Star Trek Into Darkness is by no means an awesome film. It is, however, an okay film. And I feel that I should be completely upfront about that: it’s an okay film. It’s glossy and stylish and well-acted. Someone who knows nothing about Star Trek will probably like it. Many people who know a lot about Star Trek will probably like it, too. For me, however, it was a thoroughly disappointing entry into the franchise that added almost nothing new to the characters or the universe and in some ways devalued them.
Be ye warned: mega-spoilers ahead.
There were three things that I really disliked about the film. Two of them were major problems and somewhat intertwined with one another. One of them was relatively minor and won’t merit more than a brief mention here. (But I am going to mention it because I’m finicky like that.)
The first thing that I disliked about this film was the completely irrational and disingenuous marketing campaign undertaken by J.J. Abrams and Paramount. These people, for reasons that aren’t clear to me, chose to go to the outer limits in order to hide the fact that they were remaking The Wrath of Khan. And make no mistake: this film is nothing more than a remake of The Wrath of Khan.
In my view, there was no reason to do this. There were a number of ways that a remake of The Wrath of Khan, framed within the parameters established by the 2009 reboot, could have been marvelous. And I don’t think fans of the series would have been any less excited for the film had they known that it was a remake. I certainly wouldn’t have been less excited. As an ardent fan of Khan, I would have delighted in speculating about how the filmmakers intended to use the alternate timeline framework to retell the Khan story in a new setting with characters who were at different places in their lives than when they (and we) first encountered the classic villain. There was so much potential for a Khan remake to be awesome.
By vehemently denying that Into Darkness was a remake of Khan, the filmmakers inadvertently raised viewer expectations for something new—something that fulfilled the promise of the clean slate offered by the reboot. And they did not in any way meet these expectations.
This leads to the second thing that I disliked about this film, which was the incredibly lazy writing.
Now, don’t get me wrong: the banter is great. It’s snappy and amusing. It’s perfectly fine. That’s not what I mean. What I mean is, given that the filmmakers decided to re-envision Khan it’s strange that they elected to write a script that added absolutely nothing to the story.
And this is particularly upsetting when you consider the raw potential of both the original story and the constraints of the reboot universe. The filmmakers could have told a story about how people are essentially different at different stages in their lives. They could have told a story about what would happen as a result of Kirk and Khan meeting when Kirk was a younger man, with a different life history, than he was when they met in the origin timeline. Perhaps the two men would have found some common ground; perhaps the nature of their relationship would have been changed by their new choices.
Alternatively, the filmmakers could have told a story about how history is resilient and practically impervious to the interference of time travel. They could have told a story about how Kirk and Khan are each fated by the fixity of time to be adversaries, no matter the variation in the circumstances of their assorted encounters.
But the filmmakers chose not to do this. Instead, they recreated the circumstances of the 1982 film almost exactly (outside of a few red-herring maneuvers at the beginning, that is), clinging to cinematic parallelism in an almost desperate attempt to make in-jokes. Consequently, the complexity of the characters and their individual and evolving histories were utterly dumbed down.
This effect was most notable with Khan, who in the original film was a character who was obsessed with vengeance but still intellectually superior to his adversaries. His motivations made sense in light of his complex history with the crew of the Enterprise, and his moves and counter-moves against them were intelligent and efficient right up until the moment he was ultimately undone by his inability to let his need for revenge go.
By contrast, the Khan of the remake was a character whose intellectual superiority was highly questionable. I suspect the filmmakers expected his superior strength, showcased by well-choreographed fight sequences, to telegraph his intellectual superiority to the audience, but it didn’t reveal itself in hardly any of his actions. Indeed, the Khan of Into Darkness made several highly questionable decisions—not because obsession had driven him to irrationality, but because the filmmakers seemed to feel that the story needed another plot twist.
(Example: after having convinced Kirk to help him save his crew, as well as the Enterprise, from the obviously nefarious Admiral Marcus, Khan decides to attempt to kill everyone because he’s Khan and he just hates everyone who is not part of his “family.” Real genius-level play there, bub.)
Given the transformation of Khan into a one-dimensional character, I hardly need to do more than mention my disappointment that Khan (that great product of late-20th-century genetic engineering) ceased to be a person of color in this film. (My third, albeit minor, quibble.) I imagine that the decision to cast Benedict Cumberbatch was due partly to his extreme skill as an actor, but mostly because the filmmakers wanted to further obscure the fact that they were remaking Khan.
I can only conclude that the desire to hide this fact was rooted in an attempt to create a false sense of mystery about the film, which was in no way mysterious. Every single thing that happened in the film was predictable, and not just because it was a remake of Khan: but because the writing was thoroughly uninspired.
Now, anyone who knows me knows that I am not a film snob. I’m perfectly happy to watch popcorn fluff entertainment. (I liked Battleship, for Christ’s sake, and the only thing that film has going for it is that they blow up all the things and show off Taylor Kitsch’s biceps a lot.) That said, I do get really pissed off when a film has obvious potential to be more than popcorn fluff entertainment, and its creators prance about as if it is more than popcorn fluff entertainment, but is not anything more. When that happens, I feel supremely cheated.
Star Trek Into Darkness could have been an incredible film. It could have been a fresh take on an old theme, an exploration of fate and choice wrapped in a web of familiarity and strangeness. It wasn’t. It was a totally watered down version of one of the greatest science fiction films ever made.
In the end, what was the goddamn point of making it at all?