There’s really no colon there, huh? So it’s not like, “Into Darkness is a Story of Star Trek,” it’s like, “darkness is where my trek through the stars is taking me.” Okay, man, sure.
I just watched this movie, and it made me think of this article I read about how snack companies hired a bunch of snack food engineers to manufacture the perfect snack, one that provided maximum oral stimulation and minimal nutritional satisfaction so that people would constantly munch on it without thinking, and how the perfect expression of that snack food was Cheetos.
That’s what this movie, this movie is Cheetos.
And that said, what the fuck am I supposed to write about? Who writes criticism of Cheetos? Who bothers to mount a defense of Cheetos? What is there even to SAY? “The problem with this is that it’s a completely cynical product manufactured to provide pleasurable stimulation with no substantive value and is only interesting at all because of its vague resemblance to something else.” That’s the only thing about Cheetos! If Cheetos weren’t that, they wouldn’t even exist!
“These Cheetos should have more actual cheese in them!”
“These Cheetos have no nutritional value at all!”
Whatever, man, they’re fucking Cheetos.
Ugh, except I guess I’ve got a kind of a responsibility here, because I already wrote the title, and if you’re going to title a post “Dramaturgery”, you can’t spend the whole time bitching about how you live in a culture that literally does not even give a shit about human fucking morality or the meaning of words as long as there is a fist-fight on a space car. PUNCH!
The Three Things Theory
So, before I get into this, I’m going to get into a theory that I’ve got; I can’t prove it just yet, but maybe in ten years we’ll see if it pans out. I’m going to say this: “in a good movie, everything that happens in the movie is actually not one thing, but THREE things.” And I’m going to say that those three things are:
1. a plot action
2. a character beat
3. a thematic element
So, I know what you’re thinking, it’s probably something like, “Well, Chris, you’re already wrong because just phrasing the blog the way you have, I can tell you’re going to say that Star TrekIntoDarkness isn’t a good movie, BUT I liked that movie and it made a million billion dollars, et cetera.” Well shut up motherfucker, because a lot of people like Cheetos, but that doesn’t make them a food. I am willing to bet that in ten years you aren’t going to remember thirty consecutive seconds of this fucking movie; hell, I just watched it and I barely remember anything that happened.
Let me just say my piece here. I’m going to use Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan as an example; not because I am trying to make comparisons between old Trek and new Trek (I actually legitimately don’t care how much new Trek looks like old Trek, it is not even pertinent at all) — even though this movie, every fifteen minutes or so, practically BEGS me to — I’m using it because I figure most all of us know what happened in it, and it’s got some good examples.
Look at the end of Star Trek II, when they’re flying around in that nebula cloud trying to shoot each other, and Spock says
“He is intelligent, but not experienced. His pattern indicates two-dimensional thinking.”
And then they come at him at a 90-degree angle from above and shoot Khan’s ship like hell. Well, so, you see the three things that happen here: 1. plot event: Question: “What is going to happen?” Answer: “Kirk will attack Khan in a way that he is unprepared for (and that comes as a surprise to the audience, which is key to good dramatic tension).” 2. Character beat: Question: “What does it reveal about the person doing it?” Answer: “Kirk is a devious tactician, whose experience is valuable (an ongoing personal question Kirk has had to face throughout the movie).” 3. Thematic element. Question: “So, what does it mean?” Answer: “Khan’s 20th century way of thinking — aggressive, conquering, ruthless — is archaic and obsolete in the future of the Federation.”
See? Three things. And that actually comes up through this whole climax. Khan decides to blow up his ship rather than let Kirk get away, which is 1. a suspenseful event, 2. revelatory about Khan’s character, and 3. representative of how ultimately self-destructive that kind of militarism is. Spock later sacrifices his life to protect the ship; that is 1. a suspenseful event; 2. revelatory about Spock’s character, and 3. shows how the future — in which people sacrifice themselves to protect others — is better than the past — in which people sacrificed themselves to destroy others.
You can kind of see how Star TrekIntoDarkness is ostensibly supposed to confirm the Three Things theory. JJ Abrams first thinks of a bunch of plot events — I assume that he’s got just a pile of Silverian spreadsheets that say things like:
Running down a hall 56% nerd interest
Enterprise is shot with torpedoes 75% nerd interest
Some chick and her tits 85% interest
Staff comes apart to become two martial arts blasters 10% nerd interest
Cameo from Old Spock 90% nerd interest
“Khaaaaan!” 90% nerd interest
JJ Abrams hires Orci and Kurtzman to take those spreadsheets and hammer them into something that loosely involves “characters” and “narrative continuity.” Finally, Damon Lindelof is brought on to put a kind of a polish of “overtures to things that might matter to people.”
And of course, because Orci and Kurtzman are genuinely lazy, mediocre writers, the script is basically nothing but character shorthand, the dialogue is basically nothing but either cliches, exposition, or awkward, ham-handed justifications for stuff that they had to squeeze in.
“Why are there people in the torpedoes?” “Khan: I was smuggling them out of Section 31” “But, wait, why would THAT be a good idea? Was Section 31 going to give you a ship? Or was the idea that you would just put 72 experimental photon torpedoes on a train or something and drive away –” “A GUY SAID A REASON, IT WAS EXPLAINED.”
“So, how come you didn’t just zap Peter Weller as soon as you got onto the bridge?” Kirk: “I don’t want to stun you in front of your daughter.” “What? Why would that even matter?” “A GUY SAID A REASON, IT WAS EXPLAINED.”
“Help me out here. If the province on Kronos where Khan is hiding is uninhabited, what are those fucking Klingons doing there?” Uhura: “It must be a random patrol.” “What? A random patrol in an area of a planet that’s uninhabited? While we’re on that subject, if the area is uninhabited, why is it full of gigantic factories–” “SHE SAID A REASON, JUST SHUT UP AND WATCH THE SHOOTING.”
Whatever. Then, of course, Damon Lindelof comes on to write the stuff about meaning, and because Damon LIndelof does not know about or understand anything, it all comes out like, “BLAAAAGHLEWAGGHLEARGLE.”
“Sometimes you need to break the rules in order to do the most good!” “Okay, but Kirk’s defense for breaking the Prime Directive is just that he wanted to rescue Spock; isn’t the actual moral position that he was trying to save the lives of a billion aliens?” “BLAAAAGHLEWAGGHLEARGLE.”
“This movie is about how we create our own terror threats!” “Yeah, but we don’t do it like THAT, it’s not like we just hire a lone terrorist to design us some guns or something, it’s a complex political action that has far-reaching social implications–” “BLAAAAGHLEWAGGHLEARGLE.”
“Militarism is bad!” “Sure, but I mean, DON’T the Klingons want a war? In the context of this movie, isn’t militarism actually GOOD? And does one rogue admiral who stole a giant spaceship even COUNT as militarism? Wouldn’t a much bigger and more accurate problem be dealing with a pervasive cultural attitude of xenophobia–” “BLAAAAGHLEWAGGHLEARGLE.”
Lindelof is really the one who drops the ball in this movie, I think. You get to the climax of the movie, where Spock Punches Khan a Bunch of Times, and sure, there’s a great First Thing, in the sense that a Fist-Fight on a Space-Car is suspenseful. And there’s even a kind of strong Second Thing, an emotional beat here, where we discover that Spock is in love with Kirk.
(Before I continue, I just want to stop and address that part, because Kirk and Spock’s sublimated homosexual attraction is actually the only consistent emotional arc in the entire movie, from Spock being unable to emotionally connect with Uhura, to Kirk unable to form serious emotional attachments to the women in his life, Spock being obviously jealous of Kirk’s interest in Carol Marcus, Kirk expressing peculiar interest in Spock and Uhura’s relationship, all the way to Spock literally brushing Uhura aside when he thinks Kirk is in trouble. I don’t principally have a problem with this, except for the fact that Orci and Kurtzman are otherwise so patently incompetent at emotional or narrative consistency that I have a hard time believing they did it on purpose, and so it reads instead as a bizarrely interesting accident.)
But aside from that, the Fist-Fight on the Space-Car doesn’t mean anything. Why is it that Spock has to fight Khan? Why is Spock embracing his emotions important to beating Khan? Why are they on a Space-Car instead of, I don’t know, in the wreck of that big spaceship that crashed, or on top of a building, or in the sewers? So, who cares? You could switch out this climactic fight with pretty much anything that’s roughly similar, and it’d be the same movie.
Why does it even matter that it was Khan in this movie? He doesn’t do anything genocidal, he’s not a master strategist. He doesn’t even represent that sort of fascinating challenge to notions of the comfort of Western Hegemony by being a Brown Person who is more capable than everyone in Starfleet, because now he’s played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who couldn’t be any more fucking English if his name were Benedict Cumberbatch.
I guess at one point, the Enterpise faces off against that other ship that is twice as big as the Enterprise, and also BLACK, so it’s like an evil twin of the Enterprise, and that would maybe say something about military technology as the flipside of scientific advancement if that scene weren’t completely hilarious.
“Hahaha, Enterprise! Even you cannot stand against the power of…Evil Enterprise!”
Like I said, I’m not even sure what to write about here, because everything I’d say is like arguing that they should put real cheese in Cheetos. Nobody even WANTS that. And the thing about the plot is that it’s lazy and stupid and basically generic (in fact, I feel like about half of it is cribbed from the first movie); what would even be the point of tinkering with the plot? What, am I just going to switch out a couple OTHER action movie cliches? What are we even doing here?
On the other hand, there is maybe something of interest here.
My big problem with this movie is that it’s about Kirk and Spock foiling the plot of a jingoistic military leader who is trying to engineer a war with the Klingons so that he can take over Starfleet with a military junta, and for some reason, that guy ISN’T Khan. Khan Noonien Singh, master strategist, the guy who conquered the world — you’re going to put him in this movie and then make him a weapons designer? (Also 1) being good at strategy isn’t the same thing as being good at designing weapons, and 2) what did he design, exactly? Starfleet already HAS photon torpedoes.)
As it stands, the idea of Khan as a resurrected element of Earth’s savage past (brought back to do Starfleet’s dirty work, apparently) doesn’t have any bearing on this movie at all, because the guy who’s performing that role in the narrative is some other guy.
The question is, could you make this movie more sort of thematically interesting if Khan was in charge of Section 31 the whole time? If Starfleet had brought him out of cryostasis and set him up to do their black ops, they figure they’ve got him under control. Khan is supposed to help them maintain peace by doing targeted assassinations that are under the radar.
But obviously, Khan as a long-term plan, and his long-term plan is to assassinate the Joint Chiefs of Starfleet and pin it on some patsy in a way that results in a war with the Klingons so that he can seize control of the Federation by declaring martial law.
Khan (we’ll call him Commander Singh in this version of the story — it both hints that maybe he’s Khan Khan, and also makes more sense than a guy with a whole name identifying himself by just his first name, and ALSO maybe suggests that in this timeline Khan has actually become a productive, valuable member of Starfleet. The idea that Khan is maybe going to betray you all is much less interesting when the first thing we see him do is murder, like, a hundred people) has been nurturing terrorist cells on Earth (and hey, let’s figure that instead of extorting them into terrorism — though that’s okay, I don’t necessarily have a problem with that — what he’s really been doing is finding people who are terrified that the Klingons are going to strike first and sending them to attack Starfleet to send a message that no one on Earth is safe).
We can even keep generally the same opening, right? Because now what happens is that Khan wants to recruit Kirk and make the Enterprise crew part of Section 31 — Khan likes Kirk, because Kirk is the sort of guy who’ll break the rules when he has to. What he doesn’t understand about Kirk is that he breaks the rules for the greater good, and as far as Khan is concerned, there is no greater good. KHAN is the greater good. This gives us a nice parallel, starting with the Needs of the Many idea in the opening gambit — right now, it’s weirdly amoral, because Kirk talks about saving the life of ONE GUY who is his FRIEND, as opposed to saving the lives of billions of sapient creatures. Breaking the rules for your own selfish reasons is the kind of thing that Khan would do, so that’s the reason that he assumed Kirk would do it.
So then we can take the Enterprise on a capture and recover mission to bring this guy back from Kronos. And while the part where they fly a ship around some space trash being chased by other Klingon ships is good…is that really the BEST way to do this?
Hm. I was going to say, maybe there needed to be some tense negotiations in which the Enterprise tries to get the guy back, since it makes a million times more sense than the Enterprise just zipping into Klingon territory and threatening to bombard the Klingon Homeworld with torpedoes (“They’re long-range invisible torpedoes! A GUY SAID IT, IT’S EXPLAINED). Maybe a better way for that scene to work is that Uhura engages in negotiations with the Klingons while Kirk and Spock and those guys try to sneak onto the planet to get the guy back.
(Maybe also it isn’t Kronos. Maybe it’s another planet that the Klingons have seized, maybe even one that Section 31 had been stirring up trouble on, themselves breaking the Prime Directive in order to keep the Klingons out — shades of the US in Afghanistan during the Russian occupation.)
Anyway, if most of this is going to be generic plot filler, I guess you can keep the giant-super-ship and maybe even the weird torpedoes? I don’t know, it’s hard to care whether or not those are in the plot. I think the idea that the guy that they bring back is a patsy, maybe he’s got some kind of poison in his system that goes off when he’s captured so he can’t talk, but Bones is a really good doctor so manages to keep him alive (will he recover? We don’t know.)
I kind of like the idea of the Enterprise trying to extricate itself from Klingon space without revealing themselves to the Klingons.
I especially like the idea that maybe this was all futile. That they stop the Dreadnought from firing on the Klingon ships around this planet — or they defend themselves from the Dreadnought that wanted to eliminate the witnesses — only the Klingons declare war anyway, Khan takes over Starfleet and unveils an entire fleet of Dreadnought class ships. (Or, I dunno, five.) The movie ends with the implication that Kirk and the Enterprise are going to have to be rebels AGAINST Starfleet, in order to preserve the ideals that Starfleet is meant to stand for.
(It’s kind of a downer of an ending, but remember how the GI Joe movie had the basic daring to assassinate the president and then replace him with a doppelganger? Should we expect any less from Star Trek?)
But that’s the thing about all this. Space politics? Space mysteries? Tense duels that are like submarine battles? Allegories for the US Imperial project? Reflections on the merits of the war on terror?
Fuck that. Nobody wants cheese in their Cheetos.