“Geschichte wiederholt sich. Zunächst als Tragödie, zweite als Farce.
(History repeats itself. First as a Tragedy, second as a Farce.)”
– Karl Marx, Der 18te Brumaire des Louis Napolean (The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon)
Folks today are often regarded as being unoriginal, unfairly so at that. An older generation criticising it successor(s) is nothing new, but Generations X, Y, and The Millenials seem to frequently be accused of copying what went before, in lieu of any inspiration of their own.
To a degree, this accusation is valid: the great parody of YouTube videos is that although they are uploaded instantaneously, the subject of the video is often a parody, imitation, or outright theft of whatever flash-in-the pan trend is hot this week; thus said are often out-of-date before the end of the business day. To say nothing of Hollywood filling multiplexes with remakes and reboots of properties with the slightest bit of name recognition.
Although one could easily argue that this sort of this is nothing new, even the most contemplative and big-picture-minded observer will have to admit that the trend of “what’s old is new again” is more prevalent in recent decades. As much as I remind myself that even the Bogart version of The Maltese Falcon – which I love – was a remake, that’s a far cry from rebooting Spider-Man and Superman less than a decade after their last iterations (in Spider-Man man’s case, barely a decade past his cinematic introduction).
As such, it should have come as no surprise that Star Trek, one of the most ubiquitous (and, often, profitable) properties in popular culture, eventually got the “back to the beginning” treatment. Such a proposal was nothing new to the franchise: Herve Bennett, the writer behind the series best film, The Wrath of Khan, submitted a proposal for the sixth film that would have been a prequel featuring a young Kirk and Spock meeting at Starfleet Academy (the idea was rejected in favour of what became The Undiscovered Country). Bennett was one of the writers behind the popular fourth film, The Voyage Home, which centred around a popular franchise trop: time travel (TOS’ “The City on the Edge of Forever”; TNG’s two-part “Time’s Arrow”, “Yesterday’s Enterprise”, and the film First Contact; and the DS9 episode “Flashback, to name but a few). So with the series best minds having already laid the groundwork, JJ Abrams was confident enough to incorporate both ideas into his 2009 film Star Trek.
But what makes the 2009 film great – other than the facts that it’s wildly entertaining – is the way it handles the two aforementioned tropes; ways the series hasn’t done before. You see, as much as Trekkies like to complain about the “purity” of the franchise and its stories, its creators have played fast and loose with continuity from the get-go. Be it dead-and-resurrected Vulcans, Klingon blood, or the importance of a young Russian officer who was not yet part of the crew during the episode “Space Seed” – the writers of the franchise have never been known to keep track all that well. And as far as time travel goes, there are a great many leaps in logic required to swallow the plot holes they leave behind in those stories.
Where Abrams’ film succeeds is that unlike the previous time travel scenarios mentioned above, his film never “sets things right”, so to speak; it doesn’t end with everything miraculously restored. No, it creates an alternate timeline and sticks with it. But it also includes Leonard Nimoy reprising his role as Spock to acknowledge the old timeline and its importance. That’s a bold move when you think about it: Abrams gets to reset the clock on the franchise without erasing what has previously taken place in the franchise. He gets to have is cake and eat it, too with the continuity.
And although many Trekkies and critics still complained about the film’s flashy new direction, few were able to doubt its entertainment value. Plus its subtle (and, sometimes, not too subtle) nods to the old timeline were a major factor in that. It showed the appropriate amount of reverence for the past, but wouldn’t be shackled to it; thus giving fans great hopes for the future.
Then came Star Trek Into Darkness.
After violating the Prime Directive during an observational mission on Planet Nibiru, Kirk (Chris Pine) is stripped of his command of the Enterprise. Though his violation was done in an attempt to save Spock’s (Zachary Quinto) life, the latter explains that he was ready to die for the sake of accomplishing the mission, something the hubris-prone Kirk does not accept.
At the same time, a major Federation headquarters is destroyed by a suicide bomber. The bomber was a loyal Federation officer manipulated into doing so by the mysterious John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), a former member of the Federation now bent on destroying.
After a second attack, this time by Harrison himself, Kirk’s command is reinstated and he is charged with apprehending Harrison. What the crew of the Enterprise don’t know is just how deep Harrison’s plot extends, nor how dearly it will cost them when they begin to seek the answers.
I debated whether or not to reveal the big secret about Harrison. I try my best to be careful with plot details of the films I review, but there are some films of such high profile that even the most strict anti-spoiler reader is likely to find out such a revelation before even buying a ticket. In the end I realised that I can’t write the review I wanted without discussing said revelation – which comes at the midway point of the film – lest I write a piece full of ridiculous euphamisms. As such, I will not spoil the half of the film that happens after the revelation (including the climax of the film), but I must address the revelation as it is crucial to the film’s problems.
“John Harrison” is revealed to be Khan Noonien Singh. And therein lies the problem.
Let me explain: as I said before, what made the 2009 film great was how it acknowledged the past adventures, but felt no need to repeat them. This seemed to piss off many Trekkies who wanted an old-fashioned Trek adventure, but was actually the right move to make on the part of Abrams and his writers. Into Darkness, on the other hand, is all about appeasing those Trekkies who jumped ship after the last film. If the critical and box office reaction to the 2009 film is any indication, such pandering is wholly unnecessary. But here it is.
The film’s opening scene on Nibiru is reminiscent of classic Trek episode. Looking over my screening notes, I see that during this scene I was immediately reminded of Octavia E. Butler discussing why she disowned her novel Survivor:
When I was young, a lot of people wrote about going to another world and finding either little green men or little brown men, and they were always less in some way. They were a little sly, or a little like ‘the natives’ in a very bad, old movie. And I thought, ‘No way. Apart from all these human beings populating the galaxy, this is really offensive garbage.’ People ask me why I don’t like Survivor, my third novel. And it’s because it feels a little bit like that. Some humans go up to another world, and immediately begin mating with the aliens and having children with them. I think of it as my Star Trek novel.
And that feeling is ever-present in Into Darkness; it seems to eschew many elements of storytelling (and political correctness) in the attempt to make something old-fashioned. Finding Khan and his fellow genetically-engineered comrades is trying too hard. To say nothing of the fact that the character Khan, as him name implies, is specifically meant to be Indian. Granted, he was famously portrayed by Mexican actor Ricardo Montalban, so one could argue that Cumberbatch’s casting is no more (in)correct than that of Montalban. Still, there is a world of difference between casting a Mexican – still an actor of colour – in the role of a person of colour, rather than turning him into a White Brit.
And it’s a damn shame because before the revelation is made, “John Harrison” is a genuinely terrifying and captivating villain. As portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch and his prominent brow (star of the BBC series Sherlock), he brings an otherworldly menace and genius to Khan. Ethnically insensitive casting notwithstanding, Cumberbatch distinguishes himself from Montalban by forgoing the – for lack of a better term – flamboyance of the latter’s performance.
Sadly, others do not fare as well. Another positive standout from the last film was how Abrams and company actually made every crewmember of the Enterprise, well, useful. The accusations of injecting action at every possible moment are valid, but it wasn’t just to give the characters something to do: Chekov’s youthful ingenuity is put to work, Scotty’s engineering skills are justified, Sulu is a master helmsman, and Uhura… I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Abrams and his writers are fans of the film Galaxy Quest (I know I am).
Like all of the best parodies, it comes a place of deep affection for the source material. And when that flick gets it right, it really gets it right. The most definitive, in my opinion, being the fact the character of Uhura was essentially a repeating intercom. She was useless in the old show. The 2009 film put actual purpose into her role as communications officer. Into Darkness keeps this consistent for the most part, but it makes the mistake of adding succumbing to one of Abrams’ worst traits: unnecessary relationship drama. During a crucial moment, Uhura and Spock have a row about their relationship that was both inappropriate and unrealistic given the scenario.
Still, Uhura fares better than the reintroduced Dr. Carol Marcus. Before the film was even released, the film began to be scrutinised by a shameless moment of fan service in the trailer featuring a skimpy-dressed Marcus. The scene still appears in the film for no other purpose than to see a half-naked woman. Her purpose to the overall plot is nothing more than a bargaining chip in a scene between two alpha males. Kirk is also shown in bed with two women early on. None of this has anything to do with the plot and doesn’t really lend anything to the characters, it’s just there. The women of Star Trek have gone from the great strides of Capt. Janeway back to eye-candy of Roddenberry’s tenure.
I said I would not spoil the climax of this film and I won’t. I will say that the way it was handled is borders on the inept. Abrams and company try to recreate one the Star Trek’s most iconic and dramatic moments; a moment that is not only one of the highlights of the series as whole, but science fiction in general. It’s one of the moments that proved this series and genre were capable of genuine heart-breaking pathos. And y’know what? This film actually gets close to recreating some of that pathos by taking one character in a direction no one would have seen coming.
Then they immediately screw it up.
They follow up their nod to one of Star Trek’s great dramatic moments by recreating one of its campiest. The screening I attended was full of howling laughter when the moment happened. They film-makers completely undermine any character development by resorting to genre clichés. Namely, a fight scene with the Big Bad Guy (which, admittedly, was impressive) and a deus ex machina ending that resets everything back as it once was. No consequences, no lasting impact – the film ends with business as usual. Said ending is nearly a shot-for-shot recreation of that of the 2009 film.
With all this criticism you might get the impression that I wasn’t entertained by the film. Quite the opposite, the film was very entertaining. Not only that, but it features well-done performances, particularly those of Cumberbatch as Khan and Robocop’s Peter Weller as Admr. Marcus. The problem is it’s a step back, whereas the last film was a step forward. Abrams is leaving Star Trek to take over Star Wars for Disney, and perhaps that’s for the best. He has an eye for detail and works best when working with melodrama. I just hope his sexual politics and character arcs fare better than they did in this film.