Why is ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ so infuriating?
It’s not much of a leap to describe Star Trek Into Darkness as disappointing. It’s disappointing to Star Trek fans, it’s disappointing to fans of only the 2009 reboot and its disappointing to anyone that’s put it on for a bit of fun. What is most infuriating about the film is not its disappointment factor, but rather the fact it’s still actually an alright film. It’s not bad so much as it is difficult to like. So why is this?
I’ve already referred to the dislike of this film by hardcore Star Trek fans, however a sequel to an action focused reboot doesn’t have any requirement to adhere to the heights of Next Gen and DS9. So before anyone complains that disliking this film as a Star Trek fan is not a reason, I am going to address why this film fails as a piece for a wider audience.
The 2009 reboot was designed to make it easy for new and old fans to watch the films without any need for catch up. The mythology was simplified and streamlined through a time travel/alternate reality plot device that meant the older fans also had no reason to be pissed off. This gave Bad Robot the freedom to craft a Star Trek film with more of the energy and thrills of a Star Wars film without the burdens of continuity. The final product was action and excitement heavy. This created a fun film. After all even Wrath of Khan was simpler than the Star Trek TV series and their ideas, it was simply Hornblower-in-space. So why when you have a reboot designed to allow your creation to go in any new direction you want (as was the purpose of the reboot) why bring back Khan? The primary reasons being that:
1. J.J. Abrams has heard of him.
2. Wider audiences have heard of him.
3. Everyone knows the “Khaaaaannnn!” line.
They wanted a big character with a recognisable name that the Star Trek layman could grasp some significance from. However does Khan’s inclusion actually help the plot? Initially the plot is of terrorist ‘John Harrison’, a supposed Starfleet black ops type, has gone rogue and is murdering vital Starfleet operations. Halfway through the narrative it is revealed he is in fact KHAN. Genetically engineered superhuman eugenicist fascist king known as Khan Noonien Singh. In the original series episode Space Seed he and his people are discovered on the Botany Bay in cryogenic suspension and awakened by the crew of the Enterprise, this leads to shenanigans. Now obviously halfway through Into Darkness they don’t have time to show any of that, so apparently the Botany Bay and its crew were discovered off screen. Khan’s motivations, origins and general purpose aren’t in the film and that’s because they have no place in the story the film is telling, just as Khan has no place in that story. Why reboot a franchise to do something new with it and then immediately shoe horn in the most famous villain?
And what is Khan’s plan? He blows up the black ops division of Starfleet, before assassinating the Starfleet council and then teleports to the Klingon homeworld. I thought his vague motivations were to save his people held captive by Admiral Marcus? Why wasn’t his aim to capture Marcus rather than risk killing him in an attack on the council? Why teleport to the Klingon homeworld at all? Why not take the council hostage in exchange for his people? Why not just reveal Admiral Marcus’ crimes? Why try to smuggle your people to safety inside of armed missiles? Why? Why? Why? I’ll tell you why! Because Khan shouldn’t be there at all and for the plot to operate in the way it does, it cannot make sense.
As for Admiral Marcus, what was his plan? Why use people-filled missiles (*sigh*) to attack Khan? Why not have conventional missiles for the mission? And just dispose of Khan’s people using say….I dunno…a transporter? Maybe even that one your division is keeping kept away that allows transporting to other planets? Surely hiding the relatives of your target into the weapons being used to killed your target is asking to have your conspiracy discovered? Again, none of this makes sense, but it all exists to allow the plot to operate in the way it does.
What is that plot though? It is the ending of Wrath of Khan with Spock and Kirk’s roles reversed attached to a post-9/11 parable. The driving theme of Wrath of Khan is old age. Rather Kirk’s old age and his inability to accept death. He faked a test about dealing with death at the academy because he couldn’t even rationalise it happening in an academic context. Khan isn’t important as a villain beyond his superpowers being something that provide him eternal youthful (and super powered) strength. Kirk’s toughest villain has returned with total strength whilst he has just be given glasses because his eyes are too bad for even Star Trek tech to fix. Khan’s name may be in the title of the original film, but he was never that ‘important’.
Throughout the film Spock comments about utilitarian self-sacrifice of individuals to save larger numbers of people. Then at the end, when someone needs to sacrifice themselves Spock does exactly this, meanwhile Kirk isn’t even aware of the possibility. So when Into Darkness uses this ending and reverses it, the film misunderstands the point of Wrath of Khan and homages it completely out of context. In Star Trek (2009) they even set up this plot of Kirk failing to accept death only for Into Darkness to essentially say “I guess he’s over that now or whatever”.
The one saving grace that this convoluted mess could produce is a fight between Spock, who is a Vulcan and thus much stronger than humans, and Khan, who has comparable strength levels. Both are also skilled combatants. This should at least be an epic fight. However if you’ve seen a J.J. Abram’s action sequence you’ll already know about his shakey-cam and fondness of close ups that hide the choreography. When Abrams cuts to a wide shot there is clouds of smoke and fog blocking the confrontation. Thus the audience is treated to two minutes of angry faces. So this is no saving grace.
Uhura saves the day in the end. So let’s discuss Uhura. Into Darkness establishes early on she is struggling with Spock’s lack of emotions. This comes to a head during a black ops mission behind enemy lines that could trigger a massive war. Uhura makes a snide remark in front of Captain Kirk about Spock (both outrank her obviously) in the middle of a dangerous mission. The only significant female presence (this doesn’t count) in the film is reduced to a moany girlfriend without a single iota of professionalism. Previously she’s been defined as a model of constant straight-laced professionalism. Spock resolves the situation with a slightly manipulative speech and then the matter is forgotten for the rest of the film. This is before the halfway point of the film. But she gets to shoot the bad guy! In the back…and then Spock actually finishes him off…then the guy’s magic blood saves Kirk…*sigh*
However…there is another saving grace… Star Trek has always been a very left-leaning franchise with all its space utopia socialism. Into Darkness wants to discuss post-9/11 America through analogy. That is brave and if that is done well at least, the film is brave and noble. So initially Kirk wants revenge for the shocking bombing of both the Starfleet special ops branch and a meeting of the Admirals. A culture of revenge is obviously the beginning of the post-9/11 ‘tone’. Then there’s a terrorist who may have been supplied weapons by Starfleet before going rogue. This is akin to America selling weapons to Middle Eastern states in the past, the same weapons that were used later again invading US forces. Then Kirk is spoken to harshly by Scotty, who he kicks off the ship, but a few scenes following this Kirk returns to the sanguine Starfleet philosophies of taking enemies alive and diplomacy. This is before the halfway mark, so it is also no sort of character arc.
At the climax of the film Khan steals a Starfleet warship and it gets crashed violently into San Francisco. The footage makes it obvious that thousands would die in just the initial impact. This form of destruction porn is firstly inappropriate when commenting on a real tragedy like the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It’s cheap and disrespectful and it hasn’t been long enough since it occurred. After the climax the film cuts to a later time wherein Kirk is giving a speech about vengeance being bad and that they’re better than that. A brave condemnation of George Bush’ foreign policy perhaps? But it isn’t. Because a ship just killed thousands and that doesn’t bother anyone? Why isn’t that in the first half of the film as the trigger for the desire of vengeance? Why is that just being swept under the rug? Did Into Darkness just use 9/11 imagery to make the climax darker to set up a fistfight? This retroactively makes this universe less believable by them caring about the earlier attacks but easily dismissing a far worse attack (in terms of the numbers killed). So this use of the imagery of a fairly contemporary terrorist attack killing thousands is cheap and weightless.
The character work sucks. The thematic work is insulting to the memory of real dead people and also sucks. The action sucks. The plotting is insane…and sucks. And it’s infuriating. The film is still alright to to watch. The production values are good. Chris Pine manages to elevate much of his material to an impressive level. I often feel he is underestimated and certainly underutilised as an actor. Star Trek Into Darkness could have been great with a bit of re-jigging, not even that much despite how much I’ve written. That is an infuriating circumstance.
Now. I’ve defined the flaws in the film from a non-hardcore fan perspective. To relieve some of my fanboy inner whining I shall now post some bullet points about it as a failure as part of Star Trek canon:
- Why is Khan white?
- Where is Khan’s accent?
- In the Original Series Kirk beat Khan in close combat. So why can’t Spock when he’s stronger?
- In the Original Series Vulcans are described as several times stronger than normal humans just as Khan is. Thus Spock would be of very comparable strength and would definitely beat Khan in a hand-to-hand contest.
- Why is Khan now a superhero rather than just a bit stronger?
- How can starships fire in warp now?
- Why is it dangerous for Old Spock to warn Young Spock when it’s a different universe altogether? There’s no danger of destroying the timeline here…
- Why does no one understand how the Prime Directive works?
- Why does no one in the secret base detect Scotty’s approach? They have sensors, they don’t just use their eyes.
- Why is there a beer factory on The Enterprise and where on Earth would they fit that?
- In the original film Kirk shouts ‘Khhaaaaannn’ as an over the top ruse to trick Khan into thinking he’d defeated him, when really The Enterprise was just waiting for a sneak attack from behind a moon. So why would Spock in Into Darkness shout the line in the same fashion? Did the writers watch Wrath of Khan?
- Whose idea was it to make the name Star Trek part of a phrase in the title? “Come on gang, let’s star trek into that darkness I see over there.”