At some point during the third act of Star Trek Into Darkness, I realized that I actually was bored. In the midst of whatever number it was of the countless series of over-energized set pieces which comprise the film, I realized that I actually had tuned out and mentally drifted away. When the movie was over, I dubbed it “okay, at best”. By the time I got home, I’d moved on through “let down” and fully into disappointment.
This wasn’t a Star Trek movie, it was another anonymous and disposable summer action flick that had managed to secure the brand for a little extra geek cachet, to assuage the hardcore niche while appealing to a wider audience that just wants to be sensorily barraged for over two hours. Sound and fury signifying not nothing, but surely very little.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with a summer blockbuster full of sound and fury, but there’s no reason for it to be called Star Trek.
I felt mostly as if I had been forced to watch a Transformers-era Michael Bay picture, and then understood why when I discovered that Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman wrote his Transformers movies, and I wept into the nostalgia for my Star Trek-infused youth.
Lost in all of this pressing need to be on the go and on the move at all times was the room for when “nothing happens”, those spaces in which “nothing happens” typically being where most of the real stuff actually happens in a story. I find myself comparing the Orci/Kurtzman approach to story to that of, say, Joss Whedon, who mostly views set pieces as the connective tissue between the “nothing happens” parts where things actually happen. In comparison, Orci, Kurtzman, and Lindeloff seem to view the “nothing happens” parts as the connective tissue between set pieces, and is meant to be dispensed with as quickly, artlessly, and emptily as possible. Mostly by employing shorthand. Signifiers rather than the significant.
You can’t structure a story, a good one anyway, around shorthand and set pieces. Every writer (of summer blockbusters, to be sure) should know how to use both tools. At some point, however, you need to provide the room for actual storytelling. (Somewhat relatedly, see also Anna Pinkert’s thoughts on how “metaphor and allegory are different”.)
It didn’t help that so much of the script relied upon contrivance and convenience. These, too, are tools a writer can’t help but use. There’s a difference, though, between using them and making them central to your entire endeavor. Scotty quits, only to just happen to end up on the very ship that later will attack the Enterprise, allowing him to act as saboteur later on. Khan’s blood just happens to be regenerative and McCoy just happens to notice this fact, allowing him to revive the dead Kirk later on. No real-feeling universe behaves this way as a matter of routine, even one reliant on the suspension of disbelief.
Further, while I’m okay with reference — and when you’ve rebooted a universe, employing it is inevitable — at some point it becomes self-defeating. Fans and writers (and writers who are fans, and fans who are writers), especially in genre, of course end up spitballing “wouldn’t it be cool if…” scenarios. Good writers ultimately discard them as too cute, as too clever for their own sake and move on to something else, unless there’s something truly and meaningfully interesting to mine there. But at some point the too cute and too clever reference sabotages itself and its surroundings and becomes about the reference rather than about the present moment before us. It’s cute to have Kirk run into the warp chamber to save the ship, and have dialogue which echoes that from Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan, but it makes the scene about that reference and not about itself.
Which brings us to perhaps the single biggest misfire of the entire film, the largest of its “too cute and too clever” sins: Benedict Cumberbatch and Khan.
Let’s start with the fact that the man stated in the Star Trek episode “Space Seed” to be “from the northern Indian area” and “probably a Sikh” here turns out to be a British white man. The brand which once brought us the first interracial kiss on television (and a black character who once caused Whoopi Goldberg so much excitement because she was on TV and wasn’t a maid) whitewashed a brown-skinned character that frequently tops lists of the greatest villains of all time. I’m not sure what to say about this except to just be amongst the voices (chiefly Marissa Sammy) pointing it out.
Really, though, the movie is also a complete and utter waste of the character. Cumberbatch has almost no real presence, except I assume to all the men and women whose panties wet no matter what he does. Cumberbatch’s breathily deep delivery and emphatic enunciation is effectively empty, his moments of stillness are just sort of the absence of moving. Ricardo Montalban, while no one ever argued he was Lawrence Olivier, radiated presence, his moments of stillness those of the coiled and observing snake. Not the absence of motion but its deliberate and carefully considered restraint.
For all of the talk in this movie about what and who Khan is, what he could do, what he might do, I defy anyone who saw this movie without any prior experience of, or exposure to, the character to come away with any real sense of the character. I’m sure they could parrot whatever the characters said about him, but that’d empty description, not knowledge.
Khan, before, could only be Khan. You couldn’t put any other character in his stead and tell the story. In the episode “Space Seed”, the story was about the presence of a 20th-century genetically-engineered superman in the 23rd century. Khan himself was about how he viewed and treated the people around him, whether the way he saw the crew of the Enterprise or the way he saw his own. When he returned in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, he was about suddenly being able to seek out his revenge upon Kirk. The threat from him was immediate and it was visceral, and tied to people we knew. In both cases, you knew who he was, and you had a very real and present sense of his physical and mental abilities.
Not to mention, of his motivations. One throwaway line to Kirk about what one would do for family equals neither his care, affection, and protectiveness in “Space Seed” nor his seething need for vengeance in Wrath of Khan.
Here, he might just as well have been a guy actually named John Harrison on any revenge mission whatsoever. Who cares that he hates Admiral Marcus, a character that means nothing to us? It’s only Khan here because Orci, Kurtzman, and Lindeloff are all shorthand and signifier, too cute and too clever for their own good. Or that of the story.
I’m honestly unsure whether I would rather re-watch Star Trek Into Darkness or Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, but generally speaking I’d prefer the worst of any of the pre-reboot Trek series to this. The latest movie might be passable summer fare, but it’s not a Star Trek movie. I’m at a loss to explain why the people who made it seem to think those are mutually exclusive goals.
Postscript (May 19, 2013)
- Really, much of what you need to know is in that GIF making the rounds, wherein Abrams reveals his underlying antipathy to Star Trek having been too “philosophical”.
- In essence, Abrams et al are making what could just as well have been a different reboot — Buck Rogers Into Darkness? — except Paramount wanted the cachet that comes with the Star Trek name.
- The problem is, that cachet comes because the “philosophical”, and those spaces wherein “nothing happens”, are part of that brand’s entire point.
- Meanwhile, this is completely gratuitous — it literally exists for no other reason than to be gratuitous — and they should be ashamed of themselves.
- I never even addressed Spock’s use of information from Spock Prime, despite the screenwriters (I think?) once stating that they weren’t going to be doing that sort of thing now that the new timeline was established.
- Generally, I enjoyed the first movie in the franchise’s reboot, and gave it some latitude because it had a lot of work to do just to establish the new timeline.
- Unlike the followup, the first film better balanced the loud with the quiet, the story with the set pieces.
- For context: I did, indeed, grow up a Star Trek kid, with the family watching the reruns (even, sometimes, over dinner), my bedroom walls drawn into the bridge of the Enterprise, a Super-8 movie made about me as Kirk beaming down to a planet of dinosaurs.
- All of that translated into joy when the first space shuttle received its name and unbridled excitement when the years-dead television show became a major motion picture.
- Stray subjective observation: my Enterprise is spindly and majestic, not a hotrod.
- I miss space travel as methodical majesty, the Enterprise leaving Earth in a ballet of running lights activating and slow thrusters ahead.
- I don’t miss it like it’s inaccessible, as I watched some of that last night on Netflix, but now it’s all the tiresome, “Punch it!”
Postscript (May 21, 2013)
Other reviews echo my own, or, if you prefer, vice versa. You can, I’m sure, find plenty of good reviews, but I’m more interested in how widely-shared — and therefore not just pulled out of my own ass — my criticisms are.
- Jill Pantozzi: “It pains me to have to write this but last night I saw Star Trek Into Darkness, the sequel to J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, and I hated it.”
- Devin Faraci: “Star Trek Into Darkness is not the worst Star Trek movie. I would probably watch this film again before I rewatch The Final Frontier or Insurrection or Nemesis. That said, I would prefer not to rewatch any of these films – Star Trek Into Darkness included – because they are all very bad movies.”
- Adam P. Knave: “I need to talk about Star Trek Into Darkness a while and there will be spoilers. So consider this your warning. You feeling good and warned? I hope so. Because…”