As I write this I am listening to the Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan soundtrack via YouTube, and I find it a significantly more stirring experience than watching Star Trek Into Darkness, J.J. Abrams’ recent bungling of arguably the most important science fiction franchise ever.
In place of “franchise” above, I considered using a word like “universe” or “mythos” (the latter of which I don’t feel very appropriate for Star Trek anyway), but didn’t end up replacing it because that’s what Star Trek has become: a franchise to occupy Abrams’ time while he waited to get hired for the indefinite number of cash-cows Disney wants to throttle out of Star Wars.
Consider the following from Abrams’ recent interview on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart:
“I never liked Star Trek when I was a kid… It always felt too philosophical for me… Some of the writers loved Star Trek, I wasn’t a fan, my producing partner never saw it.”
Everything about these statements is problematic if you understand what’s important and beautiful about Star Trek. To Jon Stewart’s credit, his response was “I stopped listening to you when you said you didn’t like Star Trek,” but the reason why is somewhat lost in the rest of the conversation.
And lest ye readers now proclaim in Abrams’ defense, “But that’s, like, what any fanboi/grl would say about their nerd fiction of choice,” you are totally right. So can we agree that each fiction, and perhaps particularly sci-fi and fantasy, has some sort of nebulous essence or heart, without which they are fundamentally changed?
Star Trek without philosophy — by which I assume we mean a thoughtful blend of rationality, ethics, and compassion — is not Star Trek. It’s like Reese’s without peanut butter, or Back to the Future without Marty McFly. In other words: empty.
In my review of Abram’s previous “Trek” film, I mentioned that further entries into the series should return to some of the TV show’s thematic roots. Seems like they tried with Into Darkness, but ham-handed character transplants and sometimes nearly verbatim scene-stealing from previous (real/good) Trek films doesn’t count.
HUGE FUCKING SPOILER ALERT.
Except that’s one of the film’s biggest problems. It’s not really a spoiler, because wrangling trendy British bloke Benedict Cumberbatch (“he’s so hot right now“) and calling him “Khan” doesn’t fucking mean anything except that you’re fresh out of good ideas and you’re trying desperately to retain what tenuous cred you had with real Star Trek fans.
So, since Abrams’ himself has invited the comparison, let’s compare.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan wrestles mightily with the concept of mortality; in fact, nearly every plot element in the film revolves around this single theme. The very first scene introduces the “Kobayashi Maru,” a test that evaluates how up-and-coming Starfleet officers face certain death, a test which the captain of the Enterprise notoriously defeated; Kirk and “Bones” lament getting old right after the ever-cantankerous McCoy gives his old friend a pair of antique eyeglasses for his birthday. Even the Chekhov’s gun is codenamed “Genesis,” invented to create wondrous new life but also capable of utterly erasing it. All of this drives the film to its heart-rending and well-known conclusion: the demise of one of the most beloved sci-fi characters of all time. I can’t even think about that scene without getting all misty-eyed; Spock’s unwavering altruism contrasts gorgeously with Khan’s hunt for petty revenge.
Star Trek Into Darkness begins with its head held high, espousing the pits and precipices of the Prime Directive and rehashing the fundamental differences between Kirk and Spock. But then “John Harrison” blows up a secret Starfleet weapons factory, and Into Darkness decides it wants to be about terrorism. And warmongering, and the militarization of a beloved exploratory institution, and other trendy shit that every other dumb-ass bullet-riddled action-adventure movie since 9/11 has wanted to be about. Star Trek Into Darkness could be read as a reflective title: this movie unceremoniously tosses Trek’s customary high-mindedness into oblivion in favor of (shocker!) mostly boring, predictable, belabored action scenes.
On to the films’ antagonists. When the eponymous villain of Wrath of Khan reveals himself on the dead planet to which he was exiled, he drives home the last nail in Kirk’s as-yet proverbial coffin. Not only is Kirk’s mortality catching up with him, but his past is, too. (The dead planet Ceti Alpha V and its “exploded” sister, Ceti Alpha VI, offer a cosmic perspective on the film’s theme — even worlds must eventually die.) There is a history between these two old foes that the audience can feel, even if they haven’t seen the original episode featuring Khan Noonien Singh, a genetically modified superman from late-20th century Earth’s Eugenics Wars. Khan seems genuinely anachronistic in the 23rd century of the U.S.S. Enterprise: he is cunning and ruthless, possessed of a tyrannical arrogance. He represents the worst of the world in which we currently live, and that’s what makes him unique in a future where humanity constructs, or more pointedly, can afford to construct massive spacefaring vessels solely for the endeavor of exploring the universe and for the betterment of all humanity.
But in Darkness, Khan is not unique or anachronistic. Everybody and their mums is out for blood in this picture. Khan caps good old father-figure Chris Pike, so Kirk wants to whack Khan. Admiral Robocop– er, Marcus holds Khan’s super-groupies hostage, so Khan wants to hurt Marcus. Kirk pulls a Spock and gets himself irradiated saving Enterprise, so Spock blames Khan and tries to beat him to death with his bare fists in the most absurd, un-Trekish action scene in the whole movie. And lest we forget, the Big-Shot Fucking Admiral of Star-Fucking-Fleet (which defends the 23rd-century version of the UN, for fuck’s sake) wants to spark total war with the Klingon Empire. These are not the ethics of Star Trek. These are the barbarisms of the Dark Ages. This is a movie about weregilds in space.
Further — it doesn’t really mean anything at all that “John Harrison” turns out to be “Khan.” Star Trek II rekindles a rivalry and enmity 15 years old that fits perfectly with the film’s thematic interests. Into Darkness, on the other hand, merely pays lip service to one of Trek’s most iconic villains. Had “John Harrison” neglected to reveal his “true” identity, the film still would’ve played out in exactly the same way. Cumberbatch, while a terrifically compelling actor, isn’t given much at all to work with. He’s a glorified Rambo who is denied even the chance to utter any of the real Khan’s most memorable lines or sentiments. (I mean, as long as you’re recycling the entire latter half of Khan for your “new” Trek movie, you might as well use the good stuff, right?)
It is bitterly ironic that while Abrams really, really wants Into Darkness to be hip and cool and bad-ass, he fails to do justice to easily the most bad-ass character to ever appear in Star Trek. I mean seriously, while he might be a huuuuuge tool sometimes, Khan Noonien Singh is the reigning BAMF of the Alpha Quadrant, even when you just consider some of his dialogue, particularly in the following scene, which I would rather watch 14 times in a row than sit through the 127 minutes of Into Darkness again:
All of this ranting is to say: J.J. Abrams has abandoned the heart and soul of why Star Trek is important in pop culture. Real Trek looks forward to a future in which war, poverty, and disease are extinct on Earth; in which the petty concerns of individuals like Khan do not threaten the stability or justice of society as a whole; in which we reach ever farther in our understanding of the physical laws of the universe and leave those barbarisms of a war-torn planet behind us where they belong.
True Trek celebrates the intoxicating truth that we are the only species among millions on our world across billions of years who have cultivated the knowledge and the skill to strap ourselves to a bomb, hurtle into outer space, and come back safely with new knowledge that will benefit all of humankind. Star Trek Into Darkness is a rather aptly named film after all — it chains us in the darkness of our own real world, and we’ll never leave that world behind for a better one if this is all we can muster from the brightest, most hopeful science fiction franchise of all time.