Evaluating the Summer Blockbuster: Star Trek Into Darkness

star trek
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)


1) Nibiru
2) Starfleet Command, Kronos, & USS Vengeance
3) San Francisco
4) Can you learn to take personal responsibility for others?

1) A Killer Opening

Executing step one of the Blockbuster formula to a tee, the film opens on the colorful planet Nibiru as the crew of the Enterprise attempt to neutralize a volcano without disobeying the Prime Directive. When things go wrong, Kirk end up flying his starship by in full view of native population. Although this straight plunge into the action is a little jarring, it’s a fun and visually immersive sequence. While the brisk pace is a bit overwhelming (which will continue for the rest of the movie) the events on Nibiru have important and direct ramifications for the main characters.

2) Two Major Set Pieces

John Harrison attacks a gathering of Starfleet leaders on Earth, leaving Kirk’s mentor and surrogate father — Admiral Pike — dead. Soon after, Kirk leads a covert assault on Kronos leading to a battle with Klingons and Harrison. With little time to figure out what is really going on, the USS Vengeance arrives and opens fire on the Enterprise taking the crew to the brink of destruction. Khan and Kirk rocket through the debris to board the temporarily disabled Vengeance. All these set pieces are big and beautiful, but function as essential plot drivers keeping up the relentless pacing established on Nibiru. Whether or not you think these scenes are effective, this experimental pacing style is not exactly formulaic.

3) A Killer Climax

Here is where the high speed train derails. What should have ended in Kirk’s sacrifice, an event ripe for a story punch, just keeps going. The real climax happens in space with the salvation of the Enterprise, but instead we get a bonus battle chase in San Francisco with Khan, Spock and Uhura. A lot happens but nothing of real consequence. It’s a valiant effort but this climax doesn’t remotely dovetail with the larger themes established earlier in Kirk’s dismissal.

4) A Concise Statement of Theme

Can you learn to take responsibility for others?


What happens when an unstoppable force meets an unmovable object? You get the ending to this movie, a sort of non-ending. I think of this film as a grand experiment in pacing. While this creates a tense kinetic urgency, it also results in some unsatisfying narrative pitfalls. The plot must keep moving at any cost so that moments that should be emotionally moving like Kirk’s death completely unravel. The film’s momentum can’t afford to have him stay dead for more than a few minutes.

However despite those setbacks, I would argue that this film is unlike the bland cliches and formulas you might expect from a big budget picture. It’s a thrill ride, not a clunky conventional structure. It succeeds in building exactly the wild frenetic narrative it desires and refuses to compromise that goal, even when it might make sense to. Even if this choice is not entirely successful, it is both bold and interesting nonetheless.

The Story Punch

In line with its inability to build to a real conclusion, the narrative places its story punch at the safest place possible: the beginning. Knowing that it won’t have time to pause later, the story achieves its moment of highest human drama in Admiral Pike’s conversation with Kirk in his office.

Kirk is reckless and proud. He places his own ambition above the safety and wellbeing of his crew. Pike confronts him on this and reveals the stunning news: Starfleet has stripped Kirk of the captain’s chair.

Why? He is not ready for it.

This contradicts everything we expect from a Star Trek movie. We expect the captain to be the captain. We expect him or her to be ready to fulfill that duty. Yet we can all agree that up to this point Kirk has based most of his success on brash luck. He is courageous, yet also irresponsible and too willing to take unnecessary risks. This is perhaps the strongest statement you can make about a character, not that they are unethical or flawed, but that they are undeserving and unable to perform the very character role we expect of them. They are less than they should be.

Throughout the rest of the story, Kirk addresses this internal issue which outweighs the other external issues swirling around him. When he has victory inside, then he can victory out there. That is the true end of this story: Kirk resolving the deep struggle within himself played out on the bigger canvas of the conflict between Marcus and Harrison.


4 thoughts on “Evaluating the Summer Blockbuster: Star Trek Into Darkness

  1. Good analysis of a solid, but far from great summer blockbuster. I really liked a lot of ST:ID, but that self-contradictory, wishy-washy ending really irked me. The film would’ve had so much more impact and thematic resolution if Kirk really had died and permanently sacrificed himself…if only until he were brought back in the next movie.

    One thing I will always credit these new JJ Abrams ST movies is that Kirk always does have an arc, if sometimes an unrealistic one. Kirk seems like he actually grows and learns something by the end of the movie.

  2. I think it would have been awesome if he died and stayed dead. Permanently. Now Spock is the new captain trying to honor Kirk’s legacy. Everything is up in the air. True stakes. History will be rewritten. That would have been truly bold.

  3. Completely agree about the “faux” climax. Doesn’t quite hit the mark like the sequence before it. Would love the idea of Kirk dying too but the fallout would take a lot to come back from. Great review.

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