Welcome to “Flipping the Script,” a monthly column where I will reconsider recent films that have been panned, frowned upon, or simply under appreciated. I believe that movies should speak to us on a deep, personal level, and this column will consist of films that have done that for me despite widespread derision or apathy. Join me on my noble quest for cinematic redemption!
I was primed to love Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) before I even stepped into the theater. I worship at the altar of director J. J. Abrams, and I’ve always held a soft stop for writers Damon Lindelof and power duo Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. And when the movie first came out, many critics were enamored with it as well. But the goodwill disappeared as quickly as it appeared: At a Star Trek convention that summer, Into Darkness was voted the worst Star Trek film of all time and called “objectively terrible.” Even Abrams and Lindelof were eventually bullied into bashing their own film.
But I’d like to flip the script. Join me below the jump, but be careful: spoilers await.
I don’t consider myself a longtime Trekkie. (Or Trekker, as it were.) I’ve watched a couple of foundational episodes, mostly for time travel research purposes, but my appreciation for the fandom is tethered to J. J. Abrams’s film reboots. So, it’s be fair to say that I’m coming at Star Trek Into Darkness as a contentedly casual Star Trek fan, not as a diehard. (Which is okay!) In that vein, I’d like to argue that Into Darkness is a good— nay, great!— movie in and of itself, separate from the burdens of catering to a particular fandom. But I also hope to nudge some self-proclaimed Star Trek superfans off of their high horses, and to convince them to consider that Into Darkness offers a deserving introduction to the Star Trek universe for a whole new generation of fans.
In the opening scene of Star Trek Into Darkness, Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban) tear through a vibrant, red forest with dozens of yellow-robed, chalk-white aliens hot on their heels. As it turns out, Kirk has stolen a sacred artifact from the alien species as a means of luring them away from an active volcano, while Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto) drops down into the volcano in order to freeze the impending eruption and save the entire species.
Under Kirk’s orders, the U.S.S. Enterprise crew is already flagrantly violating the Prime Directive, but Kirk makes matters worse by revealing the existence of the Enterprise to this primitive species in order to save Spock’s life when the plan goes south, even though Spock is more than happy to sacrifice his life for “the needs of the many.”
Uhura, ever the professional, reports on the success of Spock’s device while allowing herself a brief release of pent-up emotion. Kirk, ever the cocksure rebel, dismisses the importance of adhering to the Prime Directive. Spock, the calculating rationalist, is unable to— or unwilling to— comprehend why Kirk went back for him. Meanwhile, Kirk has a foreboding— yet ultimately redemptive— conversation with Bones while deciding whether or not to rescue Spock. “If Spock were here and I were there,” Kirk muses, “What would he do?” Bones answers without hesitation: “He’d let you die.” Ah, but how the tables will turn!
Already, Star Trek Into Darkness has laid the groundwork for both Kirk’s character arc and Spock’s character arc, prodded open the relationship arcs of Kirk and Spock and Spock and Uhura, and established the action packed yet comedic tone of the film (opening line courtesy of Bones: “Dammit, man, that was our ride! You just stunned our ride!”) while teasing the film’s main themes.
And that’s all in the pre-title sequence!
Much of the love for the original series stems from the storied relationship between Kirk and Spock, personifying the often explosive interplay between emotion and logic. Star Trek Into Darkness does a stellar job of fleshing out this conflict on the big screen. Over the course of the film, both characters grow in equal and opposite ways, culminating in the most gut-wrenching scene in all of Star Trek lore. But we’ll get to that later.
In the 2009 Star Trek film, Kirk infamously cheats his way through Starfleet Academy’s Kobayashi Maru test, entirely missing the Academy’s intended lesson about “no-win scenarios.” By disregarding the Prime Directive in the beginning of Into Darkness, Kirk shows that his hubristic streak is alive and well, and he’s taken to task by his mentor, Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood), when the Enterprise returns to San Francisco and Spock’s faultlessly honest write-up gets him in trouble. “You think the rules don’t apply to you because you disagree with them!” Pike insists. “You haven’t got an ounce of humility… you don’t take responsibility for anything.”
When Pike is killed in an attack by rogue Starfleet operative John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), Kirk vows vengeance for his fallen father figure. Though he briefly decides to emulate Spock’s straitlaced behavior by announcing his intention to capture Harrison rather than kill him, Kirk proceeds to (or attempts to) beat him to a pulp after he surrenders. Baby steps, right?
Towards the end of Into Darkness, with John Harrison— alright, it’s this evil supersoldier named Khan! Surprise!!— unleashing his wrath (see what I did there?) on the Enterprise, Kirk begs Khan to spare the life of his crew and take him instead. Echoing Spock’s mandate in the film’s opening sequence, Kirk prioritizes the needs of the many over his own well being. Kirk also shows that he’s learned a lesson in humility when he decides to team up with Khan in order to battle the greater evil, Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller). “I have no idea what I’m supposed to do,” Kirk admits to Spock. “I only know what I can do.” In expressing the knowledge that the Enterprise needs Spock aboard, he implies that he himself is expendable.
Spock appears baffled when Kirk explains that his plan is “not logical— it’s a gut feeling.” But thanks to the well-crafted screenplay leading up to scene, we can read past his expressionless face. By that point in the film, Spock is well on his way to seeing Kirk’s point of view, tapping into the human, emotional side of himself rather than blocking it out with ice cold logic.
At the beginning of Into Darkness, after Spock submits his report on the Enterprise’s disobedience with regards to the Prime Directive, Kirk is demoted and Spock is transferred to another ship. Kirk confronts Spock about his “compulsion to follow the rules.” “Do you understand why I want back for you?” Kirk asks him. Spock, truly baffled in this scene, doesn’t answer. Kirk tries again. “The truth is, I’m going to miss you.” When even that fails to elicit a response, Kirk harrumphs off in frustration, leaving Spock alone to ponder the illogicalities of friendship.
But Spock, who suffered the loss of his entire species in the previous Star Trek film, knows all too well what it feels like to experience world-shattering grief. And Spock is reminded of this heartache by mind-melding with Admiral Pike as he lay dying, understanding all too well what Kirk feels for those he cares about. With a line that leaves both Uhura and Spock speechless, Spock explains to them later on: “You mistake my choice not to feel as a reflection of my not caring, while I assure you the truth is precisely the opposite.”
For Kirk and Spock, everything culminates with Kirk exposing himself to a lethal dose of radiation in order to restore the Enterprise’s warp core, sacrificing himself to save his crew. (Sidenote: Did anyone else get seriously hardcore Lost vibes when a severely injured Kirk desperately kicks the warp core back in place? I just kept picturing Juliet hacking at that bomb.) Which means it’s time I addressed the elephant in the radioactive reactor chamber: the contentious Kirk/Spock death reversal, and the subsequent reversal of Kirk’s iconic cry: “Khaaaaaaan!”
Many Star Trek fans were scandalized that J. J. Abrams & co. decided to reverse the ending of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the film on which Into Darkness is based, and to have Kirk sacrifice himself instead of Spock. But here’s the thing, my fine, feathered friends: it works so beautifully in the context of this particular film, and it does a great service to the characters you know and love. As Kirk dies, he again brings up his decision to rescue Spock at the beginning of the film. “I want you to know why I went back for you…” he says, “….why I couldn’t let you die.” This time, a distraught Spock gives him the answer he was looking for all along: “Because you are my friend.”
Pine and Quinto completely nail this scene, alternate universe be damned. Plus, if you want the original, watch the original. The beauty of a reboot is that it can scratch different itches and explore different angles, all the while operating within the same foundational narrative.
Star Trek Into Darkness flourishes on a macro-narrative level, but the little pieces that glue together the tapestry are memorable as well. (Yes, Carol Marcus’s role can be totally excised. Yes, the secrecy surrounding Khan’s identity was unnecessary. No, neither detracts from my overall enjoyment of the film.) A soundtrack can often make or break the film— and Star Trek Into Darkness claims the former, boasting one of my all-time favorite movie soundtracks, courtesy of professional sob-inducer Michael Giacchino.
When Kirk sacrifices himself to save the Enterprise, the accompanying music is mournful and redemptive, an acute intonation of bittersweet feeling. Conversely, the triumphant swell of the main title theme when the Enterprise rises up— in the beginning, from the depths of the ocean, and in the end, from beneath the clouds— never fails to leave me with a stupidly excited grin on my face. The sense of adventure is palpable.
But it has been— and always will be— the track that highlights the nearly wordless introduction of the character of John Harrison/Khan that cuts straight to my soul. The haunting, lilting piano tune serves as the backdrop for what essentially amounts to a tragic, two-and-a-half minute short film. Your heartstrings will never be the same.
(Entertainment Weekly conducted an illuminating interview with Into Darkness sound mixer Will Files to explore precisely how the music of the film moves audiences, and I highly recommend the piece, as it provides a much more in-depth(!) explanation of the nuances of the soundtrack. You can find the piece here.)
Giacchino aside, Star Trek Into Darkness is not all melodrama. In fact, Bones never fails to lighten the mood even with his dismal predilections and huffed “Dammit, man!” protestations. He argues against Kirk’s decisions with hammy metaphors like “You don’t rob a bank when the getaway car has a flat tire!” and “You just settled that man down at a high-stakes poker game with no cards and told him to bluff!” The lines are ridiculous, and Kirk tells him so. “Enough with the metaphors!” Here, as in several other scenes, the script emerges with a self-referential wink when things are about to get too cheesy or heavy-handed.
Star Trek Into Darkness is also just a hell of a lot of fun. The action sequences are exhilarating: space battles at warp speed, hand-to-hand combat on top of flying vehicles, speeding headfirst through an asteroid field in nothing but a spacesuit. The vibrancy of the set pieces also reflect a meticulous attention to detail in the production phase, from the distinctly futuristic architecture of San Francisco’s Starfleet Academy to the colorful opening scene planet of Nibiru.
And despite all the hullabaloo surrounding the Big Khan Reveal, this Khan is one of the most engaging and relatable supervillains in recent cinema, and certainly of the past three Star Trek films. The best kind of villain thinks him or herself the hero, and as Khan explains, his only concern is to save his crew. “My crew is my family,” he says to Kirk. “Is there anything you would not do for your family?” Khan follows this line of thinking to a pathological extent, of course. But his words reflect back on Kirk and Spock’s journey of friendship and clash of values, and they also call to mind the Starfleet cadet father who sacrificed himself and dozens of others in order to save his daughter. Khan’s motivation is intensely personal, but it also throws the rest of the movie into sharp relief.
Now that’s smart storytelling.