The thematic core of Star Trek Into Darkness is the friendship of Kirk and Spock. Star Trek is an ensemble, but Kirk and Spock have been the focal point since very early in the original series – the wild, irreverent emotional spectrum of Kirk vying against the logic and calm demeanor of Spock and the way they grow to understand one another to become the closest of friends. It’s a wonderful dynamic that evokes many heartfelt, and human, moments within the crazy – and sometimes not so crazy – ideas of its science fiction milieu.
So, it seems to make sense to focus on this important relationship with the second “new” Star Trek film … if one does not consider the fact that these are different characters.
The primary emotional beat of the original Wrath of Khan (the original second Trek film to which this second new film calls back, often with too heavy a hand) is an intensely touching moment between Kirk and Spock, after Spock has sacrificed his life to save the Enterprise. It works, incredibly well. Why? Because the weight of this friendship has been built up over the course of dozens of episodes from the original series. Fans got to watch the relationship
between Kirk and Spock evolve and grow and became invested in it through all those hours of television. There is a history for these two characters, as imagined by William Shatner (that’s for you, Brad) and Leonard Nimoy, which allows for just such a cathartic scene. We, the viewers, have grown to love these characters just as they have grown to love one another, and to see that all rent asunder by Khan – who, it should be noted, also has a history with these characters from the original series – hits us in the gut. It’s tragic.
J.J. Abrams and co. thought it would be good to rehash this with Into Darkness. They understood there were new fans to the franchise, but they also knew that many of the diehard fans who’ve been along for the Trek ride all these decades would also be in attendance when the movie opened. I think they counted on that. And I think they counted on those fans imbuing the same emotional intensity with the new Spock and Kirk as they had with the classic characters, though there is a part of me inclined to believe they didn’t think anything through at all, other than: KHAN!!!!!! That, ultimately, is where they failed.
***SPOILERS FOR Into Darkness AHEAD***
As I stated above, these are new characters. They have only been on one mission, as far as the audience is concerned. We have not grown with these characters, as we did with the classic Kirk and Spock, and so, there is no emotional release when Kirk sacrifices himself to save the Enterprise, eliciting a raw emotional rage from Spock that lands flat. Flat. Flat. Flat.
***SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THE DC EVENT Forever Evil***
Again, I must compare this new iteration of Trek to the reboot of DC Comics – the new 52. Like the new 52, this new Trek reshuffled everything, created a divergent timeline that kept all of the history of the Enterprise and its crew intact (which, if you believe Dan DiDio, is actually not a possibility within the new 52), and could have moved off in a brand new direction. Each company responsible for these initiatives proclaimed how different the new status quo would be. (And though I find the new 52 to be an abject failure, aesthetically speaking, I must commend DC Comics for continuing to try and publish books in myriad genres other than superheroes).
And yet, they have crafted stories reliant upon the decades of backstory already built up, which is supposed to have nothing to do with these new versions of familiar characters.
By way of example: Forever Evil. We are not quite three years into the new 52 initiative – certainly not enough time to build up the relationships necessary for many emotional beats that might have more weight given a fifty or seventy year history of a particular character, especially when stories are stretched across multiple issues rather than the single issue stories (or multiple stories within a single issue) prevalent in the golden and silver age of comics. But, with the culmination of this series, the big bad turns out to be the Anti-Monitor.
This “reveal” has no impact unless one has read Crisis on Infinite Earths from 1985, and even then, that story is no longer canon within DC continuity because of the new 52 reboot. Star Trek does this same thing with Into Darkness, declaiming about these new characters who can surprise us, while relying heavily upon the continuity set up by the classic characters. Infusing an emotional tether onto new characters because they have a tenuous connection to well-known classics … that doesn’t work.
The other piece of this equation pertaining to the relationship of the new Spock and Kirk can be viewed through the lens of the Star Wars prequels. In those films, particularly the second and third ones, viewers are told that Anakin and Obi-Wan are good friends and as close as brothers. Yet, we never actually see them interact in a way that might suggest this (remember: show, don’t tell). There was that opening film, then we got an older Ani and Obi-Wan but were given none of the experiences that formed this supposed friendship. It didn’t work.
Compare this with the real Star Wars films. (yeah, I went there) In that first film, Han and Luke must blast out of Mos Eisley, make their way through the Death Star without being caught, save Princess Leia from the detention block, make their way back to the Falcon (after escaping from the trash compactor and evading Storm Troopers), launch their way off the Death Star, and are then forced to battle with the Death Star at the rebel base on the fourth moon of Yavin, wherein Han appears to leave with his reward but returns to shoot out of the glare of a star and take out Vader’s Tie Fighter, allowing Luke to blast the Death Star and win the battle of Yavin IV. Star Wars is two hours of action, and through all of those obstacles the bond between Luke and Han strengthens, even as we move to Hoth in Empire. It was a neat trick that George Lucas and his fellow creators pulled off, making us believe in the strong friendship of Han, Luke, and Leia, with merely two hours to do it.
Abrams and co. failed in that respect, and the entirety of Into Darkness fell apart for me.