All right, at the outset, know that there will be spoilers. Not little spoilers, mind you, but big, freakin’ Luke-I-am-your-father-Rosebud-was-a-sled-it-was-Earth-all-along-damn-you-all-to-hell spoilers. In fact, I’m going to post a spoiler picture, so watch out for that, too. The point is that if you haven’t seen “Star Trek Into Darkness” and you want to see it without knowing what happens, you’ve probably read too much already. Look away! Be gone with you! Abandon all hope, or whatever. Seriously, why are you still reading this?
All right. So. “Star Trek Into Darkness.”
On Facebook, I posted the following mini-review: “Star Trek. Kids loved it. It made me mad.”
I received several replies, including one very common-sense question: “Did you go actually believing you would like it?”
That’s a hard question to answer. Yes, I’m something of a Trek purist, but I thoroughly enjoyed the 2009 reboot, although My Esteemed Colleague, the purest of purists, did not. (More on him later.) I even wrote a column for the Deseret News scolding purists for their unwillingness to embrace the new Trek incarnation, thereby preemptively defending a movie I hadn’t seen. I had also wrote multiple posts outlining the reasons that Cumberbatch was going to be Gary Mitchell, not Kahn. Allow me to quote me:
Again, Khan makes no sense. Not an inside Starfleet guy; no reason for vengeance on Kirk in this continuity, and repeated, emphatic denials from everyone involved with the movie that Cumberbatch isn’t Khan.
– Stallion Cornell, “It’s Gary Mitchell,” December 6, 2012
Those emphatic denials left no wriggle room or gray areas. “It’s not Khan,” insisted Simon “Scotty” Pegg. “That’s a myth. Everyone’s saying it is, but it’s not.”
Oh, wait. Yes, it is. We lied.
See? Spoiler pic there.
I don’t like being lied to, but all’s fair in love and movie promotion, I guess. And the fact that they chose Khan as the baddie isn’t, on its face, a crime against nature. To borrow from Nicholas Meyer, who directed Khan’s last big screen outing, it’s not whether or not you use him; it’s whether you use him well.
Khan is utterly wasted in this movie.
That’s true whatever else you may think about the film. Khan isn’t really the bad guy; Admiral Marcus is – although we’ve seen his type before, too. He’s a Federation version of Christopher Plummer’s Klingon warmonger in “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.” Khan’s beef with Marcus is justified, and he ends up joining forces with Kirk, which, given the plot, makes all the sense in the world.
Then something stupid happens. It’s not the first time something stupid happens in this movie, and it’s certainly not the last.
When NuSpock phones up Leonard Nimoy for no particular reason, that sent up a red flag that the movie was about to go off the rails. He skypes old Spock in the middle of the confrontation with Marcus to ask about… Khan. Khan, who is currently on their side; Khan, who is ancillary to the dilemma they now face; Khan, who wants to bump off Admiral Marcus even more than they do. How about “Did you know an Admiral Marcus? Was he a power-mad loon?” No, the script has to feature Khan, because, well, he’s Khan, and we’ve wasted him up until now.
And what does Nimoy say? “Oh, Khan! He’s bad! Very, very bad! The baddest guy we ever faced.” (Which is not true, by the way, but I’ll let it slide. I can only get overheated over one thing at a time.)
So then the movie proceeds to fulfill its own lame prophecy, and Khan, who gets possession of the most powerful starship ever built, proceeds to blow the Enterprise out of the water because… well, he’s Khan! KHAAAAN! EEEEEEEEvil Khan! Remember what Grandpa Spock just said? Khan’s just so enormously bad, with a deep streak of incurable badness! He doesn’t want to escape in his trans-warp supership and go wreak havoc somewhere, no! He just wants to beat up on Kirk, because, well, that’s what Khans do.
And therein is the problem. This Khan should have absolutely no beef with Kirk. Which is why this movie falls woefully short of the film it’s so desperately trying to emulate. “The Wrath of Khan” was a masterpiece largely because it drew on fifteen years of history, on relationships between characters and fans that spanned two decades, and a long-simmering grudge ripe for an epic revenge.
This movie has none of those things. So what does it do? It tries to borrow “Wrath of Khan’s” gravitas and pass it off as its own.
Which brings us to… the scene. You know the one I’m talking about.
Up until Kirk’s “death,” I was having a rather pleasant night at the movies. There’s no denying that this was a well-constructed piece of entertainment, and I confess that I very much enjoy the cast, who have made these roles their own. Chris Pine is a bonafide movie star, and he carries the film effortlessly. Scotty had more to do, which was a welcome addition. I was disappointed that Bones was sidelined for much of the action, as he was the best thing about the first movie. But now, I even like Zachary Quinto, who bothered me in the first film, primarily because he was a tenor and Nimoy is a baritone, and I didn’t buy that he could be a younger version of the old Spock. But there was less older Spock to compare him to, which allowed me to accept him on his own terms. I thought he acquitted himself well, even as he was repeatedly forced to erode the integrity of the character of Spock. (More on that later, too.)
But once they got to Kirk taking the Spock side of the glass door in an overdramatic death scene, I got bugged. Then I got angry. And the movie lost me completely, never to get me back again.
Here’s the problem. Thematically, “The Wrath of Khan” is, above all else, a thoughtful meditation on aging and death. Kirk has made it to middle age without ever face his own mortality, and he’s prided himself on his ability to cheat the Grim Reaper at every turn. When Spock dies, Kirk is forced to confront death in the most unsettling and disturbing way possible, watching his longtime friend expire right in front of him. The scene works on its own merits, but it has tremendous power born from the characters’ relationships with both the audience and each other.
By way of contrast, “ST Into Darkness” is thematically barren. It’s not a meditation on anything; it’s a loud, brash popcorn flick. Don’t get me wrong; there’s nothing wrong with loud, brash popcorn flicks. “Iron Man 3” was awesome. (More on that in another post.) In addition, the characters don’t have Shatner and Nimoy’s decades of association to draw upon, and the audience isn’t nearly as invested in them as they were in the old guys. So when they decide to drop a lead weight of bathos into what has, up until then, been a fluffy piece of cinema cotton candy, it’s clumsy and labored.
And then the stupidest thing possible happens: Spock, who has just bawled his eyes out and demonstrated no ability to contain his emotions, yells “KHAAAAAAAAAN!”
It made me laugh. Even worse, it was designed to make me laugh. How could it not be? Shatner’s “KHAAAAAAAAAAAAN” shout is now an iconic element of almost every Kirk parody ever performed. This was a callback to something that’s become a joke. Who undercuts the dramatic tension of its most “poignant” moment with a punchline? Someone who sorely misjudged the nature of these characters, that’s who.
It reminded me of the terrible moment (amid a sea of terrible moments) in Shatner’s execrable “Star Trek V” where they come face to face with God Himself, who then asks to borrow the Enterprise, to which Kirk then asks, “What need does God have of a starship?” And the audience laughs, because they recognize the fundamental absurdity of everything they’ve watched until now. Seeing Spock’s Khan shoutout was the last straw. After that, the movie had abandoned all pretense to integrity. There was no longer anything worth caring about.
Once the roof caved in, I found myself questioning all the moments I had previously enjoyed. Yes, it’s exciting and fun, but think about how absurd the opening of the movie is. They don’t want to lift the Enterprise out of the water because the locals will see it, right? Well, wouldn’t they have seen it when it went under the water in the first place? Kind of a big ship, isn’t it? And why did it have to go under water? We can beam things to any spot on the surface from orbit, can’t we? They may have made up some hooey about the volcano offering interference or something, but they undermined that when they beamed Spock out of harm’s way. And, really, why did Spock have to be down there at all? Why not just drop the cold fusion bomb and let it blow up on its own?
Hey, if you really do need a guy there for some reason, why not use Harrison Khan’s ridiculously powerful portable “trans-warp” device which can zip you from downtown London to downtown Kronos in the blink of an eye? And when they discover that device, why not trans-warp beam a handful of Starfleet SEALS to Khan’s location, slit his throat, and then beam them back?
Why is Khan on Kronos, anyway? Sure, it’s convenient for Marcus, who wants to start a war, but isn’t Marcus Khan’s sworn enemy? Why would he accommodate him with a hideout that plays directly into his agenda, other than, you know, lazy writing?
And then there’s Kirk’s resurrection via Khan blood. McCoy even removes one of Khan’s crew to put Kirk in a cryotube. Doesn’t that guy from the tube have genetically enhanced superblood, too? Yes. Don’t they know that? Yes. Do they ignore it for no logical reason and go after Khan in an overwrought chase sequence instead? Why, yes, they do, in fact!
To be fair, these plot holes are much smaller than the first film’s were. But I don’t mind plot holes as long as the thing can still hang together as a cohesive whole. This movie couldn’t accomplish that. It tries to be all things to all people, and it hurled me out of the moment with its clumsy callback to a film it admires but doesn’t understand. It’s sad, really – we only get new Star Trek every few years, and it seems such a waste to use one of those outings to retread what has gone before.
My Esteemed Colleague refuses to see it, and he insists that it will ruin Trek for generations. He may be right; my kids loved the thing, and they think I’m just a geek with no life for feeling differently. But I don’t think this is the Trek death blow. As I said, the cast works, and, given a decent story, they can get this franchise back on track. The movie ends precisely where the series begins, with the onset of their five year exploration mission. Maybe next time they’ll get it right.
Because they didn’t get it right this time.