Spoilers for Star Trek: Into Darkness ahead.
Full disclosure, I know a lot of folks that were underwhelmed with Into Darkness and I know a lot of folks who straight up did not like it. I’m neither. I really enjoyed Star Trek: Into Darkness and had a blast watching it. In retrospect I can now see the validity of many viewers’ complaints, but at the end of the day I’m still a big advocate for the second film in the rebooted Star Trek saga.
A lot of the problems I’ve heard attributed to the movie by and large circulate the film’s main protagonist, James T. Kirk, and the film’s main antagonist, Benedict Cumberbatch, the eight-hundred pound Gorn in the room.
When it was announced that a sequel to the 2009 Star Trek was in the works speculation was rampant that the villain would be the iconic Kahn, as made famous by Ricardo Montalban in 1982’s The Wrath of Kahn. Some were dissuaded with the announcement that Cumberbatch’s character was named John Harrison, but I wasn’t one of them. Not only am I fantastic at other stuff, I’m also quite the sleuth and through a careful process of deduction deduced the following:
“John Harrison, more like Kahn Harrison.”
Also, it says he’s Kahn on IMDb, but I think they found out from me probably.
Of course utilizing Kahn is instantly problematic because he is Kahn, not only a classic villain, but a classic villain from a classic science fiction film that brings with it science fiction fans who bring with them a never-ending buffet of discontent and a dogmatic loyalty to pretty much anything that came first. And Ricardo Montalban and The Wrath of Kahn was first godamnit. Whether it’s good or bad for purists I don’t know, but Cumberbatch’s take on the villain is far from an impression of Montalban’s.
Most obviously, it’s hard not to notice that Cumberbatch and Montalban look exactly nothing alike in any way save their four limbs and a head. This is only exaggerated by the obvious fact that thought was clearly put into casting the young Enterprise crew with actors who in large part resembled their Original Series counterparts. I guess Wilmer Valderrama was busy.
But that’s all part of adaptation. Sure, J.J. Abrams managed to finagle his way out of a full-fledged reboot back in 2009, but Spock Prime or not his films are still an adaptation and with adaptations come change. Abrams largely took advantage of this with Into Darkness, most notably with a classic switcheroo death, but also in casting Kahn so far from Montalban. So Kahn gets like six or seven inches, a less Bon Jovi haircut and a scary dragon voice. Fine by me. Of course Kahn has changed in more than just appearance. The warlord’s demeanor is different enough to make note of.
Where Montalban’s Kahn was a brilliant, cunning and refined retired member of Motley Crue, Cumberbatch’s Kahn Harrison is more of a brooding, brute force of nature whose true origins and intentions, for better or worse, are left largely unknown to the audience. Never underestimate the everything-altering powers of an Eric Bana time attack I guess.
Of course by the end credits of Into Darkness the mysteries surrounding Kahn seem more akin to inconsistencies and poor writing. And maybe that’s all they are at the end of the day, but I’m okay with that. There’s something sinister about the force of nature that is Kahn being unleashed on space for a brief moment only to be quickly bottled up again before much of anything can be learned about just who and what he is.
Do I get what Kahn’s after? Nope. Do I know who he is? Nope. But I know that he’s still drifting around in a tube somewhere in space, and as someone who thoroughly enjoyed Cumberbatchs’ performance I find that exciting and Kirk and crew should find it unsettling to say the least.
Of course Kirk has other things to deal with, like the fact that he’s a twenty something hot head captaining a star ship and acting exactly like a twenty something hot head would whilst captaining a star ship. James T. The character Kirk has always had a brashness to him, but in Into Darkness it jumped clear ahead to stupidity. Blatantly ignoring the advice of literally everyone on the crew that got him to where he is Kirk manages to make quite the mess out of pretty much everything he touches with his shoot first, ask questions later attitude.
He’s cocky and irritating and the exact kind of person you would never in a million years want to see in a leadership position in real life. But Star Trek is a movie. And several television series. And a bunch of books. And I think a cartoon once. But for right now it’s a movie. If the public demanded it I’m sure Hollywood could slap together a science fiction epic about a starship and its exceedingly reasonable captain as he and his crew could float about the stars siting regulations, asking questions first, second and third and playing Sudoku, but that movie is called “Boring Movie.” And it’s boring.
Not every movie needs to be grounded in gritty realism with an omniscient protagonist that stands back and thinks five steps ahead like some sort of checkmating Jack Bauer. Not every movie has to explain and justify itself to within an inch of its life. Without a healthy portion of narrative smoke and mirrors it makes exactly zero sense that James Kirk has gone from a bar fight to a galactic hero and starship captain within four years and while it’s ridiculous to think that Kirk managed to make such a massive career leap in such a short span of time the only way you get a guy that scuffles in bar room brawls into the Captain’s chair of a space ship is to get him from the stool to the chair as quick as possible before Tyler Perry and Star Fleet lecture the maverick out of him.
Critics are right, there are holes riddled throughout Into Darkness, but I never once thought the Enterprise sunk. And guess what? In the movie it shoots out of the water and flies away into space. So yeah. It literally didn’t.