Warning: This post contains massive spoilers from the beginning.
When did actors become too talented for their movie roles? That question started to bother me soon after watching the latest Star Trek film, “Star Trek Into Darkness”. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy watching the film. Indeed, at times I was nearly giddy with recognition of details alluding, and sometimes directly referencing, earlier films. But as soon as the credits rolled I was immediately dissatisfied. A film that is essentially a remake of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”, “Into Darkness” is crippled by association and cannot stand in comparison to its parent film, largely because the flimsiness of the writing cannot sustain it.
To briefly summarize, “Star Trek Into Darkness” tells the story of Starfleet’s discovery of the cryogenically frozen superman Khan Noonian Singh, the effort of a senior admiral to blackmail him into its service, and his subsequent mutiny. In the course of his mutiny, Khan assassinates key intelligence and command figures in Starfleet, leading Captain Kirk and the Enterprise on a chase from Earth, to the Klingon homeworld, and back. The film consists of a three-way conflict between Kirk, Khan, and the corrupt Admiral Marcus, who was responsible for Khan’s imprisonment and seeks to use him as a pawn in a looming war with the Klingons. That summary actually makes the film sound pretty exciting, and it is, but it also makes the film sound coherent and well-written, which it isn’t. The major problem with “Into Darkness” is that it contains none of the complexity of motive and action that characterized “Wrath of Khan”. Given that the film is at pains to cast itself as a remake of its predecessor, including the line-for-line inclusion of the climactic death scene, but with the roles of Kirk and Spock reversed, a devastating comparison is unavoidable. Ricardo Montalban’s Khan was a fully formed villain with motivations that were a mix of revenge for his exile and the deaths of his followers, and a supremacist’s desire to gain possession of the tool (the Genesis Device) to construct a utopian society of his own design. In comparison, the Khan of “Into Darkness”, is not up to Benedict Cumberbatch’s considerable abilities. The fault here is in the writing, not the acting. In this film, Khan’s followers are not dead, but instead remain in cryo-stasis under the control of Admiral Marcus, who seeks to coerce Khan’s obedience in designing a Federation battle fleet. With his comrades under lockdown, what prompts Khan to rebel? This isn’t clear. Nor is his plan for seizing control of the battleship that he designed. To what end? This isn’t clear either. While the Khan of Star Trek II has both motivation and an end game, which Kirk foils, the Khan of “Into Darkness” seems as slapdash as the Starfleet officers who spend most of the film jumping and running rather than thinking. He is not the “superior intellect”. He’s just another guy in a jumpsuit. The sloppiness of the plotting of motivations and actions is directly related to another flaw: the film’s singular lack of a theme that provides the story with its spirit. Part of what made “Wrath of Khan” a brilliant film was its complex treatment of the theme of the life cycle. The “no-win scenario”, Kirk’s birthday, the Genesis Device, and Spock’s self-sacrifice provided the film with an animating spirit. The poignancy of Spock’s death scene lies not only in his heroism, but in his last words and Kirk’s eulogy. For Spock, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one”, while for Kirk, Spock’s sacrifice “in the shadow of new life” was “not a vain, or empty one”, but an acceptance, as Kirk puts it to Spock’s protege, Saavik, that “how we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life.” In contrast, there is no theme in “Into Darkness”, and hence the scenes copied verbatim from “Wrath of Khan” fall flat. Kirk’s actions save his ship but carry no wider significance; indeed, the city of San Francisco is obliterated by Khan a few seconds later, to no dramatic or thematic purpose. I think that this really lays bare how the motivations of the characters are important for reinforcing the theme. While in “Wrath of Khan”, Kirk and Spock struggle with, and ultimately accept, the life cycle, and ultimately find their salvation in it, Khan cannot. He cannot accept the deaths of his followers and turns the Genesis Device into a weapon. But in “Into Darkness”, with the absence of such a unifying theme, Khan’s destruction of San Francisco seems pointless. Yes, he is reeling from the supposed death of his followers in their cryo-torpedoes, but the link between them and San Francisco is tenuous at best. This lack of theme is probably why the ending is so consequence-free. Kirk is swiftly resurrected using Khan’s magic blood. San Francisco is rebuilt so that Kirk can give a stirring yet empty speech. Khan is put back into stasis. And then the Enterprise is off on a five-year mission. There is no eulogy for Kirk that provides meaning to the film, because Kirk isn’t dead after all and didn’t die for any purpose anyway. At the end of “Wrath of Khan”, Spock stayed dead. It was important to the theme. Acceptance of the life cycle could only come with the acceptance of death and the welcoming of new life to replace the old. Spock’s resurrection in Star Trek III had to take place in a separate film with its own theme. It was because the writers of “Wrath of Khan” stuck to their theme that the film has such resonance thirty years after it was made. In contrast even to the 2009 reboot of “Star Trek”, in which Vulcan stayed destroyed by Nero’s black hole, the writers of “Into Darkness” seem to have wanted to remake “Wrath of Khan” while being terrified of its theme. These writers seem to be very much unable to deal with questions of life and death, preferring instead to restore everything at the end. In doing so, they wrote a script unworthy of its actors and its source material. It is a shallow pantomime of “Wrath of Khan”, lacking its vitality while mimicking its characters and dialogue.