Thursday, September 19, 2013

Star TreK: Into Darkness - A Sad Parody

Posted by Benson

Spoiler Alert: This post, of necessity, contains some Into Darkness spoilers and plenty of Wrath of Khan spoilers.  But seriously though, if you've never seen The Wrath of Khan...

I am a Star Trek fan.  I'm not a huge Trekkie or anything (wow, Trekkie is in this word processor's dictionary), but I quite enjoy Star Trek.  I was raised to love the Original Series, I adore Voyager, I watched plenty of DS9 as a kid, and I just recently finished re-watching the entirety of The Next Generation.  I am also a huge fan of the Trek movies, especially The Wrath of Khan.

When J. J. Abrams took the franchise into his hands I was dubious, but his first Trek film was enjoyable.  The actors were well cast, the costumes and set design were fresh but remained evocative of the Original Series, and the story was compelling enough to overcome the drawbacks of superfluous explosions and shaky camera syndrome.

And then there was Into Darkness...though I suppose it fits the theme of J. J.'s bizarro world Star Trek that the even numbered film is the not-so-good one.  Don't get me wrong, the movie was a fine enough action romp a-la Starship Troopers, but it was a very disappointing Trek film, not the least because it is ultimately a sad parody of The Wrath of Khan.

Whatever bra, talk to the hand.  My other one is too busy holding millions of dollars.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is, by any objective standard, an excellent film.  It is a film that has stood the test of time not only for Trek fans, but for the movie-watching public in general.  The story and film making are so good that you don't have to know anything about Star Trek to enjoy The Wrath of Khan.  In fact, I loved the movie long before I had even seen the Original series episode Space Seed, wherein the Enterprise crew encounters Khan for the first time.

Khan delivers a powerful, emotional, story about the meaning of life, the mysteries of death, and the nature of revenge.  It is replete with well-constructed allegories and deftly sidesteps the pitfalls of a potentially unwieldy franchise with tight writing and excellent direction.

And mysteries of Ricardo Montalbon's chest waxing
 In this post, I will explain why I believe The Wrath of Khan is a darn good movie, which is a tall task for one post all by itself.  Next week I'll contrast this excellent cinematic construction with Into Darkness.  The split is regrettable, but a proper comparison demands a thorough examination of The Wrath of Khan.

At the beginning of Khan, Kirk is suffering from a bout of ennui.  It is his birthday, and he is looking back on his life.  He has risen to the position of Admiral, he feels old, and he is beginning to question the value of his life and the legacy he will leave behind.  He is literally surrounded by antiques, and his old friend Dr. McCoy tells him that he needs to get back his command "before you become part of this collection."

Let's get plastered, and don't forget to pour one out for that green-blooded bastard.
Spock, the other half of Kirk's psyche, shares a very similar scene with Kirk, but with a distinctly different message.  Spock gives Kirk an antique copy of A Tale of Two Cities, and attempts to quote a poignant passage:

"It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."

I trust you "poured one out for me," Admiral.

Below is the preceding paragraph from A Tale of Two Cities.  The passage forms part of the unspoken last thoughts of Sydney Carton, as he is about to be put to death at the end of A Tale of Two Cities, and it provides some context for not only Spock's chosen quotation, but for the film as a whole:

"I see that child who lay upon her bosom and who bore my name, a man winning his way up in that path of life which once was mine. I see him winning it so well, that my name is made illustrious there by the light of his. I see the blots I threw upon it, faded away. I see him, fore-most of just judges and honoured men, bringing a boy of my name, with a forehead that I know and golden hair, to this place—then fair to look upon, with not a trace of this day's disfigurement—and I hear him tell the child my story, with a tender and a faltering voice."
"It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."

Spock's message to Kirk is clear: that Kirk has lived a full life and achieved great things; that he will leave a legacy to be admired, and has made the galaxy a better place; that sacrifice for the benefit of others is its own reward.

Bones speaks to Kirk of beginnings, Spock speaks to Kirk of endings, although Kirk was unwilling to listen at that time.  As the story begins, we see Kirk facing questions and challenges that we can relate to, regardless of the fictional gulf of time and technology that separates us from James T. Kirk.  Later, once we are absorbed into the story, we will face warp speeds, miraculous and deadly sci-fi weapons, alien mind bugs,and other arm's length challenges.  But for now the tale is simple and relatable (the dictionary has Trekkie but not relatable?).

Where were the rest of you jerks on my birthday?
Kirk and the former crew of the Enterprise are training a new, young crew to take over the ship.  They are passing on their legacy to a younger generation.  Mr. Scott, the engineer, even has his rookie nephew serving in the engine room.  And then there is the Kobayashi Maru scenario, the unbeatable test, the unwinnable simulator challenge that teaches aspiring starship captains how to deal with death. 

We find out of course that when Kirk was at the academy he reprogrammed the simulator so that the test was winnable, because in his words, he doesn't believe in a no-win scenario.  Kirk has never faced death, represented by his failure to listen to Spock at the beginning of the film as much as by his Kobayashi Maru solution.

I'll give you a hint if you tell me what the Hell this book is about.
Of course, during a short training voyage the Enterprise is called on to respond to an emergency, and Admiral Kirk must take command of a starship once again, this time with green crew, and facing once more the most dangerous adversary he has ever faced: Khan.

White hair is in right now, I totes live forever
And who is Khan?  We meet Khan when Commander Chekov is serving on the USS Reliant, looking for a planet devoid of life on which to conduct scientific testing.  Chekov and the Captain of the Reliant stumble upon Khan, who we learn, very succinctly, is an old enemy of James Kirk, marooned on a planet that turned into a barren wasteland and consumed by a desire for revenge.  We learn this because of course while Khan 'remembers' Chekov, Captain Terrell has no idea who he is.

See, Chekov really was on the ship in Space Seed
This is a time-honored plot device.  We, the audience, are in the position of Captain Terrell, and it makes sense for a character to explain to us, vis a vis Terrell, what is going on.  Through only a few minutes of menacing run-time we know that Khan is a frightening adversary, that there is a lot of baggage in his relationship with the Enterprise crew, and that there are two sides to the story of his encounter with Kirk.

See how genetically superior I am?  BTW, thanks for putting this nifty handle on your space suit.
This is communicated largely by the behavior of the characters, rather than with pure dialog.  We know Khan is powerful and uncompromising because he has managed to survive on a planet Chekov and Terrell could barely cope with while inside a space suit.  He lifts Checkov off the floor with one hand and ruthlessly implants parasites into the brains of his captives.  Chekov is terrified when he realizes he and Terrell are standing in the remains of the Botany Bay, Khan's old ship.  Chekov sums up the story of Khan by saying, quite simply, that Khan was a guest on the Enterprise and betrayed Kirk by trying to steal his ship and murder him.  Khan disagrees, saying that Kirk betrayed his promise and marooned him on a wasted planet.  Thanks.  I got it.  That's all I need.

"Captain Kirk was your host.  You repaid his hospitality by trying to steal his ship and murder him."

Khan discovers that Starfleet is working on a new device, called Genesis, that creates life where there is none.  It has great power to create and serve mankind, but untold power as a weapon, for before it creates life, it destroys life.  This is why Chekov was looking for a lifeless planet.  Ah, how it hangs together!  Khan, the megalomaniac, obviously wants to steal the 'weapon' and as a bonus kill Kirk along the way.  The emergency that Kirk's green crew responds to is Khan's attempted theft of the Genesis device.

Now, the final important bit here is that the scientist developing Genesis is an old flame of Kirk's, and the mother of his estranged son, who is also working on the Genesis project!

So let's recap.  Kirk is feeling old and wondering about the value of his life and career.  He has achieved professional success, but is unmarried and has a blond haired son whom he barely knows (...bringing a boy of my name, with a forehead that I know and golden hair...).  Bones was telling Kirk that he needed to reclaim his true purpose in life.  Spock was attempting to remind Kirk about his legacy and the value of a life lived serving just that purpose.

Those were the days
Khan is obsessed with revenge.  According the Chekov he was marooned on a lush world brimming with promise.  This world has literally turned into a barren wasteland and Khan's wife died because of it.  Khan's thirst for revenge is ultimately self-destructive, metaphorically reflected in the demise of his planet and the death of his wife.  Khan is a hundreds of years old genetically engineered "superior being" with a lifespan that borders on infinite, but he has squandered and destroyed this great potential.

Kirk, on the other hand, feels like he has not accomplished much.  He feels like his life was wasted, but it hasn't been.  His life was full, and although Kirk has made many mistakes and has regrets, the quality of his character and his willingness to sacrifice for others has has left a rich legacy and left open the possibility to improve himself by accepting his life for what it is and accepting himself for who he is: a starship captain, with all of the freedoms and responsibilities which come with that role. 

From the mind of J J Abrams
Kirk and Khan fight of course.  There is danger, suspense, cool space battles, plenty of explosions, death, and unexpected twists, like discovering Kirk has a son!  Kirk and Khan duel to the death, with Khan grinding down himself and his crew in his thirst for revenge and Kirk pulling out every trick he's got to keep his crew alive and prevent a madman from acquiring what could be the most deadly weapon of mass destruction the galaxy has ever seen. (Now that sounds more like a J. J. Abrams film, right?)  
Oh no, you can't get away.  At least I hope not.  I'm having trouble getting a tactical reading from this flaming bulkhead.
 In the end, Khan destroys himself, activating the Genesis torpedo in an effort to take Kirk with him, going so far as to quote Moby Dick, "To the last, I will grapple with thee..from Hell's heart, I stab at thee!  For hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee!"  The Enterprise is stricken, and can't escape the impending explosion.  It is the Kobayashi Maru, the unwinnable scenario!  Scotty can do nothing to fix the Enterprise, but Spock sacrifices himself to fix the engines, allowing the Enterprise to escape.  Importantly, Kirk does not even know Spock is doing it.  When the engines come back online, Kirck actually says, "Bless you Scotty!  Go, Sulu!"

Kirk only later discovers the truth, and in one of the most heart-wrenching scenes in movie history he is forced to watch his friend die, completely powerless to save him.  We know the two are friends even without knowing anything about Star Trek.  Their interactions in the film display a deep familiarity and trust, from the beginning when Spock presents his gift to Kirk.  In fact, we know Spock is a good friend of Kirk in spite of Spock's emotionless Vulcan affect because Spock presents his gift to Kirk in a scene that is mirrored by Bone's gift to Kirk.  Thus the very affectatious Dr. "Bones" McCoy displays enough human familiarity with Kirk for both himself and Spock.  That there is good filmmaking.

The backdrop to this whole story is the rebirth that the Genesis torpedo represents, and literally creates.  By the end of the film, Kirk is developing a relationship with his son and is commanding a starship again.  And though Spock is dead, and he is dead at the end of the film, his own words of sacrifice are a comfort to Kirk, as much as Carton comforts the seamstress at the end of A Tale of Two Cities.  Kirk, a man who by his own words cheated death, tricked his way out of it, has come to learn how to face death, for he is forced to face the death of his dearest friend.  But in that death was meaning, a meaning that Spock understood, and a meaning that Kirk learns to appreciate by the end of the film.
Ah, remember that time we found those tommy guns and pinstripe suits in the cargo hold?
"We are assembled here today to pay final respects to our honored dead. And yet it should be noted that in the midst of our sorrow, this death takes place in the shadow of new life, the sunrise of a new world; a world that our beloved comrade gave his life to protect and nourish. He did not feel this sacrifice a vain or empty one, and we will not debate his profound wisdom at these proceedings. Of my friend, I can only say this: of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most... human."
The film ends right where it began.  At the very beginning of the film, Kirk said to McCoy, "Galloping around the cosmos is a game for the young, doctor."  It ends with McCoy asking how Kirk feels, to which Kirk responds, "Young.  I feel Young."   Significantly, this revelation only takes place after Spock's funeral, and is kicked off by Kirk sitting in his captain's chair on the bridge of the USS Enterprise, suddenly remembering the passage Spock was trying to quote.

McCoy: He's not really dead. As long as we remember him.
Kirk: It's a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done before. A far better resting place that I go to than I have ever known.
Carol Marcus: Is that a poem?
Kirk: No. Something Spock was trying to tell me. On my birthday.
McCoy: You okay, Jim? How do you feel?
Kirk: Young. I feel young.

You were wearing that the day you tried to stab me to death.
Kirk is metaphorically reborn as much as the Genesis torpedo creates new life.  He is revitalized.  He has learned something and grown as an individual.  The film was a journey of the soul as much as through the cosmos, and this is what makes The Wrath of Khan such an enduring film.  It has a solid and poignant story that viewers can relate to.  It is more than a visually interesting, exciting action flick.  The characters grow and develop.

Now, The Wrath of Khan has plenty of action, but the action serves the story, rather than the story serving the action. 

The original popped collar