This review was originally on Filmandtelly.com.
A friend of mine has explained storytelling thus: I’m prepared to suspend disbelief once for your story. If you ask me to keep suspending it then someone’s going to have a bad ride. Certainly there are movies where it’s best to leave your brain in a jar by the door as the storyline piles implausibility upon implausibility in order to make a sandwich of CGI-explody goodness held together with an ineffectual paste of story and character motivation.
Star Trek has tended towards the more intellectual pursuits in its existing canon. Star Trek the Motionless Picture was plodding but created reflection on what actually happens when we send things out into the universe (and they come back all pissed off with Daddy issues). Wrath of Khan was about sacrifice for the things we hold dear. Search for Spock and Voyage home were on the subjects of family, Final frontier was a reflection on never letting The Shat near a film camera and the non-Star-Trek Chekhov’s gun principle: if the gun is on the wall in act 1, it must be fired in act 3; in this movie, they’re chasing god who, it turns out is just kidding. The final movie in the original cast series, Undiscovered Country was around loss, betrayal and redemption.
The Next Gen movies followed suit with exploration, saving lives, and the most memorable First Contact, where we found out how much Picard had taken away from his assimilation into the Borg hive mind and had become Ahab chasing Alice Krige’s Moby Dick. In all these there were hits (Wrath of Khan, First Contact) and misses (Final Frontier, Nemesis).
Story came first for the most part, with special effects as reinforcement for the universe. Yes there were space battles. No they weren’t the only feature of the stories. The characters mattered, they behaved in understandable and justifiable ways. They didn’t just jump off a cliff because the CGI would make it look good.
So when the Star Trek reboot came along, I was more than pleasantly surprised. Here was a story that held together on its merits, and while the crew was Gen Y prettiness incarnate, the resetting of the storyline due to a pissed-off Romulan was enough of a stretch to make the difference. We got characterisation, we got character motivation and we got whiz-bang effects. The big bad was a suspension of disbelief that I could live with and rather neatly meant any movie that followed didn’t have to stick to official canon.
Enter Star Trek Into Darkness. Ditching the colons from the original series of movies (Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan to name but one) was not the only thing that’s been ditched: basic physics for example:
“See here,” says the lab-coated, hairy-nosed scientist. “The structure of a spacecraft isn’t designed for external pressure. It’s designed for internal pressure.”
“But having the Enterprise rising from underwater and then flying in an atmosphere looks cool,” comes the reply from the script-writing team of STID. ‘Anything The Avengers can do, we can do better.”
And here’s where I think things have gone awry: Star Trek Into Darkness is built around set-pieces, not unlike the ill-fated but pretty-looking Prometheus. There’s the ship lifting out of the water (see The Avengers). There’s a chase through a wasteland where the heroes narrowly avoid getting blasted by the baddies (Independence Day). There’s a desperate attempt to get the engines to work otherwise they’ll all die (Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan).
And despite protestations to the contrary, STID is The Wrath of Khan lite, a storyline that’s high on explosions and VFX and low on coherent storyline and character motivation.
Clearly influenced by the events of the last 15 years, the scriptwriters have their Osama Bin Laden in the form of the gravity-well of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Khan. And the story that follows is the sci-fi equivalent of the invasion of Afghanistan.
Though he’s not called this at the beginning because that would reveal the big bad too soon, Khan Noonien Singh is a survivor of the 1990s Eugenics wars (the original series was written in the 1960s where they didn’t even know what was going to happen in Vietnam, let alone 30 years in the future.). He is a genetically engineered super-dude, with the intellect of Einstein and the nefariousness of today’s politicians. Not one to create a simple solution to a complex problem, he’s decided to save his crewmates by sticking them into torpedoes as these were clearly the only things lying around at the time. It must have been an off day for the old intellect because even I know that torpedoes get shot at things and go boom. He then goes ape, blows London to kingdom-come to cover his tracks and then shoots-up a meeting of Starfleet’s top-brass leadership. That they were easily available through a window in a poorly defended (that’s actually being generous) twenty storey building is neither here nor there.
A quick note on genderwashing in Starfleet: First, there’s a single female blasted by Khan at the table of the Starfleet chiefs; just a whiff of estrogen in the place. Maybe they got the memo from Osama Khan and pulled a sick day? Of course, she’s just there for Kirk to comfort when the blasters stop. Second, the only other woman on the crew of the Enterprise, Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) is basically there for Daddy to rescue, show Kirk that she wears matching underwear and scream when Osama Khan shows what a cad he is and stomps her leg.
Still, it can’t go anywhere but up from here?
Despite Kirk being stripped of command because of the underwater Enterprise trick in the first 10 minutes of the movie, he is inexplicably sent after Khan who is found by the ever-clever Mr. Scott on the Klingon homeworld.
How did he do this? Because.
Khan’s gamble that Kirk will be given the torpedoes as they’re super-secret weapons (see also The Genesis Device in the original Wrath of Khan) pays off. Somehow. Not entirely sure why at this stage.
See that suspension of disbelief… see it floating away..?
Travelling to Kronos, the Klingon homeworld is one of those acts which wouldn’t fly at all in the original storyline as Kronos was well inside the Klingon Neutral Zone and going into that area was guaranteed to get your head blown off.
‘A prayer Mister Saavik; the Klingons don’t take prisoners.”
However, in this new, young and happening universe, a declaration of war like this is a minor plot point. Rather like the fact that Khan Noonien Singh is an odd name for a white caucasian man with an ever-so British accent. Even the original series made a bit of an effort by casting Ricardo Montalban (a Mexican) in the part of someone who was in-fact, Indian. Yes, Cumberbatch has gravitas coming out of his pores, yes, he’s an up-and-coming actor and a damn good one at that. But as there’s a population of 1.21 billion people in India, surely you can find a single person who could do the job?
Interestingly this isn’t the only whitewashing taking place: the only African people in the movie appear to be Zoe Saldana’s Uhura and the Klingons, who Zoe is able to communicate just fine with, and whom are then shot to hell by the aforementioned Khan with help from Kirk, Spock and Uhura. Which is what you do if you’ve just flown through space to the Klingon homeworld to hunt down a Osama Khan. Curiously I didn’t notice a credit to the U.S. department of defense in the credits to the movie. But I digress.
I’ll skip to the end because everything that comes in-between is shooting at one-another in space. Back in Earth orbit, the Enterprise is crippled, Admiral Robocop is dead, and Osama Khan is in charge of a super-ship and armed to the teeth and then… not. The ship that was supposed to be able to hold-off the Klingons, all of them, is disabled by the good ship Enterprise.
Despite being shot to hell around the moon and despite the distances involved (it took Apollo 11 three days to get to the moon, remember, and they had deliberately aimed at it), the Enterprise falls into the Earth’s atmosphere within seconds, and the only man to save the ship is Kirk who kicks the engine into shape and dies having learned that being pretty is no defence against visual effects logic. The end of Wrath of Khan, where it’s Spock making the ultimate sacrifice is literally mirrored, and like a bad school production, the actors rip-out dialogue used to devastating effect in the original because in that movie, the characters had been developed and we actually cared about them.
Ultimately, the care-factor is what’s missing here; they’re not the original series characters that Trekkies grew with, these are new, brash and pretty people with implausible behaviours and no boundaries, living in a consequence-free environment. The Deus-Ex-Machina in the form of a reanimated Tribble with Osama Khan’s blood injected into it earlier in the movie reinforces the fact that the threat of death, people’s frailties and mortality is now meaningless. Kirk can do as he pleases, and risk everything because if he fails, he can just have some Khan blood injected and ping he’s back to life again for a new adventure.
Which will come in really handy when the Klingons come for their war.