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Often I like movies people detest. Disney’s Treasure Planet (2002), which gloried in “steampunk” before it was cool? Love it. Superman Returns (2006)? Still love it (though I also anticipate Man of Steel). Spider-Man 3? Had its goofy moments, but I like it all right.
This time I can’t be as positive about Star Trek Into Darkness.
No, I’m not surprised that plenty of people like the film as a fine and fun action flick. I liked it that way also. As with Star Trek (2009), the cast and effects are brilliant, the story simple yet interesting enough and, most of the time, unpredictable.
But evidently this time, the writers themselves thought so poorly of their work that yes, they felt they must go where multiple previous Star Trek films had gone before.2
Notice I said multiple. I don’t suggest that Into Darkness merely rips off Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Instead its writers must have decided that previous Wrath of Khan callbacks in Star Trek (2009) were not enough — or that similar callbacks even in Star Trek: First Contact (1996) or Star Trek: Nemesis (2002) didn’t get the job done.
But there is a difference. Those films had callbacks, echoes, references. Captain Picard in First Contact goes on his Captain Ahab-like vengeance against the Borg who assimilated him. And in both Nemesis and in Star Trek, actually, our heroes face the wrath of a vengeful Romulan captain with an impossibly giant and high-tech starship. Sounds familiar? Those do work in their separate movies, I suggest. But it may be that folks who seem to praise Into Darkness for its villain haven’t seen those earlier films and don’t know of the callbacks.
Into Darkness is different. How come? Because its writers wrote memo points akin to these. Really, these are the actual unedited memos, edited to insert only my imaginary questions.
Q. Why have yet another vengeful-captain Star Trek movie?
A. Those three vengeful-captain stories, already similar to Wrath of Khan, were not enough.
Q. Meaning … ?
A. Let’s revert to the source of all those callbacks/echoes/tributes, fanfiction-style.
Q. Why would we do that? Aren’t there other themes and “darknesses” to explore?
A. (Ignoring question.) While we’re at it, let’s remake word-for-word, theme-for-theme, a certain famous Sacrificial Death scene from WoK — only “subverted,” sort of.
Q. “Subverted” how?
A. By switching the roles of two heroic characters.
Q. How is this “subversion”? It sounds more like a stunt.
A. Well, it comes across as new and creative, but anyway, that scene and the separation by Plexiglass what people remember from Star Trek. That and “warp speed” and “beam me up, Scotty.” It’s a tough media landscape; we must focus on what people remember, or say they remember, from a time when the landscape wasn’t nearly so cluttered.3
Q. Any other “subversions” you have in mind?
A. We shall have someone yell a villain’s name real loud. And not who you’d expect.
Q. You’re joshing. How is that creative? Can’t we explore more on other themes from earlier in the film, such as when Spock mind-melds with a dying man and can later empathize with those emotions? That builds on previous Trek, without ripping it off.
Q. First, this is blatant “fan-service” on the level of bad fan-fiction. Secondly, you do realize that the yell is particularly famous as an internet meme, right? Put that into a dramatic scene — even a derivative one — and it will cause cognitive dissonance.
A. But it’s memorable. We need some way to get people to look up from their cell-phones in the theater and actually pay attention to the movie they paid nearly $10 to see.
Q. Why do people do that anyway? They paid $10 plus concessions. They waited in line. And they have to be pried away from their preciousss with four stern warnings onscreen plus offers to put your phone in Theater Mode and get coupons later.
A. Yes. It’s sick.
Q. Maybe the next Star Trek film could explore that theme. It’s something Trek has not touched on before, not in our connection-addicted society. Seeing as how you’re so determined to recast Memorable Villains, you could even bring in the Borg early.
A. (Mind blown.)
That’s my critique of the derivative story — which admittedly, comes only in the film’s last half after a better, more-promising start. But to me, it sent the ship plunging out of orbit.
What about the wonder? I missed that. More of it was present in the first film, though even there I missed that sense of wondrous — and even childish — humanism that Star Trek’s creators explored in the series. All that’s gone. All style, no substance — save for the micro-sermon at the film’s end that attempts to slap on a generic we-must-reject-revenge moral.
Yes, you heard right. A Christian would prefer more humanistic morals in a Star Trek story.
Because humanism has some kind of substance. It’s the wrong substance, to be sure, but it includes some weight because it at least maintains traces of the imago Dei view of humans (only ignoring the Dei part) and has a heft of imagination and wonder outside ourselves.
Did Into Darkness promote anti-wonder? Not really. But without any particular views under the thing, it veers off-course into a “belief system” I’ll immediately term distractism.
Again, it’s a fun flick, but there’s just not much there when you really think about it.
That doesn’t even get started on the plot holes: “cold fusion bombs,” transporter errors, etc.
For a friend who enjoyed the film and insisted it didn’t come near a Wrath of Khan re-re-re-retread, I wrote these reactions. They’ll close out this little critique.5
[Friend: Oh, come on, previous films also didn’t share humanistic/philosophical wonder.]
Ah, yet even in First Contact there is that underlying wonder, that someday in the future all of Earth’s problems will be over, first contact made, and the Federation founded.
Of course, all that benefited from the established TV series.
As I think about it more, my main objections to Into Darkness were the Khan re-treading. The references were there, but no real meaning or different direction was behind them.
The appeal was of shallow fan service and not much more.
This is a particular retread without half the scope and forethought of the original. In the original, Khan was the result of attempts to better humanity in the wrong way. His strength, coupled with Kirk’s perceived weakening, made for a fantastic clash between them both with real-world personal and philosophical analogues. Khan also meant something to Kirk because of their history, going back to the TOS episode “Space Seed.”
By contrast, Into Darkness Khan was a great villain, especially as portrayed by Benedict “Smaug” Cumberbath. He was a stock villain, but a fantastic stock villain, on his own.
Ergo: this “darkness” was a dull, generic “darkness.”
He didn’t even need to be connected to the original storyline. That was what I mean by overt fan-service, also to the fanfiction level. It ends up borderline insulting.
Things went even more over-the-top when Spock actually yelled the famous yell. That was ridiculous and should have been nixed the moment some fool dared to have the idea. It has no meaning. It drags the thing dangerously close to self-parody.
And it’s even more absurd when the filmmakers already (and more subtly) tributed that by having Nero in the first rebooted film yell “SPAAAAHHHHHCCCK!”
We’ve been there, done that with Vengeful Captains.
They’d likely say this was a creative subversion of the original. “Subversion” nothing. That was just “hey, let’s put this famous painting against a mirror, see how it looks.”
It also didn’t help that the twist was telegraphed from a mile away.
That and the plot holes … eesh, they just weaken the world-building. A perfect visual of this is the exhaust now suddenly left by starships as they warp away. It’s real shiny and all, great visual, but what exactly is that exhaust made by? (Also: is it a pollutant?)
Here’s how you could have real subversion and tributes and action and darkness all at the same time: Stick with the Kirk-violates-Prime-Directive storyline. Indulge in villainy, people trying to militarize Starfleet, great effects, ‘SPLOSIONS AND OVERDRIVE, and all of those things, while delving deeper into TOS’s themes of exploring other planets and dealing with the aliens (balancing enlightened-diplomacy and cowboy-ism) when you get there.
That would have given the film more weight, tributing the substance, not only style, of what made Star Trek great.