The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Star Trek Into Darkness

Written by Joseph Oldham.

Photo from the article Some of the most important questions to accompany the reboot of any stalled franchise are surely: What is essential? What qualities made the series important at one point, are they still important now, and how do they survive underneath the innovations that have made the new incarnation fresh? Fundamentally, in this case, what is the point of Star Trek in 2013? Whilst it could be argued that this discussion is better suited to the first J.J. Abrams Star Trek film (2009), I think it is well worth approaching here as Star Trek Into Darkness, far from going boldly where no Trek film has gone before, is a film that substantially engages with the past in both its overt use of the franchise’s old mythology and a resurrection of a late 1960s utopianism. Indeed, the latter, as I argued in the review, can be read as highly political in the contemporary context.

Whilst often described as drawing upon historical adventure fiction such as Wagon Train or Master and Commander, the gaze of the original Star Trek television series (1966-9) is emphatically towards a utopian future. In its original 1960s context, it seems undeniably a product of the technological thrills, excitement and promise of the space race. Yet in the 21st century, the desire of Abrams and his team to "do Star Trek like Star Wars" seems to carry a veiled condemnation of the original Trek in its implication that, on some basic level, Star Wars (1977) does it better. This is, after all, not a desire to bring Star Trek in line with some product of modern Hollywood but with another old franchise that is only a decade younger. Star Wars appears, in the eyes of the new Trek production team, to have ultimately aged better. There is an instructive contrast here as, emerging a decade later, following the moon landings and, in effect, the bursting of the "space race" bubble, Star Wars casts such grand narratives of space travel as mythological and hence, to a degree, historical, something made particularly explicit with its claim to take place "a long time ago." The importance of Star Wars as a cinematic reference point can, of course, be seen in the fact that it remains a foundation stone of the modern blockbuster, but in a generic category of "space adventure," the backward glance of its mythological approach does much to make it "timeless" and hence insulate it from changing contexts such as the decline of the space race.

Certainly the Abrams films could not be mistaken for a faithful transplanting of the original television series’ approach. The sequence of Into Darkness that most resembles the average "planet of the week" episode of old is the opening sequence on the planet Nibiru, a deliriously psychedelic landscape worthy of 1960s television production design. Yet rather than the generally more drawn-out, philosophical and concept-based scenarios of old, this adventure is more in an Indiana Jones mould of breakneck action set-pieces, with Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy (Karl Urban) chased by spear-wielding natives. There is the beginning of a critique of this approach here, with Admiral Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) later taking Kirk to task for his interference in the indigenous culture and, whilst ultimately side-lined by other events, this feels like a vague admission from the filmmakers on the difficulties of doing a "traditional" Star Trek plot as anything other than a brisk, mood-setting pre-credits sequence. Similarly, the famous five-year mission into "uncharted territory" that provided the scenario for the television series is only begun right at the conclusion of Into Darkness. It’s an exciting moment, yet when you recall that the 2009 film ended in much the same way there is the nagging sense that the traditional exploration narrative may be endlessly staved off for another day.

So, if the convergence of its popularity with the excitement of the real space race was a comparatively brief window, what other ways of engaging with Star Trek are available? What can be considered as its basic sources of appeal over the subsequent decades? Trying to self-consciously adopt something of a layperson's perspective, three potential answers occur, which I shall discuss over the course of this Alternate Take. One is to believe that the fictional Trek universe is, in and of itself, inherently interesting, which it seems to me was the approach taken by the various television spin-offs of the 1990s and 2000s in their journey into increasingly niche cultdom. Whilst preparing to write this piece, I deliberately avoided becoming too immersed in the world of Star Trek, partly because I thought it crucial to test the supposed objective of these films to appeal to the relatively uninitiated, but also partly because it would likely take me much of a decade to get to grips with it all. Nonetheless, I decided to have a browse of some of the scholarly writing on the franchise, and unfortunately it did much to reinforce my wariness towards this era of Trek; reams and reams of eye-wateringly dull material about canon, continuity and the tedious politics of people with knobbly foreheads, in which every creative direction is explained in terms of how it builds upon what other Star Treks did with no relation anything else going on in broader culture or the outside world, and nothing coming close to answering my basic question of "why should I care?"

It is, of course, no secret that Abrams’ jettisoning of the old universe was a strategy to free Trek from this aspect of itself. In the decision to bring back the original, iconic crew, I believe these films constitute a revival of a second main mode of engagement with Trek beyond its original context, specifically a fondness for its central characters. The strongest precedent for this is clearly the run of six films starring the original cast, produced many years after the demise of the television series, running from Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) to Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1992). To put my cards on the table, if there is anything that is "my" Trek, then this, far more than any television incarnation, is it through various holiday broadcasts on British television in the early 1990s. (Indeed, judging by the number of people in my first screening of Into Darkness who let out a collective gasp at the line "My name is Khan," it seems I am far from alone.) Starring the increasingly ageing cast of the original series with relationships that seem to grow more informal and chummy with each film, the film series broadly operates on the assumption of an entrenched love of these particular people far above any broader mythology, and indeed does much to deepen the characters beyond the vaguer archetypes of television show. I would argue that the Abrams films, despite featuring the characters at the other end of their career path, seek to recreate the same engagement. An odd effect of the alternate universe scenario is that long-term viewers, in a sense, know more about the characters than they do themselves.

It was only after writing my initial review of Into Darkness that I indulged in a marathon revisit of these films and found myself surprised by quite how much the new entry borrows from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), held by seemingly just about everybody (myself included) to be the greatest of the old Trek films. If I’m honest, it has somewhat diminished by appreciation of Into Darkness, as much of what seemed fresh and compelling drama on first viewing is now visible as pastiche and reference, and therefore somewhat "emptier." Of course, we are on slightly tricky ground here, as the slippery nature of the Abrams films between reboot and sequel reaches a particular point of tension. This is, after all, not a case of the filmmakers pilfering ideas and hoping nobody will notice; these references are foregrounded and designed to be recognised and appreciated. Is Into Darkness thus a partial remake of The Wrath of Khan, and recycled elements is part of the point? Has Star Trek been rebooted to become like, for example, the Batman films, with a gallery of rogues such as Khan who receive screen reinventions every generation or so, played different actors and with slight tweaks and adjustments in characterisation?

On the larger scale of things, mining what is probably the most popular and famous individual Star Trek story ever is still a far cannier move than getting bogged down in the obscure convolutions of the latter-day television spin-offs. And yet after the 2009 film made such a radical and decisive shift from the past with its divergent universe, there is perhaps something a little disappointing about tempering the mission to go boldly forwards with so many "classic" references and nods, seemingly pitched towards a rather specific generation of old viewers. Some of the repurposed material certainly loses some of its texture in translation. There is an argument to be made that any reimagining of The Wrath of Khan should only be attempted with mature versions of the characters. For all that may mock the old Trek films for their ageing cast, The Wrath of Khan engages with this aspect beautifully in a narrative about Kirk (William Shatner) facing his old age and seeking renewal. The replaying of several famous emotional beats from the earlier film in Into Darkness works to a reasonable degree both dramatically and as fun references for the initiated, yet it is ultimately hard to wring the same pathos from younger versions of the characters barely out of the academy, lacking such a long personal history as colleagues and friends. More broadly, admirers of the original films or television series might complain that this film remixes their components into something that is too fast and frenetic for the emotional depth to have much impact, a viewpoint with which I would not entirely agree but would nonetheless be sympathetic.

It is fortunate, therefore, that Into Darkness has a great deal more to offer than its recycled components, which are simply elements of a much larger blend. For although it may be more frenetic and less contemplative and philosophical than its forebears, Into Darkness is certainly not a film with nothing to say, and here I shall expand the central point from my original review, concerning the film as a riposte to the "darkness" of its title. This connects to what is perhaps another aspect of Trek that is commonly held to be a significant source of appeal, specifically its utopian vision. And if I’m honest, this is why I’ve often struggled to get into Trek and found it, at times, a bit dull. Because if you establish a wonderful world of tolerance and understanding before the first episode even opens, then… fantastic, but where do we go next? Having generally been more drawn towards dystopian space travel series such as Blake’s 7 (1978-81) and Firefly (2002), I would say that I generally find narratives of characters struggling against odds to achieve their utopias more rich and interesting. Indeed, I am tempted to suggest that this might be another factor in Abrams’ preference for Star Wars. By contrast, a message of "hey, don’t worry, just relax and think of the future" seems just a little insipid by comparison, and just a bit too complacent in its assumption that utopia will just organically pop into existence at some established "end of history" moment, seemingly without anybody having to do much about it.

What I would argue to be the richest feature of Into Darkness, however, is its deployment of the Star Trek utopianism in a more dynamic fashion, juxtaposing it with more negative and destructive worldviews, to critical effect. There is a fairly overt allegory for the War on Terror going on here, the narrative freely utilising common conventions of specifically post-9/11 conspiracy fiction. With Khan’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) terror attacks on Starfleet establishments in London and San Francisco, a fictitious substitute 9/11 is set-up as the beginning of the narrative which then proceeds to mount a critique of official responses. The Enterprise’s covert mission to assassinate Khan on the Klingon home planet (to "run this bastard down" in the cowboy politician language of Peter Weller's Fleet Admiral Alexander Marcus) is pitched explicitly as a black ops mission, with the crew initially assigned the mission to eliminate Khan remotely with missiles. Even as Kirk disobeys orders and elects to pursue a more honourable course of attempting to capture Khan, this leads to the unsettling moment in which in which the famous red-shirts switch to black, to render their covert mission deniable and to avoid diplomatic fall-out. The parallels are clear, this act of the film playing out almost like an intergalactic version of Zero Dark Thirty (2012). As I argued in my review, much of the film’s first half (and indeed its publicity) appears to endorse a position adhered to by much of Western political culture in the 21st century; that darkness can only be met with darkness. We see it in so many other "dark," "gritty" reboots of old franchises, which position themselves in opposition to "lighter" earlier incarnations in order to perpetuate the notion that we have undergone a cultural "loss of innocence" that demands a permanent state of anxiety and paranoia.

Yet what is delightful about Into Darkness is its subversion of this worldview. Revealed as a villain, Marcus strikes something of a George W. Bush-like figure, cloaking his gruff, reactionary politics in a deceitful "earth-like" quality. Prone to lines such as, "if I’m not in charge, our entire way of life is decimated," he embodies a defensive mind-set and Manichean worldview, presuming the inevitability war against the Klingons so much that he is willing to instigate it. But this is pitched as essentially opposed to the open-minded exploratory spirit of the central characters and the series’ overall premise. The conflict between the warmonger Marcus and the genocidal maniac Khan is in many ways exactly the kind of "dark" conflict between brooding, masculine avengers which many modern reboot films, such as the Dark Knight trilogy (2005-2012) or Skyfall (2012), invest in far more directly. But what feels fresh and subversive here is that the Enterprise crew stand apart from this conflict and, upon learning the truth, refuse to be drawn into its cynicism. In this regard, The Wrath of Khan again serves as a savvy choice of text to draw upon. There the impulse of vengeance was presented entirely as a product of Khan’s (Ricardo Montalbán) malevolent insanity, with the community spirit of Kirk and his crew a crucial part of their refusal to descend to his level. Here the same is true, the Enterprise crew differentiated from Marcus and Khan in their sense of camaraderie and family.

In Into Darkness, therefore, Star Trek’s spirit of utopianism becomes more than a pleasant daydream, and is held as a clear and more appealing alternative to Marcus’ drive towards warfare and destructive attitude of suspicion. This is even enhanced by the film’s aesthetics. The bleak London in which Khan instigates the first terror attack takes place is filmed with exactly the kind of cold, saturated colours common to the War on Terror thriller subgenre it draws upon, and is suggestive of the same kind of intense seriousness. Later, there is a striking visual contrast between Marcus’ dark ship and the bright, colourful qualities of the Enterprise. The latter is, of course, a continuation of the design and photographic styles of the 2009 film, with the vibrant colours of the 1960s original given a stylish new gloss and smooth, dynamic moving camerawork used to gorgeous effect. On this occasion, the element of pastiche also enhances the film thematically for, as the film sets the colours of the 1960s against the visual darkness, so the narrative resurrects an old-fashioned utopianism and sets it against the destructive paranoia and pessimism of a cultural darkness.

This utopian vision is not perfect in execution, however. It is a little disappointing that despite offering a broadly progressive vision and rejecting a vengeance narrative so often encoded as masculine, it offers so little for its female characters, even as it adds a young Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) to the cast and hence finds a way around the straightjacket of the original series’ line-up. Yet perhaps the most misjudged element of the film is its final act, in which Khan crashes his ship into Starfleet Headquarters, San Francisco. To my mind, the imagery of a flying vehicle obliterating buildings within an urban setting and fleeing, screaming masses of people strays far too close to 9/11 imagery for comfort, and meshes poorly with the generally more colourful and fantastic tone and imagery present for much of the rest of the film. Here the film unfortunately overplays its hand: the positioning of such a loaded sequence after two hours of critiquing Western responses to terror simply results in spectacle that is too vast to be contained or have its consequences adequately addressed by the narrative. In the ceremony that concludes the film, Kirk reiterates the film’s message of the need to rise above the urge vengeance, yet this comes across as just a little too cold and abrupt coming immediately after such extreme destruction. The transition from this speech to the Enterprise setting off on its five-year mission is unfortunately too jarring, the point at which the film pushes past the tasteful limits of juxtaposing the vibrant, pastiched world of space exploration with "realistic" scenes of urban destruction. After the majority of the film had held these components with such effective tension, this seems an unfortunate lapse.

Overall, Into Darkness is a tremendously thrilling and exciting science fiction adventure film, one that draws sparingly yet effectively upon the mythology and utopian spirit of the Star Trek series to provide a striking and timely allegory of contemporary culture. In doing so it succeeds, even more than the 2009 film, in drawing Trek out of its bubble and making it relevant and interesting once again. At the same time, however, it is difficult to see where the Abrams Trek series could go next, the success of Into Darkness deriving largely from potentially unrepeatable factors. The film provides a relatively unique balancing act, providing a commentary on the contemporary world that would be harder to repeat in a film set on the five-year mission, whilst mining arguably the most popular Trek story for narrative and thematic influence, thereby playing the greatest ace up any Star Trek filmmaker’s sleeve. Thus, I think, it remains to be seen if a long-term renaissance of Star Trek has truly arrived or indeed if it is even still particularly feasible.

This Alternate Take was published on July 08, 2013.

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