Review of Star Trek: Into Darkness

My wife and I recently watched Star Trek: Into Darkness, the second in the series of J.J. Abrams-directed”reboot” Star Trek movies that began in 2009. On the plus side, the film had some impressive action scenes and special effects. It also had more and somewhat better character development than its predecessor. Long-time fans of the series might like the many clever nods to the original series from the 1960s. At the very least, the movie was fun to watch, and I think we got our money’s worth.

Nonetheless, the negatives outweigh the positives. Unsurprisingly, Into Darkness has most of the same flaws as the previous Abrams Star Trek movie, which I criticized here. Both films essentially turn Star Trek into an action movie that just happens to utilize Trek characters and settings. I am far from an uncritical admirer of Star Trek as envisioned by Gene Roddenberry and his successors. Nor was I ever the kind of fanatical Trekkie who goes to conventions wearing Vulcan ears or signs up for classes at the Klingon Language Institute. But, despite its many flaws, I admired the Star Trek franchise’s willingness to take on big questions about the kind of future we should want for humanity. Abrams’ “reboot” essentially ignores all serious issues, and just ramps up the action. I don’t deny that a “reboot” may have been needed, given the poor quality of the last several old-line Star Trek movies; but not a reboot that jettisons almost everything that made Star Trek interesting and unique.

In addition, Into Darkness has huge plot holes big enough to fly a whole fleet of Romulan warbirds through. In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I won’t go through them in detail. I will only note that, for the Federation to get into the predicament that is the main focus of the plot, Star Fleet’s leadership would have to be ridiculously stupid. To take just one of many examples, it seems that Star Fleet Headquarters and Earth generally have no fixed defenses of any kind against incoming warships and missiles, even though previous history clearly established that such defenses are both feasible given the level of their technology, and clearly necessary, given previous enemy attacks. Yet none of the characters even mention this and other comparably ridiculous mistakes, not even the supposedly hyper-logical Mr. Spock (who makes some whopping errors of his own in the movie, which are also ignored by the other characters).

Perhaps the real implicit message of the reboot movies is to endorse the views of social critics who worry that advancing technology has bred a “generation of nincompoops.” Maybe the producers expect the nincompoopery to get even worse in the future, infecting Vulcans and Klingons as well as humans. Indeed, if the Klingons, Romulans, and other rivals of the Federation were minimally competent, it’s hard to understand how the Star Fleet portrayed in the reboot movies could possibly have become a major power in the galaxy. Maybe the “darkness” into which the Federation has descended is a severe outbreak of extreme stupidity among Star Fleet’s best and brightest. Although I strongly disagree with this kind of technopessimism, a science fiction series that seriously explored the idea that high technology leads to a “dumbed down” society might be interesting. Unfortunately, Abrams’ movies seem to raise the issue only unintentionally.

UPDATE: Mike Rappaport responds to this post here:

I agree with Ilya that the new movie fails to address the serious questions, but I think that was largely true of all of the Star Trek movies – especially the good ones. It was the series – and especially some of the individual episodes – that really addressed these matters. And, of course, it is a lot easier to do that in a series….

[T]he new movie and the rebooted movie series were able to accomplish something that the old movies never achieved: the first two consecutive movies were both good. The old series of movies, peculiarly but consistently, generated one good movie only to be followed by a bad movie. That was frustrating. Star Trek: Into Darkness was able to avoid this affliction.

I agree that serious issues are easier to address in a TV series than in a movie. But I think Mike is too soft on the Abrams movies (neither of which were actually good, given the stupidity of their plots, and the weak characterization in the first one), and too hard on some of the earlier Star Trek movies. The first two earlier movies were both good and took on serious issues. The first movie addressed the nature of sentience, while the second took on the ethics of genetic engineering and revenge. And both had at least minimally intelligent plots, which is more than can be said for either Abrams production.