Into Darkness (a review)

Hey, everybody.  Just got back from seeing the new Star Trek film, and my mind swirls with thoughts about it.  I find myself conflicted because I didn’t enjoy the film, but I wonder if it’s a wise thing to share my opinion on it.  I try to maintain a policy of not stepping on anyone’s toes because I don’t want anyone to think I’m denying them the right to enjoy the film.  It’s all opinion in the end, and I am not out to dismiss anyone else’s opinions on this or any other film.

More importantly, I never want to create a situation where my current or potential audience perceives a conflict between me and their favorite films and books.  It is simply not the case, and regardless of whether you love something I hate or vice versa, I am always glad to have anyone and everyone as a reader.

But, as I’ve talked about lately, I’ve been working on the A. Lee Martinez brand.  I’ve spent years limiting what I said and thinking carefully about everything I’ve posted on the internet, and while it has successfully kept me from making any enemies (at least as far as I’m aware) it has also prevented me from establishing my own identity, of becoming, for better or worse, a personality.  After much soul searching, I think it’s held me back.  As a writer in this modern era, I don’t have the luxury of hiding away.  By electing to avoid controversy, I’ve prevented my brand from growing.

Yes, I know I keep talking about this branding thing, and I dislike it as much as you do.  But it is just a cold, hard truth that in this media saturated world, brand is all-important.  Star Trek: Into Darkness is a prime example.  It exists because the Star Trek brand is too potent to be denied, and while I could probably argue, successfully, that the film wouldn’t succeed without the Trek brand attached, it is a moot point because the brand is the point.

Sounds kind of cynical when stated like that, doesn’t it?

It’s not meant to be.  It’s just the way it works, and in the end, Into Darkness isn’t a terrible film.  It’s just not a very good one.  While I didn’t like it, I didn’t dislike it as strongly as I did both Tron: Legacy or Skyfall.  So this review isn’t meant to suggest that this is a horrible film.

By the way, it should go without saying that you’re free to disagree.  This is only opinion here.  I do not think you’re dumb if you disagree.  I do not think you are stupid.  I don’t mind one bit if you loved the film.  I say this over and over again because it’s far too easy on the internet for passions to flare.  I mean this review not as a critique of those who loved it, nor of the people who made it, nor of anything else beyond my experience with this particular film.  Saying all that, I’m sure someone out there will be offended by my dislike of the film, and to them, I can only ask the following favor:

DON’T READ ANY FURTHER.

PLEASE.  JUST DON’T.

If you loved the film, then the following review will either annoy or anger you OR possibly change your mind about it.  I don’t want to do any of those things.  You can walk away now, and I will certainly not be offended by your rejection of my opinion.  Glad you enjoyed the film.  Agree to disagree.

There.  Are they gone?

Probably not.  So if you’re reading onward to quibble with my review, feel free to post a comment.  As long as it’s not filled with name-calling and insults, I’ll be happy to approve it.  I’m always up for a good discussion.

Also, it should go without saying but:

SPOILERS AHEAD!!

SPOILERS AHEAD!!

SPOILERS AHEAD!!

I wish I could find a way to make that flash and beep, but you’ve been warned.

 

Star Trek: Into Darkness isn’t a bad film.  It’s just not very good.

To start with, the Into Darkness part of the title makes not a lick of sense.  It’s just a cool sounding subtitle to throw onto it.  It’s a quibble, but it shows the problem at the heart of the film.  It’s more determined to look cool than to actually have much substance behind it.  And it works marvelously in that regard.

The actors are all fine.  The set design, the score, the dialogue, the action adventure pieces are all well-executed.  There is nothing wrong with the direction and the special effects are all top notch.  The adventure is bold and well-shot.  The humor is humorous.  Taken on all these levels, the movie works as a marvelous thrill ride / comfort food.

It’s only when we try to take it as more than that when we run into trouble.

This is why I can’t call Into Darkness a bad movie.  It is exactly what it aims to be, and I have a hard time being critical of that.  It’s nostalgia, repackaged, redesigned for a world where this is a practical business model.  People don’t generally want new.  They want the familiar in the guise of new, and this is what the Trek reboot has done so beautifully.

But, putting aside nostalgia and a fondness for Trek, the film has a lot of problems.

The story starts with Kirk and the Enterprise crew saving a primitive world from a deadly volcanic explosion.  In doing so, they accidentally reveal themselves to the inhabitants, thus violating the prime directive.  This is supposed to be a very bad thing to do though no good reason is given for it.  There’s no indication that Kirk did any damage to the world and, considering the alternative, he acted laudably.

The entire plot point hinges on two unexplained elements.  In the first place, Kirk is being chased by aliens because he ran off with their sacred scroll.  Why he would do this is never explained.  It’s just something he did.  The second is that the Enterprise is located underwater instead of in outer space.  There’s no clear reason for this either, other than to have an excuse for the aliens to see it rising from the ocean.

This pretty much sums up my primary complaint about Into Darkness.  Things happen just because they provide drama.  Not impossible things.  Not unbelievable things.  Perfectly plausible things that could be given perfectly plausible explanations.  But no explanations are given because the film doesn’t deem it worth the time to explain them.  Just being cool and dramatic is enough.

How you feel about this will probably determine your attitude toward the film.  And, indeed, I’m not a fan of needlessly complicated explanations when simple ones will do, but their complete absence here becomes infuriating after a while.

Why does young Spock call old Spock?  And if he can contact old Spock, can’t he simply inform Starfleet of the villain’s master plan, thus foiling it with a simple phone call?

Are there no other starships in orbit around Earth during the finale?  Or is Earth just unaware of a starship battle just outside its atmosphere?

If it’s possible for a starship to fire a torpedo from the neutral zone to strike an unsuspecting planet deep in enemy space, then what’s to prevent Starfleet’s enemies from doing the same?

If a person can transport himself across intergalactic distances with a device only a little larger than a boombox, why bother with starships at all?

And if it’s possible to synthesize a resurrection serum from Khan’s blood, why not just make tons of the stuff to carry around with you on missions?

Individually, I could overlook any of these questions.  Perhaps two or three.  But all together, they add up to elements that were hastily added as plot points without considering the ramifications beyond that.  This is the danger of writing science fiction.  Transporters were already a get out of jail free card that the writers often had to make malfunction to keep dramatic tension.  The reboot increased the power of transporters a thousandfold and then added immortality serum just for good measure.

Putting aside all these questions, the film really falls apart when it forgets its own rules.  Namely, this is a reboot.  Kirk and crew have only known each other a few years at this point.  Perhaps only one or two.  While they should have ties, those ties shouldn’t be the same as they have years later.  While there’s every reason to believe Spock would be upset with Kirk’s (extremely temporary) death, there’s no reason to think he would be utterly heartbroken by it.  Certainly not enough for him to break his cool Vulcan demeanor.

And, of course, he shouts “KHAAAAAAAAN!” because . . . well, Kirk did it in the previous Khan movie, so somebody had to.  It comes across as absurd and silly, but that’s only if you care about Spock’s character or the logic of the moment.  If you want to live in nostalgia, it’s just another bit of expected melodrama.

For me, the film falls apart as soon as old Spock appears.  He serves no purpose other than to tell young Spock (and we the audience) that Khan is dangerous.  It is, without a doubt, the clumsiest bit of writing you will probably see all year in any blockbuster.  To its credit, the film already established how dangerous Khan is, so there seems to be little point in old Spock coming back just to tell us.  Except it wouldn’t be an exercise in nostalgia if they didn’t throw us a bone in the shape of Leonard Nimoy, I suppose.  It can only be for that purpose because old Spock doesn’t contribute to the film in any way beyond it.

This is also why Kirk must die in the exact way that Spock died in the original Wrath of Khan.  True, Spock’s death was a defining moment for the film series.  True also, he did return from the dead.  The difference here is that at least Spock was still dead by the end of Wrath.  Here, death is little more than a slap on the wrist, barely lasting fifteen minutes.

Also, Spock’s resurrection was only possible via a one-in-a-million chance.  Kirk is resurrected via a magic blood transfusion.  Even the film itself doesn’t treat it as a big deal.  It’s as if even the Trek characters know he can’t stay dead long and only grieved for a few moments before remembering he was a protagonist.

But my final complaint is with Kirk himself.  The film opens with the notion that Kirk is arrogant and needs to learn humility.  Yet Kirk’s arrogance is backed up by everything he does.  He is an infallible character.  He breaks the (pointless) rules and even while he’s being lectured, you keep thinking he was right to do what he did and that Starfleet is wrong for berating him.

When the bad guy attacks the meeting of Starfleet officers, Kirk is the only one smart enough to suspect an ambush.

When he’s sent to go kill Khan and trigger a war with the Klingons, it’s Kirk who disobeys orders, makes the moral choice (with some prodding from Spock), and who prevents the bad guy from winning the day.  Kirk continually makes brash decisions, and they are ALWAYS the right decision to make.  It’s true that the Enterprise is almost destroyed by the bad guy, but this isn’t his fault.  He’s hopelessly outgunned, overmatched.  Even then, he didn’t make a foolish decision to stand and fight, but to wisely retreat.

In a way, Kirk’s forced character arc is the exact opposite of James Bond’s from Skyfall.  In Skyfall, Bond proves to be an incompetent buffoon who accomplishes nothing but who somehow gets to stay a spy.  Meanwhile, Kirk is supposed to learn the virtues of humility even though by the end of the film he has every right to believe himself nearly infallible.  He’s thoughtful, bold, willing to take chances, willing to stand up for what’s right, and always worthy of the captain’s chair.

So what exactly was that speech about humility for other than to pretend there was a character arc at work?  Like nearly all the elements of the film, it isn’t intended to pay off in any way.  It’s just another cool moment to throw in, to be forgotten as soon as it is no longer needed.

Into Darkness is an amusing diversion, a pleasant little experience.  It’s put together like a fine Swiss watch, designed to do exactly its job and not much more.  For all its ups and downs, Star Trek used to have ambition.  Now it looks like it’s finally abandoned that in favor of crowd-pleasing familiarity and a few thrills.  It’s not the end of the world.

But it is disappointing.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

Lee

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4 Comments

  1. Posted May 19, 2013 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

    You might be better off not saying what you’re thinking all the time. I say what I think and it’s probably kept me from making more fans.

    Anyway, I didn’t like the first Star Trek. It was maybe a nice popcorn movie, but there were too many things that were dumb. How can you build a huge starship on the ground–in Iowa no less! (Just like in this second movie, how can a STARship go underwater?) Why would you promote a kid from a reprimanded cadet to captain of your fleet’s flagship? (And then you wonder why he’s arrogant and breaking rules!) I think it’s like you say; these things happen because the writers and director think they’d be cool and don’t stop to consider the illogic of it. They need to think a little more like Vulcans I guess. But I suppose most people like it because they just want things to blow up and not really think any deeper than that.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted May 20, 2013 at 2:44 am | Permalink

      Thanks for the comment.

      I think it’s true that most people don’t care about these details, but I think it’s a simplification to say they just want explosions. People want emotion, drama, and feeling. This film is full of emotional scenes, and I’m loathe to say they are invalid. After all, if a scene triggers an emotional resonance with the audience, that’s really all that matters.

      The more I write, the more I think about writing, the more I think plotting itself is almost irrelevant. I’ve always thought this to some degree. Writers worry a hell of a lot about stuff readers just never think about. And I don’t know if the audience cares if a scene makes sense in a broader context as long as it works in the context of an individual scene.

      It goes back to a previous post I made about “Outsider Artists”. For all the time and effort an artist might spend trying to impress fellow artists, the audience is what matters. And the audience doesn’t really seem to give a damn about a lot of things that might bother me, as an artist.

      They aren’t wrong for not caring either. They can’t be wrong. The audience determines the validity of any art, though it isn’t unusual for consensus to change over time, one way or the other.

      Regardless, I’m pretty solidly convinced that a plot that makes coherent sense is far less important than a story where emotional buttons are pushed. And it’s something I think worth acknowledging without judgment.

  2. Posted May 21, 2013 at 3:21 am | Permalink

    On the subject of controversial opinions, I think it’s possible, as they say, to disagree without being disagreeable. I have no objection to people having passionate opinions so long as they neither take their opinions as self-evident fact nor treat those who disagree with them as the epitome of stupidity and/or evil. There’s too much of a notion that we never have to come to an understanding with each other or compromise going around these days and most conflicts, regardless of tone, are reduced to good vs. evil. Your post about Star Trek, while passionate, doesn’t do any of that. It actually addresses rational points and remembers despite that that it’s an opinion piece. Stick to that and you shouldn’t have much to worry about.

  3. Posted May 21, 2013 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    I agree with this 100%.

    As far as ‘branding’…do you want to be famous, or do you want to contribute something to this world that is honest, has integrity and truly moves and inspires, even if it means you don’t have all the exposure, tons fans or McMansions? Personally, I write to write and in hopes that-if I’m lucky-I’ll inspire someone else to do their best to make their little corner of the world a bit better. If I do that with one person, I’ve already won…at least in my opinion.

    “Do what you want and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”

    I’ve found your writing to be thoughtful, enjoyable and yes, a bit inspiring. I might actually do some writing of my own after lunch. Just be you. Don’t stress so much about whether or not you’ll make enemies or any of that. Personally, I’ve always felt that if you didn’t have at least a few people hating on you, you weren’t trying hard enough.

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