The new Star Trek film underperformed. But all we at Scriptshadow care about is, “How was the writing?”
Premise: Captain Kirk and crew go after a mysterious villain who performed a terrorist attack on the Federation. After chasing him down, they learn that it’s actually someone within their own ranks that they need to worry about.
About: This is likely JJ Abrams’s last foray into Star Trek, as he’s been asked to take over the most glorious awesomest greatest franchise ever (coincidentally both mine and JJ’s favorite franchise): Star Wars. One other thing of note here: Current screenwriting whipping boy Damon Lindelof contributed to “Star Trek: Into Darkness.” That makes TWO huge summer movies he’s written (with the other being the troubled zombie flick “World War Z.”). If you want to read a great article about Lindelof and his insecurities as a writer and how he was terrified to come in and save World War Z, check out the article here.
Writer: Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof
Details: 132 minutes
Where are all the Star Trek fans? I heard the studio was hoping to make 100 million dollars this weekend and only made 70. Trekkies, wuddup?? We even got to see the Klingons in this episode. And the previously established greatest Trek villain ever!
I don’t know why I’m getting all upset. I was never a Trek fan. I’m just a JJ fan, who was also not a Trek fan (I’m still confused why someone who hated a franchise would choose to direct a movie for that franchise). But I guess all I really care about is, “How was the writing?” and, “Is Trek 2 better than Trek 1?”
Unfortunately, those aren’t easy questions to answer. There was definitely something exciting about getting to see a re-imagined Star Trek the first time around. It was new. It was fresh! That freshness is gone. And some of that Star Trek luster is gone with it. On the flip side, you don’t have to spend half the screenplay setting up the world, like the first did. You can jump straight into the story. Which is what Into Darkness does. But was it successful??
Into Darkness has our Trek crew doing what it was created to do – explore new worlds. That’s THE PLAN anyway. But when Kirk finds a neophyte civilization about to be wiped out via an active volcano, he and Spock decide to save it. They barely do so, but in the process alert the civilization to their presence (a big no-no) AND almost die. This leads to Kirk being relieved of his command.
Meanwhile, a terrorist blows up a Trek archive building, (MAJOR SPOILER) who we later find out is the infamous Trek villain, Khan! Khan then jets out to the Klingon home planet, where he know he’ll be safe, since the humans and the Klingons are on the brink of war. But Kirk and crew go after him anyway, capture him, and find out the truth: that the President of Star Federation (played by the original Robocop!) is trying to kill this dude.
When Kirk won’t follow orders and kill him himself, then, Robocop comes after him, hellbent on destroying not just Khan, but everyone on Kirk’s ship as well. Kirk will have to decide who’s more dangerous here – Khan or Robocop – and stop them. All while trying to protect the thousands of crew on his ship.
99% of the time, I can get a sense whether a movie or a script is going to work within the first scene. How that scene is constructed tells me a ton. Is there drama involved? Intrigue? Suspense? Is it original? Is the scene meticulously plotted out? Or is it sloppy? If it’s sloppy, for example, that usually sets the tone for the rest of the movie. I mean, if you can’t make your very first scene clean, how can I expect you to make the following 59 scenes clean?
Into Darkness started out… wrong. It wasn’t entirely clear to me what was going on. You had Kirk running from these natives. Then we were cutting to Spock being lowered into some lava pit. For the first 60-90 seconds of the sequence, I thought Spock was on a completely different planet. I wasn’t linking him to the native stuff.
Eventually I figured it out, but if you look at a similar opening sequence, Indy going into the cave in Raiders of the Lost Ark (which clearly influenced JJ in this scene) – that’s a sequence you’re never confused by. I suppose JJ may have been doing this confusing cross-cutting on purpose? Maybe he wanted you to be be curious about how the two related to one another? But I think that’s the wrong move. Like I said – the opening scene sets the tone for the movie. It’s gotta be clear. There are instances where you want things to be confusing to establish intrigue (the layered dream sequence opening of Inception), but this wasn’t one of those times. And for this reason, I was really scared for Into Darkness.
But the script does rebound. The mystery terrorist put the story on a clear path: Find the terrorist, take him down. There were also quite a few of the mystery boxes JJ is known for. Like a) who is this terrorist? And b) what’s in these missiles that everyone seems so up-in-arms about? (Spoiler) – We eventually find out that the missiles are holding humans inside, which was a nice unexpected surprise. Although I thought for sure when the first one was revealed, as it appeared to be holding a bald guy, it was going to be Captain Jean-Luc Piccard (from the Next Generation). I had no idea how they were going to make that make sense, but it got me revved up (alas, it was not to be).
And I think that’s where JJ really excels. He keeps putting those mystery boxes out there so that you always have to find out what’s inside of them. Even when you’re not 100% into the movie, you still want to see what happens next. But I think the real feat here with the writing was how “follow-able” the writers were able to make the plot, despite how much it jumped around.
We talked about plot points a month ago, and how you want to keep changing up your story in order to keep it fresh. But (at least in my opinion) the plot point changes in Into Darkness were pretty severe, to the point where I wasn’t sure where the story was going. Or really what the main plot was. I mean first “Darkness” is about Kirk getting canned. Then he’s reinstated as a second-in-command on another ship. Then the terrorist attack happens. Then the terrorist runs away. They have to go chase the terrorist, with some foreshadowing of a potential Klingon war. But there is no Klingon war. Then the Federation President comes after them, as he’s revealed to be the bad guy. Then Khan kills the bad guy, and becomes the reinstated bad guy.
The writers do a good job keeping all of this clear, but it’s a huge gamble, as at a certain point, your reader/audience may throw up their arms and scream, “Dude! What the f*&k? is this movie about?!” When you write a script, you can write it two ways. You can establish the goal right away and spend the rest of the script showing your main character trying to obtain it. Or you can constantly keep changing the storyline and the goal, with new twists and turns dictating the narrative.
So with Raiders Of The Lost Ark, for example, we know the goal from the outset – find and bring back the Ark. Into Darkness, we’re not sure. We’re not really ever sure. And that’s what’s so dangerous about writing these types of scripts. They’re a bag of mysteries. And it takes a tremendous amount of skill to keep a story interesting that doesn’t have that constant. Whenever I see amateurs try to pull this off, it’s a guaranteed fail. They’ll keep throwing in new surprises and twists every ten pages or so, but it feels like it’s being made up as they go along. They only know how to change the variables. They don’t have an overall game plan.
I think that’s the difference when a professional takes on one of these scripts and when an amateur does. The professional outlines and makes sure it all makes sense, that there is something underneath that’ll support all these twists. Whereas the new writer will simply make up twists on the fly and believe that’s enough. At least, that’s what it feels like to me.
In the end, Into Darkness was sort of a strange, daring film, in that it did have a weird, constantly changing plot. But it found a way to make it work. The natural conflict between Kirk and Spock always kept things interesting. The “flying through debris” action sequence was really well executed. Khan was an interesting (if not exceptional) villain, who had a lot more meat to him than Eric Bana’s villain from the first film. And after a bit of a slow section following the opening scene, the script never lets up, pounding us with immediacy – an ingredient essential for any good summer popcorn film. I liked it. I mean, it wasn’t amazing, but it was solid.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
[ ] what the hell did I just watch?
[ ] not fit for a Klingon
[x] worth the price of admission for anywhere but the ridiculously expensive Arclight
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: If you’re a new writer, I’d suggest mastering the “Raiders Of The Lost Ark” model before you move on to the “Star Trek: Into Darkness” model. Establish a goal for your protagonist right away, then have them go after it, repeatedly running into obstacles during their pursuit. If you keep changing your character’s goal and keep rearranging the plot’s purpose the way “Into Darkness” does, you’re going to find your plot a lot harder to wrangle in. It can be done, but you need a lot of practice before you’re ready for it.
What I learned 2: I don’t know why this particular movie made me think of this, but I think IMDB should start including a section for “Contributing Writers” on each project. We know, of course, that they can’t get an official title card for the movie. But there should be a place where these writers are recognized so an internet search can bring their names up. IMDB seems like the perfect place to put this information. They’re not obligated to only include the “official” writers, and as long as it’s properly noted, I don’t see how this could do anything but help the non-top-tier writers in the business.