Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Star Trek into detachment

with 7 comments

Star Trek Into Darkness

Note: Spoilers follow for Star Trek Into Darkness.

On Friday, my wife and I went to the movies for the first time in six months, which is the longest I’ve gone without seeing a film in theaters since I was old enough to be watching movies at all. There wasn’t much suspense about what we’d be seeing: ever since my daughter was born in December, I knew that the first movie I’d see on the big screen would be Star Trek Into Darkness. And on balance, I think I made the right choice, even if the film itself ends up feeling like much less than the sum of its parts. It’s a slick, enjoyable blockbuster that does everything it can to give the audience its money’s worth, but it’s also a little hollow, especially because it constantly asks us to compare it to a film that ranks among my ten favorite movies of all time while falling short in every measure. I knew going in that Benedict Cumberbatch was Khan, but I wasn’t prepared for how little the movie would understand his character’s true nature: Khan is a great villain to the extent that he’s obsessed with Kirk, and the duel between these two men ought to be intensely personal. As valiantly as Cumberbatch works in the role, turning him into a terrorist with a vendetta against all of Starfleet robs him of much of his appeal.

And this is a minor problem compared to a larger issue that has me slightly concerned about the future of the franchise: its lack of character. I’m not talking about the members of the crew—who are all nicely drawn, even if the script spends most of its time putting them through manufactured conflicts, and often feels as if it’s checking items off a list—but about the filmmakers themselves. After two movies, the first of which I enjoyed tremendously, I still don’t know how J.J. Abrams and his collaborators feel about Star Trek, except as a delivery system for cool moments and action scenes. Part of this is due to Abrams himself: with four movies as a feature director under his belt, he has yet to reveal himself as anything more than a highly skillful producer and packager of mainstream material, full of good taste and intentions, but fundamentally without personality. There’s a reason why his fondness for lens flares has become a punchline, because it’s the only recognizable stylistic element in all of his work, aside from a tendency to spin an air of mystery around nonexistent surprises. And this is fundamentally out of tune with the spirit of the series itself, which has always been at its best as reflection of the idiosyncratic, prickly individuals who created it.

Nicholas Meyer, Leonard Nimoy, and William Shatner on the set of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

I’m aware that it might seem a little strange for me to wish for more of a personal take on the material, since I’ve frequently drawn a sharp contrast between such doomed passion projects as John Carter and the sleek, impersonal machinery of a movie like Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol. Detachment, I’ve often said, is the key to making good art, and I still believe this. What’s less obvious, and something I’m only starting to figure out now, is that detachment, paradoxically, is useful to the extent that it allows a personal statement to emerge. For evidence, we need only turn to the very film that the Abrams movies revisit so obsessively. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the story behind Wrath of Khan is one of my favorite Hollywood legends: Nicholas Meyer, a novelist and screenwriter with limited prior interest in Star Trek, cobbled together a story from six earlier drafts over the course of one long weekend, and the result was a beautiful, ingenious script with real emotional resonance. (To compare the ending of Wrath of Khan with its homage in Into Darkness is to be reminded of the difference between earned feeling and efficient, facile manipulation.)

And the really strange thing about Meyer’s detachment is that it resulted in a movie that was profoundly, even eccentrically personal. Meyer didn’t care much about Star Trek, so he filled the movie with a list of things he liked: the nautical mood and motifs, the sense of the Enterprise as Horatio Hornblower in space, the references to Moby-Dick and A Tale of Two Cities. In Meyer’s version of Starfleet, characters freely quote Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes, and they actually read physical books, which is perfectly in tune with the original series and its successors, which gain much of their charm from how they refract and reinterpret elements of our own culture. The current films, by contrast, seems to take place in a universe devoid of any cultural memory or artifacts of the past, aside from “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys. For all the obligatory nods that Abrams and crew make to the history of the franchise, it’s still a work of limited knowledge and curiosity about everything else that matters. And as far as the rest of the world is concerned, it might as well take place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Written by nevalalee

June 3, 2013 at 9:06 am

7 Responses

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  1. Alec, I enjoyed reading your impression of ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’, but I think, perhaps, in one point, at least, you may be losing sight of something. You say, and rightly so, that the Khan in ‘Wrath of Khan’ was obsessed with Kirk, and this Khan was not, and you felt that this detracted from this Khan’s brilliant villainy, so to speak. He certainly didn’t have the same feel as the original Khan.

    But remember, the original Khan had good reason to have a grudge against Kirk – after all, Kirk left him and his people, and Kirk’s own crewmember, Khan’s WIFE, to die alone on a world ultimately not suitable for a colony, and then never checked up on them. Excellent reason to hate and to wish to destroy Kirk.

    This Khan has no such backstory with Kirk. He has never met Kirk before in his life. He was awoken from his cryosleep and co-opted by the Admiral, who held Khan’s people hostage for his good behavior, and whom Khan then set out to destroy. His attack on Starfleet’s research library had the sole purpose of getting that admiral into a particular place, where he would be vulnerable to attack. The other ships’ captains and first officers who were killed were not Khan’s aim, only destroying the admiral. He had much the same single-minded vendetta against the Admiral as the original Khan had against Kirk.

    Keeping that in mind, you might want to rethink, at least, your opinion of this Khan’s actions.

    I’m not a movie reviewer, nor am I educated in film, so I can’t really say that I’d noticed your other problems with Abrams and his work. Personally, I enjoyed the hearkening back to the original stories but with altered situations. I felt that the main characters (the Bridge Crew, at least) were well-drawn and true to who they had started out as (original timeline) as well as who they have begun becoming (new timeline), and I look forward to what happens next. I wonder if this Khan will have a grudge against Kirk, personally, or perhaps against Spock (does Khan know that Spock had NOT blown up his people with the torpedoes?), and whether we will see him again in the future.

    Thank you, again, though, for your thought-provoking post about the movie.

    Tammy J Rizzo

    June 3, 2013 at 1:33 pm

  2. That’s a fair point. I can’t help but wonder, though, if there could have been a version of this movie that spent the first hour establishing a conflict between Kirk and Khan, and the second hour focusing on a more personal showdown. It wouldn’t have quite the same impact as the original backstory, but I think it would still be preferable to this version, in which Khan doesn’t seem particularly interested in Kirk at all.


    June 3, 2013 at 2:18 pm

  3. Well, you could always write it. :-D

    Khan is still alive, still frozen, and now does have a probable cause for a vendetta against Kirk and/or Spock, unless he learns his people are still alive, as well. For another twist, though, imagine what a Khan on Kirk’s side could be like in some other conflict?

    The possibilities are, once again, endless, which is one thing I like about this altered timeline reboot. Things are no longer locked down.

    Tammy J Rizzo

    June 3, 2013 at 2:54 pm

  4. That’s true—and a more wrathful Khan in the sequel would definitely be worth seeing!


    June 3, 2013 at 2:59 pm

  5. I dunno, I’m a big ol trekkietran, and I really do have a great love for the Wrath of Kahn, but I LOVED the new film. I loved the glitz and glamour; special effects that made my eyes glaze over, and left my seat stained with popcorned deposits from clutching my box too hard. I feel like the erasure or remix of what you perhaps perceive as the integrity of the original story-line, has much to do with contemporary culture. Sure, the intense hatred that Kahn had for Kirk had for Kahn had for Kirk in the original storyline made for a great film, but this new film layered a whole lot of things in ways peculiar to our mainstream reality. I liked the idea that the past was fluid and changable, I liked that there were lots of gaps, I liked that Kahn transported all the way from Earth to Klingon, I like Karl Urban cos he’s a Kiwi, I liked that Spock is loving Uhura and that even after a million years she still wears her liner the same and that the checklist of dramas you mentioned was in play. It’s like, that’s what makes today what it is.

    For me, those awkward aspects are all the kinds of things that make people today feel like they exist, and want to exist. It’s like the dream reality where nothing quite fits any more, “but hey who cares because everyone is pretty and the surface is all glitter”.

    I hardly ever go and see films because they all just seem to rehash tag – you’re it, but ‘…Into Darkness’ reformulated a world I knew into a world I now know, and for that I feel thankful. I used to hate today because nothing made sense anymore. But yah, giving the past a new voice that sounds somewhat hollow makes me feel like I am allowed to fill it with my own echoes of what I used to remember.

    It’s empowering to realise that the final frontier isn’t so final anymore.


    June 3, 2013 at 10:12 pm

  6. I have the feeling that JJ Abrams decided to have a final showdown with Spock instead of Kirk because Quinto is such a great actor. By shifting the focus of the action towards Spock/Kahn instead of Kirk/Kahn he let both actors shine (I loved Cumberlatch’s portrayal) and gave a new twist to the series.

    David Yerle

    June 4, 2013 at 2:01 am

  7. Thanks for all the comments! Looking back at my review, I think I’m being a little harsh on Abrams, but it’s only because there’s so much potential here. Into Darkness is far from a bad movie, and I’d rank it above many of the original Trek films. (I also don’t think I gave Cumberbatch adequate credit—he’s really sensational.) And there’s a lot to enjoy elsewhere. But I still think the use of Khan was miscalculated.


    June 4, 2013 at 5:52 am

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