Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Revisiting Star Trek Into Darkness: Alex vs. Patrick

Alex just saw Star Trek Into Darkness for the first time and loved it. Patrick still doesn't like it. Now they get to argue about it.

This article contains major spoilers for Star Trek Into Darkness, released on DVD and Blu-ray yesterday.

Alex: I think I really love this movie. Many people don't. As the summer has worn on, I've noticed that the Filmic Internet Community has been much harsher on it than I think the Real Human Beings were when the thing was released. At the outset, there was a lot of "I think it's GREAT!" and maybe a little more of "It is the WORST!" going on, which you discussed on the podcast. That type of dynamic may be the death of criticism as we know it, but I digress.

Anyway, I guess I'll tackle what I think is your criticism of the film's overarching conceit. Namely, the purported idea of mirroring the events of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan for a newer, hipper, more Apple-friendly generation.

Basically, I think it's shortsighted to discard the use of this story as a simple rehash for the purpose of appeasing a fanbase that may not even want to be appeased in this manner. With regard to the J.J. Abrams's 2009 Star Trek, I think we both agree on the use of time travel as a way to recuse the film from any accusations of encroaching on the original canon. The stuff about Trek that you, the proto-Trekkies, loved is still intact. It's even happening right now maybe! But what you are seeing here is wholly different! It just is happening in parallel to the story with which you are more familiar.

It's a great narrative decision that was able to cogently silence the cries of a certain type of fan that will always hate this certain type of film project. But it always bothered me just a bit, in the sense that it arrogantly asserts immunity to the paradoxes that inevitably rise in time travel stories.

BUT(T)! What I love about Star Trek Into Darkness is that it tackles this notion of inevitability that always surfaces in time travel stories. I think it is within the cheeky and fun vibe of this whole rebooting exercise that the crew will encounter some of the same adventures, but in a different way. I also think that the changes they make to the Khan story are different enough to create new dynamics that make the story interesting.

Patrick: Ok, first things first. I'm glad you love this movie. I will admit that I don't understand it, but I'm genuinely glad that you're getting so much from it.

Having said that...

You're absolutely right that a lot of people liked Into Darkness when it came out. It had one of the highest Rotten Tomatoes ratings (if you're going to put stock in such things) of any movie this summer and was one of the highest-grossing Star Trek movies of all time. I think the phenomenon you're seeing now, where the opinion is swinging more negative, is because of two things: people are finally starting to realize that they were hoodwinked OR (and this is much more likely the case) the people that are still talking about the movie are the Star Trek fans, and they never really liked it. The mainstream audiences that made the movie a critical and commercial hit back in May have forgotten about it; it was just that weekend's summer movie for them, and it offered a reasonable amount of fun. They have moved on to the next thing. But it sticks with the internet community (be they Star Trek fans, movie bloggers or just fanboys looking to be worked up about anything; my heart is with the first two) who is continuing to fuss over the film.

I'm with you 100% on the 'alternate timeline' game that the 2009 Trek played. It was a clever (enough) way of rebooting the franchise without wiping the slate clean and enraging the fans by saying all the stuff they loved never happened or existed. I have never had a problem with any of that.

My problem -- and here's where we get to one of the major issues with Into Darkness -- is that they establish that it's a WHOLE NEW TREK and then by only the second movie are already rehashing old Trek. You can't really say that they are "purportedly mirroring" old events. They flat out fucking are. Half the movie is "Space Seed," the last act is Wrath of Khan. If you're going to branch out and be your own thing, be your own thing. Instead, we get two hours of fan service and unnecessary callbacks, as though the way to make Star Trek feel new is to remind us that it is old.

I don't mean to repeat things I said on the podcast, but I'm too lazy to go back and listen to it again so I might. The idea of "inevitability" that you bring up is a fine one -- that the crew of Enterprise is going to encounter Khan at some point no matter what. I would suggest that's you making an excuse for the repetition of a character that isn't supported by the text, since nothing in the movie really addresses inevitability. But whatever. I'm ok with that. You say that they make changes that create new dynamics, and I have to ask: what do you mean? There is one scene (and I know I mention this on the podcast...sorry) where it really seems like they're going to take the Khan character in a different direction. And I perked up, because I think THAT is the movie you're defending. But the rest of the movie is not that scene at all. So what are the changes that you saw as working?

Do you think that any part of your positive reaction has something to do with seeing it after it had been beaten up for months online? And did you like this movie better than the '09 Trek?
Alex: To answer your last question first, which is logical, no. I do not like Into Darkness better than the 2009 Trek. Like you, that movie spurred within me a desire to seek out more of the material offered by this series. I did not dive quite as deep as you, as I still have not seen any of the television permutations  Trek.* I did, however, watch all of the movies, of which I had seen ZERO prior to 2009, which, now that i consider it, might make me the ideal audience for  Into Darkness.

I guess I should say here that I was using "purportedly" in sort of tongue-in-cheek way. They are very obviously mirroring the events of Khan and I find that to be interesting. Maybe I'm falling victim to populist swill, but I actually ENJOY being able to see things onscreen that recognize recast in a different light.

Which brings me to the differences between this iteration of Khan and the one we knew previously. They are markedly different and it tremendously alters the character's actions. As opposed to being enraged with Kirk for banishing him to what eventually became a desert wasteland, Khan is instead embittered against the entire institution of Starfleet for weaponizing him and his people. The stakes are higher and the conflict more interesting.

You might argue that this distinction is minimal, since the endgame is still "Khan is angry and chaos ensues," but I think the distinction is important. Many times on the podcast we've talked about this is the summer of mass destruction for the sake of gratuity. But I would argue that this movie at least attempts to earn Khan's violent attack on San Francisco.

I realize that what I have just done is attempt to elevate this movie by attempting to prop it up against a historically lousy summer movie slate.

You refer to the scene where it briefly appears that the Enterprise crew will be aligned with Khan, or at least sort of indifferent toward him in furtherance of a shared goal. Like you, I was intrigued by this concept. Unlike you, I was not enraged when it was abandoned. The fact that the movie even raises the specter of Kirk cooperating with Khan makes it interesting.

I am fully aware of the movie I am defending. I stand by my contention that this is a meditation on a very standard time travel theme about variance and destiny and inevitability. You say that the movie does not "address" the theme of inevitability, except I think that it addresses it by merely existing.

I have a pretty incendiary comment loaded up here, but I want to leave you with a question. Other than your completely valid criticisms of screenwriting techniques (that beaming/non-beaming crap at the climax is just stupid), would you have any real problems with the way the story of Khan is handled if you did not already have a constructed Khan story at the forefront of your mind?

*I have seen exactly one episode of any Star Trek TV series. It was part of a philosophy class I took in college called Cognitive Science. In the episode, a TNG submission, Data challenges Picard over the morality of using artificially intelligent machines to perform dangerous tasks after the machines begin to display characteristics of self-preservation. It is an incredible episode of television.
Patrick: I think Into Darkness is a deeply problematic, mostly bad movie if Wrath of Khan never exists. There are a lot of screenplay problems. A lot. Killing Kirk for five minutes does not work because it is not earned, not because it is an annoying inverse of a death that was meaningful and earned in 1982. Khan's plan makes sense for half the movie, but then he needs to become the main villain in the second half so the screenplay just shoehorns in stuff like the destruction of San Francisco (yes, we can say "Well, he's pissed," but we are rationalizing that action because the movie does not earn it). Worst of all, though, is that the movie spends over to hours just to get the characters back to the EXACT SAME PLACE in which they ended the first movie. The characters have not advanced. It's not a continuation of a story. It's treading water.

I don't want to already to surrender to "agree to disagree," but I don't even know how to respond to your suggestion that just by introducing a scene in which Khan and Kirk work together the movie is somehow better or different. Yes, that SCENE is interesting, but it does not make the MOVIE interesting. In fact, I might argue it hurts the movie even more in some ways because it further demonstrates that the filmmakers didn't know a good idea when they had one right in front of them. Instead, they chose to go the lazy callback route.

Same goes for the theme of inevitability. You say the movie raises the theme just by existing. I say you're assigning a theme that isn't there. I do not believe that the writers included Khan because they want to suggest that their encounter was inevitable. Otherwise, they would have layered that theme elsewhere in the film. That's good writing. Writing with intent. I think it's because they wanted to take what the audience is 'expecting' -- the most famous villain in Trek canon (because Part II!) -- and turn it on its head. It's the same bullshit thinking that led the writers of The Lone Ranger to mess with that formula.

Again, I am not angry that they dared to use Khan. They could have made a very good movie that happened to include the character. I am angry that they don't understand what made Khan special and because they did it badly. And if I'm being unfair and comparing Into Darkness to Wrath of Khan, I share the blame with the filmmakers, who won't stop fucking reminding me of Wrath of Khan. They invite comparison, so I don't think I'm being unreasonable for taking them up on it.

But this sounds like I'm being too confrontational. There were some fun scenes and a lot of the energy that made Trek '09 so much fun. I do like the cast and the way they work together. I'm sad to see them squandered in material that, at best, repeats moments of the '09 film and at worst actively sabotages their chemistry.

Lay the incendiary on me. I'm ready.
Alex: I am mostly with you on the redundancy of the end beat, but I think it's just sort of a lazy ending. It's not like we're still waiting for Kirk to have his moment or lead them on a damn mission finally. He just got done leading them out of danger for the last two hours. But I'll grant you that it's sort of intellectually dishonest even if i don't think it's as narratively dishonest as you do.

But here's the big one. And I absolutely promise I am not trolling or turning into the resident Armond White or some damn thing. This is a real live opinion that I have formed through some real live critical thinking.

I think Benedict Cumberbatch is a better Khan than Ricardo Montalban.

In addition to not being Armond White, I am also not one of those weirdo Internet girls who runs Benedict Cumberbatch tumblrs out of my basement. I was not in the tank for him walking in. In fact, I'd never seen him in anything at all.

And I just think he, how you say, crushes it. The voice, the poise, the authority, he is far and away the most interesting part of the film, though maybe that's not saying much if I'm as much in the minority as I appear to be.

After watching Into Darkness, I threw on Wrath of Khan because OF COURSE I did. That movie is unimpeachable, but I'm sorry, Montalban is a cartoon. He is as threatening as Snidely Whiplash. The wig, the accent, all command minimal authority for me.

Please don't banish me from the blog forever.

Patrick: Oh, that's not so bad. I was steeling myself for much worse.

If you like Cumberbatch's performance better than Montalban's, I won't argue with you. Cumberbatch was totally fine. I can't say he was a better "Khan," because the two aren't playing the same character at all. But I will take GREAT issue with you saying Montalban is a cartoon. He is, for me, one of the classic all-time great villains because he MEANS THAT SHIT. Yes, his performance is pitched very differently than Cumberbatch's. That's because Montalban is acting in space opera, and his style is all fire and passion and theatricality. It's appropriately operatic. Cumberbatch is much more slow-burn and inward looking. I don't think modern audiences could handle a performance that's as big as Montalban's these days, so we get Khan as someone who is plotting and devious, playing everything close to the vest. Montalban's Khan is consumed with only one thing: taking revenge on Kirk. For me, his is the more interesting character and performance. But it's really just a matter of personal taste. If you don't like the theatricality of Montalban's take, I can't convince you that you should. Even though you should.

I don't think that Into Darkness is repetitive of the first movie just because of the last scene -- it's because the entire arc of the movie is basically the same. Kirk is cocky and possibly unfit to lead. People (Pike) doubt him but put their trust in him. He fucks things up and saves the day when he and everyone realizes he is awesome. It's the same story. So my issue isn't that he's finally going to lead the crew on a mission, it's that his character hasn't grown or changed at all since the first movie.

But I don't just want to refute the things you're saying. Let me ask you this: you say you might love the movie. What is it that you love about it? And what do you make of all the Wrath of Khan references at the end? Do those work for you? And if they don't, are they just not distracting enough to derail the movie for you?
Alex: I think what I love about the movie is that it handles Kirk's ascendancy to a leadership role in an interesting way. Is there a phenomenon for when one person dislikes a movie for the very same reasons that another person likes it? Because we seem to have a lot of that going on here. I thought it was interesting that this movie doesn't say "Okay, Kirk is now the leader and his reputation and decision-making are unimpeachable now because of his journey in the first movie."

Basically the story zigs when I thought it would zag. I think it adds some gravitas to Kirk's captaincy in the Pine iteration. Which actually leads me to what I think elevates this movie for me in a way that it doesn't for others.

I think Chris Pine is really, really good in this movie. I don't know if we, as a filmgoing people, have made up our minds on the Pine-as-Kirk- regime, but it really plays for me. And when you look at this movie as a further testing of Kirk's mettle, his performance goes a long way toward making that work.

I totally understand if you think that the entire first movie was enough to say Kirk has proved himself or whatever. But as I said, I like that the movie is confident enough in its characters to explore that further and complicate it with things like Pike's death and the further exploration of Spock and Kirk's relationship.

Which brings me back to the Khan mirroring. As I said, I sort of like this idea that in the Trek universe, and I'm speaking about all timelines simultaneously here, there exists this parable of Khan. Khan meets the Enterprise crew in some fashion and poses a great test to them. It may manifest itself in different ways, but the fact that the outcome is the same, and even that the PATHS to victory are the same, speaks only to the strength and resolve of these characters, no matter the time.

Am I giving the film credit for establishing thematic overtones that aren't there? Maybe. I don't know if we want to go down the road of talking about how interpretations of art are made by the audience and not the artist, but the point is I feel completely comfortable saying that I was moved when Kirk died in this movie, even if I saw it coming a mile away.

Then again, I go to bat for the Lost finale every chance I get. So maybe I'm all fucked in the head. And the heart.

Patrick: I don't know. I feel like we saw two different movies. Which is ok, because I've certainly had the experience of either a) overlooking (or even rationalizing) a movie's flaws because I like it or b) not being able to see things that work because I dislike the whole. And maybe that's what's going on here.

I like Chris Pine, too. He's one of my favorite things about these new movies -- he gets a lot of stuff right about the character Shatner created but still puts his own thing on it. It's not just an impression. The cast, as a whole, is really great. I like watching them work together, which is another of my disappointments with the movie. When the '09 reboot ended, I was excited about watching this crew going on missions and being on the bridge together. Instead, Into Darkness mostly splits them up or has them quit/get fired or bicker about their relationship issues during life threatening situations because ha ha that's funny and a thing that people do.

I'm not looking for Kirk to be perfect now just because of his journey in the first movie. I'm just looking for growth. Or a different journey. Not the exact same fucking thing. My problem with The Amazing Spider-Man wasn't that they dared to make another Spider-Man movie. It's that they made the exact same Spider-Man movie we had already seen. And then made it shittier. The same thing applies to Into Darkness.

We had said that we didn't want to just fall back on 'agree to disagree,' but that's where we are at. You were moved when Kirk died, I was angry at what I saw as a stupid manipulation of familiar material (and another example this summer of a character being dead even though we know he/she won't be dead longer than a few minutes; at least Wrath of Khan MEANT IT [at the time] when Spock died). You think the writers were suggesting the possibility of multiple iterations of Khan and the inevitability that he would cross paths with the Enterprise and things would play out in basically the same way. I see it as a total lack of imagination and baldfaced attempt at fan service without understanding what made the first thing special or being able to connect any of the emotional dots. This is a movie obsessed with shortcuts.

We saw different movies, and that's ok. If everyone saw the same things in every movie, it would make the point of talking about them irrelevant -- you couldn't point out anything to me that I didn't already see myself. So I'm glad we're able to talk about this stuff and try to make out points heard, even if I don't think we're any closer to changing each other's minds.

I'll end with this: a bad Star Trek movie has never been able to kill the franchise before, so I'm not worried about this one. It made money. People generally liked it. If they announce a third movie with this same cast, I'll be very excited.

But I would like a different creative team involved.

Alex: Well, I hope this has been a useful discussion. We may not see eye-to-eye on this one, but rest assured, I have been and always shall be your friend.
I know. I'm sorry.


  1. Intense debate! I love it. And you made great use of the underwear scene.

    Friends forever.

  2. A very well-written and considered debate. I must confess, I was ready to go full-on volcanic fury at Alex's suggestion that Benedict is a better Khan than Ricardo. Patrick responded so well that my fury was becalmed like a Horta getting a silicon band-aid. To Alex I would strongly suggest you watch the original series episode "Space Seed." You will see Ricardo play Khan as still flamboyant, but much more measured and careful in his choices - he's still getting a feel for Kirk and the Enterprise in that one. By the time we see him in Star Trek 2, he's spent a dozen years or so on that "barren sand heap," probably dreaming of nothing but getting even with Kirk. In short, he's gone totally nuts. Thus his performance makes perfect sense to me.

    1. "A Horta getting a silicone band-aid" may be one of the nerdiest things ever written on this site, and I mean that as the highest compliment.

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  4. I really enjoyed this discussion. I will say I liked STID when I first saw it, but upon listening to the podcast, and considering certain elements such as the bad writing and the recycling of old plot material (I don't mind an homage here and there, but to overuse that, or simply retell a story a second time, is going a bit overboard. I hope the writing for the new Star Wars movies doesn't try to do anything similar. That's a fear I have), I quickly changed my toon. I want to watch a new adventure, not an updated version of one that already happened.

    I will agree with you guys that, to me, one of the strongest aspects of the two movies is the casting. I think all of the parts are cast perfectly, and are portreyed very, very well. Unfortunately, Patrick is also correct that even the great chemistry between the awesome cast is squandered in how they are broken up

  5. I don't mind recycling characters or even plots if the story is well written and I don't think this film was. The climax was neither earned, nor suspenseful. I really enjoyed the opening sequence and I hope that if we get a third movie it'll have more of that.

  6. I would have to say and this is coming from a total non Trekkie fan (I am one with the force), that the movie has parts that work but as a whole just doesn't gel together properly. My biggest pet peeve in the movie has to be when old spock shows up seemingly out of nowhere to tell the crew "oh yeah Khan he's a dick we got him but man what a dick", there is no reason for this damn scene to exist and just stops the movie cold.

    I think the best thing this series can do moving forward is make your future villains original, keep the good guys we all know but go somewhere new for the next antagonist. One of the things I liked about STID was the fact that you could understand the villains point of view even if you didn't agree with their principles, I always find that more interesting in movies.

    Quick question as a non trekkie if I was looking to get into the tv show what would be a good starting point for me. I tried to get into Doctor Who awhile back and just couldn't do it. Maybe I'll have some better luck this time.

    1. Tom, the original Star Trek series really hit the ground running so I recommend just watching in the original production order. If you're not a convert by the end of the sixth episode,"The Naked Time", you probably never will be.

    2. Tom, is there a particular period of Star Trek that interests you more than others? I'd say start where you're the most curious. There's a new blu-ray that came out yesterday called Star Trek: Origins, which contains 5 important episodes from the original 60s series, including the first appearance of Khan. The episodes, which are all pretty important and would be have big ramifications for Star Trek as a franchise, are:
      1) The Cage - The original pilot.
      2) Where No Man Has Gone Before the second pilot.
      3) Space Seed - KHAN!
      4) Errand of Mercy - The first appearance of the Klingons.
      5) The Trouble With Tribbles - Probably the most beloved and popular episode of Star Trek.

      Those are all on Netflix instant too, and if you have Netflix then I'd also recommend The City On The Edge Of Forever. In fact, that might be my first recommendation. There are plenty of Next Generation episodes that would serve as a good place to start as well, but with Star Trek currently centering once again on Kirk/Spock/McCoy, I'd say start with the series that started it all.

  7. Yeah, but at least we can all agree that the 3D presentation was spectacular, amiright? Hello? Helllooooo?

    Good debate gents - on an intellectual level I would tend to side more with Patrick's arguments, especially regarding the lazy writing, but for whatever reason my enjoyment of the movie is closer to Alex's (though I wouldn't say I LOVED it). I would also go to bat for the LOST finale any time so apparently I'm some sort of Frankenstein monster made up of Alex's heart, Patrick's brain and beard, Erika's breasts (it's glandular!), JB's knees, Doug's ballz, Mark's kung-fu grip, Adam's back hair and Mike's (my brother from an alternate timeline's mother) SOUL.

  8. Cumberbatch was brilliant in this movie, even when the script was less than. When he talks about targeting their life support and "walking over (their) cold corpses" you don't even ask, "Yeah, why not just do that and get it over with?"

    The "predestination" does that work when these aren't the same people. Not only because of the differences in their upbringings but in that they've all achieved their positions not through working their way up through the ranks and gaining experience but just because everybody else keeps dying.

    What was Khan's plan, exactly? Kill off the upper echelon of Starfleet, escape to the Klingon home world....and take up farming? Or are we supposed to believe that Khan knew 1) Marcus was going to survive his attack (???) 2) there'd be enough left of the transport device that they'd know where he went 3) Marcus would be able to find someone who would not only break the rules and go after him but then would change his mind on the way and try to arrest him instead and 4) this person would then figure out a way to get them both on the other ship alive....

    But then we're to believe this same genius who can predict the actions and motivations of people he's never met never suspects that Spock might arm the torpedoes...

    I'm not going to mention the 4 ton elephant they left behind for the next films since I think they don't realize it's there...and when they do they'll just ignore it.

    But I have a question:

    In the Space Seed, everyone knew who Khan was. It was like they'd learned about him in History class or something because they had. Spock was able to bring up records including pictures immediately.

    In this "time line", the Eugenics War was covert. Khan has to explain to Kirk and Spock who and what he is. They've never heard of him. Spock Prime has to be called because presumably Spock can't find any record of Khan in any computer system.

    So, why (within the story) did Khan have to go by the name "John Harrison"?