J.J Abrams’ Star Trek series frustrates me. The first film was okay, apart from a few moments where I cocked my eyebrows and rolled my eyes, it wasn’t terrible. And it was quite entertaining. Maybe I would feel differently if I watched it again now, but tonight, watching Star Trek: Into Darkness, I was quite depressed and frustrated. On its own merits, it was no better nor worse than the average Hollywood film. As a Star Trek film, it was disappointing both cinematically and ideologically. The only thing that made it bearable for me was the soundtrack, the performances, and the costumes (I love those little hats that go with their on-earth uniforms!)
I wasn’t expecting much, honestly, after hearing about Benedict Cumberbatch’s hotly debated role in the film turning out to be Khan. For one thing, above all else, it was horrible whitewashing. The studio seemed aware that what they were doing was wrong and that it would cause public outcry and possibly hurt revenue, so in order to have their cake and eat it too, they kept it under wraps until the last minute. It’s also just a lazy re-hashing of the overly familiar. Star Trek was all about taking risks, but this seemed to be more of a product of elaborate, careful marketing management, every step of the way. I almost didn’t go to see it after hearing about Cumberbatch as Khan, but since it was free, I went tonight.
I wish the film’s only problem had been Khan’s casting. Or even its biggest problem.
Into Darkness opens more like an Indiana Jones film than a Star Trek film, with some visibly angry alien “natives” chasing Kirk and McCoy through a Class M planet’s forest. That was off to a bad start. There was a brief little plot point about the Prime Directive, Kirk’s complete disregard of that in order to save Spock, and saving the Indigenous alien species from their planet’s destruction.
That got me off to a bad start. Star Trek would have been a good place to talk about the ethics surrounding helping an uncontacted civilization; it’s a pertinent problem here and now, with Indigenous peoples in the Amazon facing the threats of encroachment upon their lands by loggers, miners, farmers, ranchers, and dam builders. That’s not what it’s here for though, it’s just to throw around some fancy, familiar words from Star Trek to make the nerdier members of the audience feel at home, and have the chance to do a favourite Hollywood activity of showcasing “primitive” types speaking a made-up “unga-bunga” language, throwing spears, and acting all savage and unsophisticated and shit. This sets the pace for later in the film, when Kirk and Spock briefly open a window to contemplate the issue of going after Khan (known as John Harrison to them at the time) with a guiding weapon on Starfleet’s behalf, carrying out what we might call an “extrajudicial assassination”. Sound familiar? That too, is tossed aside. This is not treated as the place to host such conversations, not when there are explosions to witness and phasers to go pew pew.
The most aggressively problematic elements, after that general strain of gleeful anti-intellectualism and Khan’s casting, is the characterization of our beloved favourites, in particular, Uhura and McCoy. Uhura is shown, shaken after Spock almost sacrifices himself to follow the Prime Directive, to be snappy, unprofessional, and unable to separate her personal feelings for Spock from her duties on her job, bringing up her anger at him during an important mission. Uhura’s competence, intelligence, and ability to act as an asset to the Enterprise temporarily evaporate for the benefit of her having an inconveniently timed lover’s spat. McCoy’s southern gentlemanliness also goes out the window in order to provide a cheap laugh when he’s flirting with Carol Marcus in a lewd, goofy fashion.
Speaking of Carol Marcus, in what’s probably a new record, at least in the films I’ve seen, for most blatant fanservice, we get treated to a scene of her in her underwear. Just out of the blue, for no real reason. It wouldn’t be a JJ Abrams Star Trek film without it, I guess.
The film also, tragically, lacked emotional impact. The fates of the characters were practically meaningless, even when faced with terrible tragedy or life-and-death situations, because of the general sloppiness of the script and the liberal (and seen coming from miles away) use of deus ex machina.
This film only works if you don’t think of it as a Star Trek film. If you must see it, please, by all means, pretend it’s not. Then it’s just a standard pretty-looking science fiction flick which will fade into darkness (hah) with time. That’ll make the film bearable. I can deal with and enjoy loud, shiny, and pointless. What I can’t contend with is this plastic joke being in the same category as the incredible, social justice pioneering phenomenon that is (was?) Star Trek.