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Spoiler warning: Now that Star Trek Into Darkness has arrived in theaters, it’s fair game for the discussion of spoilers. I plan on revealing several key secrets that take place during Into Darkness, so if you don’t want to be spoiled in advance, look away.
There, that’s settled.
Much was made by the filmmakers responsible for 2009’s Star Trek movie, especially its director J.J. Abrams. He made it no secret that he wasn’t a fan of the Trek franchise, and that one of his intents was to make a movie that opened up the door for a wider audience. That was ultimately the primary purpose of J.J.’s Star Trek, and I’m certain that it was the main goal of his follow-up film, Star Trek Into Darkness.
Then why must he and his writers pander to classic Star Trek mythology, to the detriment of their original work, to make their movie?
The primary villain of Into Darkness is John Harrison, a man whose mission is to embroil the utopic Federation into a war with the aggressive Klingon alien race. When, at about the halfway point of the movie, Harrison stands face-to-face with Chris Pine’s Capt. Kirk and reveals his true identity – that of 20th century supervillain Khan Noonian Singh – it’s a fatal move that derails the goals of Abrams and his creative team.
Khan is legendary in the mythology of Star Trek. The second movie that features the original cast, 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, is considered by nearly everyone that’s seen the series to be the best installment. Khan is linked to Star Trek nearly as much as other well-known characters like Scotty or the Klingons, so the temptation for Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof was certainly great. But by trying to shoehorn an iconic villain, whose ethnicity is completely different from Benedict Cumberbatch’s Englishman, they invite the comparison of their film directly up against the best-received Star Trek film ever.
The inclusion of Khan isn’t the only direct lift from The Wrath of Khan. There’s also the introduction of the character of Carol Marcus, who in this rebooted universe is now a scientific member of Starfleet. As played by Alice Eve in STID, her Carol Marcus is given very little else to do except strip down to her space underwear and scream in horror in the climactic battle. Really, for all purposes, Eve’s Marcus exists as the writers’ wink to the audience, their way of saying, “Hey, check it out! We’re fans of the original movie too!” If the character exists to do nothing else save serve as T&A and for nostalgic Trekkies, then what’s the point? Even Zoe Saldana’s Uhura, who was used as T&A in the ’09 Star Trek, had more character development and usefulness than the new Carol Marcus.
And then there’s the flipping of STII’s biggest scene, the death of Spock. When The Wrath of Khan came out in 1982, this moment was something that created seismic ripples in the media as well as for the Trekkies. Spock’s death was the anchor point for The Wrath of Khan’s underlying message, one about growing old and eventually coming to face death. William Shatner’s Admiral Kirk had to face multiple instances of this during Wrath of Khan: his birthday, his reunion with an old flame, his regrets at meeting a son that didn’t know him, the return of a man from Kirk’s past that sought revenge, and finally the death of one of his closest friends. Kirk’s character arc through The Wrath of Khan was multi-layered and epic, and the death scene of Spock was the moment where all of it paid off.
By contrast, Star Trek Into Darkness tries to borrow the emotions and gravity you have for Spock’s death from the ’82 movie and use it to sell the sacrifice of Kirk. Not only is it a cheap knockoff of one of Star Trek’s biggest moments, it’s rendered pointless by resurrecting Kirk back from the death 10 minutes later in the film.
And it’s all for…what? When you have fought for and won creative freedom to blaze your own trail of Star Trek, why tempt the gods and try to outdo the series’ most critically lauded and culturally hailed entry? To what end did it serve Into Darkness by making Cumberbatch’s character Khan when he could have easily been one of the other nameless 72 faces onboard Khan’s spaceship? I think that it would have made Benedict’s story arc stronger if he had been one of Khan’s superman, a second lieutenant who was forced by Peter Weller’s evil Starfleet Admiral (and there’s another cliché) to work for him in exchange for not destroying Khan and the other frozen superpeople. It would have set the stage for perhaps having Kirk and Harrison team-up to take down Adm. Marcus, and open the door for a future where Khan and his people could exist in the rebooted Star Trek universe. Maybe fate would follow its course and Khan would turn out to become a bad guy, or maybe things would play out differently. Even more creatively interesting, what if things got worse than what happened in The Wrath of Khan?
These story decisions at the center of Star Trek Into Darkness tell me that its creators were more interested in relying on gimmicks than marking new territory. You can tip your hat at the original Star Trek adventures with your new story but you should also boldly go off into places where the original Trek never went before. Instead of using the ingredients from the original Star Trek history as the starting point for new adventures with the younger cast, J.J. Abrams and his team went for the easy road. I think that their results are flat, and that in time Star Trek Into Darkness won’t be as appreciated as the 2009 movie is. Time to move on guys and leave the next Star Trek adventure to be told by someone else.