(Note: even though none of the information divulged spoils anything about the movie, hypersensitive spoiler decorum decrees that a spoiler alert is necessary.)
This is not, I assure you, going to turn into one of those “lone film writer standing bravely against the current, exhorting you all to see the light” bits of fuckery where I tell you you're wrong for liking Star Trek Into Darkness. You're not wrong. We just disagree. Hell, I'll even grant that it's no worse than a standard modern blockbuster, with a number of real bright spots:
—The design is spectacular, in particular the splendidly plausible way they add three centuries to London.
—The cast is just right, and all totally believe in it; there's no “look at me slumming and being better than this” that one occasionally finds.
—Above all else, it's still Star Trek, and you can fuck Star Trek up any number of ways and it'll still be fine on at least one level simply by being Star Trek. Even if it only is in the most superficial sense.
Added to all of these is JJ Abrams' steady-as-she-goes competence as a director. He's never going to make anything transcendently great, and he's never going to make anything truly worthy of being called awful, because he's got a firm grasp of that middle lane, and—barring a statistically improbable sudden decision to get whacked out of his dick on cocaine—is pragmatic enough to keep on as he has been, making big expensive pop movies (and TV series) and marketing the bejesus out of them, guarding their every mundane secret like the Kremlin.
But that right there is a huge thing that bugs me about his stuff. Abrams is now synonymous with years-long marketing campaigns where everything is shrouded in secrecy with the implication being that even the slightest, most seemingly insignificant tidbit would blow the whole fucking thing wide open and ruin a life-altering moviegoing experience. Which, no. We've been around the block enough times with him now to state definitively that this is all a pile of bullshit.
Cloverfield—which he produced—was so secret he didn't even want us to know the title until it “accidentally” leaked and was “grudgingly” confirmed. Super 8—which he directed as well as produced—was another one; the title was only divulged under great (apparent) duress, and details withheld assiduously. The former was a pretty solid monster movie told in then reasonably novel fashion of pretending to be found footage of a catastrophic attack on NYC by a big nasty-ass monster that came out of New York Harbor looking to rip shit up. The secrecy meant we didn't get a look at the monster until after we'd seen the movie, so those kinda beside the point but still lingering questions like “how the fuck did something that big just emerge from New York Harbor undetected?” went unasked, to the movie's advantage. Because all monster movies require a bit of suspension of disbelief right from the start, and Cloverfield was good, good enough that even if people had been like “derp, where'd that monster come from, New Jersey?” beforehand, it probably wouldn't have been affected much. (One love to Matt Reeves.)
Super 8, on the other hand, might have found itself in slightly dicier ground, being an unabashedly sentimental homage to the most unabashedly sentimental period of Steven Spielberg's career, the E.T./Goonies 80s. I fell for it like a ton of bricks on first viewing, I freely admit (and have been abjectly terrified to revisit it ever since, lest I cringe at the praise I lavished on it), but the question lingers whether the year of Internet hype leading up to it led me (and others) to confer event-movie status on something that might not have earned it on its own merits. Super 8 was competently put together, to be sure, but whether there was anything there beyond the craft is hard to say.
This is a huge problem with Star Trek Into Darkness, which is a completely standard-issue blockbuster (essentially a not-very-good remake of The Wrath of Khan) with no surprises warranting all that secrecy, unless Abrams et al were ashamed that all it is is a not-very-good remake of Wrath of Khan. His first Star Trek is the best thing Abrams has ever done, with a brilliant textual excuse—time travel leading to an alternate timeline; don't ask how, science fiction, that's the fuck “how”—to depart from existing canon, perfectly cast (holy shit Zachary Quinto as Spock), and it successfully elided all the things that didn't quite hold up under scrutiny, none of which really mattered anyway. The sequel considers all the character development done in the first as being sufficient, and doesn't do any. Which is fine, everyone saw the first one; it made shitloads of money in theaters and Trek fans subsequently watched it zillions of times on DVD/Blu/their phones/whatever. But aside from those initial points I mentioned up top, some familiar character names and a few non-narrative moments of “Hey! Remember this thing from the show or one of the movies? You like this, right? Well here you go!” before it gets back to being a nearly completely generic modern blockbuster, it's a completely generic modern blockbuster, and some of the ways it goes about being that thing betray a shocking tone-deafness to what Star Trek actually is.
Let us once again, as in the introduction, make clear that I am not doing the thing that William Shatner famously twitted Trek fans for doing in that “Get a life!” bit, obsessing over minutiae like a redshirt getting hit in a non-vital organ with the wrong color phaser or Sulu steering the Enterprise from the console on the wrong side of the bridge, or Uhura speaking Klingon with a Romulan accent or any of that fuckin shit (let us also make clear that I pulled all three of those things out of my ass). No, this is not nitpicking. There are fundamental things way the fuck wrong with this movie, in terms of being Star Trek:
—In spite of noting, at length, in the first few minutes, that morality is an essential aspect of decision-making, the good guys cavalierly let a whole bunch of people die, including a “Sorry I'm not sorry/Hey, here's a disingenuous apology-cum-wisecrack!” moment where Scotty shoots a “bad guy” (who could very well be a normal Starfleet dude just like Scotty, following orders) out an airlock into space. The movie also lets us think, for no apparent reason other than to elicit a “Daaaaaaaamn” from audiences, that Spock murdered 72 unarmed, inert, defenseless people in cold blood before turning around and being like “Sike!” Great save, guys.
—You've already seen Alice Eve's two most significant character beats in the trailer: the first is in a scene with no other purpose whatsoever than to show her in her underwear. Congratulations if you're twelve and that made your year. The second is that lifeless “Okay, Alice, you're the pretty blonde girl so this is the scene where you scream” scream. That one was in response to watching her father's head get crushed by Khan, making the rote, emotionless quality of it entirely the movie's fault (no, if Alice Eve is a shitty actress—which I have no way of knowing, having only seen her in things where she plays a blonde object—then it's Abrams/Lindelof/etc's fault for casting her in the first place, not hers). She also immediately gets injured and has to be carried around by dudes the second action starts happening, because LOL girls can't take a punch, amirite?
—Uhura does not fare much better, playing Spock's nagging girlfriend for the whole movie with the exception of the one scene where she talks Klingon to the Klingons (who show up for one sequence and then vanish, speaking of annoying misuse of Star Trek text) and then has to be saved because LOL girls can't fight, right fellas?
—I mentioned Khan in passing, so let's talk about Khan for a second. Benedict Cumberbatch. You know him. Every straight woman between the ages of about 25 and 40 that you have ever met has at least a fan Tumblr devoted to him. And don't let her tell you she doesn't. And if it's you who think you don't, trust me, you're Tyler Durden-editing a Cumberbatch fan Tumblr when you think you're asleep. (Or you're a closeted lesbian; look, I don't make the rules.) Dude's a cult icon. Hell, I even wrote a huge long, glowing thing anointing him the greatest screen Holmes (even though I'm Team Martin Freeman, because I'm not a straight woman). Benedict Cumberbatch fucking rules. And he does plenty of rad shit in this movie. But here's the thing. There's a very complicated thing with Khan Noonien Singh. (Trigger warning: shit's about to get nerdy, get your helmet.) When he was introduced, in the fan-favorite TOS episode “Space Seed,” played by Ricardo Montalban—hold that thought—Khan was emblematic of the kind of shit society had transcended by the time Starfleet commenced its five-year mission to study space. He was a genetically-engineered soldier who, along with others of his kind, overthrew their original masters and became genocidal warlords in the Eugenics Wars before disappearing and floating around with a bunch of his buddies in suspended animation before the Enterprise found them. He then proves to be a gigantic handful, and Kirk just barely gets rid of him, talking him into starting a new kingdom on this little dipshit out-of-the-way planet where he hopefully won't do any lasting damage. Problem is, Khan gets pissed when his wife dies and he blames Kirk, leading to the elaborate revenge plot that makes up Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). Wrath of Khan fucking owns, largely due to the Montalban realness, from which Khan's iconic, Hall of Fame villain status derives.
NOW. Important point. Khan Noonien Singh is, textually, South Asian, even though Ricardo Montalban was not. But a character described as being genetically perfect being an actor of color was secretly kind of a big deal at a time, as “Space Seed” was, three years removed from the Civil Rights Act (i.e. “Fisher Price My First Bulwark Against White Supremacy”). This supercedes the “fuck me, not another POC villain” thing, I would argue, because the entire conception of Khan, as scripted, is that he requires you to conceive of a person of color being the physical and intellectual apex of human genetics. This is important (important enough for John Cho to make a pointed comment about it on the Press Blitz Into Darkness), because this is what Star Trek was about: hopping around from planet to planet learning lessons about life on Earth through interactions with various funky-looking aliens. After Kirk had sex with them.
So. Maybe Montalban, as a non-Asian, playing Khan in the first place upfucked the entire point about race. And maybe my casting idea—backing up the money truck to Aamir Khan's house and pouring cash out til he says when—isn't feasible. And maybe Cumberbatch is the white guy, the capo di tutti capi (which is manifestly possible; he sure has a lotta fangirls). But he's still a white guy, which makes it kinda dumb that he's playing “Khan.”
And thus. Is this a big deal? Not really, in itself, because as much as I might think the good outweighs the bad in Khan's fundamental POC-ness, I'm still saying that as a white person, which means if a POC takes the “a POC villain? Again? Fuck” side, they win, I lose. And as the prophet who transcribed Chris Tucker's gospel “Behind every crime, there's a rich white man waiting for his cut” into the Evil White Guys In Suits Theory, I really should be like, “Send Cumberbatch to Savile Row before he even thinks of setting a foot on this set.” Life is complicated, what can I say.
The Khan thing is thorny, but it itself is not the problem, merely a symptom. Star Trek Into Darkness is, in every regard, a movie that could have been written by a computer program that left the proper nouns blank for Orci, Kurtzman, and Lindelof to go in and fill in “Kirk,” “Spock,” “Klingon,” “Khan,” etc. And, onto the generic-as-shit sci-fi action template, toss a whole bunch of references to shit they know fans will get, making the whole thing kind of feel like a rewrite of Wrath of Khan by someone who didn't actually watch it. One can picture them sending their assistants to take notes only the assistants were busy networking with each other trying to get better jobs in the industry and so their notes were a little vague, so Orci/Kurtzman/Lindelof were like, “Oh, well, no one's going to care that we never fucking watched Wrath of Khan because Abrams doesn't even like Star Trek and as long as we write a Tribble into the plot the fans will be like 'yay Tribbles' and we'll all make millions.”
I know a lot of Star Trek fans, some of them massive Star Trek fans, who like the movie. I don't want any of them thinking that any of the above is telling them they're wrong to like Into Darkness. Matter of fact, up til an undefined point somewhere in the middle when everything started getting loud and JJ's shitty framing started annoying me and one too many apocalyptically derpy things happened, I was digging it myself. But there just came a point when Star Trek Into Darkness being a normal run-of-the-mill blockbuster just wasn't enough. I think it's when people started just getting killed like whatevs, no bigs, just a bunch of extras eating it.
You can argue poetic license and adaptation all you want, but that's not Star Trek. I'm not talking about the thing I was fucking with comic book geeks about in my Iron Man post, either, because I really liked Abrams' first Star Trek picture. It was fine. Abrams not giving a particular fuck about Star Trek didn't get in the way there, because his indifference to canon led him to focus on the characters as human beings, and their relationships. Ironically, the thing that makes the sequel go tits up (for me, anyway) is the ineptitude of the fan service; it's like Abrams and the writers read the Star Trek page on Wikipedia and were like, “Oh, okay, here's Carol Marcus, which means, yeah, the bad guy'll be Khan, everyone likes Khan, oh, and sure, let's give them a Tribble. Everyone likes Tribbles, yeah?” but all these gestures seem rote and hollow.
In a way, though, I'm kind of glad Star Trek Into Darkness turned into a transcript of its own pitch meeting halfway through, because at least that's honest about the way studios view pictures like this:
“Oh, yeah, Star Trek, the nerds'll flock to it. The last one made a mint—hey, get it, JJ? that's a Super 8 joke for ya, buddy—so we're good with this one. Dig up something from the show or something. Hey, what's that part where Bill Shatner goes 'KHAAAAANNNNN!!!'?”
“Oh, yeah, that's . . . yeah, my assistant Googled that, it's from Wreath of Khan . . . no, wait, 'wrath,' Wrath of Khan.”
“Yeah, so maybe do that, but a little different.”
“Maybe I could have Spock say 'KHAAAAANNNNN!!!' and have Kirk be the one who dies at the end.”
“Whoa whoa whoa. You can't have Kirk die in the end, what about the fuckin sequel, JJ?”
“Yeah, I know . . . that's why he's not really dead, they bring him back to life.”
“Sounds great! Okay. Make us rich, buddy.”