Summary: Films show who we are, our dreams and fears. Today Locke Peterseim compares Star Trek Into Darkness to the original TV show, showing how we’ve changed during the past 5 decades. We want simpler plots, cardboard villains, more emphasis on emotional behavior and beating up bad guys. And above all, ignoring the disturbing deeper questions that made the original show so interesting.
This explains why I’m disappointed in Star Trek Into Darkness. Spoilers!
In my previous piece about why I felt a deeper disconnect with J.J. Abrams’ new Star Trek film, I spoke primarily about the larger problems I have with how Abrams and his Trek co-writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof approach Star Trek and their emphasis on empty escapism and popcorn thrills to the near-exclusion of any deeper ideas or meaning.
… As I said in my earlier piece, part of me enjoyed the majority of Into Darkness because of all its obvious whoosh-whoosh zip bang action adventure and character humor. I won’t deny that the Trek franchise needed a little warp boost in that area — it’s just that after the 2009 reboot, I deluded myself a bit into thinking the new series would eventually get around to doing more than just action adventure.
I’m not going to sit here and nitpick the film to pieces over the sort of “but wait, why in the hell would this character do that?” plot-logic questions you can use these days to take apart most any big-budget Hollywood film. But there were several major points in Into Darkness where missed opportunities or plain old script laziness worked to undermine my overall enjoyment of the film.
And remember, SPOILERS! In case you missed the big ‘ol headline above, this is going to be full of Into Darkness spoilers… and Star Trek geekery…
The Return of Old Spock
Two thirds of the way through Into Darkness, Old Spock (the venerable Leonard Nimoy) once again appears deux ex Vulcania and bluntly tells Young Spock (Zachary Quinto) that Khan (The Great Benedict Cumberbatch) is a genocidal maniac, plain and simple.
What makes this repeat of the 2009 Star Trek Obi-Wan Kenobi shtick (where Old Spock wandered in and out of the plot as a sort of Vulcan Ambassador of Plot Exposition) feel so cheap is that from a narrative perspective it’s not only completely unnecessary, but weakens the film. Old Spock doesn’t tell Young Spock anything that Kirk (Chris Pine) and Young Spock aren’t going to figure out on their own in a few minutes anyway: Khan is Bad News. Nimoy is here only because Abrams thinks it was a neat cameo in his first film, so by all means let’s do it again and toss an appeasing bone to those pesky old-school Trekkies.
But by having Old Spock pop up and declare Khan a “genocidal maniac,” Abrams and the writers lazily cut off any opportunity to genuinely “show not tell” who Khan is and why he’s acting as he does. Earlier, Khan explains his motives to Kirk, giving the villain some vaguely interesting depth and complexity, and raising thorny issues about the nature of terrorism. But then Old Spock comes along, tells the Enterprise crew and the audience that Khan is Bad, and from there on Khan behaves like an automatic movie villain, acting “bad” because he “is bad.”
And never mind that Old Spock is mostly describing to Young Spock the post-Alpha Seti V Khan from Wrath of Khan who’s actions led to Old Spock’s death in that 1982 film — an older, more unhinged Khan driven to further madness by the death of his lady love and his placing of the blame on William Shatner’s Kirk.
But Abrams and his writers like to make clear that in their newly rebooted “alternate timeline” Trekverse, characters can be and often are different from their earlier TV and film incarnations. (Actually, “later” if we’re speaking strictly temporally, but let’s not go there because thinking about time travel will make our noses spurt out blood.) Cumberbatch’s Khan is not Ricardo Montalbán’s Khan and, in keeping with the volatile, “all bets are off, anything goes” nature of this new “parallel timeline” he may never be exactly. Except Old Spock says he’s bad. So end of discussion.
More on the wasted opportunities with Khan near the end, but for now — speaking of the Old and Young Spocks…
Why Must You be Such an Angry Young Spock?
Of all Abrams’ updates and “new timeline” tweaks to the Star Trek ‘verse, Quinto’s Young Spock remains the most insidiously troubling to me. Nimoy’s Spock in the Original Timeline/Universe was not just the brains, but the statesman of the ship and the series — in later years and TV series, he is an ambassador; a diplomat striving, risking all for peace. Granted, the new franchise features a “younger” Spock and gives him a few youthful indiscretions, but the superfluous, pandering romance with Uhura aside, Into Darkness makes it two films in a row now where personal loss has driven Young Spock to the sort of hot-headed, out-of-character vengeance that was always more Jim Kirk’s bailiwick.
I get that Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof feel like they’re creating neat-o character symmetry: The reckless, emotion-driven Kirk learns to temper his impulses while logical, cold-blooded Spock gets to cut loose. And I get that this Young Spock has the loss of his mother, his home planet, and almost his entire race weighing on him, but I worry about this tilt from Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s admirable idealism toward a more cynical, blood-thirsty view of humanity, a move seemingly aimed at a “modern audience” that wants to see its embittered, pain-wracked “heroes” beat the shit out of the bad guys.
In a way, Abrams et al’s emphasis on the yin and yang relationship between Kirk and Spock gets at another reboot trend that doesn’t sit well with long-time Trek fans and helps to weaken the new series: the reduction of Dr. Leonard McCoy to comic relief.
Dammit Jim, He’s Not Just a Doctor, He’s Your Soul
Karl Urban has done a fine job of perfectly capturing the mannerisms and demeanor of DeForest Kelly’s Leonard “Bones” McCoy, but so far the two films mostly use him as a running “in-joke,” as if McCoy’s character can be boiled down to a couple well-worn catch phrases. Character-wise, these new films have focused almost entirely on the formation of the legendary Kirk-Spock friendship because, thanks to Shatner and Nimoy in the ‘70s and ‘80s (and in part to Kelly’s increasing age and infirmary), Kirk and Spock became the poster boys of Star Trek, the faces of the franchise.
But it wasn’t always so: on The Original Series, Kirk and McCoy were as close as Kirk and Spock, with McCoy providing more than just irascible Southern Doctor humor; he was Kirk’s human conscience, a counter-balance to Spock’s sometimes cold logic. We don’t see any of that in the new films, where things have to continually move far too fast for characters to ever just sit down and talk. And while McCoy is sent off to disarm bombs, it’s left to Scotty (Simon Pegg) to raise moral concerns with Kirk.
Into Darkness does find time for Spock and Uhura to stop and talk about their love affair, as Zoe Saldana’s Uhura has taken up most of McCoy’s potential screen time in the new series. (Promotional materials for the 2009 film tended to focus on the Trio of Kirk, Spock, and… Uhura, not McCoy.) No one’s saying we don’t always need a lot more strong, independent female characters in sci-fi, fantasy, and action films. But the majority of what Uhura does in the new film is worry, bicker, and make out with Spock, as part of what I feel is a misguided need to “humanize” the Vulcan science officer.
The Wrath of Khan “Homage”
As I said last weekend, in its third act, Into Darkness swipes so many scenes and lines of dialogue from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan that Khan writer-director Nicolas Meyer deserved a screen credit.
I’m sure if you called Abrams, Orci, Kurtzman, and Lindelof on the thievery, they’d defend it as not just homage, but a clever “alternate timeline” echo. You see, they might say, by playing out the same events only with the Kirk and Spock roles reversed, they’re commenting on the new nature of Kirk and Spock’s relationships, on the idea that across timelines and alternate universes, not just themes, but certain events remain constant, if somewhat altered.
I call bullshit. The “The Wrath of Khan” sequence in Into Darkness feels more like plain old screenwriting laziness — yet another pandering wink and nod to fans that metastasizes into a large, completely unnecessary waste of time and cinematic energy, taking up most of the new film’s third act. Here’s an idea: You’ve been charged with rebooting an entire science-fiction universe. How about coming up with your own damn ideas?
Especially when the thievery is not just lazy but offensive in its cheap, pointless emotional manipulation …
Kirk’s Moot “Death”
Spock’s death in The Wrath of Khan was one of the most emotionally charged, momentous occasions in the Star Trek franchise, possibly all of modern sci-fi filmdom. Though Leonard Nimoy and the character soon returned to the franchise in the next feature film, that summer of ’82, the actor had publically stated he was done with playing Spock. (He wanted to direct, of course.) So the character’s on-screen death felt final. Glimmering, hopeful last shot of Spock’s torpedo coffin aside, there was no guarantee Nimoy, long weary of the role, could be convinced to return.
But when the Into Darkness film makers swipe that death wholesale — with Kirk this time — every single person in the theater — Trek fan or not — knows it will be neither permanent nor important. No one ever dies forever in comics or action film franchises, but this time around there was no real pretense that this one would “count.” We know Chris Pine isn’t going anywhere this soon. We know there’s not going to be an ongoing Star Trek film franchise without James Kirk after just two films.
Yet Abrams et al still milk Kirk’s “death” for every cheap tear and overwrought drop of melodrama. It’s the shabbiest of empty gimmicks, tossed willy nilly into the Into Darkness script not so much to put the characters through their paces, but rather to give a “higher-stakes” goose to the third act of an already over-stuffed summer blockbuster. Instead, a large part of the film’s driving force toward its finale is ginned up on a faux emotional beat that both the film makers and the audience know from the start is a sham.
Into a Brightly Colored Darkness
The first Star Trek feature franchise with Shatner, Nimoy, et al quickly learned after the debacle of The Motion Picture, that the same lofty, mind-twisting sci-fi concepts and imaginative explorations that make The Original Series so compelling to a generation of geeks didn’t translate well to big screen action blockbusters. Which is why the best of the franchise — The Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock, The Voyage Home, and The Undiscovered Country — focused primarily on emotional connections between the characters and the villains they faced.
(The Shatner-directed The Final Frontier arrogantly forgot that wisdom, and both the film and its audience suffered mightily. One of the few Star Trek films that managed to deftly balance both character drama and slightly headier science-fiction conceits was First Contact, the best of the Next Generation films.)
So it’s no surprise that Abrams and his reboot crew have chosen to stick closely to the character angles and have, so far, forgone much in the way of exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilizations, and boldly going where no one has gone before. True, Into Darkness opens on a strange new (to us) world with a new civilization, but the film only uses it as a brief action beat to give the crew of the Enterprise a scare, let us drool over how cool the Enterprise looks rising up out of an ocean bed (where it was resting for no logical reason other than it looks so cool), and lay down some interpersonal stuff between Kirk and Spock (and Spock and Uhura).
Abrams would prefer to focus on the often-rocky beginnings of the friendship between Kirk and Spock while tossing out fairly boiler-plate bits about facing death and risk and recklessness versus rationality and reason, which is fine. But Into Darkness doesn’t really have a lot of time or patience for all that “sharing our feelings” stuff — it gets in the way of the fighting and the shooting and the running and jumping and hanging off the edges of things. So the new film blithely ignores and wastes several potentially interesting themes. Ironically, it seems, because they might be “too dark” for a summer popcorn film titled “Into Darkness.”
For starters, Abrams clearly wants us to have suspicions about the nature of Starfleet. No one could miss the fact that in Into Darkness everyone at Starfleet headquarters is suddenly wearing grey uniforms straight out of The Wehrmacht, even as Peter Weller’s hawkish Admiral Marcus tries to “Tonkin Gulf” Starfleet into a Klingon war. (Using a ship crew we’re pointedly told are not Star Fleet personnel but security contractors. BlackStar? So it’s okay for our “good guys” to kill them.)
That Marcus plotline raises plenty of interesting questions about the nature of Starfleet (formed, it should be noted, in the century after World War III nearly destroyed the human race). As the exploratory, research, and defense branch of The United Federation of Planets, Starfleet is not supposed to be a strictly military service, but over decades of Star Trek, it’s Starfleet’s clashes with other empires’ space fleets (the Klingons, the Romulans, the Borg, the Cardassians, the Dominion, the Tribbles) that tend to provide the series’ most thrilling moments.
This was a fine opportunity to ask some of those questions — the kind that fascinated Roddenberry — about how a civilization balances peaceful, altruistic exploration and research with militaristic and defensive realities. And about how we as audiences are drawn toward combat-heavy “escapist” entertainment. (Notice that original teaser poster above, showing Khan standing amid rubble shaped like the Starfleet badge: a clear visual metaphor for how Khan intended to “blow apart” the myth of Starfleet’s noble mission and expose its militaristic rot. Sadly, that poster is about as close as Into Darkness wants to get to exploring that theme.)
Are Kirk and his crew explorers or warriors? If the answer is obviously “both,” then how is that balance maintained both within the characters and the Star Trek franchise? Add to that a very timely and relevant terrorism threat from Khan, and Into Darkness — with a title that strongly echoes Nietzsche’s famous aphorism about abysses — has the makings of a sci-fi action film that could also have been about something.
Of course it isn’t. Admiral Marcus is presented as a lone bloodthirsty loon — once he’s dead and Khan is back in the deep freeze, it seems Starfleet can instantly, easily revert back to its heroic, noble, boldly goings — the film ends with the Enterprise taking off on it’s new “Five Year Mission” of exploration. As with so much in Abrams’ films and summer action films in general, no time is spent pondering any of these headier issues.
No one is saying a summer blockbuster has to feel like a philosophy and morality classroom lecture, but good writers and film makers (for instance, Peter Jackson and his Lord of the Rings team) know how to weave and finesse meaning and character complexity into the entertainment. But as I said in my earlier piece, Abrams, Orci, Kurtzman, and Lindelof are not good writers.
The Waste of Khan
Okay, let’s say the whole “is Starfleet a force for right?” question is a little too thorny for a summer popcorn movie. (Though it should be noted that popcorn movies like Joss Whedon’s The Avengers and the upcoming Captain America: The Winter Soldier raise similar issues about the nature of S.HI.E.L.D.) On a strictly character level, Into Darkness still had a tremendous opportunity to do more with the connections between Khan and Kirk.
Khan is not one of Star Trek’s best villains because he gives good maniacal speeches. In fact, just the opposite — despite his delusions of grandeur and genocidal, totalitarian leanings, Khan believes in what he’s doing, that the ends justify the means, that sacrifices must be made for the greater “good” — including one’s own morality. And that is exactly what makes him a perfect nemesis for James Kirk.
Benedict Cumberbatch is a wonderful actor and he does a fine post/pre- Montalbán job with Khan in the film, but despite some interesting back and forth with Kirk in the first half of the film, in the second half, most of Khan’s depth and complexity is quickly jettisoned, leaving yet another stereotypical Super Villain with a British accent. (Apparently Nero’s villainous time-traveling incursion into the Trek timeline in the previous film created a viral outbreak of British accents among secondary characters who didn’t have them in the previous films.)
At the end of the film, McCoy asks a revived, returned-from-the-dead Kirk if the transfusion of Khan’s blood has left him feeling like “a homicidal manic” — to which Kirk replies, “No more than usual.” That right there should have been the driving theme of the whole damn film: Kirk and Khan as dark and light sides of the same coin, and the ways in which heroes since Gilgamesh, Beowulf, Achilles, and Odysseus have had to struggle with their ego and more tyrannical, bloodthirsty, and vengeful impulses.
Khan says he’s waging his terrorist war against Star Fleet on behalf of his abducted crew/family, and Kirk takes off to execute the terrorist because Khan killed his mentor Admiral Pike. Likewise, Kirk is always up for a “good fight,” and the film might have delved into how that headstrong conflict-addicted nature could lead Kirk to end up like Admiral Marcus, trapped in Cheney-esque, war-hawk paranoia. But again, the film doesn’t bother. Into Darkness puts these parallels nicely in place, and yet when push literally comes to shove, Abrams always abandons exploring them for more scenes in which someone frantically races against the clock to disarm something.
Like too many of its action/fantasy/sci-fi counterparts, Abrams’ Into Darkness has no problem tossing out interesting, complex character issues and thematic questions but then considers the cases “closed” once the Good Guy’s beaten or blown up the Bad Guy.
About the author
Locke Peterseim writes the Hammer and Thump film blog at Open Letters Monthly, an online arts and literature magazine. A film critic whose work has appeared on Redbox, WGN Radio, and in the Magill’s Cinema Annual, he also serves on the board of the Chicago Film Critics Association.
These days he still enjoys films on their artistic and entertainment merits, but also finds himself as much if not more interested in them as cultural mirrors; artifacts of how we want to see ourselves — and how mainstream studios want to sell those desires back to us.
Some of his other reviews:
- “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” asks if you want a Revolution.
- Transformers 4: the Greatest Film Ever Made About 21st Century America.
- 300: Rise of an Empire – The Half-Truths and Bloody Fog of Cartoon War.
- “Edge of Tomorrow”: Cruise, Again and Again.
- A new Man of Steel for 21st century America: a warrior superman.
- “The Lone Ranger” shows Hollywood’s new paradigm, since films were too deep for us.
- Hollywood transforms “The Hobbit” into The Desolation of Tolkien.
- Interstellar’s Quantum Love and Other Cosmic Horses#*t.
For More Information
To understand Star Trek I highly recommend The Making of Star Trek (1970), explaining Roddenberry’s ideas — and the trade-offs that went into putting it on TV. Also, here are other posts about Star Trek: