Star Trek Into Darkness


First, this isn’t a “Writer Reviews” feature because my goal here isn’t to dredge out writing lessons. It’s to rant. Second, this rant is going to have LOTS OF SPOILERS. As in if you still care at all about not knowing any plot elements of the film, not just who Cumberbatch is playing, then this is the place for you to get off. Everyone else, meet me after the break.

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Spoiler 1: That’s Khan.

Hey there. Alright, look, there’s something I want to say before I say anything else. I enjoyed Star Trek Into Darkness. Very much. In fact, let me give it some positives before I go into the rest, lest you think I’m lying. I’m glad that Simon Pegg was better used. Karl Urban might actually be, and this feels like sacrilege to say, a better Bones than DeForest Kelley. It’s a blast to see the Enterprise on the big screen, even if I do wish it was also back on the small screen. Cumberbatch was well cast as Khan, in spite of complaints about white washing the role (what part of India was Ricardo Montalbán from?).

I went in expecting a whiz-bang action space adventure starring the USS Enterprise, and for not one moment was the movie anything other than that.

Want the first problem? Well, for not one moment was the movie anything other than that. It was never anything less than a whiz-bang action space adventure, and it was never anything more than that. Which is fine for a big tent summer release movie, this is something meant to bring eyeballs and butts into movie theaters, and perhaps get people to buy a second ticket and come again, then buy the DVD or Blu-Ray a few months down the road. I don’t fault the movie for that.

I don’t fault the movie for that.

There are things I do fault the movie for.

First up, let’s talk the big name. Khan. Yes, after months of the film makers insisting that Benedict Cumberbatch was not playing Khan Noonien Singh, that he was instead playing some new villain named John Harrison who we would all love once the movie was over…he was Khan. There were a few problems with this reveal. First, it was a sign that JJ Abrams has gotten a little to cagey for his own good. This is a director who lives off of creating little mysteries, leading us along before his movies open, giving us only bits and pieces. And we, as a movie going audience, ate that shit up when it came to Cloverfield and Super 8. The mysterious marketing was part of the fun of those movies. So with the lead-up to Into Darkness we were first told that Cumberbatch would be playing an iconic villain, and while some of us (okay, me and maybe two other people) hoped that might be Sybok, and Karl Urban was being cute by dropping fake spoilers that he was Gary Mitchell, most people said “it’s Khan, right?” Because it was the second movie, and what bigger villain is there? So the filmmakers got cagey, they walked back the iconic villain statements.

And then he revealed himself as Khan halfway through the movie. Look, it’s fine that you want to do Khan again, that you want to take some classic plotlines and show how they might play out differently with the new crew and the new reality after the destruction of Vulcan. This is even why I wanted Sybok. But let him be Khan from the get go. Because for those people who are fans of the original Star Trek show and movies, that’s a reason to come in and see how the movie will tackle and change a classic character. And for the people who don’t know Star Trek from Star Wars but are coming to see this movie, you don’t have to play with the character first being one guy, then another guy with a complex back story that involves a big war in 1999 that none of us remember.

But here’s the thing. Cumberbatch was brilliantly cast as Khan. Few actors on the planet look like, and can act like, a genetically created superman quite like Cumberbatch.

However, in the end, it wasn’t enough to bring Khan back. Instead the end of the movie needs to hem closer and closer to The Wrath of Khan right down to one of our heroes dying of radiation poisoning to save the ship, and someone else yelling KHAAAAAN. But there was a twist! Don’t you see, Kirk dies and Spock yells. Because the filmmakers were feeling super clever.

Oh man, that hands-through-the-glass scene was in the first full length trailer, and everyone said “so it’s Wrath of Khan?” Glargle-blarg!

So let’s ignore Khan for a moment. Let’s get to…everything else. All the little bits and pieces. There were points that it felt like the movie had a list of references it needed to make, and was desperately shoehorning them in wherever they could. Name checking Harry Mudd. Name checking Nurse Chapel. Showing us Section 31. Giving us a tribble. Having Alice Eve be Carol Marcus, even though they completely changed her academic focus. A little of this name checking was fine, but each time something new popped up, it pulled me out of the movie just a little bit more and a little bit more. I get it, someone picked up a Star Trek compendium and flipped to five random pages.

And then there’s the ending.

Does it bother anyone else that Bones invented immortality? He’s able to take a sample of Khan’s magic blood, which we’ve already seen cure a girl of Unspecified Horribleness, synthesizes it, then gives it to Kirk to save him from his fatal radiation poisoning. This isn’t Khan’s blood, is a synthetic version that I only assume can now be manufactured in mass quantities and it can cure Unspecified Horribleness and bring someone back from the dead if they get radiation poisoning. I suppose dismemberment or being blow out an airlock are both still pretty fatal, but Bones has effectively turned the human race into Highlanders.

Except we’ll never see it again.

There’s a moment in Redshirts where they’re discussing The Box, the quasi-magical device that can solve any medical or engineering problem in exactly the right amount of time to give an episode of a television show drama but still let it wrap up with everyone happy. One of the uses of The Box was to cure a member of the main bridge crew that came down with a plague that is tearing through a planet. He’s cured, they fly off, without ever technically giving the cure to the planet. It didn’t matter than the cure could save millions, only that it could save the main character. That’s what Bones has done here, entirely because the filmmakers wrote themselves into a hole when they decided that Kirk should die instead of Spock, and there wasn’t Vulcan mysticism to solve the death problem. It’s just one of those film moments where I thought about it later and realized “hey…but what about…”

And yet, I’m going to reiterate that I liked the movie. I really did.

Perhaps there’s not so much a writing lesson here as a writing metaphor. Some of the best critiques I’ve received of my written works are people tearing it apart in this way. Not because they didn’t like it, but because they did and it drove them crazy it wasn’t better. I’ve given those critiques myself. I think there’s a really fun and awesome movie at the heart of Into Darkness, but it gets in its own way at several points. In ways that weren’t necessary. If they hadn’t picked a villain that iconic. If they hadn’t been that cagey about his true identity. If they hadn’t been that devoted to replaying the climax of Wrath of Khan. The idea of someone trying to provoke a war with the Klingons in order to militarize the Federation isn’t a bad plot line. But…well…in the end there were missed opportunities. And taken opportunities that should have been skipped.

We’ll see what happens with the next movie. And maybe they’ll use Sybok.

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