Star Trek Into Just About Everything That's Wrong With Movies Today

While directed well-enough on a set-piece-by-set-piece basis, and though it boasts an incredible cast whose talents and chemistry could do so much more with material that even threatened to live up to their abilities, Star Trek Into Darkness is not only a colossal failure in motion picture storytelling, but also a sadly concise example of most everything that is bankrupt about current movie-making and narrative culture.

That's a big, damning statement, and while it and a lot of what I'm going to say in this article will sound extremely harsh, I want to make it very clear that I take no particular joy in ripping this movie apart, but it dovetails so perfectly into so much of what I think is wrong in cinema today that it simply needs to be eviscerated. To do so, I am going to have to plunge very deeply (and in spoiler-rich detail) into the various ways in which Star Trek Into Darkness fails [1].

And to do that, I need to talk about Wrath of Khan.

If I could remember when I first saw Wrath of Khan, I would be able to definitively state whether or not it was indeed my introduction to the Star Trek mythos. As it is, it is an elemental presence in my movie-loving life, something that has just always been there. As I've grown and matured, I've often gone back to the movies that I loved as a child in order to see whether or not they still hold up. Many don't, but there's very few experiences more rewarding than to re-visit a long-cherished film only to find that it is actually more enriching than originally thought. Such was the case with Khan - I went years without seeing it, and when I finally came back to it I realized that it is indeed a highpoint of mainstream studio filmmaking.

The most resonant scene of that film, and probably of the whole  franchise, is the death of Spock. Faced with an armed Genesis device aboard Khan's ship that will obliterate everything in the vicinity, Spock enters the radioactive warp core in order to manually restore warp power to the ship, in the process dooming himself to a hideously painful death. Afterwards, Kirk has to stand on the other side of a pane of glass and watch his best friend die. This scene works so well for a multitude of reasons. Over the course of three seasons of television and two films, we've come to care a great deal not only for the character of Spock himself but also for the relationship between these two men. But the moment wouldn't be as meaningful as it is if that were the only investment (hell, when I first saw the film I wasn't even aware that there was a TV show). What makes this scene work is that, for one, the movie does it's own legwork to remind us their relationship and build on it before that moment. Beyond that, the inability of Kirk to accept the fact that any of his crew should die is woven throughout the narrative fabric of the film - from the opening scene in which he is faced with a no-hope training scenario, to the death of Scottie's nephew, death hangs over the film. We know, from the story of Kirk's handling of the Kobayashi Maru, that he refuses to acknowledge death as an option. This ties in to Kirk's own resistance to admit that he's aging (for all that can be said of Shatner's acting abilities, that quick "Damn!" he gives right before he realizes he has to put on his reading glasses to asses the ship's readout is one of his finest moments). To be put into a situation where he has to stand on the other side of that wall and watch his friend die, unable to do anything about it, in full knowledge that he had to be sacrificed in order to save the ship, is the emotional payoff of Kirk's arc in the film. On top of that, the moment also serves as the perfect payoff of Spock's character. As a half-Vulcan, to give his own life so that the rest of the crew may live is certainly the most logical solution to the problem at hand ("The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few"), but as a half-human it is the ultimate act of devotion to a group of people that he has come to love. And merely as a goddamn scene, the way it all plays out, Kirk impotently resting his hands on the glass as his friend withers before him, Spock gasping his way through his last moments leading up to that beautiful final statement ("I am, and forever shall be, your friend") - fuck! It's a moment so earned, so perfectly realized, that tears are spilling onto my keyboard as I write about it.

One of the other great strengths of Khan is that it works entirely on its own terms. Unlike Into Darkness, it doesn't depend upon previous knowledge of the franchise to understand the relevance of its big moments. Sure, it's fun if you remember the Space Seed episode in which Khan first appears, but it works just as well if you've never seen it (I certainly hadn't the first dozen or so times I saw the film). The point is well-enough understood that Khan is a figure from the past who feels as if he and his people have been grievously wronged by Kirk, an element that in and of itself gives Kirk the authority of a life lived before the film, of past decisions coming back to haunt him. It gives weight and relevance to the story that doesn't depend on previous knowledge of the franchise, and allows the movie to work independently of the show and the previous movie as a dramatic piece unto itself, coiled around the thematic core of a man facing his own mortality and the weight of his actions and decisions. Basically, Wrath of Khan does exactly what this movie should have done: take a pre-established character that the mainstream audience may or may not have remembered and used him to suit its own dramatic purposes.

Now, before you start accusing me of being a fanboy purist, let me say that a big part of why Abram's original Star Trek worked despite a script overburdened with the need to bend itself backwards to realign continuity was because even at its most convoluted, the plot mechanics were used in order to establish a new universe that still fulfilled the broad strokes of a beloved franchise but also made it new and palatable to an audience who couldn't care less about forty years of back story. Yes, I wrote all of that stuff about Wrath of Khan from memory without even having to re-watch the film, and yes, I was able to spell Kobayashi Maru without looking it up, but the first film was basically a giant justification for Abrams and co. to take the franchise and go in a completely different direction, unburdened by past installments and unbeholden to previous continuity. And I not only fell for that, I embraced it. As the original film ended I was excited about this new crew and eager to see where they went next.

Which makes it all the more disappointing that where they decided to go was within the shadow of a superior movie.

Into Darkness works best in its first half when it seems to be doing something new, before it becomes a bafflingly superficial remake of Wrath of Khan. It's silly, the characters are pretty thin, and neither of these movies has given us any evidence at all to refute the fact that Chris Pine's Kirk is the worst Captain ever in the history of ships, but --

Actually, I need to stop right there, because while it seems like a huge tangent it's a big part of why this movie is awful. There is nothing at all in the new films to suggest that Kirk should be put in charge of a starship other than the fact that his dad was a captain and that there's a franchise called Star Trek in which the captain is a guy named James Kirk. In other words, it's destiny - the ultimate story-killer [2]. Kirk does nothing to earn his seat on the bridge in the first movie, he's simply thrown into it because Captain Pike (the Qui Gon Jin of the Star Trek reboot universe) believes in him and because destiny. Fucking destiny. The original Star Trek skirted this issue enough because it was all about the attempt to course-correct the universe, so while fate and destiny are storytelling traps that give your script no choice but to suck, it was yet another piece of narrative acrobatics that Abrams pulled off despite himself with the help of energetic direction and a strong cast with chemistry to spare. And again, it was all (just barely) woven into the story of the film and seemingly done to put this crew in place so that they could continue on into new, interesting stories - to explore brave NEW worlds, for chrissake.

Why go through all that trouble if you're just going to limply imitate the beats of a pre-existing movie?

And even more to the point, if you're going to spend the entire second movie trying to set up an arc in which Kirk learns how to be a Captain and truly earn his command (and you shouldn't, by the way - you should have woven that into the first movie), then he needs to actually earn it. One of Into Darkness's most egregious sins is that it tries to recreate the death of Spock, only with an inane twist that not only adds nothing but actively goes against the thematic ideas of the movie. In its opening scene, the film sets up a scenario in which Kirk has to decide between the life of Spock or the success of his mission and the potential safety of the entire crew. Because he's a child and the worst captain ever [3], he decides to save his bestie. Fair enough, but now the movie has to give Kirk an arc in which he learns that in order to be a leader, he has to be willing to make difficult decisions - decisions that will potentially result in the death of people he cares about. By having him dance his way through a reversal of Spock's death in the first movie,  Abrams not only reinforces the dramatically inert idea that this is all fate, that it's all destined to happen, but robs Kirk of any sort of satisfying arc. I can see where the movie is going putting Kirk in the position to sacrifice his life this time, but the moment never rises above hollow recreation, and it's completely torpedoed when they bring him back to life. (Yes, they bring him back to life. McCoy is able to synthesize Khan's super-human blood, thus curing death. I can't wait for the exciting, high-stakes third movie in which the concept of death does not exist). So not only has Kirk copped out by sacrificing himself, but he is rewarded by being brought back to life, thus robbing his sacrifice of any meaning.

This thread is also hamstrung by the fact that Kirk's mission to capture Khan, while ostensibly driven by his desire to avenge Pike's death, is all a giant manipulation by a war-mongering Star Fleet Admiral. At some point, the writers should have decided whether they wanted this to be a movie about a vast galactic conspiracy or a personal story of vengeance. Perhaps it could have been both in the hands of better writers, but as it is it is not. It muddles the dramatic and thematic thru lines so badly that the movie ultimately has nothing to say. More egregious, however, is that it robs Kirk of any agency in the decision to track down Khan against Star Fleet regulations, and so lets him off the hook when that decision results in the potential destruction of the Enterprise and her crew. If this movie wants to be about Kirk earning the Captain's chair, then he has to be held accountable for his decisions. As it is, he's just a dupe, and the whole Starfleet Conspiracy subplot really serves no purpose other than to either give a platform for co-writer Robert Orci's anti-government, truther bullshit, or to give the marketing team a villain to highlight so that the filmmakers could keep their precious Khan secret under wraps.

Speaking of which, the decision to use Khan as a villain in this movie is woefully uninspired, but let's suppose it was inevitable. I won't bother complaining about the fact that the movie does no justice to the character of Khan, partly because it is its own thing and should thus be able to stake out its own ground, but mainly because the real problem is that this Khan has no character at all. His motivations change to fit whatever set-piece Abrams wants to film next. He's certainly not the main villain of the film - that burden falls on Peter Weller as Marcus, who is so under-served by the material he's given to perform that he should consider legal action against the writers. I guess Khan's also a bad guy - he blows some people up at the beginning and murders a roomful of high-ranking Star Fleet officers - but his motivations are pretty clear and sympathetic (he is the Captain of a race of genetically-engineered super-humans created by Star Fleet in order to carry out intergalactic black ops who have since been frozen and left for dead), and the movie honestly does a pretty bad job of establishing him as any sort of threat since he's nothing more than a meat puppet manipulated by plot mechanics. But really, the reason he's evil is because, just like Kirk has to be Captain of the Enterprise because Kirk is Captain of the enterprise, Khan has to be his enemy because Khan is his enemy. That's how empty and beholden to what's come before this movie is -  the Enterprise literally has to Face Time Spock Prime to ask him whether Khan's a bad guy or not.

I can see that the writers are trying to set up a contrast between Kirk and Khan as leaders - Khan will not stop short of killing in order to save his crew while Kirk takes the more noble path of sacrificing himself for his - but quite frankly, I'm on Khan's side more than Kirk's. This is a man so devoted to his people that he is willing to sacrifice more than his life - he's willing to sacrifice his soul. Though even that is a sacrifice that carries no weight as he is never made to pay any real price for it - he's just put back to sleep (sure, he's made to believe that he's been tricked into murdering his entire crew, but again the movie cops out by reassuring us that everybody's safe and sound and gets to live happily ever after. It lends the whole proceedings the import of children playing dress up in their parents' office.

And why is he Khan? There's no reason for him to be other than the fact that it's a name that some people may recognize (and many will not. The only thing missing from the scene in which he reveals his true identity was the sound of crickets from the audience). The movie loses nothing if his name remains John Harrison throughout [4]. The only reason to make him Khan is so that the audience can pat themselves on the back for remembering who Khan is and thus trick themselves into feeling as if Abrams is communicating with them when really he's just pressing the right nostalgia buttons in order to ensure that they give him as much of their money as he wills them to. This is a movie for people who are afraid of anything new, and who merely want to be reassured that the things that they already cherish are worthy of being cherished. Abrams is a snake oil salesman, selling our pasts back to us with a 3D Imax premium tacked on [5].

The whole movie is the cinematic equivalent of JJ Abrams taking an Instagram photo at a Wrath of Khan screening, and constantly poking you on the shoulder at a party and asking you if you remember how awesome it was. It's the worst kind of remaking, because it brings nothing new to the table. It merely wishes to remind us of something we already loved, and tries to disguise that emptiness by simple role-reversal. Hopefully the disappointing box office numbers reflect that we as audience want more than that. I don't want filmmakers to constantly remind me of movies that I love - I want them to use those movies as touchstones for creating something new to love, even if they have to do so within a pre-existing property. The universe of Abrams' Trek is one in which there are absolutely no stakes. Nothing is earned, because everything is destined. You don't have to do any storytelling legwork, because you can just call Old Spock and ask him whether or not the bad guy is a bad guy. This is basically a movie that, rather than earn its own way, opts to call its parents and ask for rent money.

There's a moment early on in the film in which Carol Marcus (who is in this movie for absolutely zero reason other than to take her clothes off at one point. You could lose her completely and it would have absolutely no effect on the movie) calls Kirk out for sleeping with and not remembering her friend, Christine Chapel. In the original Trek series, the character of Helen Chapel was played by Majel Barrett, who eventually became the wife of Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. I can't of a more appropriate, or more self-revealing, throw-away joke in the history of movies.

- cs

[1] Aside from having one of the worst titles in the history of motion pictures.

[2] It seems like a lot of movies rely on destiny these days, and budding writers, please take not - if you're relying on fate or destiny, your movie probably sucks. Drama and storytelling is about characters facing obstacles and challenges on the way to goals. Seeing someone work their way towards a pre-ordained fate is not interesting because all you're doing is reaffirming the status quo and denying your characters the consequences of their decisions, which is storytelling death. It's even more egregious in the rebooted Star Trek universe because it's basically used a crutch to be able to tell the same stories over and over without adding anything of value to them.

[ 3] Seriously, this is a movie in which the captain of a starship gossips in the elevator with his communications officer about her love life.

[4] It also loses nothing if he's known as Khan the whole time, which makes the secrecy around his identity in the pre-release marketing all the more baffling. I think the reason that Abrams insists so heavily on secrecy is because his movies are so empty that there's nothing to give away, which is a secret that's getting harder and harder for him to hide.

[5] This was also apparent in Super 8, which in hindsight is a fairly accurate blue print for this movie - a series of moments from older, beloved films strung together without any context or meaning, and which come to think of it also had an antagonist whose nature changed depending on what the plot required.