A Strange Review: Star Trek into Darkness

MV5BMTk2NzczOTgxNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwODQ5ODczOQ@@._V1_SX214_So they call it “stadium seating,” but on what planet was this particular stadium built? Flatland? I had to change seats four times before I wound up positioned so absurdly I was obstructing my own view. I had to watch the film as reflected in the 70s-era aviator glasses of the guy sitting behind me, who had fallen asleep. HEY, REGAL CINEMAS—YEAH, YOU—STOP PUTTING THE 2D BLOCKBUSTERS IN THE BROOM CLOSETS.

Oh–and pizza? Hamburgers and french fries? This is what they’re serving at the concession stands now? What, no chicken bolognese? No mutter paneer?

Speaking of authentic Indian stuff—

SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT DO NOT TRESPASS BEYOND THIS POINT IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN MOVIE AND WISH TO SEE IT!!!!!!!!!!!!

OK. So someone decided a script for this sequel to the reboot of the original franchise needed to be written in 45 minutes, and the quickest way to get that done was to cherry-pick elements from both the old TV show and the movies. So a little bit of Wrath of Khan, a little bit of The Search for Spock, a little bit of War on Terror is worse that terrorism, and we’re done.

And why are they still using flip phones in the 23rd century? Did the Klingons destroy Cupertino or something?

I’ll try not to wear you out with a blow-by-blow account, but here’s the plot gist: A Starfleet Command Data Center is blown to smithereens in downtown London. Some muckety-mucks at Starfleet Command meet to assess the seriousness of the threat. It seems the person responsible for engineering the attack is supposedly a rogue Starfleeter himself, one Commander Harrison. Before Kirk (Chris Pine) can stick his nose where it doesn’t belong and, by the way, ask all the right questions, Harrison, played with Stratfordian gusto by British thespian Benedict Cumberbatch, attacks the meeting itself.

Kirk manages to drive Harrison away but not before his mentor, Captain Pike, is killed. General Marcus (Peter “Robocop” Weller) is impressed with Kirk’s courage and give him back the Enterprise (he had been stripped of the ship after violating the Prime Directive, then lying about it)—but only if he’ll fly out to Kronos, on the edge of Klingon territory, where Harrison is reportedly now hanging out, and assassinate the bad ass.

This poses all kinds of moral dilemmas—for Spock (Zachary Quinto), Scotty (who actually quits because Kirk won’t listen to him about the wonkie photon torpedoes the Enterprise is suddenly sporting), McCoy (“Damn it, Spock, I’m a doctor not a eustachian tube!”). All this militaristic stuff, this planned execution, is making everyone very uneasy. After all, the Enterprise has always been about discovery, not combat. Spock also doesn’t appreciate the prospect of taking Harrison out without a trial, despite the fact that everyone knows the rogue element is guilty of killing Starfleet personnel, including Pike. (Sound familiar?)

Anyhoo—Kirk & Co. head out on their mission, only to find themselves in a firefight with startingly blue-eyed Klingons. (Why mention the eyes in a minute.) Who comes to our heroes’ rescue after Uhura’s (Zoe Saldana) attempt at negotiation fails? Why it’s Commander Harrison! Who, upon hearing that the Enterprise is loaded with 72 photon torpedoes, immediately surrenders, despite his amazing display of physical prowess and cunning.

Now remember: Kirk was supposed to off Harrison, not bring him back to Earth alive. So what does this give Harrison a chance to do? Talk. Turns out he’s not really a traitorous Starfleeter after all, but a genetically engineered superman who was betrayed by his makers and cryogenically frozen along with 72 of his former crew members. His name?

Khan. Not Genghis. Not Madeleine. Khan Noonien Singh. You remember—the character Ricardo Montalban played in both the TV series and Star Trek II. (After all, this is, well, Star Trek IIII.) The startingly blue-eyed non-Indian Cumberbatch has a whole different backstory than the one we had been told. “Harrison” was a cover. He’s not a bad guy after all, just grieving over the betrayal he experienced at the hands of both his original engineers and General Marcus, who defrosted Khan because he thought his superhuman capacities would prove effective in waging war against the Klingons. Only Khan wasn’t so cooperative, and didn’t appreciate Marcus’s holding his former crew’s still-frozen carcasses hostage, so he decided to reveal the truth about EVERYTHING and avenge himself.

And those torpedoes? Scotty was right. Not what they seem.

This could only look bad on Marcus’s official record, given that Khan is only alive and killing because of his intervention, so he sets Kirk on a mission to take Khan out—without ever letting James Tiberius know what the real deal is.

So who is the real bad guy? The blue-eyed Marcus, for lying to Kirk and betraying Khan, and then attempting to destroy the Enterprise in a ship called the USS Vengeance (get it?). But Marcus is absolutely convinced that the growing, aggressive Klingon Empire is a genuine threat to both Starfleet and Earth, and so is willing to break a few rules, and kill a few innocents, to protect his world.

Is the blue-eyed Khan really the evil one? He’s still grieving over the loss of many of his former crew members, betrayed some 300 years ago. And all he wants to do now is protect those still-frozen survivors. His crew is his family. What wouldn’t a captain do to protect his family?

How about the blue-eyed Klingon commander for threatening the Enterprise, even though the Enterprise could be said to have acted provocatively? Or the blue-eyed Kirk, for not following orders? Repeatedly?

A lot of blue-eyed devils running around.

Nothing is as it seems in this film. Not even the young Carol “Wallace,” a scientist who lies about her true identity and sneaks onto the Enterprise to investigate those torpedoes that Scotty was so upset about and that Khan is so invested in.

Everyone is lying about something. Everyone is perfectly justified in their actions. Everyone knows good from evil yet appears to be doing good and evil simultaneously. Outward actions are deceptive because true motivations are hidden. And sacrifice is essential.

This is a very Lutheran movie.

The film is, as I began with, annoyingly unoriginal, and yet I was thoroughly invested in it, primarily because I love these characters. The original Star Trek series remains the gold standard for me. You can forget Capt. Jean-Luc Godard and his unwatchable Marxist movies, and the other half-dozen spinoff/knockoffs. Kirk, Spock, Scotty, McCoy, Uhuru, Sulu, guy in red shirt turning dials making it look like he’s doing something—I’ll follow them anywhere. Turns out that Gene Roddenberry’s magnificent creatures were resilient enough to withstand even a complete change of cast. And his lofty goal of depicting a future in which the content of one’s character really was the only thing that mattered in terms of worldly judgments remains an ever-fresh aspiration.

As for why Khan—a character who originally was depicted as someone from the Indian subcontinent—is so clearly a WASP in this iteration, and why all the villains are depicted as blue-eyed, may, strangely, be a function of our failure to realize that aspiration. (The excuse that it made the reveal all that more surprising is pretty lame, as an Indian Khan could have pulled a Mission Impossible mask job, clever guy that he was.)

Was it fear of making a brown-skinned actor a villain? But didn’t General Marcus provide enough of a white counterpart? Was it fear he would be too Bin Ladeny, seeing as the War on Terror shadows this tale like Colombo does each week’s bad guy, and they didn’t want to make it appear that Bin Laden was a victim too? Was it fear that an Asian superman would play to fears of being dominated by a superior Other?

Or was this just a ham-fisted way of saying “We have met the enemy, and he is George W. Bush”?

When all is said and done, everyone learns that revenge is bad (even Spock), and the Starship Enterprise finally launches on its original five-year mission “to go where no one has ever gone before.” (Can’t say man anymore, even though there were women on the original voyage.) Spock and Kirk have reconfirmed their trust in each other (it was Spock who ratted Kirk out in the first place, causing him to lose the Enterprise), Scotty is back screaming about the engines—all is right with the future.

So if you’re a hard-core, diehard fan of the series, by all means, enjoy the summer fun. It balances the crazy quilt of recycled plot points with enough shape shifting that you won’t be bored, even if you’re a little disappointed.

And may the Force be with director JJ Abrams, who it seems will be quit of the Star Trek series.

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5 thoughts on “A Strange Review: Star Trek into Darkness

  1. It seems to me, on careful consideration, that writing a review, and then telling people not to read it unless they’ve already seen the movie, may not be the optimal approach to film criticism.

    • I disagree. In fact, I would argue that not reading my reviews is absolutely key to understanding films you haven’t seen. And I can’t tell you the number of films I have reviewed solely in my mind so as not to spoil them for my eyes.

  2. I enjoyed the movie in spite of its unoriginality. However, there seems to be one glaring error that bothers me. If Khan and his crew were launched into space on the Botany Bay some 200+ years BEFORE the time stream of the present movies diverged from the original time stream, how could Adm Marcus be able to unfreeze Kahn on earth AFTER the divergence happened?

    Or did I miss something? Did Marcus know where the Botany Bay was and brought the ship back to gain access to Kahn and his crew?

  3. So – my snarky response to the film was that it was good fun, but they can stop now…. if all they’re going to do is “we’re keeping bits and pieces of the old stuff, but twisting it up because of the time-stream…” It’s great for us fans (especially those of us getting long in the tooth….), but not terribly good story-telling. If for Trek III they’ll just go off and do something completely new…. well then, that will be a good romp. My other comment is this: Khan (old Trek II) had a lovely meditation on bumping up against the reality of aging… whereas this film might have a lovely reflection on the kind of maturing that takes place when in one’s god-like 20′s one messes up unrecoverably… I’d love to see those more mature characters….

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