Bad Astronomy Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

Bad Astronomy
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May 17 2013 11:51 AM

BA Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

Star Trek Into Darkness: Enterprise
Trek is battered in this movie, but it hasn't burned up upon re-entry just yet.

Photo by Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

So, Star Trek Into Darkness. The new Trek movie. Big summer blockbuster. Lots of box office, lots of buzz.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

Yeah, that. I didn’t like it.

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Now, I didn’t hate it. It was fun, and entirely watchable. But, well, I just didn’t actively like it. It was OK for a fast-paced action movie where you can just watch and go along for the ride, but as a Trek movie it fell short. I think this reboot series still has a lot of promise, but this movie, for me, was just marking time.

Here’s why. Obviously, there are big fat spoilers here, and the movie does ride on a lot of the mysteries. So if you don’t want the flick ruined for you, go look at something else for a while. Also obviously, what follows are opinions. A lot of my friends are saying they liked or even loved this movie. That’s great! It just didn’t strike me the same way. Fairly warned be thee, says I.

Cap’n! THERE BE SPOILERS HERE.

 

Let me take a moment to note that usually I like to point out the science errors of a movie in my reviews. This didn’t have too many, and most were not that important. For example, I don’t think solidifying the lava in a volcano will get it to stop erupting; in fact, it’ll make it explode like a bomb due to bottling up all the pressure inside (retcon: maybe the “cold fusion bomb” prevents that). At the climactic battle they say they’re 237,000 kilometers from Earth, but wind up near the Moon; I suspect someone mixed up kilometers and miles (the Moon is 238,000 miles from Earth, which is 380,000 kilometers or so). Also, do the math: It's 2259, and they say Khan was born 300 years ago. Um, what?

[Update (May 17, 16:30 UTC): A few folks have pointed out that in the original series, Khan and the Eugenics Wars happened in the 20th century, so that birthdate is about right. I will grant you that, but given it's 2013 and the wars haven't happened yet, that was still a weird thing to say. They could have changed it; after all, they changed the way Klingons and their ships look and there's no reason for that in the rebooted timeline of Trek.]

For the most part I didn’t have too big a problem with these booboos. But I did have a problem with some of the internal Trek science, like a transwarp box that can transport you across interstellar space instantly. That was so weird it actually threw me out of the story trying to figure it out; I thought for a moment the villain used it to transport himself to a ship in orbit, which would have made a lot more sense. [UPDATE (May 18, 00:30 UTC): Oops. I forgot that transwarp beaming was established in the first reboot movie. I'm willing to admit this was an error on my part, though the idea of having that capability in a box the size of an accordian seems a bit silly. Also, it still would've made more sense for Khan to have just used a regular ship; it would've avoided the disorientation of the audience. Well, me, certainly.] There were others, but I don’t feel the need to go into too many details, because, honestly, they were secondary to the real reasons this movie didn’t resonate with me.

Stop Making Sense

I think the movie suffered from two problems: things happened which made no sense, and it had something I call “too-much-stuffism”. The latter is why it didn’t work for me as an action movie, and the former why it didn’t work for me as a Trek movie.

Spock in the volcano
Vulcan was the god of fires and volcanoes, after all.

Photo by Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

For example, the movie opens with the crew on a planet (sadly, named Nibiru), where they are sent to do a survey. They find out a volcano is about to explode, which will wipe out the indigenous (and primitive) humanoids there. So they hide the Enterprise under the ocean, use a shuttle to get Spock inside the volcano, and he plants that cold fusion bomb that will freeze the erupting lava in place, saving the planet.

Of course, it all goes wrong. Spock gets stranded, and they can’t beam him back due to interference from the planet’s magnetic field unless they get in a line of sight on him. So they fly the Enterprise over the volcano, and beam Spock out—who protests this, saying it will violate the Prime Directive if the natives see the ship.

This scene was fun to watch, I’ll admit, but the whole thing makes no sense. Why put the ship under water, instead of orbit directly above the volcano? That would give them line-of-sight, and they could’ve beamed Spock there and back safely without being seen as anything more than a bright light in the sky. And why not just beam the bomb into the volcano in the first place? Also, saving those humanoids all by itself was a violation of the Prime Directive, but Spock didn’t seem to have too big a problem with that.

Like I said, the scene doesn’t make any (pardon the expression) logical sense. And the whole movie is like that. I could make a laundry list of examples, but I won’t belabor it.

OK, fine, I’ll belabor one example; I can’t help myself. Near the end of the movie, the Enterprise, crippled and on the edge of destruction, spent a long time falling toward Earth from the Moon, and during all that time not a single ship shows up to help, even though they are at the very heart of the Federation. It’s like no one noticed a ship the size of football stadium plummeting toward the planet.

Things like that draw me out of the movie. It’s easy to forgive one or two of those, but it just kept happening all throughout the flick.

Khan Man

Benedict Cumberbatch
By a strange coincidence, "Benedict Cumberbatch" and "Ricardo Montalbán" are both worth exactly the same in Scrabble.

Photo by Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

And let’s talk about Khan.

It was no surprise to me at all—despite having avoided nearly all spoilers—that he was the surprise main villain (I was pretty sure it was going to be either him or Gary Mitchell). Benedict Cumberbatch did a great job—duh—but I never felt that Khan was menacing. In the original series, with Khan and Kirk it was personal, and that connects with us, the audience. That one-on-one interplay was one of the main reasons why Wrath of Khan was such a terrific movie. It was deeply personal, and we sympathize with Kirk; we hurt when he gets hurt, and we feel his triumph when he wins. The revenge escalates with Khan’s obsession, but every time it does we ride along with it, and we feel the stakes getting higher.

With Into Darkness, that never happens. It’s never personal, and we never get the idea that Khan is a madman bent on revenge. Sure, the timeline changed, and so did his motives, but in the end what that means is that Khan was too distant. I was never invested in him. He was like a generic Bond supervillain, a plug and play bad guy.

I’ll admit, I chuckled a bit when the movie took the penultimate scene from Wrath of Khan and did a role reversal on it, with Spock and Kirk swapping places. But then Spock yelling “KHHHANNNNN!” made my eyes roll back so far in my head I think they went back in time—and any real drama was drained from that scene because we know Kirk won’t die. They had already telegraphed how they’d save him in an earlier scene…with a tribble, of all things. Compare that scene to the one where Spock dies in Wrath of Khan, and tell me which one hits you harder.

You people are all astronauts on some kind of star trek?

[Update (May 18, 15:30 UTC): What follows below is a complaint that the story-telling aspect of the movie was lacking. However, in some aspects I may have been too harsh. My Slate colleague Forrest Wickman argues convincingly this movie is a post-9/11 metaphor that, somehow, I totally missed.  Well, not totally, but certainly didn't see some of the deeper aspects he points out. I still think a lot of the movie was weak—I agree with another Slate writer, Matthew Yglesias, in his summary—but I think I'll have to go see the movie again to pick up on things I may have missed. Read what follows with that in mind, please.]

All of this boils down to story telling. There was a real story in this movie, and a good one, but it was never really allowed to bloom. And then it got buried in the too-much-stuffism.

For example, right after Kirk “dies”, Spock has to chase down Khan, who tries to crash his ship into Starfleet HQ, and then escapes, and then is chased by Spock, and then they jump from flying car to flying car, and then they fight, and then Uhura zaps him, and then Spock beats him up, and then and then and then.

I literally wanted to yell, “Stop!” It was too much. It wasn’t Starfleet people using their brains to outwit or out-bluff their opponent, it was just action without any overarching strategy.

Now I know that this will sound like a get-off-my-lawn kind of moment, but seriously: Trek isn’t supposed to be about this kind of stuff. Trek is about the relationship of the characters and the grander theme of exploration. It’s also a meta-story about us. At its best it was a deeply thoughtful mythology about ourselves and our conflicts, an allegory of our modern problems and flaws of humanity—war, greed, bigotry, narcissism—and how we overcome them, told as science fiction. That’s why we’re still telling these stories nearly 50 years later.

This movie wasn’t any of that. To quote the great story-teller Homer (Simpson, that is): It was just a bunch of stuff that happened. Fight scene, battle scene, people running, conversations, then more fighting. It had the elements of Trek, but that signal was shouted down by the noise.

Star Trek crew
Stick with this, folks, and we'll be Trekking for a long, long time yet to come.

Phot by Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

A big part of what made the original movies work was the way these old friends interact. In the new timeline they’re not yet old friends, of course, but in this movie there wasn’t a lot of progress made in that direction.

In my opinion—worth what you’ve paid for it, certainly—if and when they make a third installment, they should focus on that. Strengthen the ties that bind this crew together. Over-the-top action movies have diminishing returns, diminishing value with each sequel. But think on this: Star Trek has 13 movies in the franchise. It has that staying power because of the established back story, and because of the characters, because of their history. If these new movies can tap into that, deeply and not just superficially (and rehashing it) like it did here, then it can breathe new life into this grand mythos yet.

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