Star Trek Into Darkness Review

When the Star Trek franchise was rebooted in 2009, many long time fans rejoiced. Gone were the stale plots built up from the previous series; it was time to revisit that universe with a fresh set of eyes, new ideas and possibilities, and a cast that could the characters all their own. With the first film laying the foundation, hopes were high that the sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, would be even better. In the attempt to appease the fans and make a modern sci fi action movie, however, something got lost along the way.

****SPOILERS****

The movie opens with what can only be described as a sci-fi homage to Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Kirk is being chased through an alien jungle by a horde of angry natives. Seriously, the only difference is that the trees are red, the natives are covered in crusty white paint, and Kirk is wearing a shabby robe as disguise. He makes it a few hundred more yards before some gigantic saber-toothed bear…thing rears up in front of the camera. Like any good action hero, Kirk whips out his phaser and stuns the beast unconscious. The monster drops out of view, revealing an angry Dr. McCoy behind it.

“Damn it, man! That was our ride! You just stunned our ride!”

Wait, what?

This is the first of many instances in this move that demonstrate Kirk’s utter inability to think things through. It’s one thing to neutralize a wild animal in your way. But why would he willingly take out something so integral to his own mission? He’s the captain; shouldn’t he, of all people, be privy to the exact details of the plan? They went through the trouble of disguises and exit routes, so it’s not like they’re making this up on the fly. Did he just panic and forget his method of escape? Is he trigger happy? Or just plain stupid?

Judging by the rest of the mission, it’s leaning toward the latter. The objective is simple: lead the natives away from an erupting volcano while Spock, Uhura, and Sulu somehow neutralize the explosion. This involves hovering a shuttlecraft over the mountaintop, lowering an armored Spock on a tow cable, and detonating a “cold fusion device.” Things go awry when the shuttlecraft’s engines overheat, and Spock is dropped onto a rocky outcropping surrounded by lava. As the others ditch the craft, Kirk and McCoy jump off a seaside cliff and swim to the Enterprise hidden underwater. Now they have to somehow save Spock, detonate the device, and leave without being seen.

…Wow. So little of this plan makes sense, it’s kind of impressive. Firstly, why would they hide the Enterprise underwater? It’s a starship capable of planetary orbit; if they were worried about being seen (and it’s not like these natives have telescopes), they could’ve just drifted on the other side of the planet and designated a rendezvous. What’s the ship made of, anyway? Scotty implies that saltwater will potentially wreck it. Also, what’s the deal with the shuttlecraft? As an exploration vehicle, it’s designed to enter and exit alien atmospheres. That requires an incredibly high resistance to heat; reentry is far hotter than surface lava. On that note, why would they even send an away team in the first place? The ship has a transporter. All they had to do was set the cold fusion device on a timer, beam it to coordinates that account for gravity and timing, and let the thing detonate. Speaking of which, the “cold fusion device” is basically useless in this situation. Cold fusion refers to nuclear reactions that happen at room temperature, certainly nothing capable of stopping an active volcano.

But since this is a summer blockbuster action movie, everything works out okay. The Enterprise rises out of the water in an admittedly awesome shot, and they focus on getting Spock back on board. The problem is that by doing so, they’d be seen by the natives and directly violate Starfleet’s Prime Directive of non-interaction. Because stopping a volcano from exploding and drastically altering a planet’s geothermal system with advanced technology totally isn’t the same thing. They do know that just freezing the surface of a volcano doesn’t turn it dormant…right? Way to stave off the inevitable, guys. Whatever. Kirk predictably defies orders and Spock is beamed out at the last second. Uhura is noticeably angry that Spock (her apparent boyfriend in this alternate universe) was so willing to throw his life away. He’s more angry about the Prime Directive thing, but Kirk just shrugs it off. The crew triumphantly hightails it back to space, while the natives draw and worship an Enterprise-shaped symbol in the dirt. Kinda like Comic Con, but with less cosplayers.

After the title card, the scene shifts to a family in London. A mother and father visit their daughter at hospital; it’s implied that the little girl has some kind of terminal illness. Side note: the special effects in the background are pretty cool. Having anti-gravity gurneys in an otherwise realistic facility is a nice way of showing that this isn’t too far in the future. There’s a brief scene with the parents staring teary-eyed at the poor girl, something to which anyone with sick relatives can relate. What can you do for the dying? The answer comes from Benedict Cumberbatch, who walks up to the father with a swell of music and says that he can save the child. The guy asks who this mysterious man is, and of course there’s no answer for the sake of maintaining the drama. Most savvy viewers will immediately – and correctly – guess that he’s really Khan, but whatever. Why is someone so blatantly evil hanging around children’s hospital wings? Is the father so desperate that he’ll believe any random passerby proposing a cure?

Meanwhile, Kirk is having some PG-13 rated fun-time with a pair of alien cat girls. Apparently some traits never die, even if they are in an alternate reality. Side note: Kirk not only has a vintage record player, but he’s playing “Body Movin” by the Beastie Boys. I was in high school when the Hello Nasty album dropped, and this movie has now made me feel old. Lovely. Kirk and Spock get called to Starfleet HQ in San Francisco, apparently for a meeting with Admiral Pike. Kirk optimistically assumes they’ve been promoted for the fleet’s upcoming 5-year mission – a nice foreshadowing/call back to the original Star Trek series – but Spock is doubtful. Even if they’re brief, these glimpses of Starfleet are interesting; there are plenty of people in dress uniform, complete with military-style caps. It’s a good indication that Starfleet has recovered since the events of the last movie.

So has Pike, who’s traded his wheelchair for a cane and an immaculate office. He questions Kirk and Spock about the mission, but it’s obvious he’s not happy. Kirk apparently lied on his captain’s log and tried to cover up the ludicrous plan. Spock, being the responsible paragon of proper protocol, wrote his own report. If this was happening in the old Star Trek verse, the situation would probably be brushed over and forgotten, maybe with a threat of demotion. But this shows what would actually happen if a military captain pulled these kinds of shenanigans: He gets demoted and loses command of the Enterprise. That’s it. It’s amazing he didn’t get a court martial. Pike gives the kid a much-needed dressing down over his recklessness, irresponsibility, lack of humility, and inability to understand his shortcomings. Kirk points out that he was originally given the Enterprise for being such a maverick, but clearly doesn’t understand what being a leader is all about.

Gee, I wonder what Kirk’s character arc is going to be.

This meeting scene is brief, but it’s one of the most underrated ones in the movie. While everyone else is acting like younger, hipper versions of the iconic characters, Bruce Greenwood’s take on Admiral Pike is the most believable. He captures the angry, aging father figure with just the right amount of energy and personality. Of course, the fact that he’s retaking command of the Enterprise (and taking Kirk back as his first officer?! Wow, so much for common sense!) means he’s going to die pretty soon. Mentor characters have a habit of being killed as a way kick-start the student’s character growth. It’s a narrative thing. Side note: the face-to-face argument gives the audience lingering shots of Chris Pine’s inhumanly bright blue eyes. Did the post-production crew think Kirk was secretly an alien?

Back in London, it’s established that Benedict Cumberbatch has magic blood. No, seriously. This is the plot point they’re going with. Apparently it has healing properties that completely disregard things like type or allergic reactions. Why, that’s just what the little girl needs! Dad hooks up the IV and watches his daughter’s stats return to normal. In exchange for this wonderful cure, he is tasked with blowing up the Starfleet building in which he works. He does this by dropping some kind of chemically-enhanced ring that explodes in water. The camera pulls back from the fiery destruction and settles on a snapshot of the little girl. It’s the way to remind the audience that this horrific act was done for her sake by a loving father. But why? After seeing his daughter healed, he could’ve easily contacted the authorities and had Mr. Magic Blood arrested for plotting terrorism. The magic blood could’ve made a temporary recovery; the girl could’ve keeled over the next day. Also, how did he think this was going to end for his daughter? Did he really believe the doctors were just going to let her walk out after a miraculous recovery? If anything, they’d keep her there for scientific study and discover a mutation in her blood…Growing up is not going to be fun for that kid.

Whatever. Starfleet’s been attacked, so Admiral Marcus (played by Peter Weller of RoboCop fame) calls for a meeting of all senior officers at HQ. En route, Kirk gives Spock a bitter talk about the whole honesty thing, and even calls it a backstabbing. He implies that Spock doesn’t understand that the two are friends, something that would actually make sense. In the original series, Kirk and Spock had known each other for years, and their relationship reflected that. In this alternate universe, they’ve only known each other since the events of the last movie. They were at each others’ throats – literally. Not surprising they still don’t work well together. The two part ways at the start of the meeting, believing they’re never going to see each other again. Yeah, like that’s going to happen.

Admiral RoboCop explains that the building in London was a Starfleet data archive. The father-turned-bomber conveniently sent a message (Seriously, why didn’t he just send the message without triggering the bomb?!) warning of what was going on. The mastermind is John Harrison, one of Starfleet’s top agents gone rogue. He’s commandeered a ship and gone into hiding, but apparently hasn’t left Earth. Kirk, of all people, makes an astute observation: Why would a terrorist target a data archive? Everything in there is public knowledge and has no tactical value. Also, why hasn’t he stolen a ship with warp capability and vanished into deep space? It’s almost like Harrison wants to stay close by…As everyone mulls this over, a small ship hovers outside the window and starts blasting everything.

Oh, so that’s why Harrison is still there.

The plan is simple: bomb the archive to get the Starfleet’s top brass in one room, then blow it to smithereens. It’s brutal, effective, and relies heavily on a complete lack of common sense. Is the audience supposed to think Starfleet is incompetent? They know Harrison is one of their top agents; why would they use the same protocol – which he would know – to set up an emergency meeting? Couldn’t they have chosen a new place to hold a conference? Also, why are they having this secret meeting in the upper floors of HQ, next to a massive window? They live in a world where flying vehicles with guns are normal. Anyone could hover nearby, take a phaser shot, or even read lips with a telescope! Why aren’t they in an underground bunker? How did Harrison even get close enough to the building? They know he’s commandeered a ship. Doesn’t it have trackers or anything on it? This is all happening mere hours after a terrorist attack; shouldn’t the airspace around Starfleet HQ be closely monitored? He should’ve been blasted to smithereens by security as soon as he opened fire.

But of course that doesn’t happen. The attack lasts just long enough for most of the senior officers to be gunned down, including Pike. (Called it!) He spends his final, agonizing moments cradled in Spock’s arms. Unlike certain characters in other Star Trek films, he does not die well; there’s blood flowing out his mouth, and his eyes are brimming with tears. Bizarrely, Spock takes the opportunity to do a Vulcan mind meld. Why? Does he have some kind of fascination with death? Was he trying to preserve Pike’s memory a la Wrath of Khan? Is he using it to better understand his own mortality? Shouldn’t he have been trying to get Pike to a doctor? Meanwhile, Kirk manages to destroy the ship’s engine , and he and Harrison have a brief stare-down before the villain teleports away. Kirk actually has a pretty sad moment when he realizes his mentor is dead. Then airspace security shows up.

In the meantime, Harrison reappears on some other planet, dons a stylish hoodie/trench coat, and vanishes into parts unknown. Scotty has a pretty good idea, though; when examining the wreckage of the ship, he comes across a “portable transwarp beaming device.” No, seriously. That’s the mouthful they’re going with. It conveniently displays its last programmed destination, the Klingon homeworld…Wait, what? Technology in this universe has not only advanced enough that people can carry their own personal transporter, but it lets them go to other planets too?! Why isn’t every ship in Starfleet equipped with these things? Doesn’t this undermine the entire point of building habitable starships? Why don’t they just send probes equipped with these things into deep space? Wouldn’t that save tons of money and resources? Boy, they sure could’ve used one during that  volcano mission…And if Harrison had such technology, why would he even need to get someone else to blow up the archive? Why attack the conference room directly?  He could’ve just teleported a bomb into the room. If he’s Starfleet’s top agent, I shudder to think what the red shirts are like.

Despite the Klingon planet being the space equivalent of North Korea, Kirk is determined to get revenge. Admiral RoboCop inexplicably gives him the Enterprise again – despite demoting him less than a day before – and assigns Spock as his first officer. Also, the building Harrison destroyed wasn’t an archive; it was a secret military research facility run by Starfleet’s clandestine Section 31. Ooh, Star Trek espionage sounds promising. They’ve even developed a long-range, untraceable photon torpedo! The mission is simple: Take all 72 of these bombs to Harrison’s location, blow everything up, and warp out before the Klingons figure out what happened…even though the Klingons would be able to read the Enterprise’s warp signature and trace it back to Earth. They don’t seem to realize that last part. You’ve got to wonder why the admiral chose to reinstate Spock, though; he’s a notorious stickler for rules, and I’m pretty sure the whole murder-from-a-distance-and-possibly-trigger-a-war plan isn’t Starfleet regulation. There’s no way he’d let that happen. It’s pretty obvious that there’s a bigger scheme going on – the lingering shot of the spaceship models in the admiral’s office is blatant foreshadowing – but everyone agrees to go along with it.

Especially Kirk, who poorly attempts to hide his revenge-fueled rage as they prep for the mission. Spock points out the lack of morality involved in killing someone without a trial, how it completely goes against protocol, and the needlessly risky idea of bombing a place home to a war-faring people. If only they had a portable transwarp beaming device…Kirk, of course, brushes all of this off. He’s too busy staring at Carol Wallace, an advanced weapons specialist assigned to the mission by the admiral himself. Carol Wallace…That name sounds familiar. Like Carol Marcus, Kirk’s love interest in the original timeline. But that means she’d have the same last name as the admiral. There’s no way those two could be connected, right? Right?

The mission prep hits a snag with Scotty’s recurring bouts of common sense. He’s refusing the shipment of those long-range torpedoes because he can’t scan their payload, and the contents are classified. He’s absolutely right, too. If you’re working with weapons, especially explosives, you need to know exactly how they work. Are the contents toxic? Does they have to be stored at a certain temperature? What is its fail-safe? What kind of fuel does it use? It’s kind of important. Considering that the ship’s warp core is essentially “a radioactive catastrophe waiting to happen,” Starfleet’s militarization, and his transwarp equation being weaponized, Scotty has legitimate concerns. Since Kirk is too revenge-focused to give him another choice, he promptly resigns and begs him not to use the weapons. Later, man. See you when the plot inevitably needs you again!

Forty minutes in, and we’re finally back on the Enterprise. I’m suddenly reminded of bridge’s ridiculous lighting scheme. It’s like going to an Apple Store, but even more blinding. I get J.J. Abrams has a thing for lens flares, but what kind of spaceship has lights that are positioned to shine directly in the crew’s eyes? After warping into space and replacing Scotty with Chekov (Seriously?) in engineering, Kirk announces his plan to the entire ship: He will take a landing party to the surface, arrest Harrison, and bring him back to face trial. Wow, looks like Spock’s impromptu ethics lesson paid off! So has his background check of Carol, which reveals that she’s the admiral’s daughter and boarded with false documents. Man, Starfleet really is inept; there have been two acts of terrorism in a week, and they just let anyone on without proper inspection? For all they know, she could be some kind of saboteur. They should keep her locked in the brig until they can find out her actual intentions…But due to plot purposes, Spock keeps her secret for no reason.

Speaking of sabotage, the warp drive breaks down 20 minutes away from their destination. Kirk, Spock, and Uhura (and two guys who will probably killed off-screen soon) take a shuttle to Harrison’s location in an otherwise deserted part of the planet. That leaves Sulu in charge, which is a cool nod to his counterpart in the original series. He’s tasked with broadcasting a message to Harrison, warning him to surrender or get wiped out by 72 missiles. “If you test me, you will fail.” Oh, how intimidating. Hey tough guy, how do you know Harrison can even hear you? Does he have a radio? How are you broadcasting this message? You do know the Klingons can probably pick up your transmissions, right? You’d change your tune if you had a few Birds of Prey aiming at you. Why are you even warning Harrison that you’re coming? You don’t know what other resources he has. You’re giving him time to come up with another escape, or even a counterattack! This is supposed to be a stealth mission, right?

Uhura’s priorities are a little skewed, too. She spends a good portion of the ride chewing out Spock over his stoic reaction to the whole near-death in the volcano thing. Because a lovers’ quarrel is exactly what we need in the middle of a high-stakes and possibly suicidal mission. He explains the difference between not caring and choosing to accept death on his own terms, which gives a lot of insight into Spock’s personality. Before anyone can ponder on it, however, the shuttlecraft is attacked by the Klingons. Wasn’t this area supposed to be abandoned? They try to hand wave it by saying it’s a random patrol, but how could they miss something like that? Don’t they have scanners? Maybe if they weren’t so distracted with the soap opera drama…Anyway, a big, loud chase scene ensues, resulting in them being caught and forced to deal with the Klingons face-to-face. Uhura tries negotiating, but gets nearly strangled to death.

They’re saved by Harrison’s grand, bloody entrance. He wastes little time in annihilating over a dozen Klingons in with a hail of lasers, blades, and explosions. The crew tries their best to fight as well – the entire scene has a first-person shooter vibe – but they’re completely outclassed by his brutal efficiency. There’s a reason he’s one of Starfleet’s best. He casually dismisses Spock despite being held at gunpoint, and surrenders after asking about Sulu’s torpedoes. Kirk takes the opportunity to use excessive force (several punches to the face) during the arrest, but it has no effect whatsoever; Harrison just stands there looking bored. It’s a demonstration of his physical prowess as well as his intellectual; unlike most battles, Kirk can’t brawl his way out of this one.

After notifying Starfleet, they put Harrison in the brig. This results in an unintentional homage to The Silence of the Lambs. A creepy, intelligent, and cultured killer trapped behind a wall of thick glass, while the heroes try to get information out of him? Yeah, Cumberbatch is channeling a sci-fi Hannibal Lecter. As McCoy takes his blood sample, he implies that he knows why the warp core is busted and offers his insight. Kirk angrily shuts him down at first, but eventually gets a set of space coordinates and the suggestion to open one of the torpedoes. It’s a start, but Harrison didn’t need to be so cryptic. Why not spell out what’s going on right then and keep the plot moving? …To bring Scotty back into the picture, of course. He’s busy getting hammered in San Francisco (sharp-eyed Bay Area viewers will note the club is at the end of Pier 3 near the Ferry Building), and takes a personal call from Kirk. Wait, what? Their communicators have a range that spans across planets?! How far apart are they? Scotty agrees to look into the Harrison’s mysterious coordinates and accepts the captain’s apology.

That leaves the torpedoes. With Scotty gone, Carol is the only person qualified to examine them. Kirk’s confused reaction to her being Admiral RoboCop’s daughter is funny, but it’s a reminder of how pointless the coverup was. Did Spock keep it a secret just to mess with Kirk? Shouldn’t they be more worried about the security breaches involved with someone using fake transcripts? They’re lucky she’s not evil; she’s here because she knows her father is pulling some kind of scheme. After her ridiculous and pointless fan service scene (seriously, who thought that was a good idea for Kirk to ogle while she stripped down?), she and McCoy start operating on a torpedo. Since this would be too boring on its own, the bomb somehow arms itself and activates a timed explosion. Carol fixes it with the good old pull-out-all-the-wires trick from every action movie ever, and it’s revealed there’s someone cryogenically stored inside. Harrison then drops the big reveal of the movie:

His true name is Khan! (Dun dun dun!)

For a second, I thought they’d put in a bolt of space-lightning for dramatic effect. It’s supposed to be some huge revelation, even though long time fans could’ve picked up on it long beforehand. It was so obvious, even the back of the DVD case spoils it. The only real reason to have Khan return is because he’s the most famous villain in the Star Trek lore; people are familiar with the name, so it instantly makes the film more interesting to the average viewer. He reveals that he and his 72 followers were genetically engineered to be superior to human beings in every way. They were condemned as war criminals and frozen over 300 years ago, but were found by Admiral RoboCop sometime between the two movies. Khan was revived alone and tasked with developing weapons technology, thus laying the foundation for the admiral’s dream of a militarized Starfleet. Kirk asks, “Why would a Starfleet admiral ask a 300 year-old frozen man for help?” That’s a very good question; no matter how intelligent someone is, it takes time to learn things. Going by the timeline, Khan would’ve needed to learn three centuries’ worth of technology and science – including the development of interstellar travel and warp engines – in less than one year. That’s like asking Benjamin Franklin to design the Large Hadron Collider! Are there really no better qualified tacticians in this continuity?!

Khan tries to gain sympathy with Kirk (and the audience) by pointing out their similarities: they’re both leaders who would do anything for their “families.” Only difference is, Kirk didn’t go on a murderous rampage when he lost someone. Admiral RoboCop clearly isn’t working with a full deck, either. Not only did he try to blackmail Khan by threatening to kill the other 72 crew, but he knowingly sent the Enterprise into enemy territory with a sabotaged warp core as well. All for the sake of kick-starting a war with the Klingons and getting rid of any evidence of the conspiracy. Using the long-range torpedoes with Khan’s crew inside was just the icing on the cake…even though it makes no sense whatsoever. If you’re a evil military mastermind and have six dozen pieces of evidence linking back to your scheme, why would you let someone else dispose of them?! Why did the admiral even bother giving the torpedoes to Kirk? He could’ve just cremated the bodies and then equipped the Enterprise. Did he seriously think they’d risk bombing the Klingons after the engine broke down?

Admiral RoboCop tries to make up for it by personally taking the USS Vengeance – an absolutely massive warship Khan designed – straight to the Enterprise in a last-ditch attempt at a cover-up. Boy, he sure could’ve used a portable transwarp beaming device right then. So much for being discreet. He chides Kirk for disobeying orders (I don’t know why he’s surprised, as Kirk is an established rule-breaker), and asks for the prisoner’s location. After both sides give up on the pretenses of this being a real mission, the admiral admits the truth and demands Khan be given up. They attempt to warp back to Earth, but the ship is gunned down a hail of phaser fire and explosions. Carol tries to talk her father out destroying the Enterprise, but is promptly teleported to the other ship. With death mere seconds away, Kirk frantically tries to surrender himself to spare the crew – a nice parallel with Khan – but is mocked and shut down. It’s at this point that Kirk finally realizes what being a leader is all about: taking responsibility for your choices. You can’t just go gallivanting through life without handling the consequences. With his pride finally crushed, he turns to apologize to his crew before being vaporized…

…Or at least that’s what would have happened, but Scotty snuck on board the Vengeance and temporarily shut it down. Yes, he went to Khan’s coordinates and found a huge warship at a secret base, and somehow infiltrated their security. How convenient. Couldn’t he have sabotaged the weapons down earlier? You know, before all the explosions and death? With both ships now adrift and incapable of fighting, Kirk decides to team up with Khan, jump over to the Vengeance in a spacesuit, and take it over from the inside. When Spock calls him out on his ridiculous plan, Kirk admits that he’s just making things up as he goes along and isn’t fit to command the Enterprise. It’s true on both counts, considering that they’re only the moon’s distance away from Earth. Why don’t they just call for help? Kirk used his personal communicator to phone Scotty from Klingon airspace. Also, why are there no other Starfleet vessels in this area? Did Admiral RoboCop somehow plan for this to happen and order everyone else on deep space missions before dealing with Kirk? There were two terrorist attacks against Starfleet within a week; if anything, there should be even more ships near Earth than usual.

Whatever. Scotty warns that the Vengeance will have weapons restored in three minutes, so time is of the essence. While the entire space jump scene is nonsensical, it provides some of the coolest-looking visuals in the movie. If you’ve ever seen any of the NASA space walks, you know how awesome they are. This version goes much, much faster, and the visor navigation displays have a nice Tron vibe. There’s even a bit of tension with Scotty temporarily getting caught by security (Finally!) and the entrance being wide enough for only a couple of people. Of all the potential teams to infiltrate a ship in Star Trek, would anyone expect Kirk, Scotty, and Khan to do the dirty work? They make it up to the bridge just as the Vengeance powers back up – the infiltration actually takes about nine minutes instead of three, but the audience is supposed to be too distracted to care – and hold Admiral RoboCop at phaser-point.

Kirk is savvy enough to have Khan stunned at this point, but apparently forgot that he’s capable of withstanding physical injuries. The villain plays possum just long enough for the admiral to babble some last-minute fanatical warmongering. With the dramatic tirade over, Khan jumps up, knocks out both Scotty and Kirk, breaks Carol’s leg, and crushes Admiral RoboCop’s skull like a melon. With full command over the deadliest starship in the area, he triumphantly contacts the Enterprise and demands Spock hand over the crew in the torpedoes. It’s kind of disappointing. In Wrath of Khan, there was a similar battle between two ships. But what made the original Khan so dangerous and awesome was his cunning; he nearly destroyed the Enterprise by using a smaller, less-equipped ship. This time, everyone knows he’s going to pull something, but he wins via superior firepower anyway. Oh sure, there’s a brief spoken battle of wits – Khan and Spock are the two smartest characters in this continuity – but Khan wins by virtue having the only ship that can actually function.

Spock isn’t out yet, though. While the others were busy with the Vengeance, he took the time to call Spock Prime and give Leonard Nimoy a cameo scene. He did this to get advice about Khan, even though he just assumes his alternate reality counterpart knows about the villain. It’s supposed to be a haunting callback to Wrath of Khan, but it’s kind of pointless. Spock Prime’s scene can be summarized as, “I’m not supposed to tell you anything that might alter your destiny, but Khan is a really dangerous guy.” No kidding. Presumably Spock Prime explains how Khan’s pride and vengeful nature makes him easy to manipulate and outwit, but those are insights the younger Spock could’ve realized on his own. Did we really need to drag the older, wiser Spock into the fray just to give a villain a little more credibility? Also, if you’re capable of contacting someone on a nearby planet, why are you not calling for help?!

Spock must have learned something, though. His plan is simple: Pretend to give into Khan’s demands, but take the frozen crew members out of the torpedoes first. Set the bombs to detonate, and watch the pretty fireworks of a huge space ship exploding. It’s actually a clever trick, and it’s much more interesting than the mindless battles in some of the other movies. The problem is the fact that Khan let it happen at all; he willingly teleports armed torpedoes onto the Vengeance without thinking it through. At first glance, it’s a way to demonstrate Khan’s flaws and overconfidence, but it doesn’t work. Before taking the bait, he spends a few seconds to scan the torpedoes. It would be befitting of his methodical and tactical nature, except that he doesn’t notice his crew has been removed. How did he miss that?! The entire point of the scan is to confirm the physical makeup, contents, or location of an item; do life signs not show up in cryogenics? The oversight is baffling.

Khan’s temporary triumph is admittedly awesome, though. After getting the torpedoes, he teleports Kirk, Scotty, and Carol back to the Enterprise. His taunt, “No ship should go down without her captain” is easily one of the best lines in the entire movie. He even dishes out ten more direct hits on the Enterprise before the torpedoes detonate. The crew doesn’t have time to celebrate, though; the ship took way too much damage and is now caught in Earth’s gravity. Sulu says that without shields, the ship will burn up in the reentry. If they don’t get the engines back up and running, they’ll crash in minutes! It’s an interesting dilemma, even if it isn’t scientifically possible. The battle took place near the Moon, and both ships lacked propulsion. Nor were they using momentum from coming out of warp; from that distance and lack of speed, it would’ve taken them months to drift to the planet. However, it gives Kirk just enough time to get a serious reality check. As he and Scotty race down to engineering, he gets to see the consequences of his actions: the Enterprise is being torn apart, his crew is dying, and there’s no chance of escape. Watching him trying to save someone from plummeting to their death – and failing – is gut-wrenching. Some of the scenes, like people running through a sideways-tumbling hallway, are some of the most nightmarish visuals in any Star Trek film.

Boy, they sure could’ve used a portable transwarp beaming device.

This doesn’t last long, unfortunately. Considering how much this move takes from Wrath of Khan, it’s not surprising that it’d reuse the ending as well. Kirk makes it down to engineering, goes directly into the housing of the warp core to fix it (apparently it involves a bunch of dropkicks from impractical angles), and gets a lethal dose of radiation. He gets it working just after the Enterprise falls through Earth’s cloud layer…Wait, didn’t Sulu say they’d burn up in reentry? They should’ve been a giant cinder by the time they reached that altitude! At least seeing the battered, broken Enterprise triumphantly rising was worth it. However, Kirk’s conversation with Spock and his death-by-radiation kind of spoil the mood. It’s sad watching Spock with a trembling voice and teary eyes. He just lost the closest thing to a friend. However, any tragedy is lost when he turns his head skyward and screams:

KHHHHHHHHAAAAAAAAAAAAN!

…Wow, I never thought I’d be laughing so hard at a Star Trek death scene. Did you really have to go there, screenwriters?! That scene was hammy enough in Wrath of Khan. Can’t you at least try to let this film stand on its own? Whatever. Turns out the Vengeance is also crashing back to Earth, and Khan aimed it straight for Starfleet HQ. Of course. He actually misses his target and destroys a huge chunk of San Francisco, and manages to jump to the ground with only a small face wound. Then a prolonged foot chase between he and Spock ensues. No, seriously. Because there’s no better way to end a blockbuster space action movie than a foot chase through San Francisco.

They end up fighting on top of a floating barge, and it seems promising in concept. Both Spock and Khan are gifted with extraordinary intelligence and physical strength…so they battle like a couple of drunken brawlers. It’s the Vulcan Nerve Pinch versus raw genetically-enhanced power! Khan actually has a few opportunities to kick Spock off the edge – the fall would’ve easily him – but tries to crush his head a la Admiral RoboCop. So much for being a master tactician. Uhura teleports in as a distraction and says they can use Khan’s blood to save Kirk. This gives Spock the reason not to succumb to vengeance – hence the big theme of the movie – and manages to haul Khan back to the Enterprise off-screen. Two weeks and a magical blood infusion from McCoy later, and Kirk wakes up in the hospital. Way to go, screenwriters. You’ve completely negated the tragedy of a main character dying, thus cheating your audience of any lasting emotional torque. Kirk was dead for less than ten minutes! Now that they’ve found a way to cure death, how are they going to handle mortality in the next movie? Rather than having Khan studied and the effects replicated, they put him back in a cryogenic tube and leave him in storage. What about a trial? Whatever. Skip forward a year, and the Enterprise has been rechristened and is embarking on her iconic 5-year mission. Cue credits and a classic Star Trek theme music remix.

…Well, that could’ve gone better.

It’s a shame. Star Trek Into Darkness has a lot going for it. The premise of Starfleet espionage and the issues of its militarization are interesting. Having an intelligent villain like Khan is great; it makes him more dangerous and fascinating. Kirk’s overall character arc is great; he starts as irresponsible braggart and gets a deadly, painful lesson in responsibility and leadership. From a narrative standpoint, however, the rest of the movie falls flat. Several characters didn’t get enough development, and there so many plot inconsistencies that it’s mind-boggling. There’s a fine line between paying homage to the original series, and using it as a crutch. Wrath of Khan was an amazing movie; Into Darkness should be able to stand on its own without it, but doesn’t. Don’t go in thinking like this is an old-school Star Trek film. If you just want sci-fi that’s more about flashy explosions and action, go for it. Otherwise, trek somewhere else.

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The Physics of Space Battles

Those battles in Star Wars and Star Trek look pretty cool, but It’s Okay To Be Smart explains how the real thing wouldn’t quite be so flashy.

Tomodachi Life Review

“Ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby…”

When it was first unveiled, Tomodachi Life was considered one of the strangest things Nintendo had ever made. The idea was simple enough: create an entire community of Mii townsfolk, give them basic necessities, and let them have their own day-to-day adventures. It’s rather telling that a wacky life simulator with customizable characters is weirder than things like Fire Flowers, Metroids, or Tingle. The game’s selling point wasn’t just that you could create anyone you wanted; it was the ability to turn the mundane – eating breakfast, having dreams, going out to the park, etc. – into the bizarre. At a glance, it’s easy to believe Tomodachi Life accomplishes everything it promises. But once you get into the daily grind, you’ll realize this simulation is far more tedious and unrewarding than it looks.

Oh, it seems fine at first. You’re tasked with populating your island, either by creating new Mii avatars, importing from your 3DS system, or downloading QR codes from an online database. The initial options are taken straight out of the 3DS’s Mii Maker; you’re given several choices of head shape, facial features, eye and skin color, and hairstyles. It’s not until you access the voice programming that things get interesting. Not only can every character speak, but their voices can be tweaked for age range, speed, pitch, tone, accent, and even intonation. By no means does it perfectly mimic human speech, but it’s far better than what you’d expect from a handheld game. The designers also had the foresight to include customizable pronunciation, just in case the computer doesn’t understand your inputs. The most impressive aspect, however, is the personality builder. You’re given spectra in which to measure a character’s movement speed, politeness, expressiveness, attitude, and even quirkiness. Much like in real life, these aspects make a huge impact in how the Miis operate and interact. For example, my personal Mii is quick, direct, somewhat expressive, mostly serious, and absolutely weird. She’s designated as a Confident Adventurer. Darth Vader, on the other hand, is slow, deadpan, and takes himself way too seriously.

Yeah, you read that right. Darth Vader is my Mii’s next door neighbor. When you can program anyone into your game, such wackiness is inevitable. The majority of Tomodachi Life’s humor comes from those slice of life interactions among unlikely friends. Bowser didn’t even look at Princess Peach; he fell in love with Bayonetta and married her within a week. They even have a child now – they named him Jason – who has his mother’s hair and his father’s fangs. Captain Picard thinks I’m his BFF, and it’s only a matter of time before Batman proposes to me. Gordon Freeman occasionally goes out for coffee with Luigi and Travis Touchdown. Though managing up to 100 residents might seem daunting, the game’s info displays make it easy to keep track of friendships and romances. You’re tasked with introducing characters and manipulating the major points of their relationships, giving you ample opportunities to partake in the drama. It’s like reading bad fan fiction, only with more control over the characters’ choices.

Regardless of who you put on the island, the objective remains the same: make them happy. When you look at the apartment building, flashing icons indicate a problem needing to be resolved. It’s usually something simple, like feeding someone or giving them new clothes and advice. Sometimes they’ll ask for fancier things, like a bath set, camera, a new room background, or a specific item. You’ve got to be careful, though; if you give them stuff they hate or bad advice, they’ll end up even more miserable. If the Miis get enough of whatever they need, they’ll reward you with money, items, and expensive gifts that can be sold for more cash. The characters’ happiness ratings level up individually, allowing you to give them presents to expand on their hobbies and social lives. Most are practical, like books, laptops, and sports equipment, while things like the Wii U and the metal detector are more for laughs. Then again, watching Ganondorf practicing the Hula is pretty entertaining in itself. If you don’t want to spoil the characters too much, the leveling system can be used to teach them new phrases and songs, and change their apartment interior. The more stuff the Miis have, the more they’ll interact with each other and develop their relationships.

It’d be a great concept, if the game actually made it fun.

The whole cycle of buying supplies, leveling up happiness, and getting cash gets old within minutes. You’ll spend most of the time just staring at the apartment complex and visiting whoever needs help. There’s very little variety in terms of problems and how they’re phrased. Everyone seems to love “practicing their funny faces” and vocally impersonating their friends. Others just want the same bath time, have identical stomach problems, etc. Even special items get stale fast; I’ve used several travel tickets, but my Miis often end up on the same vacations. The game tries to hide the repetitiveness with a small selection of touch screen-based mini-games. These usually involve catching falling items, matching icons from memory, and identifying items in pixelated or silhouetted images. That last one is particularly overused; after the first dozen or so games, you’ll likely have memorized most of the answers! It’s not like any of the mini-games are particularly difficult or rewarding, either. Success merely grants you another sellable trinket, and the sheer amount of opportunities to play takes the sting out of failure. Even the interactive dreams – some of which are admittedly hilarious – lose their appeal after repeated viewings. How many times can you watch someone dream they’re a Super Sentai character, race like snails, or chase a plate of food on a string?

Things get slightly better once you leave the apartment complex. There are nearly 20 locations on your virtual island, each with their own activities and features. However, most of them are strictly for utility; you’ll only have to visit the clothing shops, apartment interiors, and grocery store once a day. Even the town hall, which could’ve been used for all kinds of social functions, serves as little more than a Mii creator and index. The rankings board and its extensive amount of information would’ve been great if you actually, you know, cared about the characters. The beach, observation tower, and amusement park are utterly disappointing. Oh sure, you can watch your Miis run along the shore or ride a roller coaster…but that’s all you can do. You can’t change the camera angle, let alone do anything beyond taking funny screenshots. There’s no exploration, no details, nothing at all to keep you interested for more than a few seconds. There’s an optional NES-style RPG with turn-based combat mechanics, but it lacks customizable stats based on Miis’ clothes, optional weapons, leveling, or anything else resembling depth. Even the cafe, in which characters indulge in Seinfeldian conversations, gets repetitive after the first few minutes. You’ll hear the same tales of someone buying a pirate ship, hair problems, their latest obsessions, and bribing professional singers with cake. Let them go long enough, and someone will point out how they always talk about the same things. When the characters notice how repetitive things have gotten, it’s a bad sign.

While nearly all the attractions on the island are one-dimensional, the concert hall is the only thing remotely interesting. Miis can learn to sing eight song styles, such as metal, pop, opera, and techno. Though every song has a default tune already programmed, you’re allowed to change the lyrics. Even if you’re not going for a parody, watching your Miis trying to reenact Broadway-style musicals is hilarious. The animations are a little jerky, but whoever programmed those vocals and dance moves did an impressive job. The same can be said for the customization in general; you might not have much interactivity with your characters, but you can certainly make them look nice. There are hundreds of potential outfits and accessories, ranging from simple t-shirts and bandanas to gothic dresses and suits of armor. The various apartment backgrounds got the most love, though. Your Miis can live in the middle of movie theaters, Japanese arcades, golden temples, ice palaces, star-studded galaxies, and dozens more. Some of them are absolutely dazzling, tempting you into believing that buying all of them is worth it. But no matter how well you dress it up, you’ll still be confronted with the same lackluster gameplay.

The shallow design becomes especially apparent once you activate StreetPass. You can send and receive Miis – but only the children of married couples – along with special items and accessories. Aside from selecting the single export for your island, the wireless functionality serves no purpose. There are no additional mini-games or activity beyond greeting your visitors. This is a gargantuan oversight in terms of the game’s design; rather than just importing and exporting an item through chance meetings, it would’ve made more sense to develop it around an online multiplayer experience. Islands could’ve been used as hubs for gamers to visit and exchange goods. There could’ve been an option to design and sell clothes, or put rarer items up for auction. How about playable volleyball at the beach? Rather than just watch characters enjoy the amusement park, there could’ve been a way for you to develop and customize the attractions to appeal to other gamers. Instead of featuring bland, repetitive chunks of fake dialogue, the cafe could’ve used the 3DS’s microphone to let gamers hold live conversations. The sheer amount of missed opportunities is mind-boggling.

I wanted to like Tomodachi Life. Really, I thought it had a lot of potential. The concept is clever. The ability to customize voices and personality is an impressive accomplishment; it’s far more extensive than what you’d find in Animal Crossing or similarly-designed games. Despite such advancements, the game loses sight of the most fundamental aspects of gameplay: making something fun, and giving players a reason to care about its characters. Rather than having a fully fleshed-out world, this is nothing but a bare-bones collection of repetitive mini-games. It doesn’t even bother trying to hide it, either. There’s no satisfaction in shoving food and trinkets into an avatar in attempt to level up their happiness; <i>true</i> gaming satisfaction should come from building a little world for yourself from scratch and enjoying the results. Tomodachi Life demonstrates the real problem with life simulators; regardless of humor and bizarre situations, they’re limited to their programming. In the end, real life will always be better.

*Originally posted here.

Over The Rainbow: How Double Rainbows Form

Video

Double rainbows! What do they mean?! SciShow brings in LeVar Burton – he of Star Trek and Reading Rainbow fame – to explain. Speaking of which, there was a Kickstarter for the development of Reading Rainbow app launched earlier this week, which has since reached its goal! Now everyone (including kids, most importantly!) will get another chance to enjoy one of the best educational programs in the last three decades.

I Warped Reality To Believe In Magic

Hey, folks. Happy New Year! Today’s Daily Prompt is all about magic. As in, what kind magical powers you’d like to have. I’ve enjoyed more than enough literature and anime to know what direction I’d go in. If I had the power to do any kind of magic, I’d be a full-blown Reality Warper. It’s just like it sounds: I’d have the ability to create, destroy, or alter reality with just a thought. I’d be like Q on Next Generation, just hopefully less of a pain to those around me. Or maybe like Aladdin’s Genie. I’d try to be a force for good, like redesigning ecosystems to support life and food crops. Or maybe I’d develop a subatomic particle that allows water to become a viable fuel. I could use my insights into the fabric of space-time to figure out complex equations and give humanity a huge technological boost. I’d make it so I didn’t need oxygen or radiation protection for interstellar travel, then go about exploring the cosmos. I could figure out exactly what happens when you get sucked into a black hole, or if aliens really exist. The possibilities would be endless!

…And that’s the problem, too. If you can change reality by just thinking, imagine the kind of toll that would take on a human mind. It’s horrifying when deconstructed. What if you accidentally kill someone by erasing them from reality? If they’re completely gone, doesn’t that mean that your memories would be affected too? What happens if you change the subatomic makeup of hydrogen to solve a temporary problem? Wouldn’t that alter and potentially destroy everything else? Consider Haruhi Suzumiya; since she’s unaware of her powers, the other characters have to keep her entertained lest she accidentally destroy the universe! Then there’s the whole problem with things like identity and loyalty. In the Watchmen series, Dr. Manhattan could manipulate matter and was used by the government as the ultimate weapon in the Vietnam War. But since he could comprehend things on an entirely different level, he slowly lost his humanity. At least he knew he wasn’t a god; plenty of other characters with his kind of power went insane and declared themselves deities…

Ugh, this is getting messy.

Okay, first order of business when I get these magical powers: Give myself a mind capable of understanding all of the potential my powers can create, foresight of the consequences therein, and the discipline to keep my mind from accidentally tearing the fabric of reality. That shouldn’t be too hard…right?

Daily Prompt: Five Items, Or: I’d Just Eat Gilligan

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is about necessities. Specifically, five things you’d want to have on a deserted island. A classic question, and it’s hopefully something that I never have to face. Let’s see…

A survival knife. It’s hard to articulate the sheer importance of having a sharp object. They were essential in the human race’s development. You need one to hunt for food. I don’t think you’d want to use your teeth to gut a fish. Not only that, but to build shelters and other technologies as well. How else are you going to make your fishing spears and poles? How are you going to make a rain catcher? Take a look around your room; pretty much everything you own is the result of someone using a blade and fire at some point. Which brings me to the next one…

A way to make fire, preferably a flint and steel set.  Remember the myth of Prometheus? The dude stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind. That theft was so heinous, Prometheus was doomed to be eternally chained to a rock and have an eagle eat his regenerating liver every day. The Olympians were hardcore like that. They’re not the only ones who kept fire to themselves, either. It underscores the necessity of fire; you need it to keep you warm, cook your food, and drive predators away. It’s also a way to signal your rescuers. Since matches are useless after getting wet, I’d definitely have some flint and steel around. I could potentially use my glasses for lens-based ignitions, but that’s assuming it’s sunny where I’m trapped.

A method of communication, preferably a radio. No, not your computer or phone. Most modern electronics won’t last a day when exposed to the elements, especially if you’re stuck on a deserted island. Pretty sure your data plan doesn’t include the middle of the ocean. You think dropping crumbs in your keyboard is bad? Imagine accidentally dropping your laptop into the sand or water. A radio – preferably a solar-powered ham radio – is way more effective. It’s your best bet for communication, and don’t have to worry about battery life. Considering that you could go mad from the isolation, having at least some way to communicate with the outside world is vital. Unless you want to start talking to volleyballs.

A tarp. When it rains here at home, I lay out a tarp to prevent part of the back deck from leaking. I’d do the same thing on a deserted island; if you’re in the middle of the ocean, chances are that it’s going to rain. A lot. An umbrella isn’t going to be much help. You need something that can not only fully cover your body, but also serve as a makeshift tent as well. It beats sleeping under a leaky layer of branches and leafs. It can also be used as a rain catcher, or a way to transport/protect food and supplies. If you’ve caught a day’s worth of fish, it’d be way easier to carrying everything back in a huge tarp-bag. Smellier, too.

Duct tape. Yeah, you read that right. I’d want a very large roll of duct tape. Do you have any idea how useful it is? There are lists of ways to use it, both in and out of dangerous situations. Even the guys on Apollo 13 used it! Need to stabilize and expand your shelter? Duct it. Need a freshwater container? Duct it. Need a hat to help prevent sunstroke? Duct it. Need to build a seaworthy escape raft out of the branches you’ve collected? DUCT IT.

Oh, and I were to have one joke response, it’d have to be a Star Trek item replicator. It’s self-explanatory.