STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS Is Better Than You Remember
Every so often, you have an opinion that boldly goes where no one has before. I doubt my affection for Star Trek Into Darkness is exclusive to me. We defenders exist in the farthest reaches of the galaxy, in a deep pocket of space otherwise forgotten. For some Trekkies, Into Darkness is the worst of the worst—a film that uses sweeping parallels to things done best in better projects. And while I’d never suggest Into Darkness tops Wrath of Khan, I’d urge those who’ve entirely written it off to take another look. Star Trek Into Darkness is better than you might remember for reasons you might not suspect.
It’s understandable why the movie miffs so many people when you consider the context of its release. A sequel to the 2009 J.J. Abrams-directed reboot of the Star Trek series, Into Darkness invited speculation early in production when it cast Benedict Cumberbatch as a villain. Though his character was called John Harrison, rumors swirled that the name was a false identity. Fans believed Cumberbatch was instead playing iconic Trek villain Khan Noonien Singh. Those rumors only strengthened during the promotion of the film. But Cumberbatch and returning director Abrams repeatedly shot them down. So much so that by the time the movie came out on May 16, 2013, we were all pretty sick of the conversation.
I’ll never forget sitting in an IMAX theater on opening night and hearing the audience’s collective groan when it turned out John Harrison was, indeed, Khan. Despite Cumberbatch’s protestations, it was so expected that it was immediately annoying.
I still liked the film overall, and it was generally well-received at the time. Into Darkness has an 84% fresh approval on Rotten Tomatoes. It did pretty well at the box office, too, grossing $467.4 million against a $190 million budget. But disdain for the film has grown these last 10 years. The annoying Khan reveal—and the press circus leading up to it—cast a shadow over its legacy, as did the film’s other callbacks to Wrath of Khan. It was the first time we really saw Abrams’ over-reliance on that which came before, a hat trick he’d carry into the Star Wars franchise a few years later.
And yet, I can’t help but have a soft spot for Into Darkness. The film does a lot to “earn” that reliance on the past. That may seem like an excuse for lazy storytelling, but I don’t think it is. There are in-universe reasons for the parallels to Wrath of Khan organically baked into the story. If you recall, in Star Trek (2009), a Romulan mining vessel commanded by Nero (Eric Bana) emerges from the future and attacks the USS Kelvin, a Starfleet ship. The incursion alters the course of history, creating an alternate reality separate from the established canon. The impacts of this event ripple through time. The event reshapes the lives of familiar characters, alters their relationships, and generates distinct storylines.
The idea of a parallel universe isn’t just the stuff of science fiction but has roots in real-world quantum theory. In the mid-20th century, the “Many Worlds” theory posited that multiple realities exist as distinct entities without interaction. However, more recently, some quantum physicists speculate that parallel worlds might actually overlap and exist in the same region of time and space simultaneously. If that’s the case, an infinite number of realities might exist. Many of them would be incredibly similar to the one we’re living in right now. Events in one universe could “trickle into” another, initiating parallels and overlaps that keep our worlds in constant conversation.
That might sound like a pretty basic concept to port into a Star Trek film. Still, I think the Kelvin timeline is rather elegant in using quantum theory as character development. I give a lot of credit to Abrams’ casting of the 2009 film. Chris Pine as Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Spock, Zoe Saldana as Uhura, Karl Urban as Bones, Simon Pegg as Scotty, John Cho as Sulu, and the late Anton Yelchin as Chekov add so much to these films. Their chemistry is pitch-perfect, and the family bonds established in Star Trek carry beautifully into the sequel.
The basic set-up of Into Darkness—a terrorist attack on Starfleet that comes from within leads the Enterprise crew on a mission to capture “a one-man weapon of mass destruction”—is immediately knowable and felt. We recognize the stakes because we already care deeply about this new cast, charming and colorful as they are.
The parallel worlds thing would be lazy if we didn’t have these perfect ingredients. The love between the Kelvin-timeline Kirk and Spock doesn’t lean too hard on our history with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. When we learn John Harrison—the commander responsible for the attack on Starfleet—is Khan, a genetically engineered superhuman awoken from centuries of sleep by Starfleet admiral Alexander Marcus to develop new superweapons, we know where things will go. The rest of the film plays out as a loose homage, ending with a mirrored version of Spock’s touching sacrifice in Wrath of Khan after saving the Enterprise’s warp drive. In Into Darkness, Kirk saves the drive, sharing an inverse of the iconic hand-touch moment before succumbing to radiation poisoning. (Unlike Spock in Khan, however, Kirk in Into Darkness is revived by the film’s end.)
Suppose we believe that alternate universes occupy the same space-time, thereby influencing timelines relative to their own. In that case, it makes sense that events as prominent as those in the Wrath of Khan would seep into nearby worlds. I know some fans take issue with the rushed nature of the plotting. When Spock dies in Khan, he’s spent decades with Kirk. Kelvin-timeline Kirk has only known Spock a few years. But this doesn’t bother me. The preceding events are catastrophic and distinct enough that new stakes emerge. And Pine and Quinto sell it like hell. Pine’s delivery of “I’m scared, Spock…help me not be,” and Quinto’s crestfallen face bring me to tears every time. It’s an inversion of something familiar but not a cheap one.
I can’t and won’t defend some things about Into Darkness. The immediate reversal of Kirk’s death irks me. And then there’s the whitewashing of Khan, which is not only offensively shortsighted (Khan is a non-white Sikh in canon) but also boring. There’s also the gratuitous scene revealing Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) in her underwear. The moment has zero bearing on the plot or character and feels like the cheap sexualization of a young actress. That one’s so bad the filmmakers—including co-writer Damon Lindelof—have since apologized for it.
So no, Star Trek Into Darkness isn’t some misbegotten masterpiece. The more aggressive flaws are inexcusable, if not downright retrograde, and I won’t argue with legacy Trekkies that the film bests anything that came before. It isn’t worthy of cultural reappraisal in the way something like a Kubrick movie—misunderstood at its time before growing into an all-time classic—might be. But I think it’s a fascinating watch in 2023, considering the “requels” that now proliferate culture. Abrams and crew found a way to weave science into myth and give us powerful character moments that transcend some unfortunate aspects.
Despite its imperfections, Star Trek Into Darkness is a fascinating and highly entertaining pop culture artifact. From the exhilarating space-driving scene to the spine-tingling moment when Uhura confronts the Klingons, it’s full of scenes that remind you just how fun Star Trek can be and how great this cast is. Ten years on, it fits nicely into the ever-expanding Trek canon, guiding the evolution of legacy storytelling toward audacious new frontiers, even with some bumps along the way.