Things I Learned From… Star Trek Into Darkness

Oh, so much to be learned from this movie! But most of it is going to have to be held back for a few weeks, to give everyone a fair chance to enjoy the film without spoilers. At some point, I want to talk about the way the protagonist and the antagonist of Star Trek Into Darkness face the same challenges and mirror one another’s decisions. I also want to talk about who the antagonist actually is – or rather, on whose evidence we label the bad guy a ‘bad guy’…

But today, let’s talk subplots.

Spoiler warning: no actual spoilers, but some generalized discussion of the first twenty minutes of the movie.

We all know what subplots are, right? The plots that run alongside the main action, illuminating the theme and adding depth to the characters. But Star Trek Into Darkness also features a less conventional kind of subplot – a self-contained subplot in the first act of the story, which contains the inciting incident. Without getting spoilerific, I’m talking about the brief plot taking place in and around London and foregrounding Thomas Harewood (an excellent turn from Noel Clarke).

We’re all used to the ‘cold open’, an opening that plunges the audience into the dramatic situation before the credits. Sometimes these take place before the central characters have become involved in, or even aware of, these events – eg, the opening scenes of Star Wars. Sometimes they feature the protagonist, but the subplot itself has nothing to do with the main story – eg: a typical Bond movie prologue.

But it’s very interesting to see a cold open subplot taking place, what, at least ten minutes into the movie? Especially after the movie has already opened with a Bond-style prologue that sets up relationships and theme but, in strict plot terms, has nothing to do with the main story.

Another cold open? Isn’t that just wasting screen time we could be spending with Kirk and the gang? I mean, Harrison’s a smart guy, he could have arranged [REDACTED] another way. We wouldn’t even need to see him do it. So cut the subplot, right?


Here’s what the subplot does for the movie.

It introduces the antagonist. Harrison’s role in this subplot paints him as ruthless, cunning and irresistible – but it also hints at remarkable power, and even compassion. Of a kind. That’s a rich, textured character right there, a fascinating character, one we want to see more of and learn more about – and we haven’t even seen him oppose our protagonist yet.

It introduces the theme. You could say that the theme of Star Trek Into Darkness is something like  ‘What are you capable of doing for those you love?” Not only what you’ll agree to morally, but what you’re capable of doing physically, the hidden strengths you’ll tap into when you have to. This subplot explicitly foregrounds that theme in a way that prefigures later events, and involves us directly in some morally difficult choices long before the central characters start facing them.

It functions – rather oddly! – as a “Save The Cat” scene. “Save The Cat” is screenwriting tutor Blake Snyder’s term for an early scene where an apparently unlikable character does something nice (the clichéd version might be being kind to animals, or giving money to a beggar) to make the audience like them. What Harrison does is appalling, but one part of it is so mythically fulfilling – even Christ-like –  that we can’t help but like him for it, despite the fact that it’s just part of a bargain to achieve his own ends.

It gives a human face to the victims of Harrison’s campaign. Since we’re avoiding spoilers… enough said.

One more thing to point out: the visual storytelling in this subplot is superb. Proof? If I remember rightly, there are only three lines of dialogue in the whole sequence, and they’re all in one scene. Everything else is visual – in other words, true movie storytelling. Take a bow, Messrs. Kurtzman, Orci, and Lindelof…