Liz and Frank Tell You What Happened In “Star Trek Into Darkness”

Dear Everyone,

MV5BMTk2NzczOTgxNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwODQ5ODczOQ@@._V1_So. Um. Star Trek Into Darkness. Totally a movie that exists and has just recently arrived in disc form. Frank and Liz both saw it, for once — and they want to talk about it!

Liz: Frank, here’s the thing — not only have I seen this movie twice, but I have seen the opening sequence four times (due to various screening-type things). But the reason I’ve seen it twice is that I thought I was busy on opening day, then a lunch got canceled and I suddenly had an opening in my schedule. My original plan was to see it that Saturday night — I had tickets and everything — but I was SO TERRIFIED of spoilers that I decided to skip out to the movies and be on top of things. And I am glad, because I don’t think I would have gotten to Saturday without finding out which classic Trek film was being appropriated. How about you — did you go unspoiled?

Frank: Liz, first of all, I love that by the end of its first weekend you had already seen the movie two to four times. I have seen it once (but I really paid attention). And no, I was spoiled. I knew going in that Benedict Cumberbatch was going to be playing Khan.

Liz: Did that affect your enjoyment at all? Like, do you think you’d have enjoyed it more if you hadn’t known?

Frank: Yeah, it’s funny. Normally, as you know, I’m very resentful of spoilers. (I once got incredibly angry at Jeff for spoiling that Julius Caesar was killed on HBO’s Rome, and Jeff was like “What? That’s history and it happened 2000 years ago!”) But in this case I was glad to know in advance that Khan was going to be the villain. Probably because I love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan so much and was so excited to see a new take on the character.

Did knowing the twist affect my viewing of the film? Surely. I enjoyed the big “My name is Khan!” moment when it finally came, but it obviously didn’t pack the punch of a big surprise. How was that reveal for you?

Liz: Well, the thing to know about me is that I am painfully painfully naive at times. So Abrams and Lindelof and others said just often enough that Cumberbatch wasn’t playing Khan in interviews leading up to the film’s release, and I bought it. “Why would they go to the trouble of calling him John Harrison if he’s playing Khan?” I said to myself. “Clearly, they’re not doing Wrath!”

Like I said, painfully naive. But I wasn’t too surprised by the actual reveal, because by the time Cumberbatch snarls “Myyyyy naaaaaame is KHAAAAAAAN,” it was pretty clear what was going down. Really, the fact that in the opening scene, there’s a very direct rehash of “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” shoulda tipped me off. But like I said, painfully naive.

So, starting with the opening sequence, in which Spock nearly gets volcano-flambeed to save a primitive race, we’ve got the ol’ one-two of sacrifice and loyalty and the line between the two. Or, as I like to put it, “It is totally okay to knowingly kill a whole bunch of people if it might save your family.”

Frank: Ha! Yeah, I think that’s the moral of The Search for Spock.

I’m so glad you bring up the Abrams camp’s campaign to convince everyone that Khan wasn’t in the movie. I find it fascinating. (Vulture did a pretty thorough recap of the general obfuscation campaign over the last couple of years.)

On the one hand, I totally get their motivation, since the reveal that “John Harrison” is actually Khan is a major twist in the middle of the film. On the other hand, they implied more than once throughout the process that the bad guy would be somebody we would recognize. Even without any other clues, Khan is right at the top of that list.

Star Trek has a lot of alien races, but a relatively small number of recognizable individual villains in its rogues’ gallery, particularly when we’re talking about the original series. It would be a different story if, a year ago, the filmmakers had come forward and said, “Here’s our villain and he’s a new character and here’s a few sentences about his story.” Instead, they kept him suspiciously secret during the entire production, while at the same time every article published about the movie asked, “Is he Khan or somebody else?” And then six months ago they billed him as “John Harrison,” which couldn’t sound more like a pseudonym.

Two weeks before the movie came out, I heard an entertainment journalist on public radio (not exactly a nerd rumor mill) say, “We’re basically just assuming it’s Khan.” And then of course there’s the fact that the movie was released internationally a week before it was released stateside, making last-minute web leaks a certainty.

That said, I think the fact that you still weren’t sure going in attests to the campaign’s success. Also, there’s my sister, who’s pretty pop culturally savvy but only passingly familiar with Star Trek. (She really liked the last movie, and she’s seen The Wrath of Khan.) She had no idea going in that Khan appearing in the movie was even a possibility, and she loved the twist. I’ve spoken to a couple of other friends with a similar level of Trek familiarity who felt exactly the same way.

Liz: That article you link to makes me surprisingly cranky! I appreciate Abrams & Co. facing The Great Spoiler War head-on, especially because it was effective enough to preserve some amount of surprise for me, but my momma raised me to believe that lying is not a nice thing to do.

So we’ve got Khan running around the galaxy (not in this order) gunning down starship captains and conning Mickey Smith from Doctor Who into suicide-bombing Section 31 (oh, and Frank, you better believe my Deep Space Nine-lovin’ heart plotzed when Section 31 came up).

And then we get drunk Scotty and Klingons! Yay slightly-redesigned Klingons for the new timeline! Boy, I was enjoying the first half of this movie…

…Well, the first time, that is. The second time, Mickey Smith: Suicide Bomber To Save His Daughter was really, really disturbing to me. I think it’s because I didn’t quite know where the scene was going the first time, but the second it was very “oh shit he is going to go suicide bomb his entire office this is not pleasant to watch.”

NOOOOOO MICKEY SMITH DON'T DO IT WHAT WOULD ROSE THINK!!!!!!

NOOOOOO MICKEY SMITH DON’T DO IT WHAT WOULD ROSE THINK!!!!!!

I guess drunk Scotty helped take the sting out of that? Simon Pegg and Karl Urban really own the portions of this movie that they are in.

Frank: Oh my god, those guys are great. The relatively early scene where Scotty quits is one of my favorites in the movie. It’s lively, funny, dramatic, a great blend of character stuff and ideas, and I really didn’t see it coming. And I should say that whatever issues I have with these reboots, I think they nailed the casting. The casting and the Spock/Uhura romance are the new elements that I’m 100% behind.

Yeah, that suicide bomber stuff is definitely grim, as is the climactic image of a flying machine crashing into an urban skyline and toppling skyscrapers. But I appreciate that the movie is trying to say something about the post-9/11 world (and America’s relationship to it). I like that kind of exploration of contemporary social and political reality in just about any movie, and it’s certainly in the Trek tradition.

Though I will say that dedication to the victims of September 11th during the credits elicited a groan from the audience I saw it with.

Liz: Oh, Frank! That dedication? That’s the craziest bit! It’s not actually a dedication to 9/11 victims — it’s a dedication to “post-9/11 VETERANS.” This is something I didn’t quite get the first time I watched it, and in fact just assumed that it was a “so sorry about blowing up all those buildings and potentially triggering your PTSD” message.

But the second time, with my brother, he pointed out the key word of “veterans,” which he rationalized as follows: The entire plot of the movie is that after an act of terrorism, the acting head of Starfleet is like “let’s go blow that fucker up!” but he is WRONG about this, and Kirk and Spock rebel against this attitude.

If read along these lines, the film could be seen as an attack on the Bush administration’s post-9/11 military actions, and then we’re in “HOLLYWOOD HATES THE TROOPS” territory.

According to the IMDB, the reason for the dedication is that:

The film is dedicated to post-9/11 veterans. This is due to director J.J. Abrams’ connection to The Mission Continues, a nonprofit organization that serves as a framework for United States military veterans to do community service work when they return home from overseas. The organization’s founder and CEO Eric Greitens makes a cameo appearance alongside other veterans at the end of the film as one of the flag folders. A section of the film’s official website is dedicated to The Mission Continues.

Who knows the real story? Probably not us, at any point in our natural lives. But yeah, the dedication seemed to be at the very least a distracting element for audiences who stayed for more than a few moments of the credits.

Also — while we’re skipping around — why were all the credits over scary exploding planets on fire? Why couldn’t they be pretty fun worlds that one might actually ENJOY exploring on an action-packed five year tour?

When I have specific complaints, Frank, they get SPECIFIC.

Frank: Oh yeah, those planets! Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t that end credits imagery nearly identical to the end credits imagery in their first Star Trek? I think all those exploding planets (particularly when you compare them to, say, the more slow and stately planets in the opening credits of Star Trek: The Next Generation) perfectly embody the tone of the Abrams-Orci-Kurtzman Trek. Namely: Space is full of crazy shit and it’s going really fast and frequently exploding.

Is it time for us to start airing grievances? Because mine are manifold.

Liz: Good a time as any! I mean, presumably anyone reading this is pretty familiar with the film’s story:

Stuff goes boom, Kirk goes on Khan revenge mission, ends up having a big ol’ fight with Robocop, who was using Khan to develop even fancier future tech, briefly teams up with Khan to fight Robocop, betrays/gets betrayed by Khan, more things go boom, they pull a reversal of the infamous Wrath of Khan ending where Kirk dies instead of Spock to save the ship, Khan crashes his spaceship into San Francisco, Spock goes and punches Khan a bunch, and then they use Khan’s super-blood to make a super-serum that literally brings Kirk back to life and it’s time for a five-year party around the universe!

I mean, I think that’s about it?

Frank: Beautifully recapped. The only other details I can think of: Kirk violates the Prime Directive and gets demoted, then immediately promoted; Spock and Uhura are having minor relationship problems because he has trouble expressing his feelings; President Kennedy from Thirteen Days is assassinated; and Kirk sees the new ship’s doctor in her underwear.

Liz: Military science officer, not doctor? But yeah, exactly.

Frank: I guess I should also say that I found the movie totally entertaining and had a good time. I think it’s a very enjoyable movie, and definitely not a bad movie. But I think it has some serious issues. I’m assuming you feel similarly? It sounds like the second half of the movie did not live up to the first half’s promise for you?

Liz: It’s more like I enjoyed it while I watched it — the second half has some amazing set pieces, don’t get me wrong — but I’m increasingly convinced that it’s what I think of as a sloppy-sweater movie, where the more you pick at it, the more it unravels.

The best encapsulation I’ve seen of this is this brilliant bit of satire by “Dr. Leonard Bones McCoy”, which takes the implications behind the idea that at the end of this movie, the good Doctor has literally cured death, and extrapolates a hilariously chilling future. It wasn’t one of those things I really thought about, you know, the fact that STARFLEET NOW HAS THE KEY TO IMMORTALITY, until that article pointed it out.

Boy howdy, this movie rewards nitpicking!

Frank: Yes! That’s such a good point. There’s literally nothing in the movie that indicates that the resurrection technology couldn’t be endlessly replicated. (Contrast that with other famous Trek character resurrections — Spock in Star Trek III, Scotty in that episode of TNG, Kirk in Generations, Kirk again in those Shatner-penned official fan fic novels — where the mechanics of the return from the dead are specific, one-time-only deals.)

Okay, my grievances. Since we’re here, I’ll start with a plot-related one.
The movie doesn’t take advantage of its villain. This is probably my biggest issue with the movie on its own terms (as opposed to my Star Trek fan terms). As you know, The Wrath of Khan is one of my favorite movies, so I’ll concede that I have a sentimental attachment to the character. The time I waited on the great Ricardo Montalbán’s table remains one of the high points of my service industry career.

FROM THE DEPTHS OF HELL'S HEART, I STAB AT THEE.

FROM THE DEPTHS OF HELL’S HEART, I STAB AT THEE.

(If anybody reading isn’t familiar with Khan’s previous appearances, the original episode featuring Montalbán as the character is currently available for free on regular Hulu. It’s an engaging/interesting episode and a great representative sample of the original 1960s Star Trek. Also I believe you can stream The Wrath of Khan on Netflix. And that film is terrific by any standard.)

But I really went into Star Trek into Darkness very open to a new take on the character. I like Benedict Cumberbatch a lot, and I think he does a great job with the role. Cumberbatch and the filmmakers opt for a Khan that’s basically free of charm and humor, opting instead for extra helpings of menace, but I think that’s a totally workable and watchable approach. And they take plenty of advantage of Khan’s superhuman strength and intelligence (certainly at least as much as in his previous appearances).

Liz: BUT WHAT ABOUT HIS GLORIOUS PECS? How can you truly call him Khan without glorious golden Montalban cleavage? KHAN IN A MOCK TURTLENECK IS NO KHAN AT ALL!

I’m exaggerating. Maybe.

Frank: Yes, it’s probably a shame that his partially exposed bare chest didn’t make the final cut. But I’m glad they at least considered including it.

Basically, I don’t have issues with the character’s portrayal. My problem is how they use Khan in the narrative. And I think that sweater really starts to unravel right around the midpoint of the movie.

Liz: Thank you for continuing the sweater metaphor!

Frank: It’s a GREAT metaphor! First of all, there’s Khan’s backstory, which comes out in the second half of the “My name is Khaaaaaaaan” scene. (Lauren turned to me at that momet in the theater and said, “He’s saying his name like he already knows he’s the villain.” I can kind of respect that.)

This sequence actually amounts to some of the movie’s more interesting work with the reboot’s alternate timeline. The story of Khan tells of his discovery and revival is a reworking of the events of the original Khan TV episode, “Space Seed,” and there’s enough key detail that fans can trace how the events of the previous movie led directly to Khan, in this timeline, being thawed out by Robocop instead of by the crew of the Enterprise. But what’s bizarrely rushed through in this scene is Khan’s origin story.

Liz: Maybe because they didn’t feel like dealing with the whole “The Eugenics Wars happened in the 1990s” thing?

Frank: EXACTLY. We may need to go Deep Geek for a minute. I apologize in advance to your readership. For anybody who’s not familiar with that original Khan episode (because you haven’t watched it yet even though I linked to it like 400 words ago come on guys), when the crew of the Enterprise orginally pulled Khan out of deep freeze, they eventually discovered he was a warlord-on-the-lam, a major player in Earth’s third World War who, facing defeat, packed up his besties and rocketed off into space and cryogenic exile. (An episode plot mechanic that I really like: it takes our heroes a while to actually identify Khan, even though he’s a major historical figure, because the near total nuclear devastation of World War III left records of the period extremely spotty.) But in that episode, right in the teaser, Spock makes it very clear that World War III took place in the 1990s.

That seems quite plausible in the 1960s. (You can imagine the episode’s writers, including the influential Gene L. Coon, did not anticipate at the time that they were crafting a franchise that would endure for 30 years, to say nothing of 50.) But even by the time The Wrath of Khan comes out, they’re blurring the details, referring to Khan as the product of late-20th century genetic engineering and not mentioning the war at all. Later Trek installments (some of which are mentioned in that article you link to above) get even more murky/contradictory when it comes to the problematic question of a Trek historical narrative that doesn’t seem to fit our real-life recent history.

Liz: So where does that leave us? Pawns in the game? Honestly, I love Star Trek when it brings up the genetically-enhanced thing, largely because of my darling Dr. Julian Bashir. But Khan, at least in this context, seems like a major land mine for the franchise — one it attempts to disarm by putting everyone in cryostasis at the end, but said cryostasis is such a cop-out.

However, that almost seems fitting. The whole movie, in many respects, is a cop-out.

Love,
Liz and Frank

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About Liz Shannon Miller

Liz Shannon Miller, based in Los Angeles, is a writer for the screen and the web, her work including G4's Attack of the Show and the tech blog GigaOM. She also co-hosts the podcast Timey Wimey TV, contributes to the video curation site Here's Some Awesome, and tells her friend Frank about stuff at Liz Tells Frank.

Posted on October 29, 2013, in All the Spoilers, Movies and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Awesome article, Liz and Frank!
    I think a lot of the kind of creepy 9/11 imagery and possible political messanges comes from screenwriter Bob Orci, who is a rather outspoken 9/11 “Truther”, and also blamed President Obama for orchestrating the Newtown shooting as a “false flag” operation…

    I love the way you guys balance snark and genuine affection for franchises of all varieties on the website- thank you!

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