Into Darkness, that colon-less second installment of New Trek kicking off the summer season is a lot of things, including plentifully humorous, bombastic, well-designed, and confused about its purpose. Like the villain that menaced us from all those teaser posters, Into Darkness makes us wonder what, ultimately, it’s up to. Identity is a key factor to wonder about as, two movies in, even casual Trekkie patience is worn thin by a stream of visual and idealistic incursions that belong to other films. Make no mistake; Into Darkness is a good popcorn-crunching experience, swift on its feet and full of action and jokes. It’s just not, like its predecessor, much of a Star Trek film.
Ensign, take us to SPOILERS.
Our fresh-faced Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), Uhura (Zöe Saldana), and the rest of the crew are back, getting into their customary trouble and not a few anthropological disasters. But fun, games, and meaningless demotions are brought to an abrupt halt when first an archive, and then a meeting of Starfleet command, are viciously attacked by one of their own. The impression that this first bombing will lead to a series of terrorist-like attacks city-, and, even, world-wide, is a terrifying prospect. The initial threat, however, loses its sting as Kirk volunteers to give chase to the fugitive, and the action moves far, far away into space, picking up plot debris as it goes.
A not-insignificant amount of this debris is carried by the central villain, played with many a snarl and a sneer by Benedict Cumberbatch. Super smart, superhuman, and bloody determined, the figure known only as ‘John Harrison’ alternately fights, then helps save, then surrenders to our intrepid heroes. Why the manipulative behavior? As he goes on to explain, he is not John Harrison at all, but part of a group of genetic experiment test subjects from 300 years ago. Unfrozen from cryostasis, he’s first out to avenge the crew he believes is dead, then out to retrieve them from their clever hiding place; inside 72 fresh photon torpedoes handed to Kirk by Admiral Marcus to blow Harrison to kingdom come. Clever indeed, but that’s to be expected from the worthy and deadly adversary whose real name is Khan Noonien Singh.
Surprised? Didn’t think so. No one is really, as rumors that Cumberbatch was portraying a whitewashed Khan have circulated from the start of film production. As our chief editor rightfully pointed out, Abrams’ delight in unnecessary secrecy (it’s not as if, after all, the presence of Khan in the movie hinged on some kind of grand reveal, twist, huge surprise, or meaningful fakeout) kept him inadvertently safe from the criticism the casting might have garnered. It’s less a testament to any direct racism, than it is emblematic of his general carelessness with the material at hand. But, the fact remains, it is a slap in the face to not only an audience seeking representation by having more persons of color inhabit the main cast, but to Gene Roddenberry’s central beliefs. In creating Star Trek, Roddenberry sought to show a future where people from all over the world (and beings from all over the galaxy) were brought together by a mission of exploration and diplomacy. And for those who wonder why a villain would be a preferable slot to fill with a non-white casting, we hasten to remind readers of all the attractive, intelligent, and memorable villains that have inhabited the screen. Either we love to hate them, or love to love them straight up, but villainy often gets its own fanclub. Additionally, the intelligent, charismatic villain whose cause the audience nearly sympathizes with is a facet of villainy rarely offered to actors of color. In Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Returns, the production at least humored us with alternate versions of the characters to explain why the masterminds Ra’s al Ghul and Bane were not played by, respectively, Arab and Latino actors. Into Darkness, on the other hand, firmly establishes its Khan as the same entity from the previous timeline, but quietly fails to mention that the experiment that created him created test subjects from a variety of ethnic groups, and that his has been established as Indian (if not specifically Sikh).
Khan’s significance derives from his original appearances, one that Trek newcomers may be wholly unaware of. Yet, when Cumberbatch growls out his true identity, we’re supposed to gasp in recognition. New Trek continuously falls on its own sword by both denying the importance of anything from the original – thereby spitting in the faces of fans everywhere – while simultaneously relying on it for dramatic effect. You could call it “New 52 Syndrome”, because it’s essentially the same problem; a formula that manages to alienate both the die-hard devotees the franchise relies on for nostalgia sales, and the new audience it was hoping to draw in by disregarding the property’s heritage.
Speaking of race, here the wonder of an inter-planetary cooperative network is relegated to the background. Everything in Into Darkness, from the initial mission the Enterprise is sent on, to the lensflare slugfest that defines the final space battle, is personal, and lacking the scale the movie starts out by implying. Earth isn’t in danger, as the threat of setting off war with the Klingons is a plot bomb diffused early on, kept around by mention as further evidence of the chest-high betrayal pit Kirk & Co. have found themselves in. While there would be no problem with a personal vendetta outlining the film’s actions, the movie repeatedly goes out of its way to talk about the evils of seeking bloodthirsty revenge. Khan kills mercilessly to avenge (what he believes is) his dead crew, and he’s wrong for doing so. At the same time, the whole reason Kirk gets fired up to chase after Khan isn’t a noble sense of loyalty to Starfleet, or even to his home planet; it’s because his mentor/father figure was killed in one of Khan’s attacks.
This hand-wavy attitude applies to any moral constructs or rules established by the film, which are made only to be broken or subverted immediately. When a suspicious Spock, temporarily at the helm, hails his future self (Leonard Nimoy, making his contractual cameo appearance) on New Vulcan, he’s reminded that details of the alternative timeline cannot be shared, lest they irrevocably alter the course of history. Those details, though vague, are then shared within a sentence. It’s a small example, but one that echoes the film’s near continuous in-script self-sabotage. Here, the big problem is that the very principles the film, and the New Trek franchise, has set up as their internal moral compass are of no consequence once things start blowing up. The main thrust of the plot is the threat of a militarized Starfleet making ready to go to war with the non-Federation Klingons. Much is made of the evils of militarization, yet violent, militarized tactics are exactly how every problem is solved, by good guy and bad alike. Trek was always the place where shooting happened after questions, but maybe Abrams thinks a modern audience wouldn’t stand for anything as slow-paced as deliberate shows of diplomacy, so they’ve been nearly written right out.
Many of these complaints may sound familiar, and that’s because they’re near copies of complaints made by many (including yours truly) during the first reboot’s release in 2009. But I genuinely enjoyed the first New Trek, citing it as fun, light, and fresh, an exciting new venture where Star Trek had been transformed into Star Wars, but with no particularly ill effects to mar the transition. But when ignorance of what Trek represents is the central focus of the plot, it becomes impossible to ignore its incongruities any longer. New Trek doesn’t appear to appreciate or understand the basic philosophies that have made the franchise so appealing to millions of fans, nor does it particularly care. It isn’t about the broader questions that might unite a galaxy of individuals and races, questions that defined the original television runs, and left viewers enamored. Instead, it’s about keeping the action moving, more and bigger, at a pace that makes one wonder if Abrams fears we’ll get bored. Here, just the opposite proves true. We don’t get bored, exactly, but the lack of philosophy, not of dynamite effects, makes his blockbuster unable to win over hearts or minds.