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The Cumberbatch Maneuver

May 18th, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness is a movie about which I find it difficult to be objective. I have tremendous affection for the ’60s TV show, and so adored what director J.J. Abrams did to revitalize Captain Kirk and crew in his 2009 Star Trek movie reboot that the four-year wait for a sequel felt interminable. There are other films I’m anticipating this summer, but Into Darkness was number one with a photon torpedo in terms of my level of interest.

And I’m going to need to see it a second time to be sure how I feel about it.

There’s certainly a lot to like. The old/new cast are back, full of youthful exuberance and familial banter. From the start, they’re the fully-integrated ensemble that the original TV actors only intermittently became.

Chris Pine’s Kirk may be the center of the action, but Zachary Quinto’s Spock effortlessly carries the film’s emotional weight. The core of the ’60s series was a triumvirate with Kirk at its head, flanked by rational Spock and emotional McCoy, but I’d argue that the nuTrek dynamic places Spock in the middle, with Kirk and Zoe Saldana’s Uhura each appealing to different aspects of his human half. The affection between the three fuels Into Darkness even more than its over-complicated, conspiratorial storyline.

There are big laughs and spectacle aplenty. It looks and sounds fantastic. For the first two-thirds, it’s as good a Trek as we’ve ever seen on the big screen.

It’s the final third that left me pondering the whole, and I’m afraid that the rest of this review crosses the Neutral Zone into massive spoiler territory. So, if you don’t want to know more, go no further than the U.S.S. Enterprise spiraling out of control…

For the past couple of years, IDW has published a comic book of the continuing voyages of the nuTrek crew. Early issues were fairly straightforward retellings of ’60s episodes, with minor divergences demonstrating the rippling of the timeline caused by the arrival of future villain Nero in the 2009 film.* As the comics have progressed, the changes have become more pronounced and the stories, while still obviously inspired by specific incidents from the TV series, play out very, very differently.

And that’s what happens in Into Darkness. Except when it doesn’t.

The first rumors about the secretive sequel’s plot involved Khan, the genetically-modified ubermensch played memorably by Ricardo Montalban in the 1967 installment “Space Seed” and the 1982 film The Wrath of Khan. I immediately thought, “Oh, God, no.” Retelling past stories is fine in a monthly comic book, less so in a film franchise with chapters four years apart. Furthermore, both the 2009 movie and its predecessor, Star Trek: Nemesis, already seemed like bald attempts to replicate Khan’s revenge-driven villainy.

There was a final consideration: The Wrath of Khan is largely seen as both the dramatic and emotional high point of  the Trek films. A remake was unlikely to live up to it.

Despite attempts at misdirection and ever-wilder theories about other returning foes,** it turned out to absolutely no one’s surprise that yes, Benedict Cumberbatch’s “John Harrison” is really Khan.

And for a while it works. As with recent issues of the comic book, the storyline is more “inspired by” than “remake.” This Khan has a new backstory and motivation. I was starting to believe that they might almost do the unthinkable and make him Kirk’s stalwart ally against a common foe.

But once Khan does a heel turn and seizes control of a powerful Federation starship, we’re back to Wrath of Khan 2.0. Even some of the dialogue is cribbed from the previous film. The difference here is that it’s Kirk who performs the act of sacrifice to save the Enterprise from destruction, with Spock left to mourn outside a radiation-proof door.

Reversing the roles is sort of clever, but it’s not enough to save the scene from feeling like a lesser imitation. We know that Kirk’s not going to die, and not just because he has script immunity. We were shown the solution–the regenerative power of Khan’s blood–in the first act. The stakes just aren’t there.

Fortunately–aside from an ill-considered shout of “Khaaaaaaaaannnn!”–the rest of the movie plays out differently, with Spock and Uhura tag-teaming the villain in an exciting climax set in future San Francisco.

Perhaps now that the production team have gotten out their remake ya-yas, the next time we’ll finally go where no Star Trek film has gone before.

*While both the films and comics suggest that the timelines of old and new Trek began to diverge when Nero killed Kirk’s father, I’d argue that Nero arrived in an already-altered reality. The changes in costumes, technology and even species (the reptilian Gorn in the canonical Star Trek video game appear nothing like their classic counterparts) strike me as more than reasonably can be pinned on the “butterfly effect” created by the destruction of the U.S.S. Kelvin. (On the other hand, the inclusion of models of the Phoenix from First Contact and Jonathan Archer’s Enterprise suggest that much of this new timeline’s history played out as before.)

**The goofiest was the fan theory that John Harrison was one of the androids seen in 1967’s “I, Mudd.” I can see where they got the idea, as con man Harry Mudd’s daughter showed up in the comic book prequel; it’s her commandeered ship that Kirk pilots on the Klingon homeworld in Into Darkness. The theory was that the android’s pseudonym was a bastardization of “Harry’s son.” Urg.

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