by Angelica Chong (14A01B) and Kylie Wong (14A01B)
There came a point in Star Trek: Into Darkness when I realized what I was watching – or rather, what I wasn’t watching. My eyes glazed over as fire and hell reigned on the screen, again and again and again. Where was Starfleet’s grand thesis of exploration, its reverence for space and the unknown? Where were the aliens? (Ten minutes of nameless, random Klingons being destroyed doesn’t count.) Where were the nuanced philosophical undertones which made the original Star Trek series such a hit? At the end of the day, Into Darkness is an overly theatrical space opera – with admittedly stunning visuals and rip-roaring action sequences – with shoddy logic and ham-fisted homages to its predecessors.
The film itself is not bad, per se. It leans towards ‘good’ on the scale of summer blockbusters, because, if nothing else, J. J. Abrams is great at action. He delivers warp-speed entertainment without pause, from the high-octane opening sequence involving Kirk and Bones fleeing a planet on the brink of volcanic annihilation, to the Enterprise’s trials in space against poor internal engineering and Khan, the superhuman killing machine who is back with a vengeance. The film is a smorgasbord of gorgeous alien landscapes, tech-porn, and (regrettably) Abrams’ usual overindulgence of lens-flare.
The sharp humour seen in 2009’s Star Trek definitely continues to be one of the strongest elements of the reboot. The exasperated yet affectionate crankiness of Bones and Spock’s poker-face sarcasm provided much-needed relief after the hackneyed doom and melodrama of the fight against Khan, which ends rather bathetically without even a hint of war with the Klingons despite the threat looming ominously throughout the film. That being said, the crew dynamics are portrayed wonderfully – the heart of the film is the notion of found families, teams and crews and people thrown together by circumstance who come to know and need each other intimately. Abrams delivers on this portrayal of the dysfunctional close-knit families of starships and exploration crews.
What Abrams can’t do, though, is Star Trek. As he admitted himself, he’s never been a Trekkie, nor particularly enjoyed or understood it, actually. It’s hard to be invested, and harder still to have that translated concretely in the film itself, if you feel that its subject matter is merely ‘silly and campy’. It’s not surprising then, that one of Abrams’ biggest missteps is one that blatantly disregards the progressiveness of the original franchise: the whitewashing of Khan, one of the most iconic villains in the Star Trek canon.
Without some context, the importance of Khan’s role cannot be understood. With the original TV franchise being premised on the idea that all life is valuable, no matter your appearance, it was progressive of Star Trek, in the 1970s and 80s, to not just rely on the sci-fi trope of using aliens to represent oppressed groups in society, but to actively include people of colour in its narrative, whether as beloved members of the crew (see: Uhura, Sulu) or as multi-faceted villains (see: Khan).
There is no reason for Abrams to deliberately ignore the fact that Khan is most definitely not white (his name is Khan Noonien Singh; this is not difficult!) except that he wants the dollars that a big name like Benedict Cumberbatch can bring in, which is disappointing considering the implications of such a decision. Abrams is undoing what the original franchise fought so hard to do: to present a villain of colour not just as a despotic brute, but as a complex character; someone who was charismatic, intelligent and grudgingly respected by Kirk and his crew.
More alarmingly, though, is the laziness of the film – ironic, given the amount of care that is spent on the sets and making sure everyone looks suitably scruffy but still attractive. The plot, the characters, the themes central to the film are all pushed aside in favour of the flashy. It’s almost as if Abrams thought that he could steal bits and pieces from the original franchise and people wouldn’t notice anything. Kirk will always look out for Spock because that’s what he does. Khan will always be a murderous tyrant because that’s what he is. The characters’ motivations and emotions aren’t shown, they’re told; and the audience is expected to simply accept these premises and enjoy the explosions.
This is why the penultimate scene in the film, where Kirk sacrifices himself, comes off as cheap and emotionally manipulative – to be fair, I knew I was being manipulated; I just didn’t care.
Abrams does not – and cannot – successfully compress the 79 episodes of friendship and love that made the original scene so impactful into two films. It seems that the depth of Kirk and Spock’s friendship hasn’t transcended the respect and affection Kirk gives to, say, any other member of his crew yet, and the insertion of the scene then seems artificial. It doesn’t help that Khan’s magic superhuman blood acts as a deux ex machina which very helpfully revives Kirk, something that no one saw coming at all.
For the average movie-goer whose only knowledge of Star Trek is limited to the Vulcan salute and Spock’s awful haircut, Into Darkness provides a decent two hours of brisk, dazzlingly futuristic entertainment. For someone who wanted something more, who wanted a film that would boldly go past typically flimsy plots glossed over by CGI and outer-space firefights, perhaps Abrams’ stylish voyage of a film is not nearly enough.