Star Trek was not meant to be a movie franchise. It worked best in hourlong episodes, where the biggest action setpiece could be a tense exchange or a puzzle being solved. Whether it was Kirk and Spock or Picard and the gang, Star Trek was about solving problems thoughtfully and reasonably. It was about looking at a moral or ethical issue from all points of view and finding a compromise. The drama that surrounded those debates made for compelling TV – some of the best TV ever made, in this blogger’s opinion.
Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan is still the most successful translation of Trek onto the big screen. (I’m talking creatively. I’m sure the new JJ Abrams movies have made much more money.) It deals with aging (Kirk’s birthday reminds him of his mortality), friendship (Kirk, Spock and McCoy were arguably never better together than they were in this film), and courage (Spock sacrificing himself for the crew). It does have action: Kirk’s battle with Khan is legendary, and Khan knows exactly how to make Kirk suffer. Tense drama, action, and one of the most iconic scenes in all of Trek. Wrath of Khan is the Trek high-water mark.
Star Trek Into Darkness fails on all levels. JJ Abrams has taken a thinking-person’s science fiction story and wrenched it into the realm of Just Another Action Movie Franchise. There is next to no time devoted to the characters; we’re rushed from one action scene to another with barely a breath in between. Instead of Kirk and Spock discussing the ramifications of their decisions, they are forced again and again to take the easy way out: shoot first, ask questions never. It is Bizarro Star Trek, where guns (ahem, phasers) are the heroes.
When one of the three writers who toiled at the screenplay apologized for a scene in which a woman appears briefly in her undies, he didn’t go far enough. That scene didn’t make Into Darkness terrible. The entire concept and execution of the movie did.
Star Trek in the 1960’s was a very liberal show. It presented a vision of the future in which all races and nationalities worked together on an intergalactic science expedition. That’s right: the whole show was about scientists in space.
When they did run into trouble, it was usually a matter of simply not understanding an alien’s point of view. When a rock monster keeps devouring people in a mining colony, Spock is able to communicate with it. He learns that the “monster” is merely trying to live its life by eating the nutritious rocks that make up the planet. The mining colony has unknowingly encroached on the alien’s habitat. A peaceful resolution is achieved.
Now, aliens are either warlike (we briefly meet a Klingon before an inter-species firefight breaks out) or used for humor. Kirk shares his bed with two women who are endowed with long beautiful tails. Spock’s ears are constantly being pointed out as pointy, and therefore funny. Differences are funny or scary. Not good.
Beyond taking a show renowned for its progressive politics and turning it George W Bush conservative, the makers of Into Darkness have done the unforgivable: taken the best bad guy in the Trek universe and turned him into just another terrorist.
In Wrath of Khan, it was Kirk’s decision to abandon the genetically-engineered superpeople on an uninhabited wasteland planet. When Khan is mistakenly picked back up, he has plenty of reason to go after Kirk. Khan’s wrath nearly causes the destruction of everything Kirk holds dear, from his newly-discovered son to his best friend to his entire ship and crew.
Ricardo Montalban is perfect for the role. A big man, a smart man, a man who has long planned his revenge and clearly savors putting his maniacal plan into motion. Khan is superior to Kirk in every way. One look at Montalban and you see that, instantly.
Benedict Cumberbatch is a fine actor, and Khan is a legendary character. Hiring Cumberbatch to play Khan was a waste of both actor and character. You’re hiring a skinny pale Englishman to play a genetically-engineered superman? Why? Do you want the audience to be amazed at how you’ve cleverly flipped our expectations? Or do you want the audience trying to figure out why genetically engineered supermen look like Mr. Darcy after a long bout with pneumonia?
By far, the biggest crime Into Darkness commits is recycling the end of Wrath of Khan but keeping none of its emotional weight. Kirk makes the sacrifice this time, but it really isn’t a sacrifice at all because he is alive again within 15 minutes. Thanks, JJ Abrams and Team of Three Writers. You’ve pillaged the best of Star Trek and given us the 30-year-old leftovers.
Oh yeah, and somehow Abrams convinced Leonard Nimoy to make a cameo, just so the audience could hear Old Spock tell Young Spock “Khan is bad.” This movie is revelatory in its perversions.
Now Abrams will head off to make his Star Wars movie, full of lens flare and big explosions and evil aliens. I just hope someone who actually cares about what Star Trek means takes the reigns from now on. That may be a longshot. But if Star Trek has taught me anything, it has been to remain hopeful and to keep an open mind.