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Star Trek Into Darkness reconsidered: A decadent Los Angeles panorama

Entertainment Geekly’s ‘Star Trek’ series re-examines the expensive ‘Khan’ do-over

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2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the Star Trek franchise — and the release of Star Trek Beyond, the 13th feature film in the series. To celebrate this big year, and ponder the deeper meanings of Trek’s first half-century, the Entertainment Geekly column will look at a different Star Trek film each week, from now till Beyond. This week: The sequel to the reboot. Last week: Chris Hemsworth‘s first Star Trek movie. Later this week: Beyond.

Just think about all that money. Star Trek Into Darkness cost $185 million, that we know of. In 1979, the first Star Trek movie cost $46 million. That’s about $150 million in 2013 dollars — and The Motion Picture was a runaway production, costing three times what Paramount initially budgeted. There was nothing runaway about Into Darkness. Paramount got what they paid for; they wanted something that looked like it cost something.

And how awesome would it be, to spend that kind of money? Think of how fun it is to buy things; imagine buying everything. This isn’t how we’re supposed to think — not about movies, and maybe not about anything. (Even religions that preach conspicuous consumption tend to insist on charitable giving.) No one has a healthy clear-cut relationship with money, which is reflected in the lessons that society teaches us about money. It makes the world go round; it’s the root of all evil. No one likes rich people; nobody doesn’t want to be rich. No filmmaker ever makes a movie about how money is an awesome wonderful great thing that fixes everything — unless you misunderstand Wall Street, or you completely understand Pretty Woman.

In Star Trek, there is no money. In real life, Star Trek never had enough money. Roddenberry invented teleportation because he couldn’t afford filming a spaceship landing. Nicholas Meyer recycled because he had to: In Wrath of Khan, Kirk and Khan yell at each other across space but from the same “bridge” set, and in in The Undiscovered Country, Spock and Kirk sleep in the same quarters, teehee. The story goes that, in Generations, they had to borrow uniforms from Deep Space Nine. Let’s not even get into the fundamental madness of filming the great cosmic expanse of outer space on a TV budget; so much of loving Star Trek means accepting goofy special effects, or understanding that “special effects” were never the point.

Even the most expensive Star Trek movie ever wasn’t as expensive as it could have been, because too much money is never enough. Into Darkness starts with maybe the best scene J.J. Abrams has ever filmed, or anyhow the most Abrams-y scene in any Abrams movie: Kirk on the run from angry alien villagers, Spock jumping into an active volcano, the cliff jump, the Enterprise emerging from underwater. We’re on Nibiru, a planet of chromatic extremes: bright red foliage, shining white humanoid inhabitants, bluest of blue oceans.

Much of this sequence was filmed with IMAX cameras, an effect that you can never replicate at home — although it’s worth watching the Into Darkness just to experience the palpable redness of the sequence. Can a color be sensual? Filmmakers used to think so. Back in 1947, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger built a Himalayan fantasy village in Pinewood Studios for the filming of Black Narcissus. (Some 68 years later, Abrams showed up at Pinewood to start making new Star Wars movies.) Black Narcissus is a great movie about many listable things — nuns, natives, religion, repression, colonialism, sex — but you could also just shut up about that stuff and look at all the pretty colors, built by art director Alfred Junge and shot by cinematographer Jack Cardiff. (They both won Oscars; we should’ve built them museums.)

The Hollywood blockbuster is too busy to produce something like that, but this opening sequence in Into Darkness comes close. There’s a lovely moment that Abrams holds, after Kirk and McCoy jump off a cliff, when the officers swim down to their waiting ship. Everything about this scene is ludicrous. Like, the problem with the digital effects era, in a nutshell: It doesn’t matter if Chris Pine is playing his character as a manic brawler and Karl Urban is playing his character as an anxiety case, Industrial Light & Magic will make their digital mannequins look like Olympic-level swimmers. But there’s something lunatic about every shot in this sequence: cliff, volcano, underwater spaceship. It’s a whole movie in a prologue. And remarkably, it could have cost more: There were plans to film in Hawaii, in real tropical forests, and then swap in deep red for bright green in post-production. As a cost-cutting move, they built the world on a set. 

That’s something of a rarity for the movie; Into Darkness had money for locations, though it also had money to dress up those locations. The film properly opens with an extended, almost wordless sequence, set in London. A man and a woman drive to the country, where their daughter is sick with some undisclosed movie illness. They drive out to the country, to the “Royal Children’s Hospital,” a stately Tudor mega-cottage with the hint of a sloped glassware extension

That’s actually a real house in Beverly Hills, the Greystone Mansion. It was built in the ’20s by Edward L. Doheny, the first great Los Angeles oil tycoon, a man wealthy enough to get away with bribing the Secretary of the Interior. (Doheny was the inspiration for the father in Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, which means he was eventually the inspiration for Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood.)

The Greystone estate cost $3 million in 1928 — the most expensive house in California up to that point — and it’s a popular filming location now. Alias filmed there, in season 5; maybe Abrams remembered it. (Actually, the last sequence of There Will Be Blood was shot in the Greystone mansion.) This is what the house looks like in real life:

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Notice: It’s big, but Into Darkness made it bigger. Bigness is the central world-building idea in this rebooted Star Trek universe. In the films directed by J.J. Abrams, if you can see the horizon, you can see the lingering shadow of a tall building; call them spacescrapers. There’s not a tremendous variability in the design of these future buildings, which is a roundabout way of saying that they all like tall gray blocks. The film begins with a suicide bomb going off in London, and if craven topicality no longer shocks you, you can appreciate the bland futurism of this mega-city, which mixes together real and imaginary tall buildings.

Into Darkness leaves London after that explosion; quite a bit of the movie takes place in San Francisco. But both cities are played onscreen by Los Angeles. When Kirk and Spock go to Starfleet headquarters, they’re actually walking through the Getty Center, the art museum city-on-a-hill that is nominally in Brentwood, although like a lot of places built by rich people in Los Angeles, it seems more accurate to say that the Getty Center has its own neighborhood.

“Getty” was J. Paul Getty, another oilman and at one time the richest man in America. The Center actually opened 20 years after Getty died. (Into Darkness started location scouting in 2011, 20 years after Roddenberry died.) As architecture, the Getty Center is bland but also beautiful — it kind of looks like a Roman Palace, it kind of looks like a mall, and it kind of looks like the sets from The Motion Picture. There’s a weird totalitarian vibe, but with a peculiar California-Utopian streak: It is a city on the hill, a center for art and for future-thinking — and yet it is by nature removed from the world around it, accessible via funicular, invisible on days when there’s too much coastal fog or smog.

And the Getty Center makes sense for Into Darkness, which becomes oddly monotone-colored after the burst-of-red opening sequence. For some intensely bizarre reason, Into Darkness gives Starfleet personnel a formal uniform that looks uncannily like the Imperial officers’ dresswear from Star Wars. I have no idea if this was intentional, but it creates dissonance you can’t fake. When that pesky horndog scamp Captain Kirk makes flirty eyes at an attractive lady officer, I’m not sure you’re supposed to get past the fact that you’re watching a romcom moment dressed up in fascist uniforms — shot at the Getty Center, a lovely monument to self-justifying capitalist excess (look at all the art this oil money can buy!)

Look at this shot. I count three security officers, dressed all in black, standing ramrod straight in the background, plus a roving band of SWAT-looking dudes. There is something intensely off about this scene. Kirk and Spock are having the same conversation they always have in these reboots — respectful-yet-exhausted bromantic banter — but the supposed “fun” of their interaction is foregrounded against a world that feels bleached, paranoid… terrorized?

Let’s not talk too much about the story; half the internet exists to accurately nitpick Into Darkness. Kirk gets demoted and then immediately promoted; Admiral Pike says that he’s a menace, then declares him the anointed one, then dies tragically. Into Darkness oddly repeats a central plot idea from The Undiscovered Country — a conspiracy within Starfleet sends the Enterprise on a Gulf of Tonkin-y mission to play unsuspecting patsy and launch open hostilities against the Klingon Empire. But consider how, in The Undiscovered Country, the big gag was that the Klingons were real characters — that the Klingon captain was a clever, philosophical Shakespeare scholar who looked like Abraham Lincoln.

In Into Darkness, no Klingon has a name, and the only Klingon with a face looks helplessly like Xerxes in 300.

Somehow, 46 years after “Errand of Mercy,” these Klingons are the most Otherized Klingons ever — and they all get killed by one single British superhuman.

But I do love the excess of Into Darkness; I’m not sure we’ll see another movie quite like it again. A big budget let Abrams shoot at real locations and pretend they are parts of the Enterprise. He returned to the Budweiser Brewery to shoot scenes in the engine room. The closest the actual production got to San Francisco was the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; the “warp core” is actually the world’s biggest laser.

Something to consider here, maybe. This warp core is a “real” thing, and it looks like it. It doesn’t look art-designed to be a possible version of something — think of the engine rooms in earlier Star Trek movies, which had lots of glowing computers and usually one big glowing thing to get across the idea that lots of cosmic space-power stuff was happening on a set built in Los Angeles. This thing looks real because it is real; no doy.

But this “real” scientific thing is only onscreen to provide some artificial “reality” to a deeply goofy fake scientific thing. On the commentary track for the Into Darkness  Blu-Ray, co-writer Damon Lindelof recalls the several dozen meetings that took place between the movie’s brain trust — presumably Abrams and co-writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman — to try to figure out the peculiar mechanics of the Enterprise warp core, with the eventual conclusion that Kirk needed to use his unique powers of “kicking stuff” to save the Enterprise.

To be blunt but also abstract: The people who made Into Darkness seem to have a weird grasp on what “reality” really is. There’s another part of the commentary where Abrams discusses the big space-jump scene. This is an odd reheat of the space jump from Trek ’09, with the added user-friendly horror that this sequence of two human beings propelling between spaceships keeps cutting back to their internal Heads-Up Display, because apparently nobody involved in making Into Darkness could figure out how to make it visually clear that Captain Kirk was off-course without a Blinking Red “OFF COURSE” Text in the frame and frequent cuts back to the Enterprise bridge where Dr. McCoy says things like “JIM, YOU’RE WAY OFF COURSE!”

By this point in the movie, Scotty has found himself on the Vengeance — and he’s running around a comically large hangar. That hangar is a real place; it’s the warehouse where Howard Hughes built the H-4 Hercules, better known as the Spruce Goose. Hughes is another great Los Angeles tycoon, and although the Spruce Goose wasn’t one of his filmmaking ventures, it’s still a uniquely Hollywood story. The government gave Hughes money to build a plane, and he built the biggest plane ever. It never saw any action. It flew only once. It was pretty much useless, which, per Oscar Wilde, pretty much makes it art.

Anyhow, on the commentary track, Abrams notes that they shot the scene inside of the warehouse, but that in post-production, he had the special effects people specifically add in some artificial shiny things on the ground. They show a side-by-side comparison, and I swear to god, I couldn’t tell the difference. “The whole thing has a very cool, modern look, even though what it is is actually not very impressive at all,” says Abrams, arguably describing his filmography.

I kid, I kid! Into Darkness is such a redheaded stepchild for everyone involved — Beyond ignores it completely, in the grand let’s-pretend-that-last-one-didn’t-happen tradition of Wrath of Khan and Undiscovered Country. But the busy much-ness of the movie is its own reward. Example: Next time you watch the movie, try to keep track of how many people are on the Enterprise bridge at any given time. Oh, there’s the usual suspects:

But then there’s a neverending parade of other people, all of them looking variously tense or concerned or worried.

My favorite Bridge character is the Observer-looking bald dude, apparently some sort of cyborg.

Actually, strike that: My favorite Bridge character is the bleached-blonde helmsman who looks like the lead singer in your favorite Canadian synthpop band — although I only notice just now that she is apparently sitting next to another heretofore unseen Enterprise officer.

All of these people are shot in close-ups. Abrams loves faces; that’s why he’s so good at casting, and so bad at action. You get the vibe that all of these people had a blast filming, that Abrams spent a couple hours filming all of them, that maybe it became a big game for these background extras. (What is your Resolute Self-Sacrifice face? What is your Betrayed By The People You Trusted face?) They’re scattered throughout the movie, and at a certain point, the sheer multitude of people on the bridge make the bridge feel quite a bit less physical.

Because you can never keep track of where everyone is — much less who everyone is — the already-very flimsy “reality” of a spaceship fluttering through the cosmos becomes a little bit unsteady. And this unsteadiness is matched by the storytelling, which gets more gaseous throughout the film’s final act. The Enterprise is all alone, incapable of calling for help… but Young Spock phones Old Spock to ask if he ever heard of this one dude Khan. The Vengeance crashes into San Francisco, destroying several skyscrapers… but pedestrians still perambulate a few blocks away. (Imagine the sound of a megaship crashing into an entire downtown.)

Maybe you can explain this odd intangibility in some of the filmmaking choices that went into the movie. The camera keeps cutting back to Uhura during the space jump, and Abrams admits that’s mainly because he wanted to fit Zoe Saldana into the scene. “I ended up shooting three or four lines talking to her,” he explains, “Not knowing how they were going to be used in the sequence.” At another point, the camera cuts to Sulu, in an intriguing close-up with the background out of focus. In a behind-the-scenes extra, you see them film that scene — towards the end of filming, far from the actual Enterprise bridge set, with John Cho sitting in front of some vague Enterprise-looking machinery.

I kind of love the idea that they built a massive Enterprise bridge set, and then shot some key scenes nominally on the Enterprise bridge using old-school filmmaking trickery in a remote location far away. I love that, because there’s nothing old-school about the film’s climax. Khan crashes the Vengeance into San Francisco, although it’s mostly Century City combined with lots of digital effects shots of spired buildings and circular-modern skyscrapers that wouldn’t look out of place in Century City.

I kind of love Century City, although it’s a strange and arguably post-human place. Although unquestionably a real location, Century City is one of those often-in-California places that calls into question any basic notion of what constitutes “real.” Long ago, it was a ranch owned by Tom Mix, a famous silent-film actor who helped incarnate the lying legend of the Old West in Hollywood cinema and American history. Then it was the 20th Century Fox backlot. But Fox got into financial trouble after Cleopatra — another film which is only fun if you pretend everyone and everything onscreen is just a pile of money slowly burning — and sold off the land to developers. Now it’s Century City, which is not a city, though it does have enough generically tall buildings to play any city you want.

My favorite Century City performance in any movie is Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, where the dullcore futurism of the neighborhood stands in for a dystopian America gone a wee bit fascist on the backs of a simian slave race. Obviously, it’s hard not to love Century City in Die Hard; you could write a five-volume cultural history about what Nakatomi Plaza symbolized for the ‘80s. But I kind of cherish the innocent way Into Darkness shoots Century City. In Conquest, it symbolized emotionless paranoia; in Die Hard, shameless excess demanding schadenfreudic combustion. I truly believe that Into Darkness just thinks Century City looks cool.

And I kind of love that! At a certain point in the evening, you can walk to one corner of the Westfield Mall and see lots of tall buildings lit up against the sky, with no obvious human presence: It looks like what will happen to human civilization after humanity leaves. The best shot in the Spock-Khan chase sequence finds Zachary Quinto running alongside of the CAA Building. (Abrams jokes on the Into Darkness commentary that his agent works there; he also points out his children standing in San Francisco right before the Vengeance collides with the city.)

Much of this sequence was shot in IMAX, and it is kind of beautiful — and it feels, in hindsight, like a strange farewell. Star Trek started in Los Angeles. Every show filmed there; sets were reused across projects, from generation to generation. The films went further afield — to the streets of San Francisco, to the Valley of Fire, to the weird rehab-facility utopia Insurrection built in the Santa Monica Mountains — but I truly believe you can sense a curious Californian paradox at the core of this whole idea, the woozy utopian values atop shameless capitalist artifice, the dream of a world where everyone is equal playing out in movies that curiously always wind up starring white dudes, the lavish wonder of a Final Frontier running up against the basic fact that Starfleet’s “Frontier” is a place lots of races have lived for millions of years.

So there is some sadness in the way this movie takes a tour around Los Angeles, to the ruins of empires built by rich dead Angelenos. Into Darkness failed in the way movies can only fail today – it made hundreds of millions of dollars, but not enough hundreds of millions of dollars. Beyond mostly filmed in Canada. No shots fired on Canada — and hell, maybe the best version of Star Trek is the ship-in-a-bottle one-acts, shot on sets that could be anywhere.

But there’s a sense of an ending, here in Into Darkness, and a weird goddamn ending it is. A year after the devastation of San Francisco, a resurrected Kirk gives a speech to assembled masses. He’s giving a speech that underlines the movie’s supposed theme: that reacting to evil with evil is evil. Just because this is a simple idea doesn’t make it not profound — although Into Darkness stacks its strange deck with a glowering Cheney war hawk and a gene-fascist superman terrorist and barbarian Klingons. But I’m obsessed with how Abrams shoots this final scene, with Kirk delivering the speech. He’s back in his Imperial outfit, and he’s flanked on all sides by important-looking Starfleet people, all of them staring resolutely forward.

In turn, his own crew stares back at them — also resolute, like the stars of an Army commercial. In this weird gray antiseptic context, Chekov’s downward stare is positively haunting, RIP Anton Yelchin forever.

The film makes a point of showing off the impressive-looking building behind Kirk. It looks like a tertiary office building from the Google campus, but it’s actually a church. The Crystal Cathedral in Orange County was erected in 1980. (It cost more than Wrath of Khan.)

It was originally built by the Garden Grove Community Church, led by Robert H. Schuller. Schuller had a TV show, and started out holding church services in a drive-in movie theater. (Hollywood!) The Crystal Cathedral is not made of crystal and wasn’t supposed to be a cathedral, and it wound up a money pit; deep in debt after the financial crisis, the building was sold to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange in 2011 for $57.5 million.

The Crystal Cathedral is a big beautiful futuristic thing, designed by talented craftsmen to represent a glistening utopian version of humanity, undone by financial matters and ultimately sold off for assets. And maybe that is Star Trek, too — not the Trek Roddenberry dreamed up or the Trek Renaissance across television in the ‘90s or the Trek Bryan Fuller is working on for 2017, but the Star Trek of J.J. Abrams, which launched with such fanfare in 2009 but which somehow already felt corroded just one film later, despite or because of all the money onscreen. (I am eternally optimistic, but the Hemsworth Protocol feels like a last resort — a recognition, perhaps, that nothing in these reboot movies has quite measured up to that first scene in Trek ’09.) Or maybe Abrams’ Trek is the Spruce Goose: A big, sleek, expensive pile of ambition, only built to fly once. Or maybe it’s Century City: A hip new kind of neighborhood, glistening and cool and oddly flavorless, with no history besides the promise of more business yet to come.

One of the complaints you hear about Into Darkness is the big crash at the end. The Vengeance demolishes Alcatraz before mowing down quite a bit of future San Francisco. Yet many of the residents in the city don’t seem to notice that a whole neighborhood just got demolished. (I complained about this a second ago, using the word “perambulate.”) Toward the end of the chase, Spock chases Khan across an overpass.

That’s in downtown Los Angeles, between California Plaza and the Wells Fargo center. California Plaza represented one of the first great construction monuments of the Bunker Hill Redevelopment Project, “redevelopment” in this case playing out as the state-sponsored demolishing of a neighborhood, a decades-long transformation of a quote-unquote “slum” into a quote-unquote “business district.” Khan and Spock are running toward One California Plaza, a skyscraper built over 10 years at a cost of around $1.2 billion. When it opened, it was big, shiny, expensive, and surprisingly empty; an economic downturn kept companies away from the area for years to come.

Bunker Hill was, long ago, vibrant neighborhood, but the vicissitudes of time and urban evolution left it wretched. That’s the official story, anyway, though Los Angeles Plays Itself points to movies like The Exiles to put a vibrant human face on the “slum” description. The big idea to save Bunker Hill was, well, to destroy it: Make it brighter, bigger, sleeker, more futuristic. History was eradicated to make way for the future. It’s a familiar strategy, actually. That was how they tried to save Star Trek.

People complained about Star Trek Into Darkness; they are still complaining about it today. Who weeps for Bunker Hill? It’s just a place, I guess. It’s not something important, like a movie.

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