Movie review

The Trouble with Alternate Universes

And now for something completely different!

About a month ago, I saw J.J. Abrams’s newest addition to the Star Trek pantheon, Star Trek Into Darkness. And I have feelings about it. And I haven’t had time to write a word for ages (new job! Yay!) so all those feelings had to wait until I got a moment to write them down. Some of them are good, so I’ll start with the positive stuff.

I love the whole concept they seem to be going for in these new movies. Both the 2009 reboot and this sequel make it clear that we’re not dealing with a traditionally canon Star Trek universe. That frees the new writers to do things their way without having to confine themselves to what has come before, and allows them to escape the inevitable whinging of hardcore fans. This is a concept fanfiction writers have been playing with for ages, allowing them to use characters they already know and love, and inserting them into new and different situations at will. After the 2009 film, I was fully onboard to see what new adventures our beloved old characters could now have.

And then Into Darkness trailers came out and they entirely failed to spoil the whole plot of the movie in 30 seconds! Glory be!

That means I had no preconceptions or assumptions going into the theater. I read no reviews beforehand, and visited no fan forums.

And I loved the newness of it! The devil-may-care youth of a crew that have not traversed a thousand galaxies together, the smooth, fairly unpretentious 21st century dialog. The shiny updated aesthetic mixed with the familiarity of Spock, Kirk, Bones, Uhura, and Scotty. The casual reference to “the Mudd incident” and the almost sneaky introduction of Carol Marcus. The model starships from Enterprise and First Contact in Admiral Marcus’s office and of course Bones’s famous “I’m a doctor not a…” line. Somehow, the new and old blended together in a wonderful coherence. Great stuff.

The film is fast-paced, but that’s to be expected of summer action flicks. As far as plotlines go, it’s twisty and turny enough to be interesting, but not too complex to be thoroughly explained in the course of a 2 hour and a bit long movie.

Basically, Kirk and the crew go up against a mysterious super-soldier who has a vendetta against Admiral Marcus because Marcus has used his knowledge to build new Starfleet weaponry but plans to destroy him and his helplessly cryofrozen crew. Marcus is planning to use these new weapons in a heretofore nonexistent war against the Klingons and use Kirk and his Enterprise crew as the catalysts.

In a twist that should come as no surprise to anyone, the super-soldier, who went by the name John Harrison, is actually Khan Noonian Singh, Kirk’s nemesis from our old favorite, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

So, Into Darkness is a Wrath of Khan reboot. Surprise?

Not really.

Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed this movie. It’s a fun action flick with a compelling cast of characters—even the villain—and a plotline both interesting and coherent. But certain things made my inner original series fan cry tears of bitter sorrow.

First off, while I love the fact that Bones finally gets to say one of his famous “I’m a doctor, not a…” phrases, Spock’s “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” line seems shoehorned in at the beginning of the film in an introductory scene. While the original line was key to the plot of Wrath, this time, Spock’s line is dismissed completely, as he utters it while inside an erupting volcano. He’s like, “Wait, guys! Your daring rescue mission is both unwise and unnecessary!” And Kirk is all, “No Spock, I don’t care if the primitive planet’s inhabitants see the ship and suffer a spiritual or existential crisis; the most important thing is to retrieve you!”

In fact, the writers seem unwilling to sacrifice the life of a crewmember, even temporarily, as was done in Wrath. In Darkness, it is Kirk who dies of radiation poisoning while repairing the Enterprise’s warp core, but while Wrath allowed the film to end on a sorrowful note, leaving Spock dead (at least temporarily) between movies, Darkness does not allow for more than a brief moment of gravitas.

Anyone who had been paying marginal attention to the film’s middle portion will recall that Bones took a blood sample from Khan, who had earlier used his own blood as a healing serum and bargaining chip to make his first move at the beginning of the film. Connecting the dots, it’s clear that Khan’s blood, with its limitless capacity for regeneration, will soon be used to bring Kirk back from death. Handy, no?

I appreciate the role reversal in this version of their encounter with Khan, where Kirk dies for the good of all, but for those who have not seen Wrath to understand the importance of this reversal, and how it reflects the otherness of the alternate universe created in the 2009 film, Kirk’s death seems nothing more than an incidental plot-complicating device. Which it essentially is.

Someone must brave the radiation to realign the warp core, and Kirk, obviously sees it as his duty, as captain of the ship. OK, no problem there. And since Khan (and all his lovely, lovely blood) is within beaming distance, there is no reason Bones should not immediately acquire another blood sample to save Kirk. Perfectly logical.

What I see no need for is the famous cry of, “Khaaaaaaaan!” this time uttered by Spock after Kirk kicks it. What I see no reason for is the reinvention of Khan himself.

I know we’re working with an alternate universe, but in no universe does a man named Khan Noonian Singh look anything like Benedict Cumberbatch. My improbability meter went off the charts when he announced his real name. It’s nearly as improbable as Jake Gyllenhall playing a Persian prince. If they were going to revive the super soldier concept, I would rather the writers simply reinvent the character. His motivation doesn’t need to change, but what if Admiral Marcus had awoken a different soldier? Not Khan, but one of his men, perhaps one named John Harrison? Alternate universe, right?

I’ve got no problem with the actor. I think he does a fantastic job in the role; I just had to pretend that his name wasn’t Khan. It doesn’t work for me.

Kind of how the “romance” between Spock and Uhura doesn’t work for me. It seems so… contrived. Like the writers thought the movie needed a romance, so they drew Spock and Uhura out of a hat and decided they would be in love. Every time the romance is mentioned it’s kind of an afterthought. Even the actors themselves don’t seem to believe it. And it’s used as such a convenient plot device; for example, when Spock chases Khan, and they seem evenly matched in physical prowess until Uhura appears on the scene, for some reason. Suddenly, Spock is reinvigorated and he wins his tiff with the villain—supposedly because he got all heroic to protect his lady. I don’t buy it.

On the whole, it wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t great.

There was one interesting moment in the final scene, when Kirk welcomes Carol Marcus to the Enterprise family. It’s like he’s forgotten that he played a vital role in killing off her father and she behaves as though she had not just lived through a traumatic experience. But there’s this brief moment when it seemed almost as though they could be setting her up as the next villain. I find it hard to believe that she just accepted the brutal passing of her father and happily moved on with life onboard the Enterprise with the guy who basically—albeit accidentally—engineered her father’s death. It would be really cool to make her a badass female villain in a crazy alternate universe flipside scenario.

That’s probably not going to happen at all, but it would be really interesting if they did.

BTW here is my favorite take on the original crowd, kickin’ it old school.

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