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Star Trek: Into Darkness, A Remake with Contemporary Concerns (and Faults).

Star Trek: Into Darkness is the fourth film by producer and director J.J. Abrams (b. 1966), the (co)creator of TV series such as Alias (2001-06), Lost (2004-10) and Fringe (2008-13), whose cinematic works include Mission: Impossible III (2006), Super 8 (2011), Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens (2015) and the forthcoming Star Wars IX. Into Darkness is a 127-minute science fiction film based on the characters created by Gene Roddenberry for Star Trek (1966-69), the cult popular TV program that revolutionized science fiction television by being "a continuing science-fiction series with the audience appeal and story latitude of the anthology series" (Johnson 83, 75) (1), and was also "the fount and origin of all things cult (at least in the United States)" (Pearson 9). (2) Star Trek was indeed "the mother of all television franchises" and "has successfully crossed over into other related media and popular culture forms including novels, comics, computer games, toys and merchandise, conventions, collectibles and memorabilia" (Geraghty 131). At the same time, Into Darkness is also the sequel of Abrams's Star Trek (2009), the first film of the reboot saga that re-launched the franchise after the failure of Enterprise (2001-05)--the prequel TV series abruptly cancelled after its fourth season. The film earned over 460 million dollars worldwide and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. In 2016, the third episode of the reboot saga, Star Trek Beyond, directed by Justin Lin, was released.

Into Darkness utilizes many narrative elements from the second cinematic instalment of the franchise, Nicholas Meyer's Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982), whose story involves the attempt at revenge by the titular character (Ricardo Montalban), a genetically-enhanced superior human being obsessed with avenging against Admiral Kirk (William Shatner), who stranded him on a desert planet. Wrath of Khan could be considered as one of the best instalments in the thirteen-film saga (along with Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Star Trek: Generations and Star Trek: First Contact, released respectively in 1991, 1994 and 1998) that has conquered entire generations of fans throughout the world for decades. The 1982 film is laudable for the special effects, the soundtrack (composed by James Horner) and the convincing story, which presents the rigid Vulcanian Saavik (Kirstie Alley), Kirk's ex lover Dr. Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch) and their (unknown to him) son David (Merritt Butrick), along with the exceptional cast of the original TV series. One of the greatest merits of the 1982 film is also due to the professional performances of its actors and actresses, especially those of Shatner and Montalban. The former performs Admiral Kirk in all the nuances of the character, from palpable competence and extreme self-confidence to affability, melancholy for his own aging and desperation for the death of a dear friend. Montalban presents on the screen a portrayal of an unforgettable Khan, a calculating and ruthless figure who also blends majestically elegance and nobility with scorn and wildness, and finally quotes Moby Dick's Ahab in his last breath ("from hell's heart, I stab at thee; for hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee").

Into Darkness begins with the mission of the starship USS Enterprise on a planet inhabited by a primitive population (a scene characterized by the brilliant exclusivity of the colours red, yellow and white). The captain of the Enterprise is James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), a talented but rebellious human young man, who often disagrees with his first mate Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto), the half-human/half-Vulcan (the first alien species who allied with the humans, according to the fictional history of the Star Trek universe, and who prioritizes a uniquely scientific and logical approach to life over feelings and emotions). The rest of the crew includes Doctor Leonard 'Bones' McCoy (Karl Urban), Communications Officer Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Chief Engineer Montgomery "Scotty" Scott (Simon Pegg), helmsman Hikaru Sulu (John Cho) and navigator Pavel Chekov (Anton Yelchin). The crew prevents the local volcano from exploding, thus saving the entire planet from destruction, but they are later reprimanded by their superiors in Starfleet for having violated the "Prime Directive" (which forbids any first contact with primitive populations and, therefore, any interference with local cultures). Kirk is provisionally demoted to the rank of first officer and blames Spock for having filed a truthful report of the events on the alien planet.

In the meantime, the genetically-altered superhuman Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) organizes the bombing of a facility of Starfleet. He then waits for the major commanders to reunite in a conference room at Starfleet headquarters and personally attacks them there, murdering many of them. After discovering that Khan has teletransported to the homeworld of the Klingons, a hostile and warrior race, Kirk convinces Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) to assign him the mission to avenge the death of their fellow officers by bombarding with special torpedoes the unpopulated area where Khan is hiding. Following a furious battle against the uncompromising Klingons on the ground, Khan surrenders spontaneously to Kirk and then tells the captain that they are going to be betrayed by someone in Starfleet. With the help of Admiral Marcus' daughter, Carol (Alice Eve)--who infiltrated the crew of the Enterprise to unveil the mystery of the special torpedoes--Kirk discovers that the weapons actually hide the seventy-two bodies of Khan's superhuman companions, who had been frozen into cryogenic sleep 300 years earlier. Admiral Marcus had awakened Khan and blackmailed him into using his enhanced intelligence to construct advanced weapons and warships, thus violating the principles of peace that found the Federation of Planets. However, once the admiral realizes that his plan has been discovered by Kirk, he attacks the Enterprise, crippling the ship orbiting the planet Earth. Only a momentary alliance between Kirk and Khan aboard the admiral's vessel results in the victory of the protagonist. However, in order to avoid collision on Earth, Kirk exposes himself to the radiations of the ship's core and dies--a fate that occurs to Spock in the 1982 film (this is one of the major re-interpretations of the original story). Khan reaches Earth where he is defeated by Spock, who uses his rival's blood to resurrect Kirk. The film ends with Kahn's imprisonment in a secured cryogenic compartment and with the departure of the Enterprise for its five-year mission in deep space--the mission that was the subject of the original TV series.

Abrams' film therefore reinvents and re-elaborates the 1982 story with a typically post-modern approach that continually upsets the (positive or negative) expectations of the viewers who are familiar with the entire cinematic saga and its TV series. Into Darkness does not merely imitate exploitatively its primary source (The Wrath of Khan), but distances itself from it by addressing contemporary ideological preoccupations such as corruption and terrorism. It is by dealing with these issues that the film solves "the remake's problematic and potentially contradictory rhetoric of originality within the framework of an avowed repetition" (Koos 204), which is characteristic of all remakes and their relationship with their precursor texts. The film can be indeed considered as a remake, because it bases its story on narrative elements present in the older franchise but simultaneously adds a great variety of new and surprising thematic, visual and narrative elements. In this respect, it can be defined as what Michael B. Druxman calls "the direct remake", which occurs when "a property may undergo some alterations or even adopt a new title, but the new film and its narrative image do not hide the fact that it is based upon an earlier production" (in Verevis 7). Into Darkness can also be considered as what Harvey R. Greenberg defines as "the acknowledged, transformed remake", which applies "transformations of character, plot, time, and setting" (126) to the originary film (3). The final effect results in a mixture of novelty and tradition that certainly pleases the taste and expectations of the fans of both the old and the new productions of the franchise. In this way, Abrams' film fulfils the very function of the remake, which, according to Constantine Verevis, is "to satisfy the requirement that Hollywood deliver reliability (repetition) and novelty (innovation) in the same production package" (4).

The darkness referred to in the title is the ruthless single-mindedness dictated by wrath into which some of the characters tend to fall and that leads them to avenge themselves of their enemies: Khan, deprived of his hibernated companions avenges on Admiral Marcus; Kirk forgets his mandate and the principles of the Federation of Planets and accepts an illegal mission to capture Khan because the latter is responsible for the death of the father-like figure of Admiral Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood). In this sense, and contrary to The Wrath of Khan, Abrams' film involves two falls into darkness, from which only Kirk manages to re-surface (by opposing the corruption lurking inside the Federation Kirk restores the pacifist and democratic ethos and faith in justice of the original saga). Such metaphorical falls are further reinforced by the literal falls of the starships into the Earth's atmosphere as well as by characters' numerous falls during the various fights (not to mention Kirk's "fall" into death and resurrection near the end of the film).

When confronted with its 1982 predecessor, the most innovative visual elements of Into Darkness are the spectacular and extremely realistic special effects, which contribute significantly to the fast-paced action sequences scattered throughout the film as well as to the creation of alien landscapes and terrestrial skylines, such as the San Francisco and London of the future. The latter cities are undoubtedly fascinating and depict a clean and pleasant world unlike the dystopic future of films such as the Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982), Michael Radford's 1984 (1984) and James Cameron's The Terminator (1984). Into Darkness thus reflects the predisposition to visual sensationalism that is characteristic of Abrams's works and here manifests particularly in those scenes that represent the exciting flights of the vessels (whether the starships or the shuttlecrafts) or the gun fights and hand-to-hand combats of the characters. Exemplary, in this sense, are the chase sequence set on the Klingon homeworld among the abandoned metallic buildings, and the fight between the two Starfleet vessels orbiting the Earth. [IMAGE #1] What is most astonishing is the attention to details, especially in the dissemination in space of the debris resulting from the armed conflicts among the space vessels. Such an attention to details is realized also in the depiction of the ships' exteriors. As Owen Gleiberman notices, in fact, "the Enterprise [...] never looked quite so massive or looming" (n.p.). As it occurs in Abrams' Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens (2015) too, the director reveals the realistic proportions of the starships by measuring the minuteness of human beings (and aliens) against them (Sanna 93).

The richness of details throughout the film also benefits from the frequent changes of frames during the single scenes. In the case of the "duel" between Spock and Khan near the end of the film, for example, the fast-paced sequence is further quickened by the continuous changes of frames (each of them from a different position and angle) that allow spectators to have multiple perspectives on the two characters fighting. Such a technique contrasts markedly with the general use of medium and close shots during many of the dialogue scenes, which do not use multiple frames or angles in order to focus on the interaction between the characters and their reactions.

In spite of its evident merits, the film has received mixed reviews. On one hand, Robbie Collin criticizes its reworking of a previous episode in the saga, which, he believes, reduces the enjoyment of the film to the recognition of the references by the fans. Collin also argues that the pioneering spirit of the original saga has been lost, whereas A.O. Scott thinks that the film has sacrificed the "large-spirited humanism that sustained" the franchise. According to Matt Zoller Seitz as well the film is disappointing because of its too frequent references to the past films and episodes of the TV series. Lou Lumenick instead defines it as "mind-dumbing" because of its "murky plot, which is as silly as it is arbitrary", and because of the presence of a "boring" main villain. On the other hand, Scott Foundas considers Into Darkness as superior to its 2009 predecessor and Claudia Puig praises it for the "spectacular special effects, superbly crafted action sequences, plenty of humor and terrific performances". Finally, Andrew Pulver argues that the relationships among the characters are thicker than in the 2009 film, although, as A.O. Scott recognizes, the romance between Spock and Uhura (a considerable, interesting departure from the original franchise) is at times overshadowed by the romance between Kirk and Spock. Generally, the familiar characters (especially to Trekkers/fans of the series) are injected with new life, especially through the depiction of the difference between the passion and impetuousness of the humans and the cold Vulcan logic of the first officer.

Nevertheless, not all of the characters actually receive the deserved focus. Indeed, the major fault of the film is its sexism: this is evident in the fact that the female characters have only marginal roles in the story, for example, although being one of the bridge officers and major characters of the story, Lieutenant Uhura is confined to small appearances throughout the film and her only contribution to the mission's success is offered by her ability to translate an alien language and face momentarily a group of adversaries when the away team is on the Klingon homeworld. For the rest of the film she is mainly considered as Spock's girlfriend and Kirk demonstrates too much interest in her personal complaints about the first officer rather than in her actual feelings, her motivations and her background. This contrasts markedly with the depiction of the Uhura character in the original series, who was (by admission also of Martin Luther King himself, as actress Nichelle Nichols revealed publicly on several occasions) one of the first black actresses to be fully integrated in the cast of a TV program on equal terms.

Similarly, the character of Carol Marcus is considered mainly through her relationship with her father and her contribution to the success of the mission is limited to the disarmament of one of the torpedoes. The character has been at the centre of a scandal regarding the scene in which she undresses near Captain Kirk. Indeed, in such a sequence the two characters are visiting a shuttlecraft while discussing the doctor's imminent mission on a planetoid. Carol then asks the captain to turn around while she undresses. Her need to change outfit before the mission, and in front of the camera, is actually unmotivated, except by the necessity to reveal her almost naked body (to the male gaze). The sequence has been severely criticized for its sexism (Adams; Iacovino) and co-writer Damon Lindelof replied to the accusations on May 2013 by acknowledging on Twitter its gratuitousness. Lindelof then apologized for it by stating: "I take responsibility and will be more mindful in the future" (in Child).

Star Trek Into Darkness can be definitely considered as an elaborate and entertaining film due to the plot twists and the special effects (which convey a sense of greatness to the reality of the future and to space travel). The film will certainly conquer those viewers who appreciated the 2009 reboot launch of the saga directed by Abrams and will be evaluated as a coherent sequel to it. On the other hand, some of the most faithful fans of the original saga and the democratic spirit of its fictional universe might consider Into Darkness as a less rich re-enactment of the original character relationships that has lost the depth of Gene Roddenberry's humanitarian vision. Certainly, as is the case of the majority of remakes, the spectators of Into Darkness could benefit from prior knowledge of the 1982 predecessor, although this story sustains itself well on its own. On the other hand, the exploration of contemporary issues and anxieties (such as terrorism) demonstrates that the film is grounded in the present times, both with its positive aspects (the fight against corruption) and its defects (the sexist representation of the female characters). In spite of its narrative link with Wrath of Khan, therefore, the 2013 film is enjoyable on its own, and will provide a memorable experience for all fans of science-fiction films.

Works Cited

Adams, Alyce. "Star Trek into Darkness: Representation of Women was Appalling". Accessed 10 Sept. 2018.

Child, Ben. "Star Trek Into Darkness Writer Apologizes for Underwear Scene". The Guardian. Accessed 10 Sept. 2018.

Collin, Robbie. "Star Trek Into Darkness, Review" The Telegraph. Accessed 09 Sept. 2018.

Foundas, Scott. "Star Trek Into Darkness Review". Variety. Accessed 09 Sept. 2018.

Geraghty, Lincoln. "The Star Trek Franchise". The Cult TV Book: From Star Trek to Dexter, New Approaches to TV Outside the Box. Ed. Stacey Abbott. New York: Soft Skull Press, 2010. 131-34.

Gleiberman, Owen. "Star Trek Into Darkness". Entertainment Weekly. Accessed 09 Sept. 2018.

Greenberg, Harvey R. "Raiders of the Lost Text: Remaking as Contested Homage in Always". Play It Again, Sam: Retakes on Remakes. Eds. Andrew Horton and Stuart Y. McDougal. Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 1998. 115-30.

Iacovino, Kayla. "Sexy or Sexist? How Star Trek Into Darkness turned Heroines into Damsels in Distress". Accessed 10 Sept. 2018.

Johnson, Catherine. Telefantasy. London: BFI, 2005.

Koos, Leonard R. "Hiring Practices: Simenon/Duvivier/Leconte". Dead Ringers: The Remake in Theory and Practice. Eds. Jennifer Forrest and Leonard R. Koos. Albany, NY: SUNY, 2002. 203-23.

Lumenick, Lou. "Star Trek Into Darkness is Lost in Space". New York Post. Accessed 09 Sept. 2018.

Pearson, Roberta. "Observations on Cult Television". The Cult TV Book: From Star Trek to Dexter, New Approaches to TV Outside the Box. Ed. Stacey Abbott. New York: Soft Skull Press, 2010. 7-17.

Puig, Claudia. "Star Trek Into Darkness Sheds New Light on Franchise". USA Today. Accessed 09 Sept. 2018.

Pulver, Andrew. "Star Trek Into Darkness--Review". The Guardian. Accessed 09 Sept. 2018.

Sanna, Antonio. "The Reawakening of Star Wars: Nostalgia, Machinery and Epic Grandeur". Cinematic Codes Review 1.2 (Summer 2016): 83-96.

Scott, A.O. "Kirk and Spock in their Roughhousing Days". The New York Times. Accessed 09 Sept. 2018.

Star Trek: Into Darkness. Dir. J.J. Abrams. USA: Paramount, 2013.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Dir. Nicholas Meyer. USA: Paramount, 1982.

Verevis, Constantine. Film Remakes. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2006.

Zoller Seitz, Matt. "Star Trek Into Darkness"., Accessed 09 Sept. 2018.

Antonio Sanna completed his PhD at the University of Westminster in London in 2008. His main research areas are: English literature, Gothic literature, horror films and TV, epic and historical films, superhero films and cinematic adaptations. In the past ten years he has published over seventy articles and reviews in international journals. Antonio is the co-editor of the Lexington Books' series Critical Companions to Popular Directors, which includes the volumes dedicated to Tim Burton (2017), James Cameron (2018) and Steven Spielberg (2019). He has also edited the volumes Pirates in History and Popular Culture (McFarland, 2018) and Critical Essays on Twin Peaks: The Return (Palgrave, 2019). He has worked for three years as a Teaching Assistant at the University of Cagliari and is currently employed as a teacher of English literature in Sassari. E-mail:

(1) As Johnson argues, Star Trek can be categorized as "telefantasy" along with programs such as The X-Files (1993-2002, 2016-) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003). Telefantasy, according to Johnson, offers new perspectives on society "by both evoking and disturbing socio-cultural verisimilitude" (8).

(2) According to Sara Gwenllian-Jones and Roberta Pearson, "in the media, in common usage, and sometimes even in academia, 'cult' is often loosely applied to any television program that is considered offbeat or edgy, that draws a niche audience, that has a nostalgic appeal, that is considered emblematic of a particular subculture, or that is considered hip" (in Pearson 7). Corresponding to such a definition are series as different as Lost, Twin Peaks (1990-91, 2017) and The Sopranos (1999-2007).

(3) The alternative forms of remake, according to Greenberg, are the "acknowledged, close remake" (evident in the Biblical epics) and the "unacknowledged, disguised remake" (126).
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Author:Sanna, Antonio
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Date:Mar 22, 2019
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