Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Star Trek: Into Darkness - A Sad Parody Part 2

Posted by Benson

Spoiler Alert: This post contains spoilers for Star Trek: Into Darkness.  Read on at risk of having the essential points of an uninspiring plot revealed to you.

In last week's post I discussed why Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is a good film, which was a necessary precursor to explaining why I am so disappointed with Star Trek: Into Darkness.  Ultimately, I feel that Star Trek: Into Darkness  is a sad parody of The Wrath of Khan.  Into Darkness had the capacity to be a really good movie, but for reasons that I cannot fathom, J. J. Abrams decided to extend his reboot of the Star Trek franchise into the Khan storyline.
You see John, I just cut out all the boring parts and added more 'splosions.

The only thing I can come up with by way of explanation is hubris.  The Wrath of Khan is one of the best Trek movies ever made, and arguably the best in stiff competition with the likes of The Undiscovered Country, The Voyage Home, and First Contact (which I would rate in that order following Khan, if you were curious).  Khan is an iconic part of the Trek film franchise , not the least because it singlehandedly overcame the epic failure that was Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  J. J. probably just thought he would do it his way, which everyone would naturally think is better.

The problem is that J. J. went about it in a terrible way.  I was reading a Wired article about Into Darkness that summed up the point nicely by describing Into Darkness as "a Mad-lib of allusions with no real attention to the underlying machinery that makes them tick."  This is exactly the problem with Into Darkness, and is why a thorough understanding of The Wrath of Khan was a necessary precursor to this review. 

Genetically engineered to prefer ruffles on his coats
Into Darkness makes willy-nilly references to the Khan storyline, and direct homages to The Wrath of Khan, in a ham-handed way that reeks of attempting to disguise itself as a good film by reminding the audience of great moments in a genuinely good story.  The fundamental problem with this is that those moments were great because they were part of a well constructed film.  Divorced from that "underlying machinery," those elements become meaningless to an unindoctrinated audience and trite laziness to knowing fans.

 The Wired article claims that J. J. tried to put too much story into not enough film by jamming together Space Seed with elements of The Undiscovered Country and The Wrath of Khan, but I tend to disagree.  J. J. was clearly not thinking about story at all, but rather about cramming together one over-the-top action sequence after another.

I'll have him leap into a new scene through a plate glass window!

Into Darkness tries to raise the intellectual level of its action-packed shenanigans by doing a redoux of Khan set in J. J.'s bizzarro world Star Trek.  This had the potential to be a truly new story that took something familiar to Trek fans and turned it into something completely unexpected.  I expect that was what J. J. thought he was doing.  Instead, he merely turned the story upside down, crudely reversing powerful moments in Khan, such as Spock's heart-wrenching sacrifice. 
Quick!  It doesn't count unless you try to touch my hand!

Rather than doing something unique with the Khan character, J. J. started with his bizzaro Trek verse and tried to figure out how to jam in as many Wrath of Khan references as possible, including trying to include a meaningful message about the nature of revenge.

The point is that even if J. J. wanted to do something with the Khan character, there was no need to drag in so many of elements of The Wrath of Khan, especially if the run-time was going to be so heavily laden with action-sequences.  Those elements have to be attached to a story to make sense, and there simply wasn't room to build a strong story into the movie J. J. set out to make.
Hang on Kirk!  We've been fighting for 20 minutes, it has to stop soon.
 The Wired article generously presumes that J. J. tried to do too much story, but I think he tried to do far too little story.  If J. J. had been serious about making a meaningful reinterpretation of The Wrath of Khan, it would have to start down at the level of themes.  What were the themes of The Wrath of Khan, and how can I tell a different story with different themes using the same characters, which have already been established as being different from the incarnation of the characters in The Original Series?  That should have been the starting point.

A proper reversal of the Khan story could have been telling a story of young people coming into their roles as responsible adults, taking over from older, more experienced role models and learning about what it means to live a life in service of others, rather than themselves.

I'm sorry to do this to you, but it's the only way we can think to work in some exposition
Ostensibly, this is what Into Darkness tries to be, but J. J.'s attempt to do this is limited to finding ways in which to put his younger Enterprise crew into the same scenes that occurred in The Wrath of Khan, which requires a great deal less work, especially if you don't really care about telling a coherent story, which Into Darkness is far from.

The warp core needs to be realigned and someone has to go into an irradiated compartment to do it or everyone is going to die.  If your goal is to recreate that scene, all you need is some explosive catastrophe to happen on the Enterprise.  The scene is completely based on a sci-fi MacGuffin.  Do I know how a warp core works?  Hell no.  You tell me bla needs to happen, okay, bla needs to happen.  it is a movie after all.

Hmmmm...this looks a little boring...There's bright lights, but no green screens or wires
The Wrath of Khan built up to that scene which was the climax of the film.  The writers doubtless wanted to find some way for Spock to have to sacrifice himself for the good of the ship, so that Kirk could finally face the inevitability of death, deal with it emotionally, and grow as a person by coming to understand the purpose of a life well-lived.  Enter sci-fi MacGuffin.
...Yea!  Now this is a movie!  Let's tilt the camera to make it more cooler!
In Into Darkness, a scene that is so painfully similar is completely devoid of emotion (and is not the climax of the film).  I guess it is supposed to represent Kirk learning to not be a selfish dick, but the story barely supports this other than by Kirk sort of acting like an irresponsible asshole.  But does killing one's self represent accepting responsibility? 

In the beginning of Into Darkness, Kirk has to decide whether to let Spock die or save his life by violating the Prime Directive.  The Enterprise is trying to save a primitive civilization by surreptitiously preventing a world-ending volcanic eruption using some sciencey MacGuffin invented by Spock.  Spock is nobly self-sacrificing, accepting his death, but Kirk saves him anyway because a person's life is more important than being responsible, or something.  Okay fine.  Spock thinks Kirk is wrong, they have a fight and continue being frenemies. 

I'll at least get to die in a giant volcano, so that's something
Kirk is stripped of his command for violating the Prime Directive, and is bummed for a little bit until Captain Pike makes him his first officer about 10 minutes before getting murdered, then Kirk gets to be a captain again, which Spock recommends over himself...because something like that happened in The Wrath of Khan.  Spock is A) more qualified and B) has no real reason to think Kirk would be a good captain.  In fact, Spock really should think Kirk is a terrible captain as Kirk is impulsive, irresponsible, and full of incredibly illogical human decision-making which Spock has criticized for two films.

Kirk is sent on a secret mission to kill some bad terrorist dude that turns out to be Khan, who has been building amoral first strike super weapons that will allow the Federation to decimate the Klingons in a war some crazy admiral thinks is inevitable.  Khan's frozen buddies are hidden inside the super weapons...I don't know why, but there it is.  Kirk is also super mad because Khan was the dude who killed Captain Pike 10 minutes ago.

C'mon Kirk!  That torpedo is big enough to hide a person inside!
Khan pretends that building amoral first strike super weapons it totes bad and teams up with Kirk to fight the crazy admiral.  So Kirk, whose problem is with defying authority and breaking rules because it is the 'right thing to do', defies the authority of the admiral and breaks the rules because it is the 'right thing to do'.  But the admiral is doing it too, so two wrongs make a right, right?

Only it isn't the right thing to do because Khan is, like, totally leading Kirk on, and once they beat the crazy admiral Khan takes over the penultimate battleship like a megalomaniac, and it turns out that the admiral was, like, trying to kill Khan to stop him from being an uber-powerful megalomaniac.  But really, it is only one ship, not a weapon technology with ultimate power over life and death that can destroy worlds at the push of a button, so where's the fire?

Khan wants the amoral first strike torpedoes with his frozen buddies inside, but he wants them because they have his buddies inside, or is it because they are super weapons...Khan seems more concerned about his buddies, which is...really very reasonable when you think about it.

Wait, weren't we supposed to be shooting these at Khan?
Spock, however, tricks him by giving him the torpedoes minus frozen people and blowing them up inside Khan's new super battleship.  GOTCHA!  Because a super genius like Khan would super fall for that.  Super battleship and the Enterprise are both damaged, like, real bad and fall into Earth.  The super torpedoes didn't vaporize Khan's ship because...they weren't so super after all.  Scotty was concerned that even having them on board the Enterprise would be potentially fatal to the ship...but when you detonate them inside a ship...all 70+ of them...they only cripple it.

So this is where Kirk's heroic sacrifice comes in.  The Enterprise is falling through Earth's atmosphere and will crash unless somebody fixes it.  Kirk does the fixing, and Spock finds out that Kirk is dead.  Spock is suddenly really angry?  Spock yells KHAAAAAN! and then proceeds to follow Khan down to the surface of Earth to beat the snot out of him to get revenge.

So...you guys are going to use my blood to cure Kirk later, right?
BUT WAIT!  See, we learned earlier in a 20 second scene that Khan's blood has super regenerative powers, so we know, even as Kirk "dies," that they are going to use it to save Kirk.  Conveniently, Spock is beating the Hell out of Khan down on Earth, so Uhura beams down and tells Spock to get some blood before he beats Khan to death.

Kirk is saved and...learns something...about...let's just read the quote:

"There will always be those who mean to do us harm. To stop them, we risk awakening the same evil within ourselves. Our first instinct is to seek revenge when those we love are taken from us. But that's not who we are... When Christopher Pike first gave me his ship, he had me recite the Captain's Oath. Words I didn't appreciate at the time. But now I see them as a call for us to remember who we once were and who we must be again. And those words: Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Her five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before."

 So, forgetting for the minute that this is the stupidest oath ever (it sounds like the intro to a TV show or something), Kirk is supposed to have learned something about revenge, and how taking revenge is bad.  Kirk wanted vengeance against Khan for killing Captain Pike, but then decided to capture him instead so he could stand trial.  This turned out to be a not-so-good idea, sort of, and, against all attempts otherwise, Khan survived (70+ ultimate proton torpedoes detonated inside the hull of Khan's ship...Spock, didn't your Vulcan mind calculate the degree of overkill involved in that?).

See, Spock never yelled in the old movies, so this is totally original
I suppose the movie was really about Spock learning something...about controlling his emotions...because he get's angry at Khan and that's bad because that was what Kirk wanted to do at the beginning.  Kirk learned that being angry and emotional was bad, because when he was dying he asked Spock how you stop feeling, because he was, you know, scared of dying.  Only Spock told Kirk that he didn't know how to stop feeling. 

So maybe the movie was about emotions.  Khan was giving Spock some crap at one point about feelings...maybe that lets us know what the movie is about:

"Mr. Spock. The mind of the Enterprise. The fearless genius who ensures a calm force of intelligence guides their every mission. But look deeper and you will see an outsider who does not belong, a man of two worlds. This tears him apart, the constant battle between what he thinks and what he feels. What does he do? Does he follow his head, embracing logic and the path of reason? Or does he follow his heart, knowing the emotions he cannot control may destroy him? I will help him decide..."

I love you Khaaaaaan!  Wait...no...I...I'm so confused
 Well, maybe the movie was about the battle between emotion and reason that is in all of us, even a Vulcan?  Kirk is an emotional guy, and that's bad, except when it isn't, like when he saves Spock's life and the primitive civilization.  Spock is generally in control of his emotions, until he slips, and that's bad.  Khan is seemingly not very emotional.  I suppose he's just a cool-headed psychopath, like a total sociopath.  But he cares about his genetically engineered 'family' and is really super mad at the crazy admiral for threatening to kill them.  
It's all so confusing.  See, Into Darkness tries to be a twist on The Wrath of Khan.  The movie pretends to be about sacrifice and revenge, which is partly what The Wrath of Khan is about.  It parrots scenes from The Wrath of Khan, trying to act like there is a similar allegorical meaning to Into Darkness.
But there really isn't.  The movie is little more than a sad parody.  It is sad because it tries to be better than The Wrath of Khan.  It tries to give the audience a similar experience with a different type of poignant message.  But the only message it has is that it takes more than yelling KHAAAAAN! to make a memorable film.  It takes telling a good story, which is a lot of work, more work than J. J. was apparently willing to put it.
Meh, maybe next time guys...has anybody seen Spock, he seemed a little upset earlier?
All of this is incredibly depressing because Into Darkness had such potential!  The actors are so well cast, the budget was titanic, the acting is solid, there's room to creatively twist the Trek universe and play with audience expectations.  It could have been such a great movie.  It is merely an okay movie, like Star Trek: Nemesis.

Maybe the next one will be better.