I like to think that an omniscient God has a master list of every science-fiction film that has ever been made or will ever be made, and this list is ordered from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Plan 9 from Outer Space. While sci-fi is particularly fecund ground for bad film, Star Trek Into Darkness has to be a lot closer to Plan 9 than 2001. I tweeted immediately after seeing the latest Star Trek: “Star Trek Into Darkness is one of those movies so abundantly stupid that one can hardly organize one’s own thoughts on the matter.”
I’ve had a few hours now, and I feel better about organizing those thoughts.
1) This started in my head as a post which compared Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan with Star Trek Into Darkness, and that fell by the wayside when this got long. Expect more about the former in the future.
2) I’ve got a solid Star Trek background, but it’s neither perfect nor obsessive. I find the original series to be too overwrought too often (which is really saying something considering how much I like musicals) and sometimes heavy handed; I can understand why the show was never a real success when it first aired. The Next Generation is probably the best of the series, though I have a soft spot for Voyager (which I watched as a little kid). It’s Deep Space Nine that I have the strongest affection for and the greatest familiarity with, so for the Trekkies in the audience, you know everything about me now. At any rate, the reason I’m sharing this is to say pretty clearly that I’m invested in any Star Trek feature film, but I’m not the kind who gets butthurt about episode production numbers, nor am I the kind of person to get embroiled in a “The version of Kirk I have in my head would never do X!” fight. However, I am apt to be butthurt by writers and directors who do not follow the rules of the universe which they have created. It’s not just sci-fi I’m talking about; there’s a long virtual paper trail in which I complain about Ryan Murphy/Brad Falchuk/Ian Brennan flouting the laws of Glee‘s universe, for example.
3) What the new Star Trek films have done in relation to the Prime universe is a twisting exercise in textuality (see my post on The Hunger Games on this blog for a brief overview of what I’m talking about there if you’re unfamiliar) which is ultimately responsible for so much of the foolishness inherent in this film.
This film, like Star Trek, functions rather like a fifteen-year-old boy. It would like very much to be independent from Mommy and Daddy, who loom large in his life and seem sometimes overbearing. They have too many expectations and they expect him to live up to their standards. However, the fifteen-year-old boy is just that: a boy, and he cannot be expected to fix all of his problems himself. He’s just a kid and he doesn’t always know what to do or how to cope. It’s natural that he should go back to his parents for help.
As the creative team for any reboot discovers, they have a wonderful amount to work with. Characters come gift-wrapped (though I’m looking that particular gift horse in the mouth something fierce in a minute), as do plots, and sometimes entire canons. Star Trek, a universe made dense, if not rich, through six different television series, twelve feature films, scores of novels, and basic understanding in the wider community (“to boldly go,” “USS Enterprise,” “Captain James T. Kirk,” etc. are terms of general knowledge), makes it Christmas morning at the Rockefellers’ for a writer. If the Star Trek writing team (for Star Trek, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman; for Star Trek Into Darkness, that duo again with Damon Lindelof) decided that they didn’t want to come up with an original plot for any of the three or four Star Trek movies they had in mind (and it’s becoming increasingly clear that they had no such intention), they wouldn’t have to. It’s all there already. Orci, Kurtzman, and Abrams took a laudable step in the first film: they decided to step out on their own. It was revealed that Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise existed in an alternate reality of the traditional world of Kirk, Picard, and Janeway; the original universe is the “Prime” universe and this new one, with a blonde Kirk, a teenage Chekov, and a straight-haired Uhura, is the “Alternate” one.
This is the fifteen-year-old boy who wants to assert some independence, and good for that kid. When they did this, it was absolutely for the best. Instead of having to fight with the ghosts of Roddenberry and Shatner (note the “having to”), they could, if they so desired, do just about anything they wanted. Want to throw in the Borg several decades early and turn them into the Federation’s strongest ally? Go for it. Want to eliminate the Prime Directive? Your choice, dudes. Want to make Warp 10, not Warp 9.x, the max speed of any starship? Whatever you like. They put themselves in control of a similar universe which, most important, need not have any ties to the original beyond ensuring that the name “Star Trek” wasn’t false advertising.
Of course, the scared fifteen-year-old reared his head pretty quickly. Who else should Kirk meet on Delta Vega but Spock Prime, Leonard Nimoy in all of his Trekkie glory, giving hints and changing this alternate timeline with total abandon? (Part of this is a shameful appeal to authenticity: more on that later.) Given a taste of independence, he quickly ran back to his parents for support. The rest of the film can occur for two reasons: Spock Prime gives Scotty the formula to beam onto a ship at warp speed, and Spock Prime gives Kirk advice about how to take control of the Enterprise from Spock. The alternate universe could never stand on its own, obviously; by definition, it’s derivative of a television show from the ’60s. But when Orci and Kurtzman and Abrams (I keep bringing Abrams in not because he’s got a writing credit but because he’s got the directing credit) decided it was better to have a Nimoy cameo than a stand-alone universe with opportunities, they ensured that they would hobble whatever else they did.
And what do you know, with Damon Lindelof on board now (who wrote last summer’s Prometheus, a movie which is at the halfway point between 2001 and Plan 9), Into Darkness does precisely the same thing. A Starfleet operative named John Harrison, played begrudgingly by Bandersnatch Cummerbund (or Bindlestiff Cucumber or Bandicoot von Cumbersome or whatever his name is), has become a one-man terrorist show, striking at a Federation installation in London and at headquarters in San Francisco, inflicting serious casualties (in numbers at London, in power at San Francisco). In an attempt to eliminate him, Admiral Marcus reinstates Kirk as captain of the Enterprise and tells him to blow him the heck up with the latest in photon torpedoes. Kirk, who just lost his second father figure in Admiral Pike, takes Spock along. Hijinks with the Klingons ensue (Harrison beamed himself to the Klingon homeworld, knowing that there is no small tension between the Federation and the Klingon Empire), in which Harrison blows up a squad of Klingons basically by himself and then surrenders to Kirk, implying that there’s something rotten in the state of Starfleet.
Watching this, the bells are ringing Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country in all the best ways. Released just after the end of the Cold War, The Undiscovered Country purposefully catches the zeitgeist of a world that had almost gotten comfortable with the NATO v. Warsaw Pact world, only to see it collapse spectacularly. Similarly, when the Klingons are forced into peace talks because of a natural disaster, there are those (particularly those in the military) who cannot adjust to the possibility of peace between the oldest belligerents in the Alpha Quadrant. Through a positively Scooby-Doo ending, we realize that the assassination of the Klingon leader was perpetrated by higher-ups in Starfleet and the Klingon military: it’s like if Oliver North murdered Mikhail Gorbachev in 1989 on the orders of Dick Cheney, Colin Powell and Alexander Vlasov.
The Undiscovered Country is probably the second best of the six films which deal with the TOS cast, after The Wrath of Khan. The Undiscovered Country is deeply relevant, especially for Americans like its cast and crew; likewise, the first hour or so of Into Darkness is topical. It was released after 9/11, after the end of the War in Iraq, and, though the creative team could not have predicted these, the Mother’s Day Parade shooting in New Orleans and the Tsarnaev attack at the Boston Marathon. The threat of a terrorist attack on American soil has continued to incite fear in the general public. Terrorism through explosives remains in the social consciousness, and in the first half of the movie, there appears to be a real move to consider its effects.
Harrison is clearly the agent behind dozens of murders within the first hour: Kirk knows it, Admiral Marcus knows it, Spock knows it, everyone knows it. Yet only Spock says: “Well, wait a second, since when did it become Federation policy to kill people first with remote weapons and try them in a court of law never?” One doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist (no, that doesn’t link to Wernher von Braun) to catch the parallels. What Orci, Kurtzman, Lindelof, and Abrams have going on, in short, is a taut political thriller. And it’s not the end of the world if the whole “to seek out new life and new civilizations” jawn gets replaced by “we come in peace, shoot to kill.” There are two reasons for that: first of all, this is an alternate universe! They aren’t beholden to the old one (at least not in this movie, anyway) and there’s no particular reason that they have to abide by the rules of Roddenberry’s Star Trek. Second, and this is for those of you who do think there’s a particular reason that they need to follow Roddenberry’s vision after all the time I’ve spent saying otherwise, there is vast precedent to ignore the exploration bit. Here. Here. Here. And here, the people who make Star Trek actually package it for you.
But surprise, the Cumberbatch is not “Harrison” (as any self-respecting Star Trek fan had figured out about eighteen months ago), but Khan, the greatest individual in the Star Trek rogues’ gallery. Since the Cumberbatch looks like most of the other Khans in history, this casting makes about as much sense as casting Jonathan Pryce as the Engineer in Miss Saigon, but I won’t spend much time quibbling. And Khan is not a disgruntled Starfleet agent who has no voice other than the sound a building makes when it blows up; he’s a megalomaniacal dictator from the past who’s going to give it a go with the crew locked up in the torpedoes on the Enterprise.
One of those plots is, if not outright fascinating, then at least pretty interesting. It asks salient questions about our own society, as well as putting the audience into the mind of a terrorist and asks that audience to justify or condemn the worthiness of his actions based on the evils of Starfleet Command. The other just makes me tired, and frankly, someone already did it better.
4) Sometimes a room full of fifteen-year-old boys can be charming in its sophomoric self-amusement. More often, though, they’re just stupid, as when they make a series of poop jokes or refer to things that meet their displeasure as “gay” or “retarded.” Somewhere in between (and leaning rather closer to the fecal humor) lies the writing team for Star Trek Into Darkness, which is made up of folks who appear to have forgotten everything they learned in Screenwriting 101.
Character motivation is, I grant you, a truly difficult thing to do well. There’s a very fine line between showing and telling, said the Walking Cliché. Telling is ungraceful, a clear sign that a screenwriter is a middling craftsman. Another way to prove that is showing which is so subtle as to be non-existent. The best writers manage to walk that line, using some of all of the tools at their disposal (the character’s dialogue, dialogue spoken by others about the character, costume, the actors themselves, etc.) to evince what one of their characters is like without ever having to say something like, “Khan is a very ruthless individual and he loves power and he’s a backstabber and don’t trust him.” In other words, good writers tend to save us from speeches like the one Nimoy gave in Into Darkness. That’s the brick wall approach. And then there’s the other approach, which is sort of like a running into a mime’s brick wall. That’s the approach that Orci/Kurtzman/Lindelof/Abrams use with Admiral Marcus, who has a secret plan to start a war with the Klingons.
Why on earth would Admiral Marcus want to start a war with the Klingons. Remember how this is an alternate universe? Maybe this would be less of a problem if we were playing in the Prime universe, but we aren’t; if the writers had wanted to, there could be a long-standing peace between Klingons and the Federation; heck, they could have decided not to bring the Klingons into this (a race who appears to exist in this film because of the Effie Trinket Principle). I mean, there’s conflict with the Klingons. People in the Federation don’t like the Klingons; we know all of this because there’s a neutral zone. But what benefit is there to starting a war with the Klingons? Is Marcus just an unbalanced human being who likes shooting things? Is this supposed to be like Reagan ordering an invasion of Grenada? Are we meant to be getting a message about the military-industrial complex (which, given that weird and frankly stupid dedication at the end of the film, seems unlikely)? We have no idea. There’s no way to know, and so we’re left with this vague assumption that Marcus’ thoughts are along the line of: “I want a war between two major powers for some purpose known only to me and the Federation will totally back it as well as the secret warship I’ve been building and not have a single inquiry about what I’ve been doing or how I’ve been procuring these resources.” Star Trek villains aren’t usually doing what they’re doing for a reason which is original or even particularly interesting: even Khan from The Wrath of Same, the best of the bunch, was out for revenge on Kirk, as Khan blamed Kirk for the death of his wife. It doesn’t have to be a brilliant motivation, but there has to be a motivation.
Should we be surprised? Not really. Orci and Kurtzman are the folks behind the first two Transformers movies (which I didn’t know before today, and thus I’m sort of proud of myself for saying a few months back that Into Darkness looked suspiciously like Transformers). Sorry for those of you who are Ender’s Game fans: they wrote the adapted screenplay for the upcoming film version, so I hope you enjoy more vapid dialogue, more buildings getting destroyed by large machines running into them, and a further disinterest in why a human being would do anything short of pick his/her nose. Lindelof, aside from Prometheus, also wrote Cowboys and Aliens, which had a general dearth of rationale behind it as well. Even Lost isn’t immune. Check out this review of Lost from late in the show’s run, from the AV Club’s Noel Murray. I’m thinking about this passage:
“I’m guessing that one of the biggest fears of Lost fans as we ride out this sixth and final season—bumps and all—is that we’re going to come to the end and find a big nothing in return for all we’ve invested in these characters. We don’t just need answers, we need justifications. Why has whatever happened, happened? Who has called this particular meeting to order, and does it really matter who showed up?“
In other words, “What are the stakes of what’s going on here?” Several times during the movie I caught myself thinking, “What’s the point?” When does any writer want his/her audience to think that? (Well, except maybe this guy.)
Finally, this doesn’t really fit anywhere else, so I’m going to throw it here. The showdown between the Enterprise and the Vengeance (which is black and has a name better suited for a Star Destroyer than a Federation cruiser, so thanks for the brick wall) takes place above Earth. You’re telling me that no one from Starfleet looked on their sensors and thought, “Gee, why are weapons being fired less than 300,000 klicks from the headquarters of the United Federation of Planets?” There should also be ships in the surrounding area; how do we know? The beginning of this movie features all the senior officers of the ships in the area around Earth in a meeting, which memorably gets blown up by Khan. While the senior officers are variably shot to pieces, the ships are presumably still there. Much better to ensure that the Vengeance can crash into San Francisco than it is to safeguard the rules of the created universe.
5) Like fifteen-year-old boys picking at a scab, the creative team still couldn’t let it alone. Spock places a call to New Vulcan, which, as far as good screenwriting is concerned, is the equivalent of drunk dialing someone who just dumped you. Spock’s looking for Spock Prime. “Ever meet a fella by name of Khan?” Spock Prime says, “Why yes, but I can’t tell you because it’ll change your alternate universe. What I can tell you, however are all the main ideas of the Enterprise Prime’s encounter with Khan Prime.”
What do we get from all this? Well, we get authenticity. There’s a man named Richard Dyer who quite literally wrote the book on star studies, a field of semiology which focuses on the “star” in filmic parlance. He argues that there are many ways that a character in a film is viewed as authentic by an audience, but one of those pertinent ways is through “audience foreknowledge.” Simply put, when the audience knows the source material for a film, they consider how well a character has been portrayed through what they came into the theater knowing. For example, how well Rhett Butler is built by Clark Gable is based largely on the perception of audience which read Gone with the Wind. For Star Trek Into Darkness, that’s just as true because the creative team is fifteen years old. They know they’re making a reboot which is hardly definitive. Thus, they have to go back again and again and again to convince you that they’re making Star Trek as you know it. It was worse in Star Trek, where if you didn’t hear a character’s catchphrase from the television show, well, you just weren’t listening hard enough. And frankly, it’s understandable that they’d do it, even if it demonstrates a lack of courage on their part; this is a finicky fan base and pleasing them required pandering.
Yet here we are, Into Darkness, and we’re still pandering our butts off. Some of it comes in moments of comic relief, like when we remember the jump onto the drill platform in Star Trek. A lot of it comes when characters reference the Prime Directive (which, for someone who knows the rules inside and out, Spock seems to have a really limited understanding of). Yet nothing is worse than bringing the Ghost of Leonard Nimoy out. Using him in this movie fails to advance the plot (did he say anything in that little speech which revealed anything we didn’t know about Khan?), but it does seem to give credence to the fact that this is a Star Trek movie. It’s the equivalent of a guy running from Congress getting an endorsement from a higher-up in his party.
Dyer doesn’t damn markers of authenticity the way I do. He’s more scientific, looking to find ways in which authenticity is built (he does a particularly good job in this article), not how it makes a movie better or worse. I can’t help but find them lazy, especially in a reboot like this.
6) That’s really what it comes down to: Star Trek Into Darkness is lazy and, as most laziness is rewarded, this is not a good movie. Who knows why anyone does anything? Who cares if we have a plot which makes the viewer think? Why create your own work when you can rewrite a plot three decades old? Go see it, sure. But you could probably save some gas money if you’ve got Netflix Instant: Transformers: The Dark of the Moon is streaming.