Star Trek is not iconography. There are plenty of iconic moments, inside jokes, winks, nods, and more, but it all stems from an original story starring fleshed-out characters who answered the call of duty and the call of adventure in equal and enthusiastic measure. Director J.J. Abrams only sees iconography, but it was enough to get him through 2009’s reboot. The story was barely patched together, still filled with holes, and wrapped in coincidences, but Abrams’ talent as a director managed to bring the story and characters to life in a way that felt fresh and exciting. Much like his take on Captain Kirk, it was slapdash, occasionally clever, frantic, and charming. Unfortunately, a flashy smile and big set pieces can’t save Abrams a second time as his follow-up, Star Trek Into Darkness, amplifies the shortcomings of his original effort, and removes the joy as the picture stumbles around looking for character arcs, themes, and a compelling, well-constructed plot. But its greatest embarrassment is in trying to steal classic Star Trek moments without having a clue as to why those moments had meaning.
The reckless Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) comes home to find that his irresponsible actions on a recent mission have knocked him down to First Officer, but he quickly regains his rank after a terrorist supposedly named “John Harrison” (Benedict Cumberbatch) attacks a meeting of high-ranking Starfleet officers. Seeking revenge and clearly having learned nothing from his demotion, Kirk gets permission from Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) to take 72 super-torpedoes, hunt down Harrison, and kill him. Even though Spock (Zachary Quinto) is constantly warning the Captain about the severity of this action, and Scotty (Simon Pegg) won’t even have anything to do with torpedoes that could seriously backfire, Kirk charges ahead only to become a pawn in a much larger game.
Later in this review, I will go into spoilers, but first I want to make something clear. I’m sure my integrity will be called into question simply because I previously voiced my frustration with Paramount’s handling of the film in regards to press screenings. For those who don’t know, in most of the country, press screenings were at 9pm Wednesday night, at which point, the film had technically already opened in IMAX 3D starting at 8pm. They’ll say I was ready to take an axe to the movie, I was sharpening my knives, or any other blade-related metaphor. These people do not understand that I go into every movie wanting to like it, but I can’t disregard studio behavior, and neither does anyone else. We all feel a studio’s intent in trailers, posters, and every other piece of a marketing campaign. Marketing is intended to provoke a positive response, and the last-minute press screenings were bad marketing. Nevertheless, I took my good will towards Abrams’ 2009 film, and hoped that even if the screenplay was bad, he could work his magic again.
Abrams is all out of magic. Part of the problem comes from the lack of a through-line he can build around. Star Trek (2009) is a fairly straightforward plot that has two protagonists (Kirk and Spock), a simple villain (Nero), and the main goal of pulling together the crew of the Enterprise. Star Trek Into Darkness, on the other hand, is painfully convoluted. There’s a promising beginning where it looks like the immature Kirk will become the confident, cool-headed Kirk of the original series, but he never comes close to that point. There’s also a lovers’ spat between Spock and Uhura (Zoe Saldana), but that limps off halfway through the picture. And when everyone gets embroiled in the ridiculous machinations of the antagonist’s sinister plot, everything goes to hell. There’s no amount of shiny set pieces or one-liners that can salvage the clusterfuck wrought by screenwriters Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof.
Being generous, 2009’s Star Trek story problems stem from a script that was cobbled together from years of various and disparate drafts, and turned into the semblance of a workable story. But Orci, Kurtzman, Lindelof, and Abrams had four years to create a Star Trek that was their own, and they ended up stealing someone else’s movie. Not only did they rip off a better film, but their script is still filled with lazy cheats, building the story around the set pieces rather than vice-versa, and a general failing to understand how this world functions. For example, after the attack in London, no one in San Francisco (the location of Starfleet HQ) reacts to the bombing, so apparently mass media and reporting don’t exist in the 23rd century.
I could go into more depth about all of the script’s flaws, but to discuss the movie’s biggest failing, I have to head into spoiler territory.
[WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD]
If you haven’t already figured it out, “John Harrison” is actually Khan. For those who never saw The Original Series or Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Khan Noonien Singh (originally played by Ricardo Montalban) is a genetically enhanced human who, along with his genetically enhanced brethren, tried to conquer Earth in the 1990s by wiping out anyone they deemed inferior. They were captured, placed in cryo-sleep, and shot into space where they were discovered 300 years later by the Enterprise in the episode “Space Seed”. Once he was awakened, Khan tried to take over the ship, he was stopped by Kirk, and then sent down to rule over the wasteland of Seti Alpha V. In Wrath of Khan, he gets off the planet, lures Kirk to a battle, and Kirk manages to defeat his foe, but Spock ends up dying in order to save the Enterprise.
To be clear, Khan and Kirk aren’t life-long enemies. Khan appears in “Space Seed”, Wrath of Khan, and that’s it. The reason for making him the antagonist in the second feature film is because the story is about Kirk coming to grips with his lost youth. So Wrath of Khan brings him a deadly nemesis from his past, who then forces Kirk to learn a harsh lesson, and lose his closest friend. The movie embodies the best of the original series (the tense, naval-style battles; outsmarting rather than outgunning the enemy; an admiration for the creative and destructive power of science), but you can enjoy it without having seen a single episode. But if you’ve seen The Original Series, Spock’s death has serious weight. It’s the end of a decades-long friendship, and the line “I have been, and always will be, your friend,” gets the tears flowing.
Star Trek Into Darkness looks at all of this, and says, “So people know these moments? Okay, we’ll twist them a bit, and call it an homage.” In actuality, it’s just theft, and a poorly executed one at that. To begin, the whole purpose of the alternate universe was to create new adventures. That meant everything that happened in the Original Series couldn’t (or at least shouldn’t) happen in the new timeline. However, since Khan was created before the timeline split, he should still look and act the same. Abrams originally tried to get Benicio Del Toro for the role, and when the actor passed, the director apparently decided there were no more talented Hispanic actors left in Hollywood, and went with Benedict Cumberbatch. Those talented Hispanic actors dodged a bullet because even a great actor like Cumberbatch can’t do anything with his bland character (it also makes no sense why Khan would now be a white guy, but I’m not going to get hung up on that). Khan is held hostage by the Abrams’ mystery box where motives are submerged until they are drowned in our indifference. The original Khan relished his superiority with zeal, and Montalban provided a seductive allure. Cumberbatch is Khan insofar as a genetically enhanced madman is trying to trick his way into getting what he wants. The joy and self-satisfaction are rarely apparent in the deadly serious character.
It’s truly Khan in name only, which is fine for Abrams because all he wants is the name. He doesn’t understand that Khan was a potent villain in “Space Seed” not only because of his attitude, but also what he represented in terms of social commentary. More importantly, as I’ve already pointed out, Khan has a special relationship with Kirk in Wrath of Khan, and that past adds depth to the relationship when they meet again. In Star Trek Into Darkness, Khan is a guy that can dupe an endlessly gullible Kirk even though Kirk’s friends and fellow officers are saying that the captain should ignore their prisoner.
There’s a brief glimmer of hope when the movie hints that maybe the filmmakers aren’t as shallow and derivative as they seem. Perhaps they did take the idea of Khan, but have drastically transformed the character into someone who was wronged by Admiral Marcus (who awoke Khan in order to create weapons for a potential war with the Klingons) and desperately wants to save his 72 cryogenically frozen brothers and sisters for purely benevolent reasons. He could be a model for Kirk: someone who also wants to protect his crew, but has the patience and wherewithal to make the smart plays.
Then the movie laughs, “Of course Khan is a bad guy!”, and we learn this because Spock Prime (Leonard Nimoy) comes along to tell Spock about the Khan from the original timeline. Khan then proceeds to take back what he thinks are torpedoes containing his comrades but are actually active torpedoes (his genius intellect can engineer an elaborate plan to get the cryo-chambers back, but he doesn’t think to have the chambers beamed over instead of the torpedoes), and attacks the Enterprise before getting kind of blown up (but not really because the movie needs another set piece). So Khan is behaving like Khan except this isn’t really Khan. It’s just a genetically engineered bad guy. If you had Spock learn about the character from a data archive instead of speaking to Spock Prime, then the bad guy could be named Gerald Q. Honeybottom and all of the conflict would remain the same. Nothing ties these people together: not a past or a theme or an emotional state.
With a complete misunderstanding of the character, the filmmakers should have gone ahead and created a new antagonist (or at least one who wasn’t as well known), which was the opportunity the alternate universe presented in the first place. But that would require originality and effort, and no one wants to put in the hard work. Instead, they continue to rip off Wrath of Khan without having any understanding of why that movie works. They plagiarize Spock’s famous death scene but instead decide to “kill” Kirk. There’s no weight to this death because A) These characters haven’t built a decades-long friendship; B) We’ve only seen them together in two movies; and C) a Lazarus potion from Khan’s blood was established earlier in the movie, so we know Kirk will be fine. Abrams and his writers pat themselves on the back for reversing the roles, even though that role reversal doesn’t tie into any earlier conflict. Kirk didn’t need to learn the merit of self-sacrifice, and Spock doesn’t have to cope with Kirk’s death since the Vulcan immediately goes to hunt down a fleeing Khan.
But where the film truly and finally came apart for me was the moment after Kirk’s temporary death. Spock looks down at his friend’s body, raises his head to the sky, and screams “KHAAAAAAAN!” At that moment, I laughed and then put my head in my hands. J.J. Abrams now has ownership of this Star Trek franchise and he truly doesn’t get that moments like these have to be earned and not stolen. This moment in particular takes Abrams disrespect for Star Trek and moves it into open disdain. It’s not for the people who love Star Trek; it’s for the people who understand references to Wrath of Khan without ever having seen Wrath of Khan. Abrams is parodying Star Trek in a canon Star Trek movie. I understand it’s a difficult balance in trying to appease fans and general audiences, but Abrams simply shrugs it off and goes for the easy reference even though that reference has been rendered completely meaningless within the context of his movie.
This wretched repurposing of Wrath of Khan embodies the core issue of why Star Trek Into Darkness fails: laziness and fear of originality. In a movie with few redeeming aspects (Pegg and Pine’s performances, and a couple of nice set pieces although Abrams still thinks the action should be like Star Wars), this behavior is disrespectful to all audiences. Even if you’re not a die-hard Trek fan, the film no longer has the charm to speed past such questions as:
- If they can beam Spock out of the volcano, why didn’t they just beam him into the volcano in the first place?
- Why does Kirk kick Scotty off the ship for refusing to use the torpedoes, and then decide to capture Harrison rather than use the torpedoes?
- Why does Kirk promote Chekov (Anton Yelchin) to run engineering instead of someone who’s actually an engineer?
- How would Admiral Marcus keep a gigantic dreadnaught filled with private security officers a secret?
- Why does Khan run away from Spock when Khan is physically and intellectually superior?
- Why do they need Khan’s super-blood when they have 72 other genetically enhanced people already on board the Enterprise?
- If Kirk is sent on a secret mission to retrieve Khan after Khan attacks the Starfleet officers’ meeting, then does that mean Starfleet had no official response to the direct attack?
There are other issues like Sulu (John Cho) and Chekov having almost nothing to do in the film, and missing the opportunity to include Bones (Karl Urban) as a character on the same level as Kirk and Spock instead of one-liner comic relief.
When I saw Abrams’ Star Trek back in 2009, I enjoyed it, but I also hadn’t seen The Original Series, and had only seen Wrath of Khan one time many years before. Since then, I’ve cultivated a serious appreciation for Star Trek. I don’t think the original series is perfect, but I admire its spirit and its values. I also recognize Wrath of Khan as a classic movie that can appeal to fans and non-fans alike. Abrams’ sequel thinks it can achieve that same level of admiration if it simply copies the memorable moments for the 1982 film.
Star Trek Into Darkness proves the filmmakers’ apathy and ignorance regarding Star Trek by being the antithesis of the series’ famous proclamation, “To boldly go where no man has gone before.”