Star Trek Into Dimness

Star Trek Into DarknessAfter several busy weeks I finally got around to seeing the new AbramsTrek. I didn’t like the first one because it felt like a lame action movie with a Trek skin grafted over it. This is much, much worse. Warning: this will be a spoiler post, so do not proceed if you have not seen the movie and wish to remain unspoiled.

I went in with few expectations, which may have been why I was so pleasantly surprised by the early scenes. The volcano planet story has been done, but I didn’t really mind because at least that felt like a Star Trek story (Prime Directive: right or wrong? Tonight at 11!), and I like the visual richness of the landscape which, unfortunately, we never return to because apparently Starfleet flies around in a big Apple store.  I turned off the logic centers of the brain and didn’t ask until much later why the Enterprise would hide under the sea, how they got there in the first place without being detected, and why they were using “cold fusion” (which I forever associate with The Saint, and that’s not a compliment) to violate the Prime Directive from the get-go. It’s okay. Kirk saves Spock. Fine.

planet

Then John Harrison shows up, and I was intrigued. I have always liked the conflict of Starfleet between being missionaries of peace and the flagship of a military fleet. Different Treks have approached this differently–the original series looks much more like a military (albeit a benign one), while TNG, with its children and its various enlisted types, feels more like a floating diplomatic post. DS9 and Voyager swung the pendulum back to be more war-like. I fully support a new version of the show exploiting that conflict, especially in the wake of Eric Bana’s villain from the last move forever altering the nature and history of Starfleet.

And then he’s Khan.

And now I’m angry.

These people went through so much trouble to create a new story. They killed off all the Vulcans. They made Kirk a douchebag. And for what? To tell the same story? Look, I appreciate (even if I don’t agree with) the desire to restart the series and start a new story that’s not beholden to the long history of old. But that means you actually have to do something with it. Tell a new story! Give us new characters! Change their relationships! STII is not just an action movie. It’s about life and death–about learning to face death as we grow older. It’s about feeling out of place in a young man’s world. It’s about Shakespearean-level and Melville-level vengeance, and very old friendships. It’s not a story that can be told–without significant changes–with a younger cast.  If you’re going to remake it, you have to do something differently.

Khan? Khan.

I hadn’t lost all hope at the revelation, because it seemed like this Khan might actually be different. In “Space Seed,” Khan has insatiable ambition, but all he really wants is a place to call his own. In the end, he accepts a planet to build from the ground up with his people. By Star Trek II, unexpected circumstances have made what would have been a challenging planet into a barely survivable one. I have never believed that Khan was inherently evil, however. He was made to be a leader and a warrior, and there was no place he could thrive in a time of peace. Part of what makes him such a worthy match for Kirk is that leadership quality. Both he and Kirk lead confidently and successfully, but while Khan does this through intimidation and violence, Kirk leads through compassion and consensus-building with his crew. This parallel is crucial to Khan’s success as a villain. But there’s no parallel here, not even a half-hearted nod at a similarity, because this Kirk really has no leadership abilities. He’s a piss-poor captain, reckless and irrational.

Ultimately, there’s no moral center that holds these people and this movie together. Kirk makes no hard choices. Spock has to convince him that gee, torpedoing a guy on an enemy planet from a distance might not be the most democratic move he’s made. But the fact that Spock has to make this speech at all–a plea for decency–is ridiculous. Kirk should have these qualities in abundance, without prodding. In “Space Seed,” Kirk doesn’t kill Khan and his men, and I wrote before that I believe that choice was because it was men who created them. I think Kirk feels a sense of responsibility on behalf of mankind for their existence. They didn’t ask to come into this world, and they didn’t ask to be the ambitious and brutal people that they are. But they are still human, and I think Kirk believes they have the right to live out their genetic destinies—far from other men, of course. This movie has none of that weight. There is no moral compass, no thought or feeling about the implications of Khan’s existence. Spock is at the ready to kill Khan until he finds out that Kirk may be revived by his precious bodily fluids. Where is his desire for a trial now, for justice? Every thought, every word, serves only the next plot point. There is no thematic glue to hold the events together. And we don’t even know for sure that Khan is evil until Old!Spock’s on the phone reminding us of the last movie.

Khan? Khan.

As for Khan, he’s also, as Eugene described him originally, macho and chauvanistic–he knows he’s superior, and more importantly he’s stuck in the past, both literally and figuratively. In STII, McCoy warns Kirk not to make the same mistake and become part of his own history collection. Khan’s inexperience with the future and unbridled arrogance are something to be exploited, and are ultimately the vulnerabilities that allow Kirk to prevail. But Kirk never exploits Khan’s hubris in STID. This Khan’s undoing isn’t his ego or his violence and our clever heroes taking advantage of that, it’s just…bad luck and a well-placed punch. I love Benedict Cumberbatch, but he’s not Khan. Khan is volatile–he’s calculating, but he gets ahead of himself. Cumberbatch is a quiet villain. In any other movie (even any other Star Trek movie!) his performance and his character would have me spellbound. But he’s not right for this story. Again, I feel that the beginning had a lot of promise. It had a theme I cared about and a fantastic villain. It could have played with terrorism, with the whole purpose of Starfleet’s existence. It could have even, absent a new story, taken Khan in a different direction–made him an ally of Kirk. But no, it merely repeats that which we’ve already seen. The 9/11 parallel is a throwaway. And can I just say that “villain gets captured on purpose as part of lengthy, elaborate secret plan” is officially my least favorite, most overdone trope?

The C-Team

The rest of the Enterprise crew is barely worth noting. I did enjoy McCoy in the last film, but here’s he’s completely useless. The only thing he does–other than whine–is cheat death offscreen (which is never mentioned again). Really? We can cheat death now and that’s just a plot shortcut? While it’s true that Spock and Kirk always had the limelight in the films, this movie had an opportunity to do things differently. What if Kirk and McCoy had been the stronger pair? They were much closer in the last film. And now that Spock has the emotional range of a desperate housewife, where is the logical center that holds Kirk and McCoy together? As for Scotty, what kind of Enterprise is this where Kirk would fire his best engineer because he warns that the torpedoes could destroy the entire ship?? I don’t care about that Enterprise. I want the one where the captain has confidence in his crew and love for his ship, not slavish devotion to authoritarian commands. Carol Marcus’ only asset–aside from taking off her clothes onscreen–is being someone else’s daughter. And finally Uhura, relegated to the nagging girlfriend whose big scene is a fight with her thoughtless boyfriend. We’ve come a long way, baby.

Lastly, of course, there’s the ultimate role reversal as Kirk sacrifices his life for the ship. I threw up my hands here. This just doesn’t work. Kirk is the captain. It’s his job and his responsibility to give his life for his crew. There is absolutely nothing heroic or interesting or different about this. What made Spock’s sacrifice in STII so powerful was that it wasn’t his job to do that. He did it to save Kirk–out of love and friendship. He claims it’s only logical, but any one man could have been the one to die. It should have been Scotty, or Kirk. But it was Spock because he chose to save his friends. There is no power in Kirk’s death here. In STII, there was twenty years of history that led to that moment. The moment here is completely unearned, as the two characters do not even recognize that they are indeed friends until Kirk’s dying breath. Well I have news for J.J. Abrams: friendship is quiet. It’s not always valiant deaths and noble sacrifices. It’s built on years of kindness and understanding, missteps and forgiveness. Friendship is not a single, over-the-top flourish. You have to earn a death like that. It’s like when they destroyed all of Vulcan just so Spock could finally feel sadness. Where is the movie’s –this franchise’s–soul?

This movie was empty and lazy. And I know what you’ll say: but it’s a silly action movie! But even silly action movies have a moral core and sense of character. Personally, I think Star Trek should look more like Star Trek than Die Hard, but even if it’s meant to pave new ground and look more like the latter, this Kirk doesn’t come close to the emotional range and moral center of John McClane. This feels less like a reboot than an audition for the new Star Wars movies. Well congratulations, Abrams. You nailed the extruded science fiction product thing perfectly.

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About Torie Atkinson

Torie Atkinson is a NYC-based law student (with a focus on civil rights and economic justice), proofreader, sometime lighting designer, and former Tor.com blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books.