I really love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I love it for many different reasons, but upon thinking about it recently, I realized that it is a fascinating deconstruction of the formula of a Star Trek episode. In the original Star Trek, Kirk and the crew would face danger and perhaps a cunning antagonist, and have to use their wits to come up with a solution. For the most part, everything worked out for the Enterprise in the series, as the solutions that led to the conclusion worked out for all sides. Wrath of Khan departs from that formula, and has a self-awareness that sets it apart from the rest of the movie series. Now, I’m not talking about self-awareness in terms of making winking jokes to the audience about stuff that’s come before, I’m talking about how the story is both deeply aware of and responding to the structure of the original series. The movie opens with a failure – a scripted one, yes, but a failure nonetheless – and the themes are reinforced throughout. I mentioned in the last review about how Star Trek doesn’t follow through on the themes of its opening teaser, but Wrath of Khan does. Wrath of Khan is about failure and no win scenarios, neither of which Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise have truly experienced before. There’s even foreshadowing in the opening sequence, where Kirk playfully says to Spock, “Still dead?” Each scene pushes the movie’s themes forward, illustrating its point as the story unfolds. There’s even a bit of a revision to the series itself, as Khan appeared in an episode titled “Space Seed,” where in the conclusion, he agrees to be exiled on a planet of his own with his crew to create a new civilization. However, in the movie, it’s revealed that this planet was not as hospitable to the crew as Kirk had first thought in the episode, and Khan and company have suffered for over a decade on the planet. The movie is as much a commentary on the series as a whole as it is one of the highest points of the Star Trek series.
And Star Trek: Into Darkness is a weird, hollow copy.
In retrospect, the signs were pretty clear. J.J. Abrams is not a filmmaker who digs deep into stories and is only focused on creating a nice veneer that distracts for a few hours. All of the screenwriters involved do not have a good reputation when it comes to making good on story promises, and the last story that was put together wasn’t all that promising. But I honestly wasn’t expecting…what happened.
Now, it’s easy to see why Into Darkness came out to strong reviews and generally positive reactions from audiences. It is yet another well-made, breezy, action-filled movie that’s made to feel effortless and is overall entertaining. But, like all of Abram’s movies, the texture is not the problem. The texture is great. It’s the story that’s so fundamentally flawed and strange.
Into Darkness centers around a couple of attacks on earth, one of which kills Admiral Pike. Angered by this, Kirk nearly starts a war with the Klingons and comes face to face with a repurposed foe. You know how I mentioned that I wasn’t going to talk about Capital-T True Star Trek? I kinda broke the rules at the beginning, but I’m seriously not going to now, even if it seems like I’m getting into the weeds here. The villain of the movie is Khan, who is played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Mr. Cumberbatch is a fine actor, and handles a bland role fairly well, but his appearance in the movie shows that Into Darkness doesn’t follow the rules that were established in its prior film.
In a long monologue in the first film, Spock says that the moment the future Romulans entered their timeline, it created a different reality that wasn’t connected the experiences that they might’ve had in that future. That’s a clever little twist on the reboot formula, and I still like that idea today. However, Spock specifies that all of the events after the attack on the Kelvin are different, and those before are exactly the same. And here we have the problem.
Khan Noonien Singh’s backstory is that he is from Northern India and probably a Sikh. In the timeline set out by “Space Seed,” he was a genetically enhanced human that, during the Eugenics Wars on Earth, conquered a good portion of the planet before he and his crew were put in suspended animation and shot off into space. You could make the argument that, with the time shift, new Star Trek doesn’t need follow this timeline. Except that the Eugenics Wars happened on earth in the 1990’s, over 200 years before the timeline split occurred with the Kelvin’s attack. Even though Khan is awakened earlier in this version of the universe, he would still have to be of Northern Indian descent, would he not? Future Romulans don’t suddenly make you a pasty white British guy, right? Look, I get that Ricardo Montalbán was not Indian, and I’m not trying to say that the original series’ casting was totally perfect. It might not be that big of a deal in the scheme of things, but this is sorta a canary in the coalmine situation here. This little detail shows that either nobody really paid attention to their own rules, or they just didn’t care about any of it and thought it would be easier if they shrugged it all away.
These shrugs, all compounded on one another, all make this not only a messy story, but also a lazy one. In the opening, Kirk and his crew are running around on a primitive planet, trying to save a civilization from certain destruction from a volcano eruption. Spock is inside the volcano attempting to neutralize it, but something goes wrong and he won’t be able to be rescued when the “cold fusion” neutralizer goes off (it feels like somebody said, “this has the word cold in it so that’s totally how it works.” It isn’t). Spock says that any attempt to bring the Enterprise within range to transport him out will “violate the Prime Directive.” Let’s touch upon that, shall we? Things may have changed from the timeline shift, yes, but that’s not a catchall excuse for laziness. In Starfleet protocol, the Prime Directive is that no Starfleet officer or ship will interact with, or interfere with the natural evolution of a society or planet. If Kirk were to stumble upon a civilization of cavemen, showing them how to make fire would be a violation of that Prime Directive. If, say, a volcano was going to destroy a civilization that lives near it with an eruption, taking any steps to neutralize the natural evolution of that planet would violate the Prime Directive. Spock, you’re already violating the Prime Directive just by taking steps to neutralize the volcano. And if the timeline shift did actually cause the Prime Directive to change, saying that Starfleet can pull strings on civilizations all it wants to so long as it isn’t noticed, brings a drastically new meaning to what Starfleet is. But shrug, who cares?
What about the characters? Kirk gets a one movie late lesson on the responsibilities of being a captain, Uhura’s biggest contribution is really that she stops in the middle of a mission to rant at her boyfriend, which totally is in her character to do, Spock does Spock things, and the rest of the characters are all just kind of…there. Carol Marcus, the woman that is revealed to have had Kirk’s child in Wrath of Khan, appears in this movie, mostly so we can get an actress in her underwear. There’s a sequence towards the end of the movie where she has to watch her father die horribly and she screams in anguish, and then she’s promptly pushed to the side, I think appearing in one or two other shots for the rest of the movie. This is another example of Abrams crafting a good emotional moment, and then getting bored and moving onto the next thing. So much of this movie feels like a kid playing with a set of toys, then getting bored and moving onto another set of toys, and then getting bored again and going to another set of toys. Why is Carol Marcus here in the first place? Because her name is Carol Marcus, and based on the top 5 answers on the “What is Wrath of Khan?” board, she’s on it at number four or five. The number one answer being Khan, obviously, and the second being Spock nobly sacrificing himself for the good of the Enterprise.
On that note, I don’t really have any issue with them reversing the roles of Wrath of Khan at the end of this movie, but I will say that Spock and Kirk never seem to have a deep friendship within these two movies. It makes the moment feel hollow, because there’s no true emotional connection that we’ve seen grow between them. It would’ve been more impactful if Bones had been the one in the room with Kirk there, because the movies have shown much more of that connection than Kirk’s to Spock. The emotion of that scene is based entirely on your previous context of the “Kirk and Spock are Star Trek” idea, and not of the content we see in the movie.
Now let’s talk about something really strange to me. This movie has a dedication at the end of it to the people who were affected by the September 11th, 2001 attacks. This is not something to critique in general, but it was pretty jarring the first time I saw it. But then I watched it again with the dedication in mind. And then I saw that one of the main writers, Roberto Orci, is a vocal 9/11 Truther.
Lemme start off here by saying that I cannot put into words how deeply and vehemently I disagree with that ideology. Literally every piece of evidence that Truthers use on this subject is either fabricated completely or has to involve an insane level of mental gymnastics to be believable. It is an ideology that is so full of ignorance and misdirected hate that not even Emperor Palpatine would touch it with a 75-foot long pole. These conspiracy theories around major tragedies are all just methods of comfort. It’s easier to believe that there’s somebody in the dark, pulling the strings on these events, than it is to realize there’s nobody at the wheel. The world is freaking chaos, and the only order is through these increasingly difficult to believe conspiracy theories.
But those ideas are all there, in half-baked form like everything else, right in the DNA of Into Darkness’ story. The real “big bad” of the movie is actually Admiral Marcus, Head of Starfleet. Why is this? Well, because he really wants a war with the Klingons, and he’s been secretly developing weapons with Khan to attack them. He tries to use the two terror attacks that begin the movie as an excuse to start this war. He sabotages the Enterprise’s warp core so that, when they assassinate Khan with the missiles they’ve been given, their deaths will make a convenient excuse for the war. This is the Truther ideology. They think the government is war mongering. They think the government would start false flag operations or use blowback as an excuse to go to war. It’s a vile viewpoint, and it’s embodied in Admiral Marcus. All this would seem crazy if it weren’t for the fact that this movie is dedicated to that moment in history. Why would that appear otherwise in a “turn your brain off” movie?
This is why I will always have trepidation for a J.J. Abrams movie now. Did he know he was layering those themes and ideologies into the movie, however poor and haphazardly? Perhaps he didn’t, which kind of illustrates how little he thinks of the overall story of his movies and the themes that are being placed within them. It shows that he has no focus when it comes to the content of what he creates and he doesn’t think critically about his own work, even in the final edit. He’s just there to make it fun and put in texture, and he’s extremely good at it.
So here’s where I’m going to break my rule fully. Because if you wanted to handle a discussion of war and the intersection of politics and violence, Sci-Fi is usually pretty good at handling that kind of allegory. This is what Star Trek is actually supposed to be about. But you have to be informed, make informed decisions (Roberto Orci is not and does not) and you have to make your characters talk about these things. People say Star Trek is boring because it is mostly people in space ships talking about stuff just like this. In order to do what Star Trek does, there has to be total discussion and exploration: within the themes, within the way you tell the story, and within the types of characters you present. You can’t tell me this isn’t possible in blockbusters, because Black Panther is one of the most nuanced explorations and discussions of race and tradition that I’ve seen in the last 15 years of movies. Why? Because characters talk about it. For extended periods of time! There are a bunch of dialogue scenes about it! It’s the theme of the film. And it just made a billion dollars.
Star Trek, at its best, is an amalgamation of interesting concepts, themes, and characters that explores every part of the human experience. That’s why I love it. And the minds behind Into Darkness’ story, boil it down to a few checked boxes, and use it to hang a vile and half thought out thesis. I’m not upset about that, what I am is horrified that such a thing could come into existence. And if this sounds like the ranting of a whiny fanboy, perhaps it is.
Oh, also Star Trek: Beyond is pretty fun. I’d say it’s the best of the series story-wise. Check it out if you want.
This article was written by Samuel Becker: writer for hire, Tek5 Filmscore Critic, and general hypocrite.
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