, nothing’s ever as simple as it might be in this movie because Kahn learns that Marcus has secretly hidden Kahn’s fellow freeze-dried perfectos in those torpedoes in his two-birds-with-one-stone-idea of getting rid of the rest of these superior killers while wrecking havoc on the Klingon home world so as to secure an initial military advantage in what’s intended as a short-term war (any similarities to our invasion of Iraq totally coincidental, of course). Thus, Kahn’s willing to help Kirk defeat a squad of Klingons that disrupt the attempt to simply capture Kahn rather than annihilate him (Kirk’s always spoiling for a fight, but the rest of the Enterprise crew, especially Spock, is trying to stay loyal to the original Starfleet purposes of deep-space exploration rather than becoming militarized) so that he can get onto Kirk’s ship and find a way to free his fellow frozens. This gets quickly complicated, though, when Marcus shows up in a combat-ready starship, with the intention of killing Khan, Kirk, and the Enterprisers, then starting his personal war with the Klingons (in a maneuver as equally-not-well-thought-out as the rouge U.S attack on the Soviet Union in Dr. Strangelove [Stanley Kubrick, 1964] with results likely as disastrous as in that wicked satire where a previously-unknown Soviet Doomsday retaliation system threatens the continuance of the entire planet). This leads to several marvelously-executed conflict scenes between Kirk and Kahn taking on Marcus, Kahn asserting his own command, the Enterprise attempting to retreat to Earth but being thwarted in that escape, a spectacular starship crash into downtown San Francisco, a great aerial battle on a small transport as Spock and Uhura finally subdue Kahn, and a last-minute rescue of the Enterprise’s jammed power system by Kirk but in the reactor core which leads to his death by radiation poisoning. If this last bit sounds familiar to you from the original Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, it should because it’s the same situation as in that long-ago story only with the roles reversed as Spock was the one who died previously (but we get the same heartfelt hands-almost-touching-through-the-glass situation as in the previous version of this tragedy and the same assumption that a prime protagonist is no more for this enduring series—which had some plausibility back in 1982 with rumors that Leonard Nimoy was looking for a way to not get trapped into ongoing Trek sequels [although he did come back for 4 more and even directed 2 of them, The Search for Spock (1984) and The Voyage Home (1986), which explored the resurrection of his character and the restitution of all unbalanced situations that defined the expanded story arc of Star Treks II-IV]—a very disturbing plot complication given that it just wouldn’t be acceptable for this generation of Trekaphiles to go on without Kirk). The crisis is resolved, though, with the second capture of Khan, whose enhanced blood provides a serum that revives Kirk (who’d also been put in deep freeze right after his initial stage of death so as to preserve his brain functions and organs), allowing his full recovery and the beginning of the long-delayed (at this initial stage of the Trek chronology, even as somewhat altered by the events of the 2009 Abrams movie) 5-year voyage into the unknown realms of the cosmos.
It’s a little unclear why Abrams decided to mimic the original Star Trek sequel in this manner, both with the Kahn confrontation and the hero-death-from-reactor-radiation scene (especially given that the original sequel’s Kahn story would have taken place a couple of decades later from this plot, but maybe that’s just to remind us that we shouldn’t expect any of what we think we know of the Trek timeline to stay the same, so that this event is now not only much earlier than we had previously understood it to be but also that it won’t recur again in their future because that future is now up for grabs as Abrams and his successors [he’s not likely going to be able to provide direct command over both this series and the new Star Wars episodes so we’ll just have to see who really runs the Enterprise over the next decade or so), but given how the ending of this yarn just keeps building further and further beyond what would seem to be its probable climax until you’re pleasantly exhausted from all of the complex plot action, you can’t really complain about Abrams’ motivations because he certainly makes it all work out well in the end, with a satisfactory sense of Trek morality woven properly into all of the action sequences.
One aspect of that morality comes with the enhanced presence of Uhura (Zoe Saldana) in this reboot of the Trek narrative, where she’s now in a relationship with Spock and has a much more active presence than in the earlier manifestations of the Enterprise voyages, even though she’s still cast as the Communications Officer. Specifically, she proves herself to be a tough negotiator with the Klingons when she, Kirk, and Spock shuttle down to Kronos in their initial attempt to capture Khan, then she joins Spock in battling Kahn hand-to-hand in their final capture of this maniacal warrior after she has come to better accept the complexities of her half-Vulcan, half-human lover as a result of his opening up to her in his explanation of why he began this movie with a decision that could easily have gotten him killed with seemingly no consideration for how that loss would have been devastating for her. Here we get into the whole concept that makes this movie more than just outer-space action, as there are a cluster of conflicts that demonstrate the difficulty of weighing ideals against pragmatics. The Federation’s Prime Directive is that as the exploration of worlds and lifeforms far beyond those of the known planetary inhabitants is to be done from the perspective of discreet or neutral scientific inquiry: Starfleet voyagers are not supposed to interfere in the structure or development of evolving societies, including the primitive one that the Enterprise crew has encountered on the distant planet of Nibiru. However, not only does Kirk determine that a massive volcano is about to erupt, thereby killing the inhabitants of this planet, he also decides to send Spock down into the volcano with a device that will neutralize the catastrophe and save these beings from immanent termination. In the process he also has to maneuver the Enterprise into a position visible to the Nibiruians so now their salvation has been engineered and they are aware of a higher civilization (reacting to the starship as if it were a god), which Kirk chalks up to the need to save Spock’s life even though it’s the result of defying several protocol imperatives. This conflict between taking humane action (to save Spock as well as the Nibiruians) or following the directives of procedure intended to keep stability in the United Federation of Planets and adhere to the agreed-upon legal structures of a vast number of species is one that underlies the entire concept of Star Trek into Darkness as Kirk must decide whether to defy Marcus’ direct order to rain down the torpedoes on Kahn or follow another strategy in an attempt to prevent war, just as he must decide whether to join forces with Kahn in the attack on Marcus’ Starship Vengeance knowing full well that Kahn is both a prisoner and a murderer, just as he must decide whether he’s willing to risk his own life to restore functionality to the Enterprise’s engine room in a last-ditch effort to prevent the ship from crashing into Earth, likely killing most or all on board. In all cases, Kirk makes a decision that Spock would not consider rational despite the eventual success of each action, slowly allowing Spock to better understand the human emotions involved in friendship and sacrifice, even to the point of allowing the human elements of his being to feel full rage as he pursues Kahn through the streets of San Francisco after the renegade has killed Admiral Marcus and purposely crashed the (appropriately-named) Vengeance into the city in an attempt to once again cause massive damage to Starfleet Headquarters.
What Spock explains to Uhura about his seeming disregard of her needs when he was willing to detonate the anti-volcanic device on Nibiru, despite the danger to his own life, is that he has consciously set his mind to detach itself from the fear and agony of impending death because he was so overwhelmed by such emotions when his home planet of Vulcan was destroyed in the previous movie (another aspect of that deviation from previous Trek continuity caused by the time-space warp is that it stranded the older version of Spock [Nimoy]—the one that we’ve become accustomed to from the previous TV series and the first round of the Star Trek movies—in this earlier era [for him] and presented both Spock and us with the oddity, that defies even a Vulcan’s superb reasoning, of two ages of the same person co-existing in one time period [whether this will somehow allow one last hurrah for William Shatner as the older Kirk to enter into these new stories is yet to be known]). Yet, as this movie reaches its finale, young Spock clearly allows himself to understand the supreme sacrifice that Kirk makes for the crew of the Enterprise by entering the ship’s reactor core unprotected so as to find a fast way of correcting the faulty mechanisms and restore power just before gravity would have pulled the vessel to a horrible end; Spock is fully grieved by the noble death of his colleague whom he now better understands as a friend also, leading to his fierce attack on Kahn, even though this enhanced opponent is too strong to succumb to even the Vulcan nerve pinch so it takes further physical support from Uhura to subdue the monster, allowing McCoy (Karl Urban) to get the needed blood sample for the rejuvenation of Kirk and for Kahn to be frozen again until such time as this emerging storyline needs his return. Just as McCoy provides a pivotal action at the movie’s climax, so do the other main members of the Enterprise crew find themselves with critical tasks as Abrams has to address what always is a concern for Star Trek directors: how do you balance so many main characters into a story structure that gives all of them something useful to do when you know that much of the action must involve Kirk and Spock (and, increasingly so this time, Uhura)? The clever solution was to allow some role shifting so that all of our primary folks got a chance to shine—Chekov (Anton Yelchin) by being temporary Chief Engineer when Scotty (Simon Pegg) refuses to share the Enterprise with the photon torpedoes, given their new, untested existence and the possible calamity they might cause in reaction with the nuclear power of the ship; Scotty by stowing away on the Vengeance, powering it down just as Marcus was set to destroy the Enterprise, then arranging for Kirk and Kahn to secretly enter that ship in order to take down Marcus the maniac; and Sulu (John Cho), who gets to be Enterprise Captain while Kirk and Kahn are on their clandestine mission, successfully surviving a tense face-off with Marcus when the two vessels come in contact, thereby demonstrating that his skills aren't limited just to navigation.
It’s this level of interpersonal care for all the characters that we’ve come to know in this long-running series (and the ongoing introduction of new ones, such as Marcus’ daughter Carol [Alice Eve], a Science Officer who rebels against Dad’s war-mongering obsessions and seems set to be a regular as the Enterprise continues its many voyages) balanced against the massive action scenes that just keep topping each other in terms of technical execution, choreography of movement, and surprise results (such as when the Vengeance is nearly destroyed because Spock accepts Kahn’s ultimatum to transport the 72 torpedoes into Marcus’ ship but tricks him by first removing Kahn’s frozen colleagues from the weaponry, then activating the torpedoes so that when they arrive they also explode) that makes Star Trek into Darkness so effective. What I always found to be intriguing about the few Star Trek TV episodes that I’ve seen (more from the old series than The Next Generation) is how a tense dramatic situation fraught with action could be integrated with questions of ethics, conscience, and respect for unknown neighbors on distant worlds—as far as possible, allowing for retaliation if the newly-encountered turned unreasonably hostile—so that the more-typical outer-space-sci-fi plots of repelling dangerous aliens are replaced by something much more thoughtful, even in a mass-market entertainment piece (which I know was Roddenberry’s intention all along). That’s why I liked the 1979 cinematic introduction of the Federation’s story, as it mixed a high level of tension and danger (Earth was on the verge of being destroyed, right off the bat) with a fascinating concept of machine intelligence and the desire of this evolved life form to better understand its existence (from what I understand, though, this concept didn’t prove too “wise” for a lot of die-hard Trekkies, so that when I met Robert Wise a couple of years after the debut of this cinematic “enterprise” [OK, enough with the puns] he wanted no mention of the movie at all, as if he’d never been involved with it; Nicholas Meyer was much more appreciated with his direction of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, which to me was very exciting and compelling in its intense battles between Kahn and Kirk, along with the added shock of Spock’s [temporary] death, but didn’t have much going in the way of deeper issues, except for the grief at the loss of Spock) and found this latest episode of the Trek experience to be equally satisfying. They both work for me in a nice balance of intimacy and extravagance, demonstrating that J.J. Abrams has fully understood the public’s appreciation for both the concepts of the Trek universe and the appeal of the characters who populate it.
I still hold out great hope that Man of Steel (Zack Snyder) will be an equally successful reboot of the Superman saga, but until I find out in a few weeks I’ll say Star Trek into Darkness may well be the worthiest big-budget, high-expectation experience of the summer. I chose not to see it in 3-D, but I hear it’s well produced for that technology and I can see from how many of the shots are designed that it’s probably quite impressive in that format. I highly recommend seeing it on the big screen. As always, though, until you get a chance to get out to the theatre I’d like to leave you with a musical allusion to this movie, which most appropriately should be about friends. Now, I could go with the theme song from the famous ‘90s TV show of that name, but I guess that Ross, Rachel, and company were just too “next generation” of a different sort for me (I always preferred the slightly older, slightly stranger folks on Seinfeld, but maybe that’s just my odd sense of humor in that this sketch from “The Pitch” [season 4, episode 3] at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zb5bCDayoAw is one of the funniest bits I’ve ever seen on TV, especially when NBC exec Russell Dalrymple says “Not yet!”), but I think that this simple minor 1968 hit from The Beach Boys, “Friends,” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mm6eC2jmGwY (from the album of the same name, with video here of just innocent frolicking of the band with a lot of children) is more appropriate because it’s from the time period of the original Star Trek series and it just nonchalantly speaks to what Kirk and Spock are negotiating throughout Star Trek into Darkness, the need to be there for each other when problems are brewing all around, that discussion and explanation aren’t necessary when appropriate action is all that’s required. Keeping that in mind as the deeper undercurrent of this frantic surface-action movie just gives it all the more resonance for me.
If you’d like to explore Star Trek into Darkness further here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-_VTnGBXd0 (my favorite suck-up interviewer Jake Hamilton [yes, he has an Emmy—for something—and I know I never will, but if his style is what it takes to win an Emmy then I’ll gladly go without] chats for 16 min. in short bursts of dialogue with actors Chris Pine, Zachery Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, and Alice Eve, director J.J. Abrams)
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P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.