In the week following the release of the film Star Trek Into Darkness, I wrote a long essay comparing and contrasting the two Star Trek IIs. My thesis was that, compared to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek Into Darkness was a study in experience over engagement and was ultimately meaningless and forgettable. I had a larger metaphor involving dynamic range in recorded music that I couldn’t quite meld into the essay and my frustration with that led me to put it away for a couple of days to rethink it. By the time I came back to it, it was about ten days after Star Trek Into Darkness had opened. The movie (possibly proving my point) had slipped out of the cultural zeitgeist, making way for whatever else people were tweeting about mid-May, 2013. It was already too late for this essay to appear on an internet.
But over a year later I decided to come back to this essay. This movie itself may not be memorable, but that vague feeling of emptiness after seeing the movie is. I’ve taken out most of the music stuff and left just the stuff about the movies—the only real interesting part of the essay anyway ((PM me if you want complaints about the lack of dynamic range in pop music since the late 90s).
Like dynamics in music, a film needs peaks and valleys to sustain interest. When you are engaged with a film you are going through moments of anticipation followed by surprise. Your imagination is collaborating with the film. Its world becomes real because your imagination fills in the blanks, creates the past, and projects into the future. Movies that fail to bring your imagination along for the ride fail. Star Trek Into Darkness is one of these movies. It has no moment for breath or reflection. It has no instance of quiet that allows your own imagination to kick in and make the film real. The moments that make movie-going thrilling are just not there. Even the official, punctuation-less title, “Star Trek Into Darkness” is an example of the nonsensical run-on that is the movie. Without the customary colon, “Star Trek” reads like a verb. As in, “Where did you star trek?” “We star treked into darkness.”
Star Trek isn’t, and has never been, fine art. It began as a television series subject to all the commercial pressure, network notes, and tight budgets that any other television show has to deal with. It has been a simple piece of intellectual property its entire existence. The product has been handled well at times, mishandled at others, but it has always been a product. In spite of those constraints, the original series has moments of amazing brilliance, originality, and imagination. And through Next Generations and Deep Space Nines, nearly every iteration of the Star Trek property has had something that clicked deep inside people. (Personally, my investment in Star Trek begins and ends with the original series. If I have to declare a favorite television show of all time it is Star Trek. It was my father’s favorite show, too. I had a complicated relationship with my late father and I am sure there is some emotional transference going on when I say I love this show. William Shatner’s Captain Kirk becomes a heroic father figure, the sort of man I wanted my father to be. Or something. That’s the subject of a whole ‘nother essay.)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is not high art, but it is one of the best, most entertaining films of its kind. It is product, but it is delicious product. And Star Trek Into Darkness becomes an obvious failure when it becomes an intentional redux of The Wrath of Khan. As a sequel to a recast remake of a television series, Star Trek Into Darkness is pretty deep into the post-modern rabbit hole to begin with. The first J.J. Abrams Star Trek also was a sequel to a long series of movie sequels based on that original TV series, and a sequel to the expanded universe of all of the other Star Trek properties.
When re-watching The Wrath of Khan it can be surprising how simple the film actually is. It is essentially a bottle episode (some of the most memorable episodes of the original series are these bottle episodes where money was saved by having all the action take place on existing or minimal sets. “The Corbomite Maneuver”, “Balance of Terror”, and “The Doomsday Machine” are all examples of classic bottle episodes). Nearly all the action takes place on starship bridges, there are zero location shots, and only one scene that takes place outdoors (The surface of Ceti Alpha V.) So why does it not feel claustrophobic? Because your imagination has expanded the canvas. In Contrast, Star Trek Into Darkness takes us from the planet Nibiru to San Francisco, London, Kronos, Jupiter, inside a warp field, and over the Earth. It features a dizzying number of sets and locations, both CG and real. So why does it feel so limited and artificial? Because, by including everything, you imagine nothing. It’s not a world that exists in your imagination, it is simply an artifice projected on a screen.
Both movies begin in medias res. Star Trek Into Darkness reintroduces the cast in the middle of an elaborate action piece with a volcano, aboriginal aliens, and an underwater Enterprise. The Wrath of Khan begins with an apparent deadly combat situation, (it turns out to be the old it’s-only-a-training-simulation switcheroo.) Afterwhich, we get some banter between Kirk, Spock, and McKoy. It’s all slightly corny, but it sets up the themes for the movie—loyalty, aging, facing death—and reminds us why we like and care about the characters (the trio of Kirk, Spock, and McKoy really is the heart of the appeal of Star Trek. They are not complex characters, but the single traits they represent—passion, intellect, empathy—combine to become the most desirable, yet conflicting, traits of ourselves).
Star Trek Into Darkness, instead, follows the first action piece with the briefest possible opening title credit, then an introduction to our still nameless bad guy, then a series of quick scenes where Kirk and Spock get chewed out by Pike. And then we get an explosion. And then there’s another explosion. And then, and then, and then. Star Trek Into Darkness arrives at full-blast—visually, aurally, and narratively. It never lets up, even through the end credits.
As in the original television series, one of the pleasures in The Wrath of Khan is the Oh-how-is-he-going-to-get-himself-out-of-this-one moments (Wrath of Khan looks back to the original series episode “The Space Seed” for the character of Khan, but it is actually more of a reworking of “Balance of Terror”, where Kirk outwits a Romulan commander in space battle while ruminating on the burdens of command). Kirk is placed in an unwinnable situation, but figures out a solution. In one of these moments, Khan has caught the Enterprise by surprise with its shields down. Khan pauses his attack long enough to say, “I wanted you to know who it is who has beaten you. I, Khan Noonian Singh, the eagle you attempted to cage forever!” At this point, as so many times before, Kirk appears beaten, but we also know he has a plan. This is one of those moments of anticipation. Your mind recalls other moments like this, both in Star Trek and countless other movies. As Kirk buys time from Khan, the movie is also giving us time to be a participant. Of course, we’ll never come up with the sci-fi mumbo-jumbo movie solution that actually does work (they punch in a secret code to take over command of Khan’s vessel and lower its shields), but because our imagination was engaged, we enjoy Kirk’s victory as if it were our own.
Contrast that with the parallel scene in Star Trek Into Darkness. Again, Khan is in control of a Federation vessel, and this time it’s Spock who is in command of the Enterprise. We know there is some sort of plan because a few quick-cut scenes earlier implied that Spock was up to something. But when the armed torpedoes that Spock beams over to Khan explode, instead of taking part in the pleasure of outsmarting Khan, we’re trying to figure out what exactly happened. Because we did not have a moment to ponder, we’re not participating in the story the same way. It’s just experience, not engagement.
The film does not allow us to be a participant. Events continue to tumble forward without consequence and, ultimately, without meaning.
Spock’s death in The Wrath of Khan may not be the most emotionally effective death scene in the history of cinema, but it works. His death is well-foreshadowed, both literally and thematically (Kirk’s first line to Spock in the film is, “Aren’t you dead?”). The danger that forces Spock to act is a direct result of Khan’s actions (Kahn is preparing to detonate the Genesis device). In the reverse situation of Star Trek Into Darkness, the danger is just another “and then” situation. Khan’s vessel has been disabled by the torpedoes, and then the Enterprise finds itself falling into Earth’s atmosphere. The dialog in Kirk’s death scene is a fairly smart inversion of the dialog of The Wrath of Khan, but where that film used Spock’s death as the start of the movie’s denouement and thematic coda, Star Trek Into Darkness follows this scene with just more “and thens”. And then Khan is still alive, and then Spock runs after Khan, and then they have a fist fight, and then Bones figures out how to reanimate Kirk, and then, and then, and then. And then again the film does not allow us to be a participant. Events continue to tumble forward without consequence and, ultimately, without meaning.
Loudness, a lack of space, a lack of moments to be engaged with, and, perhaps a lack of trust on the part of filmmakers to let the audience engage and co-create with their movies. There is no room for a mind to romp, just a small crevice only large enough for fleeting interest. I’m not saying that Star Trek Into Darkness is a bad movie, I’m saying it’s an entirely uninteresting one. Thirty years after the release of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, moments of it are still resonant in our popular culture. Its images remain in our imagination, its themes, as bald as they are, still speak to us. It seems unlikely that Star Trek Into Darkness will remain as resonant in thirty years. Movies that fail in their obligation to be interesting fail to place themselves into our memories.
Lawrence von Haelstrom is actually not a former bull roping champion. He does have a BA in Creative Writing from George Mason University.