Spoiler Conversation: Star Trek Into Darkness

There were a few uncertainties leading into Star Trek Into Darkness. After such a successful first film in the reboot, could the sequel live up to it? Just who was Benedict Cumberbatch playing? Was the Enterprise going to make it through the film? The Star Trek franchise has a spotty history when it comes to sequels, but that was a different era (or should I say timeline?).

Warning: This is a post-viewing discussion of Star Trek Into Darkness. If you haven't seen it yet, turn back now.

Still here? Well, I also reference spoilers from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn. Cool? Great. Let's go.

The previous Star Trek was a fantastic, and I didn’t see it coming. Up to that point, I was culturally aware of Star Trek, but for some reason never got into the series. Thanks to a friend, I found myself first in line for opening night of J.A. Abrams new take on the series. Wow, was that fun! I was so impressed with the new version that I spent the rest of the summer of catching up on the previous Star Trek films. I’m still catching up on the television series, but I have now seen the original films a number of times.  

Four years later, I once again found myself at the front of the line to rejoin Captain Kirk and his crew for their next adventure.  I’d seen the trailers, heard a bit of the buzz, yet avoided the spoilers; but now I had higher expectations of these characters. I still love the creative way that Abrams started over, yet kept continuity; but I was now initiated.

Into Darkness did not disappoint.

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Once again, we were treated to a fun adventure that carried the franchise forward. I’m sure there will be complaints about choices made, but I believe that the creators gave us a great new story while respecting the longtime fans.

What was interesting for me was gathering reactions from the group I saw the movie with. Our group consisted of:

  • A longtime fan who was the reason we saw both of these films on opening night.
  • Their spouse, who was excited, but had casual interest in the franchise and had seen some of the original material (including The Wrath of Kahn).
  • My wife, who loved the 2009 film but had not anything from the original cast.
  • Me, now a fan of both iterations of this crew.

All four of us had a great time and loved the movie. Not one disparaging comment was made about the callbacks to Wrath of Kahn. There were no comments about people feeling like it was too dumbed-down or went over their head. This movie works for all of its audiences. That is why J.J. Abrams was a good pick for Star Wars Episode 7.  I was really impressed that the writers found a way to incorporate elements from the past while still making it feel new and surprising.

A major reason that Into Darkness succeeds is that the filmmakers understood that while the action and sci-fi elements are important, the focus needed to stay on the characters. The thrills and emotions that come from this movie come from our attachment to the crew of the USS Enterprise.

  • Sulu got to send one heck of a threat to fugitive John Harrison. That’s two movies in a row where it is clearly shown that Sulu is man not to be messed with.
  • Chekov may not have had the biggest role, but got to demonstrate his skill and determination off the deck. Sure, he was out of his depth without Scotty, but he only filled in for one day.
  • Scotty saved the entire crew while acting as both a moral compass and comedic relief, now that’s skill. Simon Pegg gave a great performance as he had to stand his ground while remaining loyal. Scotty had to be able to raise our spirits with a quick joke, and he had to be able to dash our hopes in one line to Spock.
  • Bones was well incorporated in the story. His humor, wit, and counsel to Kirk contributed throughout the movie. I just want him to have an even bigger role.  Karl Urban still stands as the strongest example of incorporating what was previously portrayed in his character, yet it never seems like imitation.
  • Uhura has taken a bit of time from what in the past was the Kirk-Spock-Bones trio, and it works. Given that Bones is a doctor, I think incorporating Uhura in more of the action scenes in a great choice. I do think she risks being represented only as “Spock’s girlfriend”, but that role is used so well in accessing Spock’s emotions (as well as the occasional quip from Kirk).  These films have changes with the tastes of audiences (and budgets). Getting Uhura involved in the action is a smart way to evolve the crew.
  • Spock’s path in Into Darkness was genius. He is the heart of the film. As Star Trek does so well, Spock’s distance from emotion provides stage to powerfully show and discuss humanity in the form of fear, grief, and rage. In retrospect, it seems simple and obvious to reverse his role with Kirk in Wrath of Kahn, it was a smart choice. I was surprised how effective the mirrored death of Kirk played out. From that point, we see Spock unhinged; which is what makes the final chase such a thrill. We’ve seen it all before. We’ve seen the big crash, the rundown, even the chase on moving cars. What made that chase thrilling was watching it with the knowledge that Spock, who is outmatched and knows it, will not stop until one of them falls. We see what Spock is willing to do for his family.
  • Of course Kirk was fun to watch. Our hero saved the day, even managing to die and get resurrected if the process. Yes, Kirk grew as a true captain and learned responsibility. Yes, once again his growth was due to the faith of Admiral Pike (who I will miss). However, Kirk is truly interesting because we’re never quite sure if he is going to “cross the line”. In my perception, the title of the movie represents how far our characters are willing to go to accomplish their goals. Was Kirk really willing to assassinate John Harrison with stealth torpedoes? How much was Kirk willing to trust and work with Kahn? Like Spock, we saw Kirk deal with grief and rage. The question was whether or not they would let that darkness consume them (like Admiral Marcus, and even his ship).  While Kirk still seems a bit young to be the captain of the flagship USS Enterprise, it’s fun to watch him earn it.

What is amazing to me is that the film keeps so much of the focus on our heroes, despite having a top-notch villain in Kahn. He’s probably short-changed, and I felt no problem with that. It’s surprising to say that, as I don’t think we got to know him very well. Instead of playing Kahn as the masterful villain he is, we spend the majority of the film trying to figure him out. Once we are told who he is, we are distracted by Admiral Marcus. Later, after Kahn betrays Kirk, we have mere minutes before Kahn’s ship is crippled and we are then distracted by the failing Enterprise. Benedict Cumberbatch made a great villain, but he did not play the same role Ricardo Montalban did. He is more mysterious than vengeful, yet still unforgettable.

As I mentioned earlier, I cannot escape my fascination of how this film will be perceived by different audiences. The experience is quite different if you are a fan of the original cast. Many films would have stopped at throwing in a tribble, but Into Darkness rewrites Kahn’s story and is clearly set up in a way that can be interesting to longtime fans. However, new fans can watch this and enjoy it as their first exposure to the elements of Wrath of Kahn. Unlike with the last film, we can now debate the proper viewing order of these films. Does someone need to see Wrath of Kahn to appreciate Into Darkness?

Star Trek Into Darkness manages to give us the action we love, while reminding us that The Federation is supposed to be focused on peacekeeping and exploration. The franchise always tries to balance ideas with action; and while the action is favored here, we don’t lose sight of what is important. In a lesser film, I believe I would feel the need for a better story for Kahn.  Instead, we focus on the crew of the Enterprise, and Kahn’s role as villain is shared with a twisted Federation leader. It works because we get depth and Kahn remains mysterious and formidable. The creators of Into Darkness apparently knew what the fans wanted from this sequel, and delivered. This is what happens when talented filmmakers give fans exactly what they asked for.