SPOILER ALERT: I’m frankly not interested in discussing STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS in vague terms. If I have to get to the meat and marrow of the movie, I have to spoil, and spoil extensively. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, and wish to remain spoiler free, keep on trekkin’.
Be careful what you wish for.
STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN is the greatest movie in the TREK franchise. It’s not even in dispute, really – for longtime fans, it’s the movie that squarely places these characters in our hearts in ways that even the television show couldn’t. It deals with weighty themes and emotions, and it’s one of my Top 10 favorite movies of all time. (I wrote about KHAN last year, so go back and read it, if you’re so inclined.)
THE WRATH OF KHAN is the best thing to happen to STAR TREK, and the worst thing to happen to STAR TREK. Because of its critical success and its success with the fans, WRATH OF KHAN has become the expectation; instead of trying new ideas and themes, the franchise has tried to return to that well, to try to duplicate what was created in the lab, in the hopes that they can achieve that same success. And something essential to TREK, in my opinion, has been lost. Instead of a problem for the Enterprise crew to solve, the films have given us one Big Bad after another, all inspired (if not directly ripping off) by Khan.
I’m fully aware of the difference of the mediums – television, even back in the 1960s, has the luxury of exploring ideas a bit more than a major summer blockbuster, trying to recover millions of dollars, can do. STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS is a hugely budgeted movie, with lavish special effects, set pieces, and scale. It’s a massive investment. So the tried and true, the reticence to take risks with story, is understandable. What I cannot forgive is the cynical nature of freely stealing scenes without any tact or subtext, in the hopes of striking the same kind of resonance, thinking that all fans want is to see THE WRATH OF KHAN over and over. It’s insulting and enraging that JJ Abrams, Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci think so little of the old fans (and the new ones, to be honest) that they think fans won’t recognize when they’re being pandered to.
I certainly don’t have it in for JJ Abrams’ iteration of this franchise, either. I loved 2009’s STAR TREK – although there are plot holes galore in the movie, it wins you over with charm, humor, and most important of all, it gets the characters essentially right. Yes, James Kirk is a bit of an egotistical asshole. But this is a Kirk that has not been tempered with loss, has not come to the maturity that Shatner’s Kirk has, and this Kirk has experienced different things than Original Timeline Kirk. If you squint hard enough, though, you can see the more measured, older man inside. Chris Pine does well with the role he’s been given. So does Zachary Quinto as Spock, Karl Urban as McCoy, Zoe Saldana as Uhura, Simon Pegg as Scotty, John Cho as Sulu, and Anton Yelchin as Chekov.
In STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, these Starfleet officers haven’t really seen much of the galaxy yet – the five-year mission we all know and love is about to happen, and Kirk expects to be given that mission by Starfleet. But an incident where Kirk breaks the Prime Directive to rescue Spock from an active volcano gets Kirk demoted back to Christopher Pike’s (Bruce Greenwood) First Officer on the Enterprise. Pike feels Kirk isn’t ready for command, but he still sees something in Kirk, and he’s willing to help him through his Starfleet growing pains.
Enter John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), a mysterious terrorist and turncoat agent who Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) believes has betrayed the Federation to serve the Klingon Empire. Harrison brutally attacks a Starfleet meeting, killing Pike and sending Kirk into a vengeful rage. Although Spock, Scotty, and the rest of the crew believe Kirk is blinded by emotion, Marcus decides to grant Kirk’s request to pursue Harrison into the Klingon Empire, and to carpet bomb his location with 72 photon torpedoes to make sure the bastard’s dead.
When Harrison reveals himself to Kirk as Khan Noonien Singh, he might as well have said “My name is Anakin Skywalker” for all the meaning it has for Kirk. It means a lot to the audience, though – the re-introduction of one of STAR TREK’s most well-known villains. But there’s no weight, no resonance to the reveal, because there’s no history between them – yet. Khan wants Kirk to know the truth – that he’s simply a pawn in Marcus’ machinations to start a war with the Klingon Empire.
I actually thought this was a fascinating use of the character – this isn’t the Khan of “Space Seed” or WRATH OF KHAN, and he even has a sense of nobility about him as he and Kirk form an uneasy alliance to stop Marcus. I also liked how in this reality, the Federation was quickly becoming more militarized since Vulcan’s destruction, and since TREK has always been somewhat topical, those themes felt especially relevant. I loved Scotty’s plea to Kirk to not undertake the mission – “We’re supposed to be explorers!” – and I think Gene Roddenberry would have approved the symbolic way that STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS addresses the War on Terror.
There are quite a few plot holes racking up at this point, however. Apparently transwarp technology can transport someone from Earth all the way to Q’onos, but the Enterprise can’t even beam Spock up from a volcano that’s less than a mile away. If transporting tech is so advanced, why are there even starships at all? The plots of both Khan and Marcus seem fairly ridiculous once they are closely examined. Even the way Kirk coolly dismisses his breaking of the Prime Directive feels tonally wrong. Yes, Original Series Kirk broke the Prime Directive all the time. But he had the good sense to at least feel bad about it, or look for every possible alternative. But JJ Abrams, like in 2009’s STAR TREK, manages to charm his way through these plot issues, and his action set pieces are riveting and intense. It’s directed just as confidently as the last one. The plot holes are irritating, but they aren’t detracting from the movie. Not yet.
Then Old Spock shows up, and the movie promptly shits the bed. It’s rare when one scene totally derails a movie into ineptitude, but this scene does it. It’s, of course, always welcome to see Leonard Nimoy again, but this scene gives us such unnecessary exposition and takes the audience completely out of the movie that it doesn’t recover.
That’s when the movie became THE WRATH OF RET-KHAN, and lost me completely.
See that picture above? That’s the most iconic, resonant, emotional scene in all of STAR TREK. It’s one friend saying goodbye to another, after years of companionship and camaraderie. Those two men know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. They’ve seen each other at their best and their worst. The scene relies on context and history, but it’s no less effective to newcomers who see it. We have Spock, who dies in the bravest way possible, saving Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise. It is a good death. And in that death, he teaches his old friend Kirk an invaluable lesson – he faces death, finally, after dodging and cheating it for so many years. Kirk, at last, knows what sacrifice really means, and he becomes a better man for it. In 1982, when a character like Spock died, it meant something. Sure, he came back in the next movie, but at the time, audiences had no idea he would return. It felt final, and triumphant. It’s one of my favorite scenes in movie history. So yeah, I’m a little precious about it.
You don’t get to remake That Scene. You can’t, because what that scene means has been set up by years of episodes and a movie, and it has special significance. The fact that it’s now Kirk in the chamber and not Spock doesn’t change anything, and when Kirk dies we already know that it’s not permanent. It’s just an opportunity for Abrams, Lindelof, Kurtzman and Orci to shove fan service down the audience’s throat. There’s no special meaning or weight to it, and when Spock screams “KHAN!” at the top of his lungs, it feels like an insult. It feels like the filmmakers think so little of STAR TREK and the fans; that all we want to see are the same stories over and over.
I don’t blame the cast, who do the best they can with the material – Quinto pretty much embodies Spock at this point, much like Nimoy did, and Pine’s arc in the movie into a more mature captain almost works if not for the script. Every character gets a moment or two to shine. It’s somewhat the fault of JJ Abrams – the action sequences are enjoyable and exciting, but he also has no issue killing a lot of sacred cows. But the screenwriters are the ones who truly earn my anger. The script is truly horrid – full of astounding plot holes (seriously, why all the stressing over Khan’s blood to save Kirk when they have 72 of his superhuman crew with similar healing abilities RIGHT FUCKING THERE), a lack of understanding about the essentials of STAR TREK, and worst of all, a contempt for the audience. And I haven’t even talked about the inert character of Carol Marcus (Alice Eve), who has nothing to do except take off her clothes for Kirk to ogle. STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS boldly goes where so many bad TREK movies have gone before.
This new reality of STAR TREK had such possibilities, as Spock would say. So many stories, told from different perspectives and ideas. It was a license to play in a vast universe, the best sandbox ever. Whether STAR TREK can be salvaged from this remains to be seen; it’s highly likely we’ll see more of these movies. STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS ends where the series begins, but I can’t help thinking that there’s yet more wheel-spinning to come. I’m sure there are audiences out there who have no idea what I’m talking about, and will consider my ranting that of a scorned old school fan. Gene Roddenberry once pitched STAR TREK as “WAGON TRAIN to the stars.” I remember in STAND BY ME, Gordie says, “WAGON TRAIN's a really cool show, but did you notice they never get anywhere? They just keep wagon training.” If the directing and the lousy writing of STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS are any indication, we won’t be going anywhere new for a long time. Seeking out new life, indeed.