J.J. Abrams has a number of regrets when it comes to Star Trek Into Darkness. In the past, the director pointed to his borderline obsessive use of lens flares and how he wished he wasn’t so secretive about the true identity of Benedict Cumberbatch’s John Harris. During his Celebrity Nerd-Off with Stephen Colbert in Newark, New Jersey, this weekend, he further bemoaned overdoing it on the Wrath of Khan nods.
“We got in trouble on the second Star Trek film with some of the fans,” he admitted (as quoted by Rolling Stone). “There were too many nods to The Wrath of Khan. I’ll cop to that.”
Image via Paramount Pictures
The biggest nod, of course, is the fact that John Harris is really Khan, and the simple act of using the name brings forth numerous comparisons. Examples include Spock’s “needs of the many” line, the Khan scream, the inclusion of Carol Marcus (played by Alice Eve in Into Darkness), and the reversal of fortune with Kirk’s sacrifice. The blogosphere went to town further solidifying these comparisons with features like BuzzFeed’s “10 Classic Star Trek References in Star Trek Into Darkness.”
This route didn’t work in the film’s favor and instead flew too close to one of the franchise’s greatest installments and looked worse by comparison. Fans at a Las Vegas Star Trek convention voted it the worst film in the entire canon. Abrams, however, is working to remedy his ways. He spoke to Wired earlier this year about using his past work as a guideline to making Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
I didn’t want to enter into making a movie where we didn’t really own our story. I feel like I’ve done that a couple of times in my career. That’s not to say I’m not proud of my work, but the fact is I remember starting to shoot Super 8 and Star Trek Into Darkness and feeling like I hadn’t really solved some fundamental story problems.
At the very least, we can rest assured that the galaxy far, far away will remain lens flare free.
Image via Paramount
2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the Star Trek franchise – and the release of Star Trek Beyond, the 13th feature film in the series. To celebrate this big year, and ponder the deeper meanings of Trek‘s first half-century, the Entertainment Geekly column will look at a different Star Trek film each week from now till Beyond. This week: The first Star Trek film with actual characters. Last week: The beautiful Star Trek film about space fog. Next week: The beginning of director Leonard Nimoy’s duology.
When Wrath of Khan starts, everybody dies. It’s a scene you’ve seen a hundred times, if you’re any kind of Star Trek person. Sulu’s at his control panel; Uhura’s at the communication station; Spock’s at the science terminal McCoy’s standing around waiting for a medical emergency.
There’s a new face in the Captain’s Chair – Kirstie Alley! – and if you’re coming to Wrath of Khan chronologically, you notice the new uniforms. But the variables only make the constants feel more concrete. Sure, there’s no Chekov, but that’s not so strange: If you catch a random episode of the original Star Trek, there’s a 1-in-3 chance Chekov won’t be on the bridge. (Walter Koenig was added, supposedly, to appeal to young viewers. He was 29 at the time – older than Chris Pine in his first Star Trek.)
Sure, there’s no Kirk – but didn’t The Motion Picture begin with someone else in the Captain’s Chair, too? Heck, to go die-hard, didn’t the whole Star Trek idea begin with somebody else sitting in Kirk’s place? (Jeffrey Hunter starred in The Searchers, the strangest of John Ford’s great westerns, and he played Jesus for Nicholas Ray – and in 2016, I think he’s best remembered for Captain Christopher Pike, a lead character in an unaired TV pilot chopped into a flashback clip show.) The way Nicholas Meyer shoots the first scene, the Kirstie Alley reveal is meant as a shock – the camera moves across the bridge of the Enterprise, over faces you recognize, and then punchlines on a young woman in Kirk’s chair. But maybe, when you watch Wrath of Khan 34 years later, that shock doesn’t register. We’ve seen Picard, Sisko, Janeway, Baby Kirk. Captains leave; the chair remains.
But at the start of The Wrath of Khan, the Enterprise crew is (almost) right where they belong. On the bridge, in space, facing intergalactic peril. There is a ship in crisis. There are Klingon vessel firing on them. We’ve been here before, seen the bridge of the Enterprise sway back and forth, seen control panels explode sparks outward. But this time, something’s different. This time, everybody dies.
They’re not really dead, of course. It’s a training scenario, the Kobayashi Maru. The crew was just acting; the bridge is just a set, a room with special effects in a building on Earth. Admiral Kirk walks onboard. He looks down at Dr. McCoy. “Physician, heal thyself,” he says – a line from the Bible, the Book of Luke, and not the last time in this most literary-minded of Star Treks that someone quotes a well-known tome.
“Is that all you got to say?” says McCoy, teasing. “What about my performance?”
The Kobayashi Maru is top-ten-all-time Trek mythos or anyhow, it’s one of the ten Trek things most regular human beings know about. In popular lexicon, Kobayashi Maru euphemizes Catch-22, and Gordian Knot: An impossible dilemma, but also a fable of lateral thinking. But the pleasures of the Kobayashi Maru scene are vivid, and human.
Pause to consider the situation, for a moment. One imagines Spock in fussy, professorial terms. He’s never been completely unemotional. Actually, Spock on Star Trek is like the robots in Isaac Asimov’s novels. The robots have rules, but only so Asimov can break them; Spock preaches cold logic, but only so circumstances can parent-trap him into human emotion. But how lovely, how this second Trek film begins with the idea that this most stone-faced of Starfleet officers can take such pride in his performance. After his panel “explodes,” he falls against the railing; his head visibly sags downward; he’s really selling this.
You could study this scene for subtexts. The acknowledgement that this “bridge” is really just a set in a building in (Northern) California feels like an acknowledgement: All bridges of all the starships in the movie you’re about to see are also just sets in a building in (Southern) California. And an earlier version of the script had leaked, leading to fan outrage over Spock’s death. (How quaint, to imagine fan outrage in the days before social media!) So Spock’s death here was a misdirection, a primordial variation of Joss Whedon’s ludicrously over-architected Hawkeye untwist. A social theorist might appreciate the presence of a female in the Captain’s Chair – Kirstie Alley plays “Mister Saavik,” naval parlance with intriguingly gendered overtones – though that same theorist might playfully note that, in old-school Trek, the ultimate solution to most sociopolitical problems is “Let Kirk Handle It.”
For the moment, stuff the subtext: The Kobayashi Maru is a scene about the Enterprise crew – highly-skilled space-naval pioneer coworkers – putting on a show. They’re performing. And “performance” is both running plot point and underlying theme in Wrath of Khan. Khan fools Kirk with a performance, and Kirk fools Khan with three performances. In the second scene, Spock performs the opening lines from A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of…” etc. In the penultimate scene, Kirk quotes Dickens’ closing: “It is a far, far better…” etc.
And aren’t Khan’s last lines a performance? He quotes directly Moby Dick: “To the last, I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart, I stab at thee; for hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee!” We will never get a great Moby Dick movie: I submit to you the possibility that Ricardo Montalban playing Khan is also playing cinema’s greatest Ahab. Consider the books on Khan’s bookshelf, and ponder how Khan and his followers spent the long years marooned on a dead windswept planet. How did they live, in such conditions? Imagine them, in year 12, edging further into despair. Imagine Khan inspiring them – performing Paradise Lost from memory, or assigning everyone parts in King Lear.
Wrath of Khan is, not coincidentally, the best showcase for William Shatner as a performer (and not just for William Shatner as William Shatner). You remember Shatner in The Motion Picture — bored, stolid, his gestures grandly wooden? Consider Shatner’s reaction when he samples some of McCoy’s Romulan Ale:
Set aside for a fact that, in that brief shot, Shatner exudes more emotions than in the entirety of Motion Picture. Focus on his final facial gesture. It’s a forced smile, one more performance. (Kirk’s closest friends get him birthday presents he doesn’t want: Depressing BritLit, eyeglasses, contraband liquor built for extraterrestrial taste buds.)
You could study Wrath of Khan as a portrait of different performing styles. Consider William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, and a central paradox of their chemistry. Spock is the alien – a being who strives to rid himself of all emotion – but past a certain point, you notice how Nimoy is a much more natural performer, communicating so much with droll phrasing lilts and micro-gestures. Whereas the human Kirk is played by Shatner, one of Hollywood’s great experts in hyperbole. (Khan is Shatner at his most wide-eyed.) As a young actor, Nimoy learned the Method and idolized Brando; Shatner came up performing energetic Shakespeare. That doesn’t make one better nor one worse – the dissonance is the key – but it adds layers to their pairing. You associate Spock with explicit stiffness – he’s a freaking Vulcan – but Nimoy’s acting is maybe more “cinematic,” eye-focused, while Shatner is more “theatrical,” full-bodied. (You may meet more people in your life who remind you of reserved, thoughtful Spock than boisterous, declamatory Kirk; some people think we elected Spock president in 2008.)
You can see this dissonance vividly – and you can see how director Nicholas Meyer keyed into the dissonance – in one of the greatest single shots in big-screen Trek. It begins with Kirk in the Captain’s Chair, receiving disturbing news. Khan has powered up the Genesis Device to explode. The Enterprise is weakened, its radioactive core leaking (or something.) The ship won’t get away fast enough. The camera follows Kirk across to Spock’s panel, a vision of confused concern. The camera frames Kirk alongside his son David – and you can feel how they are united, without any real epiphany or overwritten story point –but then it moves onto Spock. He turns from his control panel, and he thinks, and he realizes something, and he walks past David out the door.