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Opinion: Why Star Trek Into Darkness fails

Posted by Patrick Sauriol on Saturday, May 18, 2013

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.

Posts: 152
Posted: 4 years 18 weeks ago

 I think everything you commented on was valid, but I don't think the movie/story failed at all. I think it makes perfect sense, honestly.

Yes, they are captializing on the most-loved of the original films, but there's something more. I think, between this and the 2009 film, Abrams and his story-telling crew are also addressing the issue of destiny.

In the 2009 film, Pike goes and drags this going-nowhere punk of a kid, raised by his stepdad that cared more about his car than the kid, into Starfleet because he feels he can be great. In the original universe, Kirk was inspired by his father, wanting to be more like him after being raised and supported by George. In the new timeline, George is dead, and his heroic sacrifice - rather than being a life-long inspiration - is used almost as a dare against Kirk. Two vastly divergent childhoods lead to one point - Kirk joins Starfleet.

In the original, Kirk worked his way up through the ranks. He was commisioned, stationed aboard one ship, then came back as an instructor before being assigned to a second starship, and then finally earning "The Chair" as commander of the Enterprise, meeting a Vulcan first officer who has himself come up through the ranks. The captain and the Vulcan have a few bumps early in their association, but quickly became fast friends. In the new stream, he was still a smart-mouth, carousing punk that was on academic suspension - because of a certain Vulcan instructor - and only got aboard a starship through trickery on the part of McCoy. Through a series of events, he goes from "should be in the brig" to "acting first officer" to "exiled annoyance" to "captain" with his Vulcan psuedo-antagonist as his first officer. Again, two WILDLY divergent paths that lead to the same end result - Kirk was always destined to be the Enterprise's captain, with Spock as his first officer.

Which leads us to STID. Originally (in TWOK, not Space Seed), Kirk's crew was threatened by Khan, and through taking over a Federation starship, Khan was able to put Kirk in position where his entire 'family' - the crew - would perish. The only resolution was something that would solidify the connection that Kirk had with his first officer and would lead to a sacrifice. In the new timeline, the same thing happened. Khan forces the issue that makes both Kirk and Spock realize how important one another is to the other. Different paths, same destination (and we didn't have to suffer through Saavik helping through puberty in the ressurection this time!).

I understand your concerns that this film seems to just be phoning it in to give fans what they think the fans want. But I think it's far, far deeper than that. I think they are, as they did in 2009, showing that it wasn't just a fluke that threw this crew together. There is NO WAY that the "top seven" of the Enterprise should have wound up together as they did, but it was destined to happen. The universe NEEDED it to happen, so things twisted around them to make the pieces come together.



Maybe I'm too forgiving of the story. Maybe I'm giving credit where it's not due, but I can't imagine this team of writers just sat down and said "How can we squeeze Khan into this?" I fully believe they knew exactly what they were doing, and I feel they did it incredibly well.

 You don't have to like it, you just have to do it. --Richard Marcinko
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Posts: 12800
Posted: 4 years 17 weeks ago

 I really, really liked it, and I know TWOK backwards.  I thought it was a great couple of hours in the theatre.

....says "Kill Bond, NOW!"
Posts: 417
Posted: 4 years 16 weeks ago

I have to go with WarCry on this one Pat. I finally got to go see it yesterday and my initial reaction leaving the theater was, that this movie was prefect, exactly what I was looking for.

To temper that enthusiasm I went home and watched TWOK (also so I could give my wife some context on the movie she'd just seen)

Bottom line is, I think it worked and I think it worked beautifully. I think you're looking at this from the point of view of someone who didn't want to see the property rebooted and obviously Abrams's comment that he "was not a fan" cemented your view that the movies would be bad. That's not a knock on you, just an outside perspective.

What I see happening in this movie is very close to what WarCry is saying. This is all about alternate histories and destiny at play. The whole point is to show what can happen when one thing is changed at a certain point in time and yet this new reality somehow seems to manfiest itself so similarly to the original events.

Was this what Abrams was going for, or is this just me projecting my own take on it? I don't know. But as a life long fan (and someone that was skeptical when the 2009 reboot was announced) I walked away with a geek's paradise of tie-ins and homages. I see where you would find these to be cheap knock off's and cop outs, but again I submit you're letting your jaded view of the franchise cloud your creative perspective.

Is this TWOK in "redux?" No, I don't think it is. I see it as a melding of Space Seed and the final playout of TWOK. Nero's incursion into the past sets up a radically different "Star Fleet" than what evolved out of TOS. The technology in ST09 (2009 reboot) is already more advanced than in TOS, considering the Federation was hit by something radically different and more powerful that they'd seen before. Hell, Vulcan was detroyed with one shot and it would seem the response lead to a number of major technological advances that TOS never saw.

No matter how different Star Fleet looks in this altered timeline, Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Uhura, Checkov, Sulu and Scotty still end up where they are supposed to be. 

In both universes Khan is found and unleashed what changes is who found him and when they found him. For the record I think Cumberbatch embraced and enhanced Montalban's Khan nicely. The calculated savagry I remember from TWOK is perfectly protrayed.

Carol Marcus is inexplicably tied to Kirk and to the events surrounding Khan as well. In the TOS timeline she crosses paths with a young Kirk and David is the result, though as far as I know we never get to see it.  In ST09 she is a military brat who's father (as a result of Nero's incursion) creates a hyper militarized Star Fleet and yet still she crosses paths with the young Kirk.

And in both universes, despite all these little nuanced changes, one of them, either Kirk or Spock climbs into that reactor and sacrifices himself to save the ship. I'm sorry Pat but I don't see that as a soul robbing hack job on the iconic moment. In fact from the moment of the reveal that Harrison was really Khan I anxiously awaited the redux of the scene. Things played out differenty....yet the same. It worked for me. 

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Daltons chin dimple
Posts: 12800
Posted: 4 years 15 weeks ago

 It is a movie that, for me, I like more and more as time passes and I think more about it too.  Thoroughly enjoyed it. Will be buying the BluRay too!

....says "Kill Bond, NOW!"
Daltons chin dimple
Posts: 12800
Posted: 4 years 15 weeks ago

 Also, I think ST2009 stands up really well in the face of repeated viewings.  It is a frequent 'go to' movie when others in my massive DVD collection fail to jump out at me.

....says "Kill Bond, NOW!"