Kick the Khan
I don't think these kids can steer.
--Captain James T. Kirk, Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan
In my review of the 2009 Star Trek remake, I said it was unfair of geeks to label J.J. Abrams' vision of their beloved franchise as "not Star Trek". Nostalgia, I argued, had clouded their ability to see that a nearly fifty-year-old series needed to be shaken up and modernized a bit in order to stay viable. I love that movie, despite its flaws, and waited anxiously for four years to find out what the new versions of Kirk, Spock, and the Enterprise crew would do next.
After having seen Star Trek: Into Darkness, I'm willing to give the cacophony of nerd rage a closer listen. I still think what Abrams and writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof have served up this time out is Star Trek, but it's pretty terrible Star Trek.
I'm talking Final Frontier-level awful.
The myriad problems boil down to the creators' fundamental misreading of the alternate-universe timeline they've created--and, possibly, too much booze in the writers' room. Seriously, as soon as we get past the Paramount and Bad Robot titles, Into Darkness becomes a two-hour film studies course in "What's Wrong with This Picture" moviemaking. From shoddy storytelling that makes zero sense within the context of any given scene (let alone the series' own canon--more on that later), to visuals that are often a cocktail of flashy incoherence and Gatsby-level tedium, everyone involved seems desperate to cover up their lack of anything new or relevant to say with shiny objects and sloppy call-backs to The Wrath of Khan.
Let's get this out of the way: Benedict Cumberbatch plays Khan. Really, how could he not? Though the Paramount marketing team and Abrams' own cadre of Fan Fuckery Fanatics have worked tirelessly to cultivate their own sub-industry of mystery buzz, you'd have to have either been a complete dupe or the victim (beneficiary?) of a total media blackout to not put this together. Khan is the villain this time out.
Or is he?
If you're a Trekkie, of course you know that Khan (as played to homicidal, hammy perfection by Ricardo Montalban in the original series and 1982 film sequel) was a genetically engineered evil mastermind in the late 1990s. He and seventy-two minions were exiled into deep space somehow, and later reanimated by Kirk and the Enterprise crew during the "Space Seed" episode.*
In the Abramsverse, Khan Noonien Singh is still a super-man frozen and entombed with his followers. But there's a key problem with this version of his origin:
He's white. Look, as a child of mixed marriage, I understand that one can come from a blended heritage and not look it, but according to the rules Abrams et al set up in the last film, the Trek timeline didn't diverge until several hundred years after Khan was exiled--meaning he should still look like a Mexican playing an East Indian. Here, he's a pale, thin British guy who trades hissing passages from classic literature for droning on about revenge and family and God knows what else--all with the flair and engagement of an Accounts Payable clerk reading Downton Abbey's end credits.
The original Star Trek mythos took great pains to establish Khan's back story. In his day, he was a charismatic, ruthless leader who controlled a quarter of the Earth's population. Into Darkness finds him a super-powered lunatic "criminal" who is really good at kicking ass. Khan wasn't Kirk's greatest foe because he looked cool while killing people--his most powerful weapon was a calculating mind that gave him the ability to charm almost anyone while slipping a dagger between their ribs. This came with an ego that also proved his undoing on two big occasions--but that's a level of detail the writers can't be bothered to acknowledge here.
Cumberbatch is the British Actor Du Jour, so it's only natural that Paramount would want to have him anchor their big summer movie. But he's far above the material and acts like he knows it. Except for one pretty great freak-out moment, the actor just looks bored here, and if you have, by chance, never heard of him before seeing this film, you'll likely leave the theatre wondering why in the world he was cast.
I've spent a lot of time talking about Khan because, frankly, he's the only interesting part of the movie. The 2009 Star Trek film also had a weak villain, but its purpose was to introduce us to characters who would go on to do great things. Of course, if you leave characters out in the sun too long, they will begin to wither, and by not giving them anything of sense or consequence to do this time out, Orci, Kurtzman, and Lindelof make them utter non-entities--and, in some cases, blatantly unlikable.
It's as if the creators took the nuance and potential of Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock's (Zachary Quinto) personalities that they'd established and threw them out in favor of their Elevator Pitch descriptions: Kirk's brash, and hates authority. Spock follows the rules right up to the zero hour. These features are exaggerated to the point where Spock is a cold, rules-quoting prick and Kirk so disregards authority that it's hard for even the audience to be on his side. Hadn't we moved past this by the end of the last movie?
There's the rub. At the end of Into Darkness, after another threat to Earth has been foiled, the Enterprise finally gets their assignment for a five-year mission. Kirk takes the bridge, and Abrams gives us another sweeping shot of everyone in their places making warm, quippy remarks before warping off into the unknown. We then cut to credits over a planetary backdrop. It's literally the last two minutes of the 2009 version--meaning we'll need to wait another three or four years for Kirk and crew to begin exploring outer space.
Where did this all go so horribly wrong? One word: fandom. The studio and filmmakers faced a crucial junction at the end of their wildly successful first movie. They could have acknowledged the timeline rift and pressed on, establishing that this new iteration of the crew was now definitive and free to have their own unique adventures--or they could have used this as a chance to "tweak" plots from old episodes and not work their imagination muscles too much.
Sadly, they went with option "B". This isn't inherently a crime, because in the lead-up to the film's release, I read a lot of truly great fan speculation as to how Khan might be introduced into this new timeline. But fans didn't write this movie. The folks behind Transformers and Prometheus did. These are people who think that randomly shoe-horning characters and situations from Wrath of Khan into their story qualifies as exemplary craftwork. It's really just catnip for fans with low self-esteem ("Oooh! They referenced Harry Mudd! These guys really get me!").**
Caught up in cleverness, the filmmakers apparently didn't bother to proof-read their script for logic problems. I'll let things slide on a cool roller coaster of a movie, but Into Darkness was built on tracks made of bubble-gum and push-pins. Why, for example, is the audio/video signal between two starships all warbly when Kirk can have a crystal-clear communicator chat with Scotty (Simon Pegg) that reaches from the bridge of the Enterprise to a bar in London? Why is there no aerial or personnel security during a high-level conference with the heads of Starfleet--whose very purpose is to discuss the capture of an escaped terrorist bomber? Why does Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) need Spock to capture Khan in order to get a blood sample when there are seventy-two unconscious specimens right down the hall from sick bay?
If you go into Star Trek: Into Darkness with your brain working at even half capacity, it will likely feel more like an intelligence test than a movie--which is a shame. I didn't believe (and still don't) the critics of the first film who claimed it was all flash and no substance. It had weight to spare, at least on an emotional level. But the handful of detractors are on the money with this one, and I have no faith that the next chapter will be anything to write home about, either. The darkness is upon us, friends, and there's not a light switch to be found.
*Sorry, this information is redundant to those of you who read my Wrath of Khan review the other day, but I don't want to leave anyone behind.
**Why is Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) on board the Enterprise? Seriously, why?