What you’re about to read is a look at the newly released film, Star Trek Into Darkness, specifically looking at it from the view of a screenwriter. As such, the following review is SPOILER HEAVY. You may want to turn back now. Do not read on if you haven’t seen the film yet, and prefer not to have some significant plot points revealed. I’m serious.
Okay. Still here? You’ve been warned.
Let’s get this out of the way first. Despite the troubling lack of a properly placed colon, if you’re watching Star Trek Into Darkness (written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof) in a bubble, knowing nothing about the previous films or the television series, it’s a ton of fun. Action abounds, the special effects are lavish, and the actors do a great job. It’s summer popcorn movie-going at its finest, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Now, we’re not here to nit-pick plot holes (every film has them to one degree or another), but when you start to drill down into the story from a writer’s perspective, the issues begin to build… quickly.
So here’s a quick rundown of my biggest issues with the film.
J.J. ABRAMS AND THE MYSTERY BOX
By this point, everyone knows about J.J. Abrams “mystery box” approach to developing a story. If you’re not, here’s the TED talk where he initially broached the concept. Lost had the island itself, Alias had the Rambaldi Device, and even though Abrams doesn’t have a writing credit on Into Darkness, this film has one too; the question of which character Benedict Cumberbatch would be playing.
As we all know now, he plays Khan, the classic villain from the second film to feature the original cast, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (note the colon). In this particular case however, the mystery box failed for me because the general public consensus had been that the villain would be Khan from the very beginning. Despite that, Abrams and company continued to promise that this was not the case. To me, this isn’t creating a mystery, it’s just lying to your audience and the end result of that kind of misdirection is usually simple bad will towards the creator than any kind of enhanced mystery when the reveal finally occurs.
And that brings us to…
Does Cumberbatch really need to be Khan? It’s a simple question which opens up a number of avenues to explore. There’s nothing in the plot that actively requires it. He could have just easily been John Harrison (Khan’s alias at the beginning of the film) and kept everything else the same. So why did they do it? To me, it felt like a case of fans getting their hands on the pot of gold. Here they were, playing the sand box that is the Star Trek universe, and they simply couldn’t help but play around with one of the best villains ever created for that universe.
By establishing Cumberbatch as his own unique character, you could cut out a lot of the wink-wink-nudge-nudge references scattered throughout the film, and develop the true villain of the film; Peter Weller’s General Marcus. Fleshing him and his agenda out would have allowed for the action of Into Darkness, in the true spirit of Star Trek and Gene Roddenberry, to be centered around philosophical concepts like the due process for terrorists, the true cost of war, and the balance of personal and societal values with the need for protection. You don’t have to lose any of the thrills, but there would have been more behind it.
On a deeper level, the decision to utilize Khan as the villain for Into Darkness brings into question the very nature of this series of films. When the original Star Trek reboot was released in 2009, Abrams and his team said that the main reason behind the creation of this alternate timeline was to free Star Trek from the shackles of canon; to allow them to create new adventures without being beholden to what had come before. But what have they done with their very first outing after the reboot but simply retell a story that had already been done.
The reasoning behind this relapse into rehashed canon is confusing, and also brings about my biggest issue with the film…
THE THIRD ACT
By making the decision to recycle the plot of Wrath of Khan, Into Darkness was inevitably drawn to recreate one of the classic moments from Star Trek history – the death of Spock. In this case, the writers flip it around and Kirk is the one to perish from radiation poisoning. On the surface, it feels a little lazy to me, but it gets worse. Because it hits the scene from WoK beat for beat, we know exactly what’s going to happen. We get it all; the last conversation between Spock and Kirk through the locked door, hands on the glass spreading into the Vulcan sign of “live long and prosper”, and now it’s Spock’s turn to raise his head towards the heavens and scream “KHAAAAAAAN!”
And as soon as they kill Kirk, the film is doomed because they only had one of two options, neither of which leads to a satisfactory ending. Either you’re required to spend the next film playing out the plot of the lackluster Search for Spock Kirk, or you do what the writers ultimately did and resurrect Kirk before the end of the film.
So we’ve effectively spent two hours discussing friendship and sacrifice, culminated this journey with a heroic death from an immature man who became a true leader (though wasn’t that also part of the plot in the first film?), and then completely undercut it with a quick turnaround as if nothing really happened. Orci, Kurtzman, and Lindelof effectively sapped any emotional resonance the scene may have still had.
And there you have it. My thoughts on what was a fun, but effectively pointless ride, with the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise.
What do you think? Am I missing the mark? Let me know what you thought of the film in comments below.
- More articles by Brad Johnson, including his Specs & The City column
- Book Review: Story Maps: The Films of Christopher Nolan by Dan Calvisi and William Robert Rich
- Storytelling Strategies: ‘Argo’ and Recapitulation
Tools to Help:
- Inside Story: The Power of the Transformational Arc by Dara Marks
- Screenwriter’s Gift Pack
- Save the Cat Structure Software