Premièred by Paramount Pictures Star Trek Into Darkness Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof
Star Trek Into Darkness represents the fear I have with any of my favourite fiction franchises. I say this as someone who likes all science fiction, but also anything that’s popular and has a lot of money in it. First, there came Star Trek‘s reboot, and that naturally meant following it up with a dark and gritty reboot sequel. Star Trek‘s been dark before. It can be done. And the Star Trek franchise is all about pulling-through and remaining optimistic. But what this instalment seemed to want is to take the franchise itself into a dark place, rather than just the characters.
I won’t deny that J. J. Abrams is a visionary science-fiction director. Visually, he’s good. But that’s where it ends. His Star Trek films may look the most realistic, but they lack anything beneath the surface. Which is unfortunate for people like me who prefer that films don’t patronise them or treat its audience like they’re idiots. And Star Trek Into Darkness does this unlike any film has ever done, because it’s directed in such a way as to make you forget that none of it makes any sense. Because the cinematography makes the world look so exotic, and because the production design is not only consistent and imaginative but also presented by a director that can use it all to his advantage, that the film, as it plays is trying to district you from the fact that it has no confidence or understanding of how to tell a good story.
And the greatest offender is that none of the characters have any consistency. For instance: Captain Kirk. He’s a womanising wise-cracker who’s shown to be an incompetent captain. Not only does he begin Star Trek Into Darkness by violating the Prime Directive in such a blatant way with motives that are never explained, but he manages to escape tricky scenarios through coincidence. “They’ve taken the Enterprise away from you”, says Admiral Pike. But when he next see Kirk, it’s been given back to him. I could never really grasp why, except that it seemed to be for the plot to advance, which asks the question of, if you’re going to insert such a quick solution for an otherwise seemingly-unsolvable problem, why bother inserting the problem at all? It’s not that there’s no character development, it’s that none of it’s addressed. If Kirk is such a risky choice for a Starfleet captain, play into that. You can’t just acknowledge it and then ignore it, because that’s wasting your own potential.
And then there’s Commander Spock. While I understand that Spock struggles to balance his two Human and Vulcan sides, the switch from a logical strategist to a vengeful action figure didn’t feel natural. It’s saved until the end, and then he transforms suddenly. I get that it’s an outburst of anger, but it didn’t feel like it. Instead, it felt like a dramatic shift in tone purely to have a dramatic shift in tone.
Now, Doctor McCoy. Karl Urban clearly understands his role, and I’ve gotta say – McCoy’s the most consistent character in all of this. He feels like a genuinely caring person who’s also a good doctor, and he alone demonstrates what Star Trek Into Darkness could’ve been – through everything that happens, he remains fundamentally the same person. He’s still clearly in a dark place, but McCoy I actually understand to be who it was that was in that dark place, rather than him just becoming a generic “dark hero”. What perplexes me is that none of the other characters were recognisable, especially when McCoy was clearly developing naturally rather than just shifting in style.
Of all the problems with the way the characters are handled, Lieutenant Commander Scott’s the worst. The problem seems to be that Star Trek Into Darkness has too many characters to know what do with, so it was figured that one of them needed to be written-out as soon as possible. So Scott’s the one that randomly quits for reasons that do play into the rest of the film, but are just arbitrary at the time. When Scott resigns suddenly, the reaction I had was “that was really rushed”, as if there was no time to explain why it was happening or to justify that storytelling decision. Or was it because a character needed to be on the Vengeance during the confrontation, and he was somehow suited to it best? Either way, it felt forced, and makes me wonder if there was a plan that had gone into the story.
Another character that troubled me was Lieutenant Sulu. Kirk and Spock are both absent, which means he’s in charge now? When he was used for the scene on the drill during the destruction of Vulcan (in aforementioned reboot), he was there because officers were needed who had hand combat training. See? A little explanation for why he was there. Here, he fills the captain’s chair for yet another arbitrary reason. Orci even admits to writing characters like action figures. Sulu shows how individuality of character isn’t important in this universe, where they can all fill-in for each other perfectly, which therefore makes none of them important. You know what would’ve been dramatic? If Sulu struggled with such a large responsibility of becoming captain all of a sudden. It would’ve at least it made it more acceptable.
With regards to Lieutenant Uhura… I wouldn’t describe myself as a feminist blogger. There are others out there who’ve written far more detailed, legitimate and authoritative pieces on the Star Trek reboot’s treatment of female characters, but even to someone like me, Uhura is clearly a problematic storytelling piece. I find myself inclined to ask yet another question about an element of her character: why? A lot of fans have a problem with Spock and Uhura’s relationship, but I don’t, surprisingly. This is an alternate reality, these characters are in a different situation, they’re going to react in different ways. And if Spock and Uhura are going to be a thing, surely an alternate reality’s the best way of doing it? What I do find troublesome is the way it never seems real. We get it. Spock’s sad because Vulcan’s gone. He’s sensitive. But is that the only reason he’s with Uhura? Because the basis of their relationship never feels established. It’s just “there” for an arbitrary reason. And it’s not as if a Vulcan/Human relationship can’t work – that’s a fundamental element of Spock’s character, that he’s a Human/Vulcan. But this particular relationship never felt real to me, and I suspect that’s because Uhura doesn’t feel like a character with enough depth to be in a relationship with any character and it feel real in the process. Not to mention Carol Marcus’ underwear shot, which was just gratuitous. Not to mention the thing about her character that troubles me the most – that she contributed nothing to the story. Why was she there? What did she do that lead to the final scene? The fact that I can sum-up her character in a few sentences with the only other female character here is another problem. And yes, I know it doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. I personally don’t think the Bechdel test is of the Biblical importance that others consider it to, because that leads to both it disrupting the story and the story being judged entirely on that one thing. But I’ve already acknowledged my lack of authority when it comes to speaking about these kind of things, especially when those that are more validated than myself also debate its important. That said, Star Trek Into Darkness‘ failure to pass the Bechdel test does back-up my criticisms of it in this instance.
Ensign Chekov. At this point, I’m running out of new criticisms, so I’ll cover this quickly. Chekov has the same problems as the other characters – he’s used as a plot device. Yeah, he was upgraded to Chief Science Officer in Scott’s absence, but why? Because he’s an ensign? Why him in particular? Kirk never bothered to explain. I suspect it’s because he’s also driven by arbitrary reasons rather than his character.
But then there’s Commander Singh, my biggest problem with Star Trek Into Darkness. Here’s the thing: including this character from the original version of the franchise was the worst decision made, because it meant certain things had to happen, based on Singh’s character. But that itself dictates parts of the story, so that the characters end-up being warped around what has to happen, rather than everyone fitting into it naturally. Because Singh was included, there had to be an origin story, there had to be a reveal of his identity and he had to have certain motivations. And that was handled here by directly lifting scenes from it, rather than adding something. Abrams denied that “John Harrison” was Singh, even though everyone already knew that he clearly was. Kurtzman said this:
“It’s so easy to fall into the trap of doing something because you think people are going to love it. You must come up with what the movie can be on its own and then, if it turns out the villain maybe can be Khan, then you can do it. But you can’t start there.”
This statement alone exposes the mentality taken toward the story. Because it’s effectively admitting to making it up as the story progresses. That is not the way to tell a story. You have to know where you’re going, you have a plan first. As soon as the character of Harrison was decided to be Singh, it meant that everything had to be altered around it, at their own expense. So much so that when he reveals his real name to Kirk, anyone unfamiliar with Star Trek wouldn’t have reacted in the intended fashion, because they don’t recognise the name. And it’s not as if Harrison doesn’t work as his own character, because he does. But as soon as it was decided that he’d be the alias of a previous character, any value about him was lost because everything he is suddenly becomes a very long-winded excuse to do something we’ve already seen. That’s why the homages to previous, iconic Star Trek scenes don’t work – normally, with an homage you’re supposed to add something, rather than just recycle what’s come before. Because it tells me that nobody had any ideas for how to use this character other than in exactly the same story as before. I don’t like to accuse films of being “pointless”, because they all are. None of them need to exist, but when I see a film that eventually becomes a remake of another film, rather than just being honest about it, I do feel inclined to ask why it exists. If this film was so intent on being a gritty reboot sequel, why couldn’t it just be that? Instead, it was so desperate to replicate a previous film – despite denials of it, that’s what it ultimately turned out as being – that I get the impression of it being unable to stand on its own. It lacks so much confidence that it relies on a previous instalment to do the story. But they can do their own action. It might mean sacrificing characters and insulting your audience’s intelligence, but the action’s all original. If only the heart of it were, too.
“I think the article above is akin to a child acting out against his parents. Makes it tough for some to listen, but since I am a loving parent, I read these comments without anger or resentment, no matter how misguided. And frankly, your tone and attidude make it hard for me to listen to what might otherwise be decent notions to pursue in the future. As I love to say, there is a reason why I get to write the movies, and you don’t. You prove the cliche of shitty fans. And rude in the process. So, as Simon Pegg would say: FUCK OFF!” – Roberto Orci