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Four months ago, Star Trek Into Darkness hit theaters. By any objective concrete metric, it was a perfectly respectable Hollywood product. The critics generally liked it. It cost around $200 million and made $465 million worldwide, a financial showing that is neither impressive nor unimpressive. (It wasn’t Man of Steel, but it also wasn’t The Lone Ranger.) It had some funny jokes and it had things exploding in interesting ways. The title was dumb and it had third-act problems and nobody can really explain why they kept the Khan reveal a secret, but if you asked the average person in mid-June what they thought about Into Darkness, opinions would have been neutral-positive.
But resentment can build slowly in the geekosphere … and when resentment boils over, a movie’s whole reputation can radically change. Last month, the annual Star Trek convention in Las Vegas declared Star Trek Into Darkness the worst film of the franchise. And the film’s creators have taken fan criticism to heart in a host of curious ways that rarely happens in our PR-heavy modern era. In the comment boards of a post critical of Into Darkness at TrekMovie, co-writer Roberto Orci piped in with comments that ran the gamut from defensive (“I listened [to the fans] more than any other person behind the Trek franchise has EVER listened”) to the outrageous (at one point he complains that Into Darkness has infinitely more social commentary than Raiders of the Lost Ark, adding the immortal addendum, “And I say that with Harrison Ford being a friend”). Orci shut down his Twitter account after the scuffle, possibly because he needed to buckle down and focus on disappointing people with screenplays for Mummy reboots and Spider-Man sequels.
Orci’s co-writer Damon Lindelof used the release of Into Darkness as an opportunity to shake up the talking points in the never-ending Lindelof Apology Whistle-Stop Tour, taking a break from abashed self-deprecating responses to angry Lost and Aliens fanboys to make an abashed serious-sounding apology for putting one of the film’s two female characters in black underwear. Somewhat less abashed was Reboot-Scotty and geek demigod Simon Pegg, who had a straightforward response to the Vegas vote: “F— you.”
In all fairness, that may have just been an homage to William Shatner’s “Get a Life” SNL sketch. Far weirder — and perhaps more telling — was director J.J. Abrams’ recent statements about the Into Darkness tie-in videogame. When Abrams was asked a softball question about the game at a recent DVD release party, he launched into a surprisingly intense and totally non sequitur recrimination, ultimately claiming that the bad response to the game might have hurt Into Darkness:
“To me the videogame could have been something that actually really benefited the series and was an exciting, fun game with great gameplay and instead it was not and was something that I think… For me, emotionally, it hurt. ‘Cause we were working our asses off making the movie and then this game came out and it got — this isn’t even my opinion – it got universally panned. And I think that it wasn’t… something, without question, that didn’t help the movie and arguably hurt it.”
This is a weird statement for all kinds of reasons. Tie-in videogames are always terrible; nobody blames the filmmakers for that. I can’t imagine that the average person even knew there was a Star Trek tie-in game. More to the point, it’s weird that Abrams takes the game so personally. The director has always been clear about how much of a Star Trek fan he was growing up: Not at all. Paramount essentially hired him as an outside consultant for the Star Trek franchise, someone who could come in with fresh eyes and rinse off decades of detritus and mirror universes and holodeck melodramas.
Heck, part of the reason Into Darkness disappeared from the cultural conversation so quickly is because Abrams has already moved onto his next job; to a certain extent, the release of Star Trek Into Darkness was a minor promotional event in the long lead-up to Star Wars Episode VII, an opportunity for every journalist/talk show host to get Abrams in front of the microphone and ask him whether John Williams would be back. (He will!)
The creators of Star Trek Into Darkness seem a little bit shaken, is what I’m getting at. And hardcore Star Trek fans are retroactively deciding that maybe this whole reboot thing was never a good idea. This is one of those situations where it’s possible to agree with everyone while also acknowledging that no one is being particularly honest. Speaking as someone who grew up with Star Trek — watching Deep Space Nine, renting the first six movies, reading a truly shocking amount of Star Trek books — I can understand the fans who feel like their precious mythology has become twisted into a movie about hot people running places. (I’m still shocked — shocked! — that Kirk broke the Prime Directive at the start of Into Darkness. There was a whole book about about how you shouldn’t break the Prime Directive! It was called Prime Directive!)
At the same time, it takes a serious amount of angry amnesia to declare Into Darkness the worst Star Trek movie ever. Worse than The Final Frontier, a mesmerizingly narcissistic vanity project about William Shatner going mountain-climbing and killing a god using the power of his oratory? Worse than Insurrection, a movie-length away mission to a grade-Z planet? I understand people who feel like Into Darkness wastes decades of franchise mythology one empty spectacle…but I’m hard-pressed to say that it’s a bigger waste than the climax of Star Trek: Generations, which unites the two most iconic characters in Star Trek history so they can punch Malcolm McDowell.
Likewise, it’s possible to empathize with the filmmakers — who are attempting to please newcomers and generations of fandom — while also admitting that the film had a whole host of basic structural problems. Why was it still an origin story? Why bring in the Klingons if you’re just going to punch them? Why spend two hundred million dollars on a movie if the vast majority of the non-animated action is set in various undifferentiated spaceship corridors? Why does Old Spock literally phone in his cameo via Space-Skype? Why does Khan have magic resurrection blood? These were creative choices that just didn’t work out, and refusing to admit that is just a dodge. (It’s true that Into Darkness had social commentary, insofar as it seems to be about terrorism and it seems to be arguing that terrorism sure is a complicated topic.)
To me, there’s a central misconception at the core of Star Trek Into Darkness — a miscommunication, really — which helps to explain the film’s current reputation. Although Abrams wasn’t a Star Trek guy, the collective writing team behind the reboot series has a great respect for the franchise: They want to please the fans. At the same time, they want to do something new, to push the franchise into a new direction, and leave their own mark on Trek mythology — and they feel that they have to do that very carefully.
There’s a reason for this. The fanboy as a species is skeptical of anything which threatens the sanctity of a mythology. (There’s an aspect to the Into Darkness haters that reminds you of elderly Catholics who think everything went downhill after Vatican II.) That’s why the first Star Trek reboot is the most carefully architected retcon ever, with a time travel plot that didn’t really make any sense but allowed Leonard Nimoy to come onscreen and basically tell the fans, “Don’t worry: The fictional stories you grew up with are still “real” in the context of this fictional world that is not real.” And, in a fascinating interview at Grantland, Lindelof obliquely implies that was the purpose of adding Khan into the sequel:
We either do it now, and we do it as much of a touchstone back to that original movie as possible, so that no one will ever ask us after this movie comes out again, “What are you doing from the original series?” Because it’s like, that’s all they were really asking us, is “When are you going to do Khan and how are you going to do Khan, and how reminiscent of The Wrath of Khan is it going to be? Are you doing ‘Space Seed’ or are you doing Wrath of Khan or are you doing both or whatever?”
So the creators added in Khan because they thought people wanted to see Khan; at the same time, they wanted to surprise people. There was a possible timeline where this worked out perfectly, and the result was something like the new Battlestar Galactica that honored the source material while putting a whole new spin on it. In our own sad timeline, this meant basically creating an entirely new character and then retroactively naming him Khan. Old-school Khan was a randy warlord with dude cleavage; new-school Khan was a monochrome emotionless superspy. They basically turned Conan the Barbarian into Jason Bourne. Really, it’s clear that they wanted to just tell an entirely new story, but decided somewhere along the way that it couldn’t be too new.
The weird thing is, I’m not so sure anyone was really asking for a new version of Khan. Sure, fans of Star Trek are always excited by the prospect of certain trope-characters like Klingons or the Borg, but part of what made Abrams’ first Star Trek movie so exciting was that it seemed to offer a whole host of new things. So the fans were ready for something new that reminded them of something old, and the filmmakers felt the need to recreate something old in a slightly new way; they met in the middle, and the result was Spock yelling “KHAAAAAANNNN!”
No one on either side of the fan-creator divide seems particularly happy with how things turned out. Abrams has lost a bit of his reboot-kingpin sheen. Lindelof is going back to television, where at least he won’t have to take credit for Ridley Scott’s mistakes. The core fandom is now in a moment of deep pessimism, equivalent to the mid-’70s Animated Series lull and the mid-00s Enterprise decline — and this moment is arguably worse for the core fandom, because the franchise seems to have actually evolved beyond the need for core fandom. (Into Darkness didn’t make Iron Man money, but it did make more money worldwide than any other film in the franchise.) Nobody who cares enough to have an opinion about Star Trek Into Darkness is happy about Star Trek Into Darkness. It’s an essential artifact from the era of the Fan Rage; it’s also a movie where you get the sense that everyone involved might’ve been happier if they had made something that wasn’t called Star Trek.
Suggestions for Further Reading:
“The Novel I Didn’t Write”: Margaret Wander Bonanno’s fascinating, novella-length investigation into everything that went wrong when she started writing a book sequel to The Voyage Home. An essential peak into the prehistory of franchise curation, the nature of fandom pre-internet, and the glory days of tie-in novels.
“THE AGE OF THE CONVOLUTED BLOCKBUSTER”: Film Crit Hulk deconstructs the new normal of overplotted movies like Star Trek Into Darkness.
“Star Script Doctor Damon Lindelof Explains the New Rules of Blockbuster Screenwriting”: Damon Lindelof explores the effect of story gravity on Hollywood screenplays, implicitly explaining why Into Darkness ends with a mega-spaceship mega-crashing into mega-skyscrapers.
“To Boldly Go To The Las Vegas ‘Star Trek’ Convention”: Devin Faraci provides an essential snapshot of the Trek fandom in the reboot era.