It's only the middle of June, but if there is, this year, another moment of unintentional comedy as richly hilarious as the putative climax of J.J. Abrams's Star Trek Into Darkness, I will be very surprised. Going into the movie, I didn't expect that I'd find it funny. Abrams's 2009 reboot of the Star Trek franchise left me genuinely outraged, and its sequel seemed to promise more of the same. Perhaps because the film has opened so late in Israel, however, I've had the time to realize that more of the same isn't so bad. It means that I knew what to expect (and what to steel myself against): a barely coherent plot, some fun but ridiculous action scenes, an approach to the original series and its appeal that runs the gamut from incomprehension to outright contempt, a vehement need to undermine and dismantle Vulcans despite the fact that the two films' best character, Zachary Quinto's Spock, is one, a borderline erotic fixation with Chris Pine's Kirk despite the writers' (and, I am beginning to suspect, the actor's) inability to imbue him with anything resembling gravitas, authority, or indeed a basic competence at his job, and a lot of lens flares. Going in so forewarned, it was easier to appreciate the humor in a film that bills itself as a reinvention and modernization of a venerable but antiquated franchise, but turns out to have so little of its own to say that it resorts to slavish recreations of its source material's high points.
My ability to take Into Darkness a lot less seriously than I did its predecessor (which might still be a little more seriously than it deserves) is bolstered by the difference in the two film's reception. Where Star Trek's success was taken as an indication that Abrams had restored the franchise to relevance (by, it was grumbled by me and people like me, stripping it of everything that made it what it was) four years later we can see that that hasn't been the case. As successful as the reboot was, it did not confer upon Star Trek the kind of cultural currency that Christopher Nolan's Batman films, or the Marvel superhero movies, have delivered for their source material, and at least from where I'm standing, the film doesn't seem to have amassed the kind of fandom that those franchises have developed, made up of people who only know their world and characters from the movies. Four years ago we were all so stunned by a film with Star Trek in its title opening at the top of the box office chart that we seemed to come to a collective agreement not to say what was plainly obvious--that far from revitalizing the franchise, Abrams was merely writing Star Wars fanfic in another show's universe because he didn't think he'd ever get hold of the real thing. Now that he has, Into Darkness feels like an afterthought--a fact that is reflected in the film's lukewarm critical and financial reception. Whatever the future holds for Star Trek, J.J. Abrams and his "vision" are probably not going to be a part of it, which makes it easier to view Into Darkness dispassionately, and makes its blunders--and nowhere does the film blunder more heavily than when it tries to pay homage to its source material--seem more funny than outrageous.
Into Darkness is a remake--sometimes a straight one, and sometimes a mirror image--of Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan. If you have any familiarity with that movie, you'll know right away what a dubious proposition that is. Though arguably the best of the original series films, The Wrath of Khan is, fundamentally and unalterably, a film about old men--Kirk, who after a lifetime of joyously breaking the rules is finally realizing that even when you get away with it, you don't really get away with it, and that no matter who many times you cheat death it'll always be waiting for you just where you least expect it; Spock, who has spent his life in the shadow of a perpetual child; and Khan, so incapable of accepting that his superior nature did not guarantee him the bright future he set out on at the end of "Space Seed" that he chooses to blame, and take revenge on, the whole universe. It's a film about old soldiers, who have nothing in their lives except revenge and duty, perhaps because they've never been able to truly love anything else, and perhaps because age, and time, and death, have taken everything else away.
If Abrams's Star Trek films were the best they could possibly be, they wouldn't have been able to tackle this story, not with their cast of fresh-faced youngsters who never miss an opportunity to mention that their adventures are just beginning. But of course, Abrams's films are not the best they could be, and instead of trying to make the story of The Wrath of Khan its own and suit it to its setting, Into Darkness veers between slavish, lifeless fan-service--the predictable "Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!" is intended as a crowning moment of pathos but comes off, as I wrote at the beginning of this review, as simply ridiculous--and, when it tries to strike out on its own, utter thematic incoherence. Kirk starts the film being told that he needs to learn humility, as the older Kirk did in The Wrath of Khan. But in fact there is no such lesson in Into Darkness. Instead, and just as in Star Trek, it's everyone around Kirk who has to learn that, despite his lack of experience, his self-confessed incompetence, his complete lack of interest in showing leadership or encouraging teamwork, his conviction that being a captain means running off on your own and expecting everyone under your command to back your play--despite, in short, being utterly unsuited for the job, Kirk is not only the stuff that great captains are made of, but has an inalienable right to the captain's chair. In The Wrath of Khan, Kirk learns humility when he puts his ship into a situation that can only be gotten out of by his best friend laying down his life; in Into Darkness, it's Kirk who lays down his life, thus proving that he has no need for humility, and that his flaws as a captain don't matter because he Really Cares. (Not to worry: the next film won't be The Search for Kirk. His death is rolled back in a way that is so heavily signposted that it's only through Quinto's best efforts that Kirk's self-sacrifice has even the slightest bit of emotional effect.)
Into Darkness's broader themes are equally muddled. At different points, it has Kirk express disdain for Federation values (as he did in Star Trek), defend them against those who would militarize Starfleet and foment war with the Klingons (something that Kirk, as established until that point, might reasonably have been expected to be in favor of), and lecture others about how it's important not to relinquish our cherished beliefs in the face of evil, with little in the way of an arc to support these shifts except for a 9/11 allegory that would have seemed trite and over-obvious in 2004. (Not helping matters is the fact that the film seems rather vague on what Federation values actually are--this is a movie that very forcefully informs us that killing a suspected terrorist without trial is wrong, but doesn't expect us to have any problem with Kirk or Spock beating that suspected terrorist after he's surrendered or been incapacitated.) Similarly confusing is the film's choice to draw a parallel between Kirk and Khan by giving them the same motivation--protecting the people under their command--since it appears completely ignorant of how deep that parallel runs, and what its implications are. The way that Khan sees himself, as a superior being who by rights shouldn't be bound by conventions and the laws of other people, is exactly the way that Abrams's Star Trek films want us to see Kirk, so if Khan and Kirk have the same motivation, why is one of them the bad guy and the other the hero?
For a while it seems as if the film itself is reaching for the same conclusion, since in its middle segments Khan is actually a sympathetic figure. His terrorist attacks on Earth turn out to have been at the behest of the film's other villain, who was holding Khan's people hostage. He helps Kirk save the Enterprise, and it's Kirk who betrays Khan once that goal is achieved, not the other way around (though Khan turns out to have been ready for betrayal and responds to it ruthlessly). The reboot format has given Abrams the opportunity to play with some of the franchise's holy cows; just as the first act of Star Trek seemed to suggest that the film might end with Spock as captain of the Enterprise and Kirk as his first officer, during the middle segments of Into Darkness it seems likely that Khan will end the film as Kirk's ally or at least a chaotic neutral, allowed to make his own future as he was at the end of "Space Seed." But just like Star Trek, Into Darkness views the letter of the franchise as far more important than its spirit. The canonical order is restored precisely because the representative of canon, Leonard Nimoy's old Spock, demands it. No sooner has he told his young counterpart that Khan is evil than Khan obliges, suddenly announcing an intent to eradicate all "inferior" life that had gone completely unmentioned until fifteen minutes from the film's end. (Aside from the opportunity to play with the canon, making Khan an ally might have gone some way towards explaining the unconvincing prevarications, and finally outright lies, about who the film's villain would be. As it stands, I'm somewhat persuaded by this argument, that the filmmakers declared Khan's identity a spoiler--despite having released trailer upon trailer that virtually crowed it--because they wanted to forestall the outrage over having cast the lily-white Benedict Cumberbatch as a character called Khan Noonien Singh.)
Even the things that work about Into Darkness--as in Star Trek, the actors, the characters, and their relationships--are warped by its hagiographic take on Kirk. It's fun to watch Pine, Quinto, and Zoe Saldana's Uhura snipe at each other and emerge as the rebooted franchise's equivalent of the Kirk-Spock-McCoy trio (though again, their college kid antics only reinforce the sense that these characters would be much more believable as junior officers on their first assignment out of the Academy than they are as the senior staff of Starfleet's flagship). But the emphasis the film places on Kirk's need for Spock to admit that they are friends--a motivation so powerful that there's a compelling reading of the film in which he steps into the irradiated reactor chamber merely in order to secure a declaration of emotional attachment, which is in fact what he gets--finally has the effect of making the trio seem like they're in a three-way relationship in which Uhura is by far the least important member. More successful are the film's attempt to give Uhura a more prominent role in the plot, and along with her, Simon Pegg's Scotty and John Cho's Sulu. (Anton Yelchin's Chekov remains a bad accent in search of a personality.) There's never been anything to say against the casting of the reboot's main crew, but this only serves to make Into Darkness's fascination with Kirk seems less plausible--why are we paying attention to this whiny, daddy-issues-riddled man-child when there are all these more interesting characters (who are played by better actors) in the background?
Into Darkness ends with the Enterprise embarking on the five year mission that gave the original series its impetus. The sudden shift to exploration feels unearned in a series that has had so little time for the concept in its first two installments, but nevertheless it's hard not to feel a little hopeful at its even being mentioned. With Abrams gone over to Star Wars (and possibly, hopefully, taking Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman with him), is it possible that the next film in the rebooted franchise will be Star Trek in more than just name? That it will try to capture the essence of the series, and not just deliver hollow recreations of its greatest hits? That it will finally allow its lead character to start growing towards the man we know Kirk to be? I know, it's not very likely--as much as I like to blame Abrams for everything, the fact is that his version of Star Trek is merely a particularly ham-fisted expression of preoccupations that can be found all over Hollywood's blockbuster movies--a craving for Great Men, a disdain for intellect, vulnerability, and empathy, a need for lead characters to be cool that is so powerful that it drowns out any trait that might actually earn these characters that epithet. And the truth is, I can live with the Star Trek films being little more than unintentional comedy. But deep down, I am still a Star Trek fan, and I would dearly love for that series to once again be about boldly going where no one has gone before.