I admit being probably one of the few people that found Star Trek: Into Darkness disappointing. It’s not altogether a bad film, just one that misses the mark and doesn’t live up to its full potential. Part of this problem is its half-hearted and misguided attempts at fan service and its insistence on milking key elements of its story from a better Star Trek movie. I won’t go into details about the asinine “twist” in the film other than the fact that it doesn’t need to be twist in the first place, further reinforced by the fact that anyone with two brain cells clacking around in their skull knew it was coming. However, I soon realized in discussing the film with friends that the film’s biggest problem is its utter lack of respect for the source material.
It resulted in an argument with a friend about the quality of Star Trek. He insisted that Trek was campy, silly, and altogether flat. The setting is nonsensical, boring, and socially non-functional. He said that at its best, it was mildly entertaining. The best it delivered were a few good episodes from TNG and DS9. Having previously re-watched all the previous films, I discovered that the Next Generation installments never tried to be anything more than expensive episodes, failing at being anything substantial. Star Trek’s 1 and 5 are the same way but the “trilogy” of 2, 3, and 4 raised the bar to a level which was met again with 6 and then again with First Contact but never really surpassed. Wrath of Khan understood the appeal of Star Trek but did something unique while simultaneously not alienating the fanbase, a mission statement of its writer / director, Nicholas Meyer. Meyer claimed to have a “healthy disrespect” for Trek. Even though he hadn’t seen Star Trek until being given the task, he still knew what made the show popular and kept its spirit intact. This is an awareness JJ Abrams most definitely lacks. He admitted so on The Daily Show recently when he claimed he never liked Star Trek, believing it to be “too philosophical”. JJ is arrogant enough to believe that he “fixed” it, made Star Trek fun for the masses despite alienating the fans responsible for it even existing in our modern age to begin with.
I’d also counter against accusations of Trek’s quality. I agree that Voyager and Enterprise were train wrecks, but the franchise hit highs with the other shows despite brief interludes in crap (“Spock’s Brain”). The franchise showcased the best of modern science fiction despite being led for a time by Roddenberry, the George Lucas of Trek. Yes, I said it. Roddenberry had a concept for a world with no idea on how to write for it. Thankfully, he had more talented people working around him. Brannon Braga, Ronald Moore, Rene Echevarria, Ira Steven Behr, Gene Coon, DC Fontana, Michael Piller, Jerome Bixby, and those are the only ones I can pull from memory. It was a setting about ideas, ideas which JJ Abrams doesn’t care about. He cares about the “wizz bangs” and the “’splosions” as well as his cherished “mystery box”. This makes him a perfect fit for Star Wars.
I love Star Wars. I honestly do. I love it enough to know it’s utterly vapid. Star Wars is hollow merchandising. It’s a pretty franchise with clichés and archetypes; there’s little JJ can do to bugger with it. Star Trek is on average a far superior level of storytelling. Look at the accolades for proof. Star Wars is good BECAUSE of its fans. They made it better than it was. George Lucas ran it into the ground. As a setting, it’s ludicrous and stupid, but is made appealing by the dedication of the people loving it. They made good games and a decent expanded universe. Star Trek is good DESPITE its fans. Their cosplay is goofy, their fan-videos are cringe-inducing, and they are altogether nerdier than their Star Wars counterparts.
But, back to Into Darkness, and I’m still trying to avoid spoilers, its biggest problem is that it uses its throwbacks as a crutch with little effort to standing on its own legs. And when it should be pulling on our emotional strings, it goes for fan service which jars us from the moment. It doesn’t matter if they’re doing it ironically. They don’t need to do it and if they do, it shouldn’t be during key emotional scenes in the film. A good example is an anecdote concerning Wrath of Khan where Kirk runs to a dying Spock but is held back by McCoy and Bones. Deforest was supposed to say, “He’s dead Jim,” but felt that saying his signature line at that moment would kill all emotional weight and ruin the moment. So the line was reworded to, “Sir, he’s dead already” and given to Scotty. That’s the mistake Into Darkness makes. Instead of going for its own emotional moment, it rides the coattails of Wrath of Khan and when it should be creating a unique emotional moment, it turns into slapstick homage to a better Star Trek film. And Wrath of Khan is a better Star Trek film. Its emotion is legitimate. Its story is deep with few flaws (few). I’m still trying to figure out why Benedict Cumberbatch’s character flees halfway across the galaxy when he could just hide on the moon. The movie plays it long and lose with canon and it’s becoming seriously difficult to believe these altered events occurred because of Eric Bana.
I admit it. I’m old. I lean forward in a car going uphill and elevator music sounds OK. I remember the old Star Treks and why I like them. I remember the audience cheering, actually cheering at the end of Star Trek VI. It’s a sweeping adventure populated occasionally by actual ideas. With Abrams out, perhaps we can get someone with a modicum of respect for its core audience, maybe like Nolan or a Cuaron, someone who treats his audience with respect, assuming actual intelligence. I didn’t mind them tapping previous canon but couldn’t they have used an episode rather than plagiarize another movie? But I also understand that the previous movies are all old. Wrath of Khan just passed 20 years old. I am reminded of someone’s comment about Avatar—claiming there will be millions of kids that have never seen Dances with Wolves that will be totally amazed, and the same goes here. There is a huge segment of people that will watch Into Darkness and believe this is how it was. No…sorry…it was a lot better.