Before I begin, let me start by saying I don't want to be "that guy." I really don't. I don't view myself as a keyboard crusader or a raging fanboy or any of that. It doesn't appeal to me.
This blog entry is me answering a legitimate question that I was asked by @NomadicWriter, about the problems I had with Star Trek Into Darkness and how I would have fixed them. Usually when I have these thoughts, I make notes, I keep them to myself, and I use that wisdom to hopefully build something better, to give myself standards in my writing to hold myself up to. It seems really impertinent of me to sit here at my laptop at home to prescribe fixes for a movie that talented, well-paid professionals worked on and made a heckuvalotof bank on.
My authority on this is... low. I don't have credentials I can point to that say I know what I'm talking about, this is just my reaction as a movie buff with high standards.
Honestly, a lot of my problems seem to stem from my belief that the writers were one or two steps away from having something great, but either stopped short, didn't have time to get into it, were writing to a formula (what Scott Myers at the GoIntoTheStory blog calls "outside-in" writing), or... who knows? And some of this stuff might just be hindsight, things you can only realize after the fact, and I can't judge someone for that.
I won't get into the aesthetics or production design because a) that's a personal thing, and b) I didn't think it was that bad. I'm actually one of the few people who actually seemed to LIKE the brewery, but the one thing I have to bring up is how many consoles don't seem to have any buttons on them. What is that? That's a suspension of disbelief issue for me.
Now then, since I was asked, here are (some) of my collected thoughts on Star Trek Into Darkness...
The Man Of Steel sort of brought this issue to the forefront with the images of the skyscrapers in Metropolis falling down that we, as a nation (world?) still haven't gotten over September 11. We haven't healed, we never got closure, so we're constantly replaying it, trying to make sense of it. Or we've stopped trying to make sense of it, but we can't help but hit rewind.
There's two reasons why, I think. First, that day was just a perfect storm of everything going wrong (there's an episode of the Cracked Podcast, episode 26 that talks about this) and we can't wrap our heads around the scale of something like that. The second is that we haven't gone through the entire process, the sequence of events isn't over. World War II didn't end when Hitler shot himself in the bunker (or was shot in a movie theater, depending on which movie you prefer). In fact, World War II didn't really end until the Berlin Wall got knocked down. But we also had the Nuremberg trials, the nation of Israel was established, and Japan was rebuilt. There was a good movie about that called Emperor, with Tommy Lee Jones, that was about the surrender, finding out who in the chain of command should be held accountable for the attack on Pearl Harbor, and moving on. It wasn't about the victory of America, it was about the future of Japan. And the equivalent of those events don't seem to have happened yet.
Now, Starfleet and Earth seem to be in the same headspace in this flick: it was the perfect storm of events (a rogue alien with a super-advanced weapon from the future destroyed Vulcan and attacked Earth), we couldn't have planned for it, we couldn't have stopped it, we can't let it happen again. And even though the odds of it happening again are absolutely minuscule, we go overboard and that makes the damage worse and keeps us from healing. And it's worse for the world of Star Trek, because that's a whole world whose way of life is "how can I help?" That's the mission of Starfleet, that's the philosophy of the human race in the 23rd century, THAT'S why the show resonates for so many people. "How can I help?"
The opening? All you needed was a moment where Kirk wants to help someone, with every fiber of his being he knows he HAS to help... but Starfleet's changed. His mission has changed. In order to do what he needs to do, the first scene needs him to say "I can't help you."
That's it. You can cut RIGHT to him in the bar in San Francisco after the opening title. Whatever he was doing, probably some mission for Starfleet to protect its' own interests, that's not what he signed up for. And the Enterprise? They stopped upgrading the science equipment, anything that's not a tactical advantage is either left alone or ripped out and replaced with something else. The ship isn't even the same, and THAT'S what Scotty can't take anymore. The torpedos will be the last straw (which on its' own is a totally rational objection). And he was looking forward to installing the new biologics bay, top of the line facility with all sorts of little technical needs. A little passion project for him. That's gone, too. Now they're just treading water and killing time, and they don't feel any better for it. And that's kind of where we are in the world, not just about the whole military thing, but everything in 20-whenever it was this movie came out feels that way. We just think "will it get any better? Is this it?"
No, it's not it. It's never it. And deep down, I think we know it, but we need to be told what we know sometimes. Star Trek is great at appealing to our better selves.
Dr Carol Marcus
Carol Marcus was the main character in the movie, but I don't know if the writers realized that. She should be the personification of the personality crisis that Starfleet is going through: do we default to defensive mode only? Do we do what we feel we have to do, or what we were born to do? Carol is that. She was a biologist who switched to weapons. Not what she wants to do, but she has a talent, and daddy needs all the talented people he knows for his special little projects, right?
But why do they care so much? It can't just be their oath, it can't just be allegiance to a flag, they need a reason in their core to do what they're doing.
And here it is:
Carol Marcus had a sister.
Think about it. She had a sister, maybe another brilliant doctor with another bright career, but the sister died in Nero's attack on San Francisco. This is what drives Admiral Robocop to personally see to Starfleet's militarization, he doesn't build the Vengeance to protect Earth, he builds it to protect CAROL, because he couldn't protect the sister. It's simple and pure. AND it's a fantastic visual for Carol, she'll have to choose which life she really wants: the Enterprise, headed for the final frontier where anything can happen, or the safe but cold Vengeance.
And for clarity's sake, saying Carol Marcus is the main character doesn't mean she's in every single scene. I keep thinking of Gillian in Star Trek IV, and I don't think she shows up in the movie for an HOUR, but she's the one who has to make the big leap of faith, everything hinges on her. Everyone else has stuff to do and it's entertaining to watch, but that's the glue.
I can imagine a scene where Carol tried to sabotage the Enterprise, or they figured out who she was and they throw her in the brig, and while going through her effects for sabotage equipment (or sabo-taj equipment), they find a little memory stick thing. Then we see this little selfie video thing of Carol and her sister in San Francisco or somewhere else, first day of Starfleet Medical or whatever, celebrating, on the main viewer on the bridge. The crew, who've all turned against Carol, they see who Carol was and what Carol lost, and they feel what they've lost, and they decide they're going to get that back. Kirk and company aren't saving the Earth, they're saving HER. By the way, this falls into the "Save The Cat" model, if the "call to action" is "find Harrison," then the "reach deep within" is this scene.
Who was the trickster?
I counted three people pretending to be someone they're not.
First of all, we were supposed to be fooled by THIS guy?
This is what I think annoyed so many people with the "Khan/Not Khan" lie: they didn't even TRY to fool us in the movie. Remember Die Hard, where Alan Rickman runs into Bruce Willis? What if they had done something like that, where Cumberbatch is playing a brilliant but nervous tactician? "I don't go into space, I-I'm one of the land guys, I have an office and play video games all day and they call me a Commander!" Those of us who knew his true identity would be shitting ourselves giggling with anticipation, and those who didn't know would get knocked on their butts when he turns into a snarling snake man. You don't even have to go that far, maybe Harrison was a real person that Khan happened to look like. But there's no distinction, he's not even TRYING to fool us, we just have this "mysterious" brooding figure who we KNOW is evil and we're just killing time until he tells us what we already know. That's not a surprise. A trickster is supposed to be fun.
And by the way, if you're NOT a Star Trek fan, and this is a movie clearly made for "not Star TreK" fans, the name Khan is meaningless. So there's no point in keeping it secret. You could argue that it didn't even mean that much in Wrath of Khan, he was just a dude who was pissed and Kirk and wanted revenge, no matter the cost. The whole thing about him being genetically superior and clever was more important in "Space Seed", it made him a foil to Kirk on Kirk's turf, two big dogs in the same park. They were both charismatic, sexy, skilled commanders, but one was a conquerer.
Then you have Admiral Robocop. You can tell this guy's an asshole too, we're not surprised when he tries to kill the crew. Again, I don't know if anyone was actually surprised by this or if we were supposed to be. In fact, if you go with the whole "Carol Marcus as the main character" idea, then he can just straight up admit to being a bad guy, but guess what? He's in charge now. Admiral Pike's retired, or was strongly persuaded to retire, so now Robocop's the "mentor" of the movie. You're gonna take my orders and like 'em.
Finally, you have Carol Marcus, forging her identity to get on board the Enterprise and not getting very far with that.
Now I wonder how much of that didn't work for me because I knew Carol Marcus was Carol Marcus and that her daddy had to be her daddy and Khan had to be Khan... for a movie that was supposed to be secret, I felt like I knew a lot going in, but I don't know how much of what *I* knew the general public knew or was supposed to know.
Oh, and while we're talking about tricksters, Khan could have kept his identity secret until... well, forever, really, but telling Kirk his real name while he was in the cell when he had no reason too was really stupid. Imagine if he kept his mouth shut, stayed as likable, affable Commander Harrison, a guy who made a few honest mistakes but is trying to fix 'em. You have a whole, funny little action sequence where he and Kirk board the Vengeance, grab Scotty, head to the bridge and round up the bad guys. Hooray! Everyone lets their guards down for a second and zap zap zap zap, they're all down for the count. Spock tries to raise them on the communicator, Harrison picks it up, that warm smile turns into a cold curl. Do you have control of Vengeance? "Oh, Mr Spock... Vengeance is mine."
For a tactical genius, that seems like a glaring lapse in judgement.
And also, for a tactical genius, he didn't seem to prove it that much. Imagine if he had set up little things along the way, little innocuous components that he could MacGuyver together and use as weapons or tools. That way, if he had command of the Vengeance and Starfleet sent a ship EXACTLY like it to get him, Khan would still have weapons the other didn't. He's supposed to be thinking three steps ahead of everyone else (he does face down Spock when they're Skyping, pointing out that he knows exactly how to disable the Enterprise, but that's knowledge, not cunning).
However, I would argue that, if the Carol Marcus/Robocop arc was strong enough, you don't need Khan. You DO need what Khan brought to the plot: a loose thread to pull at, an outside agitator that the Enterprise needs to deal with, but it could be... anyone. In fact, by making it Khan, you take away the chance to show that some group might have a legitimate grievance against Starfleet that they're addressing the wrong way. I feel like a lot of movies have this problem, look at Winter Soldier: by making everything a Hydra conspiracy, you get robbed of the idea that a good person can make bad choices or do the wrong thing. I just get the feeling watching movies now that nothing is every anybody's fault, everything was set into motion or designed to go a certain way before the movie starts, and everyone's just acting out a pre-determined role.
Now, you remember the person that Kirk couldn't help in that new opening? He could actively come back. Or it could be the "real" Harrison, someone used and abused by Admiral Robocop for his own ends, one of Starfleet's best and brightest tarnished, wanting to lash out... actual damage that Admiral Robocop has done that Carol can look at and SEE. "Look what your daddy did! He'll do it to you too if you stick close to him long enough!" Khan kind of did that, but he was still going to be evil, he wasn't going to turn evil just because of Admiral Marcus.
So what's Carol Marcus doing on the Enterprise? Maybe she's a spy. She did forge her credentials to get on. Or maybe they knew she was the admiral's daughter, he could have been her liaison on the ship, there to make sure everything's running fine. She could have a black uniform or a steely gray one, trousers and all that jazz... she gets the cute blue skirt uniform at the end when she's redeemed. After all, Spock was going to be put on another ship (I'll get to that later), and she's kind of the perfect antidote of Spock for Kirk: she's a beautiful woman, smart, she gets his jokes, she fits in well with the crew. Kirk could be happy with her on the crew instead of Spock. Then she could advise him in certain directions, make sure he does things that Daddy Robocop wants him to do, convinces him of Daddy Robocop's way of thinking. I was SO sure that this is what she was supposed to be doing before I saw the movie because it was the only way the underwear scene made sense to me. She was trying to seduce Kirk in a way, she's already as good as Spock is and oh look, breasts, two of them. And maybe that's the tip-off to Kirk that she's not what she claims to be.
What Kind Of Movie Is This?
The Star Trek movies have an interesting style to them: they tend to reference different styles of movies. Star Trek The Motion Picture evokes 2001 with the same sweeping vistas of space, leisurely pace and fantastic visuals. Star Trek II is a Horatio Hornblower/Moby Dick style battle of wits. Star Trek IV is a fish-out-of-water comedy, it almost had Eddie Murphy in it! Star Trek VI is a political thriller with conspiracies, assassinations... hell, the clocks on the bridge are almost a deliberate reference to the set of "The Hunt For Red October." Star Trek Generations is essentially a feature-length episode of The Next Generation. First Contact is Die Hard on the Enterprise. The Marvel movies are starting to go in the same direction.
The new movies should follow this pattern: if Star Trek 11 was Top Gun In Space, then 12 was just a few steps away from being... Mission Impossible In Space! And hey, who better to do THAT movie than JJ Abrams? And that would make it totally distinctive, we've heard about Section 31 before and we've seen one or two undercover missions on the show... I THINK... but a full-on espionage Star Trek movie? We've never had that before!
This would also solve a problem that Star Trek's had for a while, which is that THERE'S NO NEW STUFF! They don't invent anything anymore. Everything that was cool in Star Trek, we kind of started inventing (communicators are cell phones, we have 3D printers), or at least copied in other movies (starships, teleporting)... how many present-day movies show holograms as a thing that actually exists?
Well, since they were going on a secret mission to the Klingon planet, they couldn't bring any Starfleet tech, so that would have been the perfect opportunity to give them some new toys to play with! Stuff that wouldn't play nice with all the clean, proper Starfleet technology. Especially since the Vengeance is manned with private security that might have that stuff too, show us playing with it before we see the bad guys try to use it against us later. Maybe there's a sonic boom weapon like Minority Report. Or a phase grenade or a crazy yo-yo or something, who knows?
So much stuff is inconsequential in this movie
Scenes don't count and people say things that are negated right away...
Kirk gets sent back to the Academy? Oh no! He's going to be sitting there, mouthing off to his instructors, maybe he'll find a new way to sneak back onto the Enterprise, or have a whole other side adventure as he tries to get there.
Oh, he gets the Enterprise back less than five minutes later? Never mind.
Oh, Spock's getting transferred as well! And we met the new Captain! Oh, can you imagine Spock trying to work with a whole other crew? Maybe they really don't like him, maybe the Captain doesn't "get" him, or maybe they'll get attacked and have to be rescued by the Enterprise. And maybe it'll be one of those ships we only got a quick glimpse at last time, like a trike or a quad. Oh, I wanna see a quad on the big screen.
Oh, Spock's going back to the Enterprise as well? Never mind.
Vessels in warp can't chase each other... oh wait this one can, never mind. Come on, man, that wasn't a rule on the show, and if you're going to make it a rule in the movie, at least show us first, have the Enterprise NOT be able to chase a ship that goes into warp early on to lull is into a false sense of security later on.
"I can't tell you about the future. Having said that, let me tell you about the future..." (more about why that cheeses me off later).
Kirk's dead. Oh, we can bring him back to life? Right now? Okay! (That's a WHOLE issue that's brought up in the New York Times in an article called "How Movies Killed Death" that GoIntoTheStory also covered, and I'll link that one b/c there's no paywall). Also this movie literally cured death.
I remember seeing this scene with my sister and our reactions couldn't have been more different: she was genuinely confused: "So... Kirk's DEAD?" Whereas I was just rolling my eyes because I wasn't wearing a watch that I could check. I knew he's be back. They wouldn't even give him a movie to rest, like they did with Spock. He'll be back. Now, if they actually had the guts to kill Kirk and put a new actor in the next movie, that would involve balls that no movie studio possesses, so instinctively, we know that death means nothing. So the death scene means nothing, so the fight to get Khan's blood means nothing, so Kirk coming back means nothing. That's... let's call that a full ten minutes at the end that doesn't mean anything. Combine that with the opening that doesn't mean anything and all the dialogue that doesn't pay off, how much movie is that?
Captain Kirk is not Captain Kirk
Don't get me wrong, I like Chris Pine and I like him as "Jim" in Star Trek, but he doesn't act like a Captain and he doesn't act like Kirk. He's supposed to be evolving into Captain James Kirk and he's not. The thing is, if he was never Captain Kirk and just "Jim Kirk, space adventurer," I would have no problem with him at all. I would love him. Him and Spock and Uhura in the Mudd ship, being space pirates or whatever? I'm there, dude.
As a Captain, he's... not good at his job. Now, that was fine for the first one since he was still raw, but now... he SHOULD be learning from his mistakes, reigning in his personal feelings. He could have wanted to beat the shit out of Khan, but he should also have stopped himself. He doesn't seem to be learning, he just seems to be doing whatever he wants and getting out of the consequences. Every time. He got his butt KILLED and got out of it. And if he had managed to turn himself around and be mature and responsible, then his death might have meant something.
His two speeches of "you are a criminal" and "I take full responsibility" just don't sit well with me. They don't sound like a Captain, I can't put my finger on it but they sound almost childlike. I can't imagine Shatner being given those lines. And this brings up the Shatner dilemma. Shatner has a cadence that people pick up on, and it's real easy to pick up on how he says rather than WHAT he says, AND Shatner has a real dynamo personality that makes it tricky to keep him and his character separate. I really wanted to talk to my friend Matthew Ewald about this after he played young Kirk in Star Trek Phase II, but we never did. But I feel that there might have been something interesting there, he might have found the true Kirk, and that might shine a light on how to write that role, and I just thought it would be fascinating insight into how to play a character someone else created.
You know what it might be, with those two speeches? It might just be that he's talking too much. He doesn't need to say all of that. His "murderer" speech could just be "they wanted you in a crater, I put you in a box. I didn't have to." And we heard his surrender speech in Wrath of Khan: "If it's me you want, I'll beam myself aboard. Spare my crew." Even then, he was maintaining control (setting terms) and dignity. Not "I'll do anything you want." He was succinct and diplomatic, which the new Kirk is not, and that's what I find off-putting because a Captain should be well-spoken.
Clearly, I'm not Captain material. And I'm fine with that.
The Dark Knight Effect
The Dark Knight was the first time I can recall seeing a movie's opening scene just by itself in the theater... it was its' own short movie, but it definitely whet the viewer's appetite for more. Serenity kind of did that too (I think it was just online), but that didn't stand up on its own as well, it was some exposition and then a cool escape scene. The bank robbery with the Joker was satisfying but it wasn't enough, we wanted to see more and we wanted to see more RIGHT NOW. And the IMAX... wow, we've never seen that kind of movie at THAT kind of scale before. It was great advertising for seeing the movie in that medium on that size screen, and even if you didn't... you weren't going to forget that.
The Into Darkness opening... first of all, I didn't see it on IMAX so I can't judge that, but I get the feeling it was not as easy on the eyes as TDK's opening was. It wasn't a complete story, it was an opening action sequence and then a short, sad, SILENT film about people I don't know setting up someone I don't know. Now, the stuff with Noel Clarke, all those were good scenes, that's not a "rocket up your ass" sneak preview. In fact, I honestly think the reason the opening involved that volcano was more for the IMAX sneak preview and not for the actual movie. And there was nothing about it that screamed to me "I have to see this again RIGHT NOW!" And you know what, the opening for Star Trek 11 had that. You can watch that out of context and it's good, and it's complete, AND you want to see more. I think what happened is that they got it right once, then they thought about it too much when they tried to do it again. Now that I can forgive because this is not science, you can't do it in a lab and recreate results, something awesome happens and you're left wondering how you did that.
Although to be fair, I don't remember The Dark Knight Rises having an opening sequence that hit it out of the park in the same way as the Bank Robbery opening. It was awesome, Dan Trachtenberg (on either The Totally Rad Show or /Filmcast) described it as a Bond movie opening where the villain is the main character, which was a GREAT observation. It's been a while since I saw it, and I don't think I ever saw it IMAX (or even on Blu-Ray) so I don't want to trust my memory on that, but I don't remember feeling the way I felt with the Dark Knight opening. So maybe Christopher Nolan had the same problem, or The Dark Knight was just a once-in-a-decade type thing. Both are totally possible, both are totally acceptable reasons.
Oh, also Earth... is awful.
Okay, this might be my only other aesthetic issue, but Earth in these movies looks awful. Everything looks overbuilt to capacity, we've seen huge quarries and tunnels that make it feel like Earth is being hollowed out like the planet they found Nibbler on in Futurama, and there's so little green. It's not beautiful. There's no ecological balance or anything on display there, just a mess of steel and glass. When we see London, the London Eye is still there, but you wouldn't be able to see anything out of it. Some of the skyscrapers look real cool, but there's way too many. Earth is loud, overloaded, ugly... and when you consider they have all these giant spaceships and, really, all the galaxy at their fingertips (it takes what, five minutes to cross Federation space?), I think at that point humanity could just find a new planet and chalk Earth up to a loss. It's not like Vulcan where they were all hanging out on the same rock because they were kind of like intergalactic shut-ins who didn't like other people, human beings seem to be everywhere!
I don't feel anything for that Earth. And if you're going to put the Earth in danger in every single movie, you better make it an Earth worth protecting. There's a reason that the Mass Effect 3 trailer had a little girl running in a field, most of us can connect to that. I can't connect to this:
And one more thing...
...you can't CALL someone for the answers! That's bad storytelling! And by the way, this is AFTER Khan foolishly let on that he was a warlord three hundred years ago, you don't need to call someone from the future, you can open a damn history booK! And all that really did was confirm what young Spock already suspected! I hope it wasn't just to get Nimoy in the film, you can make a Star Trek film without Nimoy, guys, it's okay. Or you know what, why not have him talk to someone who doesn't know who he is?
I just now realized that Spock called his future self in front of a whole room of people who didn't know what the heck was going on. He just let everyone in on a HUGE secret. He couldn't have stepped into the hallway and taken the call on his own communicator? I grant you that Scotty, Kirk, and Spock already knew, but shouldn't someone there have just been "whoa, whoa, there's TWO of you guys? How did THAT happen?"
All right, now that I've shot down any chance I'll ever had to be invited to Bad Robot, I invite you all to tell me why I'm wrong or full of BS in the comments below.
Oh, and credit for the pictures to TrekCore, Screencapped.net maybe, Empire Magazine, and NBC Universal Comcast Time Warner Riboflavin Worldwide Intergalactic Planetary Holding Company for the Emily Latella picture.