This review is going to reveal Benedict Cumberbatch’s “secret identity.” The quotation marks are there to indicate that his character is neither secret, nor has an identity, unless hard puncher counts as an identity. I bet you never in your wildest imagination thought that Star Trek would end like this, with Spock karate-chopping a bad guy on top of a flying garbage truck in the middle of a bad CGI Star Wars set? I mean, sure, Star Trek had plenty of punching, but geez, man, it’s like, it’s like as if you hired, oh, I don’t know, Baz Luhrmann to make the Great Gatsby and he made it all about parties and clothes and dancing. Oh. Oh.
Like everything Damon Lindelof gets his hands on, Star Trek Subtitle Using Variation on the Word Dark begins with a MacGuffin, muddles into a non sequitur, and ends in a mess. Who hires this guy? My own editor noticed that a draft of my novel twice used fiancé instead of girlfriend, so presumably there’s someone, somewhere who could have read the script and told Lindelof and Abrams that none of this makes any sense. They could have very easily called back the original “Space Seed” episode, set it along the Klingon neutral zone at a moment of high tension when the Federation was searching for a strategic military advantage and had a fine, intelligent movie that also had punching, Klingons, and space battles. You could have had Khan as an object of fear, reverence, and intrigue. Kirk admires his prowess and poise; McCoy his immunological whatever; Spock his astonishing intellect; Uhura his, uh, substantial Cumberbatch. He would divide them and conquer them, but then, rediscovering their bonds of friendship and duty, the crew would defeat him, because there is no eugenically superior superman in TEAM. And hell, you could even throw in a necessary tactical alliance with the Klingons to set the stage for the Cold War plot that was the backbone of the Klingon storyline in TOS and the original films.
Instead. Now look, I’m going to spare you the “Where are the orbital defenses?” and “How come the Klingons didn’t detect ‘em on the long range scanners?” I’m gonna spare you the “How far away is Kronos even at high warp?” and “What’s the effective range on that communicator again?” You may, after all, think that the main storytelling conceit of Star Trek is faster-than-light travel, but really, the main conceit is that a spacefaring civilization resembles Britain, each planet an island, its Starfleet, literally, and Admiralty. Forget all that. Despite its science fiction trappings, Star Trek is really a procedural drama. Starfleet is just its convenient institution.
Yes, you heard it here first. The man who owes Gene Roddenberry the greatest debt is Dick Wolf. Star Trek is the weekly tale of people working within an institution. This, by the way, is also its principal connection to political liberalism—not its easily-dispensed-with humanism nor its integrated crew; rather, its commitment to a universe run, for the better, by enlightened bureaucrats. The prototypical Star Trek plot is a conundrum—cultural, technological, legal—that must be solved through the application of area expertise within the confines of organizational rules and the occasional call of a higher morality or duty. It’s Law and Order in space. Act 1: unexplained thing. Act 2: investigation and preliminary diagnosis. Act 3: unexpected difficulty, delay, or complication, sometimes compounded by institutional resistance. Act 4: renewed investigation, sometimes unorthodox, leading to unexpected solution. Act 5: resolution, explanation.
People and institutions exist in Abrams’ & Lindelof’s reimagined universe, but they’re just sort of there, clogging the frame until the next face punch. I don’t object to action in Star Trek; but I do object to getting rid of the old two-fister:
As with CGI, advances in fight choreography have proceeded right past the point of more gripping physical realism and into the realm of the unbelievably hyper-real. The action is so fast, the movement so “kinetic,” to borrow the Hollywood usage, that it appears faker than the stagey fisticuffs of the old TV series. These guys are naval officers, right? Not ninjas. They pilot starships; this isn’t The Matrix. Hey, remember this little rebooted show called Battlestar Galactica, how it imagined a really gripping sort of space combat—before, anyway, it got bogged down in crackpot Lindelofian metaphysics? Remember Star Trek: First Contact. Yeah, it sucked, but the opening skirmish with the Borg vessel was pretty damn cool, AMIRIGHT? Well, whatever. Let’s just have these guys run down some hallways with guns and punch each other.
So the camera certainly moves around a lot, but there’s nothing doing. Dialogue is declaimed against a clamoring background of exploding noise, and when it does rise to the level of your noticing, it’s less the sound of voices than the smell of ham. “You are my superior officer. You are also my friend. I have been and always shall be yours,” Spock tells Kirk at the beginning of The Wrath of Khan. It is a quiet moment that comes back at the very end of the movie without a flashing arrow; here, it’s all shouted above the din. “YOU ARE MY FRIEND! WE ARE FAMILY!” It’s a disco inferno. Any pathos is in any event squished beneath the steamroller of incomprehensible plot developments, as Khan is first a terrorist, then a fugitive, then a pawn, then maybe a terrorist again, then fighting Spock on a flying thingamajig. Kirk does nothing of consequence, which is just as well, because Chris Pine, while serviceable, is no match for Benedict’s genetic, uh, endowment. Zach Quinto is a better actor, but because he never convincingly fell in love with Kirk or Khan, his jilted anger is incongruous at best. And once more for the cheap seats, it appears to take place deep within the CPUs of Skywalker Ranch.
It’s all a terrible waste of good production design and some nice costume choices (love that hat, Zach; CALL ME). Meanwhile, I know we are meant to believe that the immense crap funnel of our current cinema to be an undistorted reflection of our culture’s degraded taste, and that may be so, but I yet believe that if we must have junk, it can at least taste sweeter and not smell so awfully past its expiration date.