My lovely wife and I went to see Star Trek Into Darkness today. I would like to talk about it if I may. Also, beware. There be spoilers here.
Okay, now I will proceed with no guilt. I found out a while ago that Benedict Cumberbatch’s “John Harrison” is actually Star Trek’s most notorious villain, Khan Noonien Singh. I was a little perturbed that they were remaking The Wrath of Khan, especially given the fact that the very notion made no sense. But this wasn’t a remake of The Wrath of Khan. It was the Abrams-Verse’s version of “Space Seed,” the episode of TOS wherein Khan is first introduced.
First of all, there were some really good things in this movie, things that give me more hope for the next installment. There were repeated references to the Five Year Mission, which as of this film has not yet begun. Kirk is hopeful that the Enterprise will be chosen as the first vessel to undertake a five-year mission of exploration, even as he opens the film by shrugging off the Prime Directive. I thought that all of that was cool, and that right there helped to mitigate my feeling in the last film that Kirk had been given a captaincy far too easily. I got even more satisfied when Kirk was demoted to first officer of the Enterprise for this violations of the Prime Directive. (If this were a television series, there would be some better and more substantial repercussions, but I’ll take what I can get.)
I enjoyed the performances in the film a lot. Chris Pine was good, as were Zoe Saldana and John Cho. I love Karl Urban. Cumberbatch, Zachary Quinto, and Simon Pegg were GREAT. Seriously, Benedict Cumberbatch now has what I consider to be the best “villain’s voice” in film. (It’s a shame that we can so casually cast him as someone who’s supposed to be a subcontinental Indian. As much as I liked him, there wasn’t even the barest effort to have a brown person in this role; at least Ricardo Montalban had both ethnicity [if the wrong one] and bronzer in his first appearance as Khan.) If there was a performance that I didn’t enjoy, it was that of Peter Weller, who underwhelmed me as the villainous head of Starfleet seeking war with the Klingons on his terms. He never filled me with dread the way Cumberbatch did, and he seemed pathetic, where Khan’s madness, and his threat, seemed much more dangerous.
Lastly, this film makes a token effort at fulfilling some of the thematic elements that were always present in Gene Roddenberry and Rick Berman’s versions of Star Trek. Much is made in this film about Kirk’s lack of fitness to command, and he has to better himself in order to deserve it. Becoming good enough to be worthy of the gifts of society is a strong theme in Star Trek, especially in The Next Generation. Also, the allusions to the Five Year Mission, both at the film’s beginning and at the end, make a strong reference to what Star Trek is really about.
The mistakes this film makes are really basic mistakes, the kinds that are very difficult to overcome. Only the charismatic crew, and the unbridled fun of the filmmaking save it.
First off, what was at stake? War with the Klingons was the big threat for the first half of the film, and WAR IS BAD, we all know. But we’re never given much reason to fear the Klingons. By the time they make an appearance onscreen, it’s just in time for three squads to get beaten down singlehandedly by Khan. It’s hard to take a war with them as much of a threat, because it’s clear that Abrams is expecting their reputation to do his dirty work. Trekkies see the Klingons as allies and noobs don’t see them as anything, so I think that was a real error.
In the film’s second half, the threat is, I guess, “What happens if Khan gets loose?” We are given a cursory snippet of exposition about the Eugenics Wars and how Khan was once a despotic ruler who wanted to kill everyone who was inferior. He describes himself as “savage,” a superhuman soldier who was tagged by the shadowy elements of Starfleet to optimize the fleet for war with the Klingons. But he never does anything REALLY evil. Even his acts of terrorism are explained away as an effort on his part to get out from under the yoke of Admiral Marcus, who holds him in sway by threatening the lives of his cryogenically frozen comrades.
Heck, once they get away from Klingon space, the only thing at stake is the crew of the Enterprise itself. That doesn’t quite work in a film like this. In the first film, the Earth was at stake, and we knew it was so because the Romulans had already taken out Vulcan. At that point, I believed that anything was possible for these filmmakers who seemed to respect the sanctity of nothing. In …Into Darkness, the stakes are highest when Captain Kirk loses the Enterprise…but then he gets it back ten minutes later. Crisis averted.
But the thing that bothered me most, the thing that was the most poorly handled, was the obvious homage to The Wrath of Khan. In this film, it is Kirk was saves the day in the engine room, and Kirk who pays with his life. However, we’d already seen, in a pair of very heavy-handed foreshadowing scenes, that Kirk was to be revived by the blood of Khan. Khan’s healing blood is used in the film’s opening, and then again on a dead Tribble. (Why Khan’s blood was so vital when there were 72 sleeping genetically superior beings, like Khan himself, aboard the ship, is beyond me. Once they put Kirk into cryogen to preserve his brain function, they had the time to figure it out.) I fear that Spock is going to have an emotional meltdown in all of these films. Sigh.
Basically, this was a movie where a ton of cool stuff happens for no good reason. (Why was the Enterprise underwater in the opening scene? Because having it come out of the water looked cool. They could have done what they did from orbit.) Sometimes, the cool stuff managed to outweigh the lack of reason. Sometimes it didn’t.