So I saw Star Trek Into Darkness Thursday, partly because I was visiting family for the week and it was something to do with them, and partly because I was just curious. I intensely hated Abrams’ first Star Trek movie, by now my offense at the “we need younger actors to appeal to the younger generation” thing had worn off and I was expecting it to be at least mildly enjoyable. And it was in fact mildly enjoyable.
I left the theater with a vague feeling of “whatever” but without any really big problems with the movie I could put my finger on. But, well…
***SPOILER ALERT FOR A SPOILER I THINK IS REALLY STUPID AND SHOULDN’T EVEN BE A SPOILER***
A comment on my last post on Star Trek and transhumanism said, quote, “Jesus Christ Chris… the New Star Trek came out this weekend… thanks for the spoiler dick.” Which made me go, “wait, the identity of the villain was supposed to be a spoiler?” I mean, I knew J. J. Abrams was trying to keep it hush-hush, so I was a bit surprised when I saw it revealed, on the day of the US opening, in the third sentence of the Wikipedia page for “Khan Noonien Singh.” But seriously, who the fuck makes the identity of their villain a major spoiler?
I’d basically figured it out before reading the Wikipedia article, given that (1) a trailer had Benedict Cumberbatch saying “I am better… at everything” (2) theoretically this could have referred not just to genetic enhancements, but godlike (or Q-like) powers, but there seemed to be some indications that Abrams wasn’t going the Q-like route; in particular initial rumors that the villain would be Gary Mitchell had been disconfirmed (3) Abrams said it would be an established Trek villain and (4) Khan was the villain of what is generally regarded as the best Trek movie, so of course Abrams would want to use him.
So I was kinda excited to see how Abrams would do Khan, and probably would have been more excited if I hadn’t hated Abrams’ first Trek movie so much. And getting people excited about Bennedict Cumberbatch’s Khan is the obvious thing for Abrams to have done with the movie’s marketing, the same way Nolan made a bajillion dollars getting people excited about Heath Ledger’s Joker. In retrospect I can see that the revelation of Khan’s identity was meant to be a WHAM line. But it’s a set up that only works if (1) you know a lot about the Trek ‘verse but (2) your knowledge of the Trek verse has not allowed you to figure out the spoiler in advance.
On (1), I’m pretty sure the movie made no fucking sense to anyone who wasn’t already a Trek buff. I was definitely explaining some things to my mom afterwards. That included having to explain the scene where young!Spock talked to the Spock who had traveled back in time in the previous movie. More importantly, though, the movie failed to explain who the heck Khan was; bizarrely, no one on the Enterprise crew even acted like they had heard of him even after he told them.
That’s weird from the point of view of the original Trek continuity, where Kirk not knowing who Khan was would be kind of like a modern person not knowing who Napoleon was. Of course, with the original Trek continuity contradicting the way history actually turned out, it’s understandable why Abrams might not want to go with that… so all we get is a reference to him being a 300 year old superman, which I think non-Trekie viewers were intended to not think to hard about, because if all you know about Star Trek is that it takes place in the 23rd century and you do the math, you’re going to be thinking, “what, we didn’t have supermen in the 20rd century!”
In a way, the movie ends up less being a movie than a series of action scenes strung together by references to Trek lore that will only make sense to fans. Another example of this: it’s briefly mentioned that in this continuity, it was Section 31 who was responsible for reviving Khan. If you’ve seen Deep Space 9, Section 31 is an organization within the Federation which is basically the CIA, only more evil to the point that its very existence was hidden from most of the Federation from the day it was founded. But none of that was explained.
Heck, even the Klingons got this treatment to an extent: the anticipated war with the Klingons is actually the justification for reviving Khan, but the movie itself never really conveys why they’re a threat. It certainly doesn’t convey why they’re enough of a threat to justify reviving a genetically enhanced former dictator in order to fight them. They only briefly show up as a minor obstacle in the fight against Khan.
So yeah: less a movie than a series of action scenes strung together by references to Trek lore. Abrams probably thought he was doing fans a favor with all those references, but as a fan I don’t just want to see references, I want to see the movie do something interesting with the source material, which Abrams failed to do.
On the other hand… to take this in a direction I completely didn’t expect to be going, maybe the movie’s plot looked fine to non-fans. I’m much less of a Marvel comics fan than Russell Blackford is, and as a result I’ve been at a loss to understand his dislike of Thor and Iron Man 3. Any non-fans who’ve seen the movie want to fill me in?
One problem I see from a non-fan’s perspective is that if you’re not already familiar with Star Trek, it’s not actually clear why we should regard either the Klingons or Khan as the villains. From the Klingons’ perspective, the sole thing they do in the movie is respond to a very illegal incursion by an extraterrestrial military organization onto their planet. And Khan doesn’t seem very interested in conquering, he’s just taking revenge on the Federation for coercing him into working for them by threatening the lives of his crew.
Granted, Khan kills Starfleet personnel who weren’t directly responsible for what was done to him, but given the military nature of Starfleet, he has a pretty good case that they were legitimate targets. I guess that was the reason for the the scene with future!Spock that so confused my mother, to make sure the audience knows Khan a bad guy, but probably my mother wasn’t alone in her confusion. Minus knowing that Khan would probably want to use his fellow supermen to try to go off and do some conquering, there’d have been no clear reason for Khan and the Enterprise’s crew to fight after teaming up to defeat Section 31.
Note that unlike the Klingons and Khan, Section 31 doesn’t suffer from Designated Villain status if you don’t know who they are. In fact, if you don’t know much about Star Trek, not knowing who the Klingons are will make Section 31’s actions look even more insane.
At least, these are my best guesses about how the movie will look to non-fans. Any non-fans who’ve seen the movie want to fill me in on their perspective?
ETA: Okay, so apparently this version of Khan, unlike other versions, was portrayed as not just wanting to conquer but exterminate those he deemed “inferior.” But how the hell did anyone know that in this version of the story?
Edit #2: Wait, apparently the “Khan wants exterminate those he deems inferior” claim came from Admiral Marcus, who isn’t exactly trustworthy. So basically Khan is looking pretty good here.