Let's get this out of the way first, then, before delving into the spoilers:
Star Trek Into Darkness has a running time of one hundred thirty-three minutes. The first one hundred and thirteen minutes aren't all that bad; in fact, I was rather enjoying the film. As with the 2009 JJ Abrams Trek, I was perfectly happy settling into the new film. Okay, this is new Trek, let's have some fun with the new characters, let's give them new space adventures and stuff, let's watch as our New Kirk and New Spock and New Bones and New Uhura and New Sulu and New Scotty and even New Chekov do their New Thang.
AND THEN IT HAPPENED
AND THE ENTIRE THEATER DID NOT ACT AS JJ ABRAMS WANTED US TO ACT
NOBODY WENT "OH MY GOD WOW THAT IS SO AWESOME, TOTALLY UNEXPECTED, AND JUST WHAT THIS MOVIE NEEDED"
EVERYBODY PRETTY MUCH GROANED
AND I SAID OUT LOUD "YOU HAVE GOT TO BE SHITTING ME"
AND NOBODY TOLD ME TO SHUSH SO THE AUDIENCE WAS BY INFERENCE IN AGREEMENT OR SOMETHING
Before I completely bitch about WHAT HAPPENED, I gotta start near the beginning of the goddamn thing.
Okay, so it was no big surprise that Benedict Cumberbatch was playing a character who was this Trek universe's Khan. Even if you had been studiously avoiding spoilers during the entire production process, this thought must have hit your synapses at one point or another, and you may have chosen to believe it or decided to just wait and see. I can dig that.
And so it is in the film that we learn that indeed, Cumberbatch is Khan. For what that's worth. And at the point in which he reveals his name, it ain't worth shit. Cumberbatch makes this reveal early on in a SHOCKING SCENE FULL OF AMAZING SURPRISE. The problem was that this scene was pretty much set up to SURPRISE THE PANTS OFF THE AUDIENCE. I am reasonably sure this is how the shooting script went:
My name is not John Morrison or Harrison or whatever you have been calling me for the past forty-five minutes. My name... is... KHAN.
DUN DUN DUNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNN!!!!!!!!!!
AUDIENCE MEMBERS 1-40
HOLY CATS WHERE DID MY PANTS GO
AUDIENCE MEMBERS 41-99
OUR PANTS ARE INTACT THANKFULLY BUT WE SEEM TO HAVE SOILED OURSELVES IN SURPRISE
KIRK, MCCOY, SPOCK, WHOEVER ELSE WAS IN THE SCENE AT THE TIME
Okay, sure, whatever. We'll call you Khan from now on if it makes you happy.
The reveal means absolutely nothing to the characters in the film. This is the first chance the crew has had to, you know, actually talk to this guy. At this point, all they know is that A. he is a bad-ass motherfucker, B. he's a TERRIST out to destroy the Federation, and C. he'll kill anyone and everybody to get his way (or if he's just feeling cranky that day). But beyond that, nobody, absolutely nobody has any personal ties to the character. Kirk doesn't like Khan because he killed off Christoper Pike (in an admittedly brilliant tactical move) but that was ten minutes previously. Khan doesn't know Kirk from a redshirt. The only people who know that this name is important is the audience, who presumably have either seen Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan or have heard it mentioned in passing that there was once this dude named Captain Kirk and this dude named Khan and they were bitter enemies in another timeline so wouldn't it be cool if this Khan dude shows up in this film timeline too.
So this dumbass dramatic reveal, pals, is fanservice, plain and simple. It's just not very good fanservice.
There's more fanservice to come: Carol Marcus, whom you may remember as the brilliant scientist who was working on the Genesis Device in The Wrath of Khan (and one of Kirk's former lovers), shows up here in a much younger form and although she is not (yet) one of New Kirk's conquests, she has one scene in which she wears naught but bra and panties. Hopefully Starfleet-regulation underwear. Kirk is told not to look while she changes, but he's Kirk and of course he looks and so the camera does too.
So there's that. I mean, she is cute, but... there's that.
But back to Khan. It is pretty clear to me that JJ Abrams very much wanted to make his second Trek film his own Wrath of Khan and, okay, I guess that's fine. I mean, it worked for Roddenberry.
And our new Khan is in some respects much like the old one, being one of the genetically-engineered ubermenschy types who had to be dealt with, as he explains, three hundred years ago. Given that this film takes place in the year 2259, I'm sure we all remember the Freezing Of Those Ubermenschy-Types from contemporary television accounts and Billy Joel's classic song, "We Didn't Start The Fire":
Little Rock, Pasternak, Mickey Mantle, KerouacAnd herein lies the problem. Wrath of Khan the film and Khan the original-timeline villian worked because Khan had not only a backstory, but legitimate, well, wrath. Kirk had fought Khan in a TOS episode, exiling him and his seventy-two ubermenschy followers to a crappy barely-inhabitable planet. When the second movie came round, we got a villain from the past with a serious grudge. The battle between Kirk and Khan is epic because of that past.
Sputnik, Chou En-Lai, Bridge on the River Kwai
Lebanon, Charles de Gaulle, California baseball
Starkweather homicide, Khan and pals get frozen-fied
In this film, Khan's just mad because some dudes, who weren't even from Starfleet because Starfleet didn't exist then, froze him and his pals three hundred years ago during the Eugenics War which is barely mentioned in passing during one of Khan's infodumps. (I don't think they even use the phrase "Eugenics War" or anything resembling a war.)
And then Khan gets madder when he realizes Admiral Marcus (also known as Carol's Dad) is just using him to help make Starfleet more bad-ass and he really couldn't give a flying fig about Starfleet, so he decides to go off and happily do whatever it takes to get his frozen uberpals back. Khan still has no wrath, just the motivation to manipulate and scheme to achieve his goal and get his pals back. Kirk and Company are just in the way here.
See, Carol's Dad unfroze Khan because he wants to turn Starfleet all military-like, believing a war with the Klingons is inevitable, and naturally ubermenschy types are the perfect people to help him build the Dreadnought class of bad-ass ships he's been dreaming about. Maybe if he gets Kirk to chase Khan to the Klingon homeworld and fire some torpedoes, which by the way are carrying Khan's frozen buddies, the Klingons will get pissed at this act of dishonorable aggression and start the war Marcus so desperately wants. Then he can bring out his Super Awesome Surprise Dreadnought Class ship, say "SURPRISE MOTHERFUCKERS", and blow all the Klingons to Stovokor. Right? Right? Is anybody still following this? Hello?! Testing, testing, one, two...
Even so, Khan's not wrathful mad. He's not seeking revenge. He just wants to get on with his ubermenschy plans. Fine. I can handle that. Let him go do that.
And hey, those Klingons? We see them in exactly one scene and they're all wearing helmets except for one who takes his off to speak to Uhura and he looks kinda like Ving Rhames with piercings up his nose ridges. Then after they all get shot up they just kind of disappear from the film because it really is supposed to be All About Khan, even though we're reminded several times that the Enterprise, which was conveniently disabled near the Klingon homeworld, is bound to be discovered by the angry Klingon dudes Any Minute Now. WHICH NEVER HAPPENS.
The film, and the inevitable Klingon War Which Doesn't Happen Here, would have been just fine had the villain not been Khan. We could have had a new villain (he could have even been ubermenschy) and Admiral Marcus' scheming and the Klingon Empire getting all uppity over this bullshit and the Dreadnought coming out and Kirk & Co. trying desperately to stop a war from starting for all the wrong reasons.
But no. This is JJ Abrams' Wrath of Khan.
And it still would have gone okay had it not been for the last twenty minutes of the film. Because Abrams makes a tremendous tactical mistake. So far, the pieces he's used from Wrath of Khan have been conceptual and thematic. Ubermenschy types, cryostasis, seventy-two frozen dudes, a babe named Carol Marcus who is so totally gonna bang Kirk, that kind of thing. Now, Abrams and his screenwriters tire of having to actually write an original story on their own, so they grab some of the most iconic bits of the first movie for their own purposes. It doesn't fit, and it's NOT FAIR.
The erstwhile film deconstructor Mr. Plinkett mentioned, in his review of the 2009 Trek, that Abrams went through a lot to make the new Trek series accessible to as many viewers as possible while retaining elements everybody remembers. When you ask anyone what they know of Star Trek, even people who don't regularly watch the shows or movies, they still remember key aspects of the franchise which have made it into popular culture. Stuff like tribbles, phasers set to stun, a guy named Bones, and catchphrases such as "He's dead, Jim" and "Beam me up, Scotty". So he made sure to include these little tidbits in his 2009 film for fun. (And let's be fair here, it was enjoyable to hear Karl Urban say "Dammit Jim" and Zachary Quinto say "Fascinating" and Chris Pine act Kirk-cocky and all that.)
This film, however, goes beyond enjoyable catchphrase-having, though there's enough of that. When you ask people who remember seeing Wrath of Khan what they retained from the film, and then used it in Family Feud, the top three answers on the board would be these:
-  THOSE MIND-CONTROLLING SLUGS
-  SPOCK DYING IN THE ENGINE ROOM
-  "KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN!!!!"
Also, I'm aware this is in reverse order but stay with me people
So as the film nears the end, Abrams and the screenwriters go "Damn! We gotta use some actual stuff from the original here or people might forget what it is we're rebooting or remaking or whatever the hell we're doing!" They wisely decide against using the mind-controlling slugs, but include the two most popular bits. However, since reboots are all about BEING CLEVER AND STUFF, the bits get switched around.
When the Enterprise's warp core goes whack-a-ding-hoy and someone needs to go into the radioactive engine room and fix it by kicking it (HEY WE DO THAT ALL THE TIME ON RED SHIFT), who goes this time? Why... Kirk! This time, Spock is the one who gets to watch, helpless, as his friend dies in the radiation-filled room next door, and they even put their hands up against the glass of the door again to give each other a final Vulcan salute. At this point, I'm thinking okay, this is sort of kind of clever, I'll bite, I'm interested in seeing how they deal with Kirk dying here.
And that's when Spock, giving in to his half-human side, looks up for no reason and hollers "KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN!!!!"
THAT'S IT. YOU GOTTA BE SHITTING ME. DROP MIC. I'M OUT OF HERE.
That's what Abrams wanted us to cheer. The Khan reveal bedamned, he wanted us to love the way he brought back these elements of the first Wrath and twisted 'em around. BUT IT SO DOESN'T WORK. IT WORKS JUST ABOUT AS WELL AS A DEAD SQUIRREL. Spock's human emotions drive the last part of the third act, where he gets all mad and has a super-big fistfight with Khan on top of no less than two flying things speeding through the streets of San Francisco. Spock angrily nerve pinches and mindmelds the fuck out of Khan until Uhura beams in and implores him to let Khan live because
oh god I can't believe I'm typing this
I'm going to ignore the whole Spock going for revenge thing being a story element because like pfft fuck that
help im trapped in a bad movie factory
because they need Khan's superhuman healing blood to bring Kirk back to life.
And that's what they do. One fade-out later, Kirk wakes up in a hospital bed, having been out for a few weeks and gosh he looks chipper and fine.
THAT'S IT AGAIN. WHERE'S THE MIC. I NEED TO DROP IT AGAIN. I'M OUT OF HERE.
Maybe you don't remember what it was like to be a Star Trek fan between the second and third movies. You see, we hadn't expected Wrath of Khan to end like it did. It was a serious shock when Spock FUCKING DIES. You thought Han Solo getting the Carbonite treatment at the end of The Empire Strikes Back was bad? This is a ZILLION times worse. I mean this is serious, Spock is kaput, he's GONE. His coffin is SHOT INTO SPACE.
Sure, it lands on the Genesis Planet while Kirk talks about possibilities, but STILL. HE DEAD JIM. And we had to wait until the next movie, which turned out to be titled The Search for Spock, to find out what happened to him.
In this movie, the total elapsed time of Captain Kirk's death is like two minutes. If that. This is like Dominic Deegan levels of shitty narrative tension. Oh no he's in troub-- no, he's fine. PHEW! I WOULD HAVE HATED TO HAVE HAD TO WORRY THERE.
And that's what made me so mad at the film, and sad besides. I mean, I was greatly enjoying parts of it: Simon Pegg is, as in the previous film, absolutely perfect as Scotty. Pegg is living his geek dream here, and much like his films with Edgar Wright, we get to enjoy his enjoyment. Our Chekov here is adorable when he's given command of Engineering--he barely knows what to do, and knows even less about how to sound reassuring when reporting escalating situations to the bridge. Sulu gets a turn in the captain's chair and you can tell he's not only good at it, he really likes it. (Excelsior, here you come, buddy!) Uhura and Spock have the world's most passive-aggressive lover's spat, which I imagine is like any lover's spat involving a Vulcan. Quinto has the Leonard Nimoy intonations down pat, and I love it. Uhura faces down an angry Klingon because remember she knows languages, and Kirk... well, he learns a little bit about himself by the time the film's over. There's even a Harry Mudd callout which you may miss if you, uh, blink your ears, and Nurse Chapel is namedropped in an effort to remind us that Kirk's the love-em-and-forget-their-names type. Khan's scheming is clever at the start, causing one disaster simply to get all the Starfleet brass in one place as per their protocols to discuss what to do next (and then getting attacked by Khan's Awesome Flying Shooty Thing), even when you'd have thought they would've planned to meet someplace safer. Like an underground bunker or something.
And as I said before, this would have been a slam-bang Trek adventure if Wrath of Khan hadn't been so painfully shoehorned into it all. Seriously, if you were to remove the last 20 minutes of the film and dub a name like "Felix Evilman" over every instance of the name "Khan", you'd have a great adventure on your hands. And that's what we really want out of Star Trek: great adventure. The film ends on a promising note; Kirk takes a brand-new Enterprise out on a five-year mission and in spite of all the crap heaped upon us in the previous act, I desperately wished they'd make a TV series out of it. It would be expensive as hell but it would be fun. They even open the movie with a promising episode sequence, involving a primitive species and an exploding volcano and Kirk having his merry little way with the Prime Directive in order to save them. It's just as a series should be, and I would watch the hell out of it.
I just don't want to watch stuff like The Pissed-Offness of Khan, which is what I got and which JJ Abrams, despite his best intentions and clear skill at bringing back a beloved space opera franchise, did not deserve to make. He did not earn the right to do this as far as I'm concerned. And that's the most damning thing of all.
1. Yes, I know the Eugenics War happens in the late 1990s as per original Trek canon, but I really wanted to use "frozen-fied" in a song lyric.