Star Trek II: The Darkening…
So after months of production shots, secrets, teases, and (eventually) trailers, the latest installment of the beloved Star Trek franchise from J.J. Abrams darkened theaters around the world…with the exception of those pesky lens flares, of course. And my reaction? Well – it took me some time, research, and soul-searching to finally conclude that it was pretty good, not just as a film overall, but as a Star Trek film as well. However, this does not mean I loved everything about it, or that I’m going to overlook certain Very Weak plot devices that Abrams should really be past at this point in his career. It also does not mean I’m going to give into the bit of Nerd Rage that came over me and let it ruin the whole movie for me.
Let’s begin, shall we?
The movie looks AMAZING.
Hey, look at the unnecessary, distracting reflective light! LOOK AT IT
Not only are the effects crisp and clear, but many of the shots are set up in innovative and even beautiful ways. You’ll find very few talking heads here, and it’s a relief. At one point, we go to the Klingon homeworld of Kronos, and everything from the twisted metal of downed buildings, to the ash in the air, works to not only set the mood for what is going on, but also do so in such a detailed manner that you could tell what the weather would be like in a week. Many of the settings are more than just pretty window dressing; they’re living, breathing representations of the story itself, rather than just a setting for it to take place. This is truly one of Abrams’s strengths, and I always look forward to seeing what he’s going to do with not only where a scene takes place, but how the scene is shot.
The one example of reflected light that makes sense in this movie. And looks like Tron.
Of course, there’s still one big problem…Everyone together now…LENS FLARES. Yes, as expected, they make their triumphant return. After counting two dozen in the first ten minutes, I admitted defeat and turned off the running tickertape in the back of my mind. I realize this is kinda Abrams’s thing, but much like “bullet time” shots need to be taken away from Paul W.S. Anderson, Abrams needs to be given a strict quota of no more than (say) a dozen lens flares in a two-and-a-half-hour film. I’d call for a ban on his use of them altogether, but I’m worried that going cold turkey might destroy him. So we’ll bring him down nice and slow.
Running! Guns! Explosions! Action! This IS Star Trek, right?
On to the story…
Overall (key word), there’s a lot here to like. One of Star Trek’s strengths has always been its ability to give people a way to deal with real-world issues in a safe, if at times heavy-handed, manner while going through one hell of an action-packed ride, and this movie is no exception. At the character level, we have Kirk needing – and eventually getting – a dose of much-needed humility. He’s still that rash, young buck from the last film determined to do things his way (because – rules be damned – he knows what’s best, and nothing bad could come from that).
“Your cold, emotionless dickishness makes me SO HOT.”
At the same time we have Spock, who is utterly determined to let the Vulcan in him win, never letting out those pesky human emotions he inherited from his mother. (It’s not like he needs to understand them to make lasting meaningful relationships with people, and it’s certainly not straining things with Uhura at all…)
So Kirk goes on his vengeance-fueled quest to bring bad guy John Harrison’s head back to Starfleet on a silver platter. Thanks to a minor (not to mention convenient) hiccup in the plot, Kirk goes from being busted down from a starship captain to an academy cadet to first officer back to captain again in the span of about ten minutes, just in time for him to go on said quest.
“Me too, baby. Me, too.”
Spock, meanwhile, spends most the movie trying to understand human emotions without experiencing them, much to the frustration of Uhura and Kirk, leading to a rather uncomfortable yet funny shuttle ride. Fortunately, he lets his own emotions run loose just in time for a climactic chase scene.
That’s “BRO-mance.” Just because Zachary Quinto is gay doesn’t mean the tension between the characters is gay.
I’ve condensed it down, but these two characters really seem to learn and grow into the Kirk & Spock we know and love, or just shy of them anyways: there’s still room for growth. Thanks to all the shit that is thrown their direction, it genuinely feels as though they’ve earned that wisdom by the end. This also serves to cement their own relationship as one of the greatest bromances in sci-fi, as it’s very apparent they recognize their need for one another when it’s all said and done.
The problem is that they’re the only characters who get to do so. Everyone else is relegated to secondary roles in this film, and it’s sad.
Bones is crying because he has so little to do in this flick.
Doc McCoy, who’s usually the common sense to Kirk’s gut and Spock’s logic to form the all-important trifecta, is left pretty high and dry in this film (though he does get to experiment on a dead Tribble, and who wouldn’t want to do that?). He, like much of the cast (Checkov, Sulu, even Uhura), does little more than show up at just the right time and place to move some important aspect of the plot along, though (usually) not participate in it. It’s frustrating, to say the least, especially when the last film was fairly balanced when it came to giving each character their due.
“My God, it’s eating my legs! How am I supposed to do a pub crawl now?!”
But, hark… “What about Scotty,” you ask…?
Well, that leads to the bigger issues being looked at in this movie. After Harrison orchestrates the destruction of a building in the middle of London for a terrorist attack (thanks, Mickey!), he then kills much of Starfleet’s senior staff because nobody thought to think that maybe getting that many brass together in one spot could be a bad idea. Kirk’s given the go-ahead to execute former Starfleet officer Harrison, who they now know is hiding out in a supposedly deserted area of Kronos using cool, new super-proton torpedoes.
He’s a bad guy, you say? Well, then OF COURSE he deserves to be killed without a trial…
If you’re not seeing the issue, don’t worry: Spock brings it up for you by asking Kirk how it’s legal for them to kill someone without due process from afar. See it now? If not, we also have Scotty show up just long enough to resign, when he refuses to allow the fancy new torpedoes on the ship because he’s not being told anything about how they work or what exactly they are. Before making his exit, he begs Kirk not to use the weapon and takes his leave to the nearest bar, like any good Scotsman should.
An eye for an eye! Right, gun? You’re my only friend, gun. >MWAH.<
Still not getting it? Well, Uhura and Spock convince Kirk to bring Harrison in to stand trial, and so the three of them and a couple of Red Shirts go on a field trip to Kronos, where they find that the supposedly deserted region they were about to unleash unmanned drone strikes on – I mean, new fancy proton torpedoes on, actually has Klingons on it… Huh, funny how those would-be unintended casualties pop up where they’re not supposed to be…
We’re just taking him to the gas chamber… right? Right?
In case you’re still not getting it, we’re now looking at not only the legality, but also the morality, of using Flying Killer Robots to snipe people from afar, without due process, while accepting that innocent people may likely be killed in the process! It just wouldn’t be a Star Trek film without at least one heavy-handed message about some important issue we’re facing today! Fortunately, this allows Simon Pegg to cut loose as Scotty in a bar before he goes on to save the day later on in the film. See, sometimes it pays to not give in to those knee-jerk, blood-lusty reactions!
As for the rest of the film…Well….
John Harrison is… Wait for it… Khan!!!! Yes, that thing that we all hoped wouldn’t happen…well…it happened. My initial reaction to seeing this on screen was to bite my tongue so as to not scream,”Come the fuck on!” at the screen. (I was moderately successful.) To bring such an iconic character out so soon, I don’t know what the fuck Abrams was thinking.
“Yep, blood test confirms it: he’s EVIL.”
But after going home and immediately watching Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, I’ve come to the conclusion that I actually prefer Benedict Cumberbatch to Movie Khan. Hold on a second… Stay those pitchforks and torches… I said Movie Khan. It seems that while I fondly remembered Star Trek II as awesome, the problem I found upon watching it again was that as far as the movie goes, Khan goes from being a great, semi-complex character in the TV show to a one-note, evil genius bent on Kirk’s destruction. He’s reduced to a plot device to service the overall themes of that movie, which are facing death, growing older, regret, and the cost of past mistakes. He’s certainly bad-ass, but they lessen the character to make it fit the narrative needed for the story.
He may be evil, but he makes it look GOOD.
At least with this most recent version, Cumberbatch plays a very complex, slippery villain, and his screen presence dominates. You know there’s more to him, you just don’t know what – but you know it’s not good, because God Damn if his lilting voice doesn’t make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
“I can’t wait to fall in love with Kirk… and then die tragically.”
However…while I do love his Khan, this doesn’t detract from my disappointment of the character being used in the new film. Moreover, it actually makes me a feel a bit let down, because this is supposed to be a new timeline where things can (and theoretically should) happen differently.
While it’s true that Khan’s origin doesn’t change (300 yr. old genetically engineered superhuman popsicle who once ruled as a warlord over part of the Earth), we’ve seen him be “dastardly evil” before. Hell, we’ve seen him be “full-blown crazy evil genius evil” before. I’d expected something more original. We see in the film how much Khan cares for his crew, his “family.” I actually thought this scene was meant to be his sincere feelings, and truly, what wouldn’t you do to protect your family? But whereas he decided to go all Evil Villain-y on Kirk once Admiral Marcus was dead, it would have been much more interesting if he had just gone all evil and vengeance-y on Marcus and then said to Kirk, “Hey, I just did you a solid.”
“I swear, it’s absolutely necessary for me to slowly change clothes right now.”
There would still need to be some sort of fight to bring him in and whatnot, but it would be better than the “I’m evil because I must be evil!” that we got. Hell, you could even throw Marcus’s daughter in as a reason why he doesn’t completely write off humanity – it worked for the TV show. Instead of having her just sneaking aboard the Enterprise to find out about the one weapon her Daddy wouldn’t let her see, it could be instead that she snuck aboard to find and help Khan because she knew him and worked with him to develop said weapons and was aware her Dad’s been blackmailing him with the lives of his crew. If nothing else, it would have given the character something to do besides look hot in her underwear for a couple of frames. Just really, anything but the old “I must be evil for evil’s sake!” would have been a refreshing take and would have further distinguished this as Not Your Father’s Star Trek.
“TWO Spocks? Why am I always the last to know?”
Now for what I hate…two words…Old Spock. This was just shameless. We didn’t need Leonard Nimoy to show up and remind us once again that this is a different timeline. And when exactly did it become common knowledge that Spock had an older version of himself from an alternate timeline living on New Vulcan? Spock is on the fucking bridge of the ship and brings up his older self on the screen for everyone to see to say, “’Sup! I know there’s no logical reason to think you would, but just in case, do you know a dude named Khan?” Seriously? Even if you’re going to have him make that call, shouldn’t he do it in another room or on some futuristic iPad from the Apple Store bridge? And how exactly do you explain that to Uhura? “Sorry, hon, did I forget to mention there’s two of me?” But it’s all good, because despite Old Spock reiterating that this timeline is different, with things happening differently than in his, he still goes “Khan? Oh fuck yeah, that dude’s evil. I died saving the ship from him.” So…that happened.
“I wish I was in your place…” “You were. Over THIRTY YEARS AGO.”
And then, of course, because there aren’t enough parallels with the other Star Trek II, we have to play out that whole Radiation Death Scene again…only reversed…because it’s different…see?… See…? We’ve even got Spock yelling out “KHAN!!!” because at this point, why the fuck not? Spock gets in touch with his feelings in time to Hulk out and go after Khan, but thankfully his girlfriend shows up just in time to help him/keep him from killing Khan…yeah… This is what forced me to do a lot of soul-searching about how I felt about this movie. For something that seemed to strive to be different and new, it just rehashed a bunch of stuff that was best left where it belonged in the franchise’s past.
Not my final reaction to this film.
But again, after that soul-searching (and time to cool off), I did come to see the movie had far more positives than negatives (no matter how egregious those negatives may be). It should be noted that the only people who appear to have a negative reaction are fans of the previous films and TV series. I think anyone coming into it knowing only the last Star Trek film will be just fine, and that’s how I had to look at it. It doesn’t excuse the bad, but with any luck Abrams has now gotten it out of his system. Which he fucking better have…I don’t wanna see any of this shit popping up in Star Wars, the prequels were bad enough…
KHAN WILL RETURN…probably. In the meantime, enjoy the Enya we’ve pumped into his Popsicle Pod.