Fanboy Meets World: Why J.J. Abrams Is a Con Artist



One line. One word, really. Heck, four letters, though four letters stretched out quite a bit. Removing them from the final cut of “Star Trek Into Darkness” would have done a lightyears worth of goodwill for this long time Trek fan. The insistence of Abrams and Co. to stick with their policy of legacy-mining and expecting us to all squee with joy is, at heart, why I'm grousing – even though I admit that, in broad strokes, I enjoyed “Star Trek Into Darkness” a great deal. (My review at ScreenCrush, if you are interested.)

It goes like this: there are a number of really annoying little things about this movie, and you can find an exhaustive list of quibbles at the bottom of this post.

But first we need to focus on the biggest disaster, of course, is deciding to shoehorn the “known” bad guy Khan into the mix. Because everybody knows Kirk and Khan are matched enemies, even people (like Abrams) who don't watch “Star Trek.” It's perfect marketing. (Although Abrams, being an M Class nincompoop, decided to kneecap his own movie by keeping this secret. The moment when Benedict Cumberbatch says “My name is Khan” is the worst of both worlds. Fans get annoyed by the obvious, while non-fans – unaware that Khan didn't have a fake identity in the original, and unfamiliar with what the name portends – say “so?” and "who?" unsure why there was this whole mystery to begin with. )

Prima facie it is a failure. Khan's Eugenics War is supposed to take place in the 1990s, and his banishment on the Botany Bay took place prior to the destruction of the USS Kelvin in the 2009 reboot. This means that it existed before the timeline split.

Does this mean that I refuse to accept another actor playing Khan? No, I'm not a complete mental patient. But Khan Noonien Singh is supposed to be a Sikh from northern India. Ricardo Mantalban of Mexico City could at least pass. Benedict Cumberbatch of London, England does not. (Those who read the trades know that Abrams' first choice was Benecio Del Toro, which shows a somewhat lazy attempt to get it half-right. When Del Toro passed there were rumors about Edgar Ramirez and Jordi Molla – nothing, however, about Indian actors, but come on . . . it's not like India has one of the world's most thriving film industries or anything.)


The line.

The yell.

The howl.

It wasn't enough that the focus group-based crypto-creation machine knows as Bad Robot decided to take the easy route and stick Khan in this movie. They had to go "full retard."

When Kirk dies at the end (but just for like five minutes, because no one would ever accuse this group of having the courage of its convictions) Zachary Quinto's nu-Spock, unable to contain his Earth emotions, starts to tremble and quake as Michael Giacchino's score rumbles until finally. . . “KHAAAAAAAAAAAN!”

It's an insult. And an embarrassment. It makes Jake Lloyd saying “Yippiee!” sound like Peter Finch's monologue from “Network.”

It hurts because this movie can't just appropriate the character Khan from the originals, it has to go and appropriate the “meme,” too.

“Khaaaaaaaan!” as rallying cry is a relatively recent creation, egged on by a “Seinfeld” episode from 1996. I didn't see “Khaaaaaaaan!” on a T-shirt until 2008 or so (and, believe me, I would have noticed.) It began as a bit of a goof. A play on Shatner as a lovable and, let's face it, not-always-great actor. It's as much a play on Denny Crane and the Priceline Negotiator than it is on actual “Star Trek.”

(To be fair to Shatner, there is the theory that Captain Kirk is quite aware of his “overacting” in this scene, as it is Kirk's intention to fake Khan into thinking that he's truly won by stranding him on Regula, whereas the Enterprise's captain actually has an ace up his sleeve. I strongly suggest you read my 2009 interview with “Wrath of Khan” director Nicholas Meyer for a full breakdown of all this.)

You can practically see Abrams in story meetings, sixteen cellphones held by assistants up to his head as he closes deals on television shows, saying “yeah, yeah, we gotta have the line!” with no actual understanding about what it means - how, to fans of “Star Trek,” this little bit of ridiculousness is our ridiculousness, and to do a clip and paste of it into the emotional death-by-radiation scene is an atrocity.

There's another problem. Quinto doesn't nail it. Quinto is a decent enough actor, about as good of a Nimoy proxy as we're likely to get. But there's a reason he's segued his “Star Trek” fame into producing whereas nearly everyone else in the crew has taken leading roles in mainstream pictures.

The Bad Robot team probably expected hoots and hollers from fans when Quinto delivered the line. My gut tells me that test audiences never gave it – which is why there isn't room for a beat afterwards (the action cuts mid-scream to the Vengeance smashing into the Enterprise while both ships are in Earth's stratosphere.)

The lack of reaction (and I've seen the film with audiences twice) is, I'm guessing, a mix of Quinto's middling delivery and the fact that, in the context of this film, it doesn't make a lick of sense. Khan isn't really the one responsible for Kirk's death. Kirk had to go fix the reactor core because of cumulative damage from throughout the film – damage that started with Admiral Marcus' sabotage.

Quinto could just as well be shouting “MAAAAAAAARCUS!!!!” or at least “MAAAAAAARCUS AND KHAAAAAAAAAAN WORKING IN CONJUUUUUUUUUUUNCTION!” But he doesn't, because it's important to get the meme in there, because the people in charge of this movie really and truly don't get it.

There's something they teach you in any creative program: kill your babies. Sometimes you have to cut out great stuff for the sake of the larger piece. You'd think “Star Trek Into Darkness,” a film that cut the COLON out of the title, would know how to make a cut. But this line, this word, these four letters remain in the finished film. If it were gone I may would have been able to ignore all the other problems in the film – or at least accept them a little easier. I still like “Star Trek Into Darkness” a great deal, because Abrams knows where to put the camera and, with the exception of this beat, all the performances are great. But this is because I have the ability to root out the good parts in a movie, even when I'm being khanned.

And now, bring out the quibbles!

** World-building problems like: why would a Federation hospital, even in England, have the monarchial name “Royal” associated with it?

** Story beats like Nero's 25-year wait from 2009's “Star Trek” that were probably explained in earlier versions of the script, but were removed so this movie could zoom at Warp Factor 6, like: If Section 31 was just blown to bits, how did “John Harrison” find the transwarp beaming device after the bombing? And if he didn't, then what was in that black bag that Kirk was focusing on? And how did Kirk just contact Scotty on his communicator without patching through to Uhura's communications array? And how did they get from Kronos to Earth in only, like, 45 seconds of warp?

** Inexplicable gales in logic, like: why would a new super torpedo, even if it runs on some new, undetectable fuel source, have ROOM to let you just, you know, crack it open and stick a giant 20th Century cryotube inside of it? How is this efficient design?!??!?

** Moments of great disrespect to the audience, like: Why wouldn't Carol Marcus just, like, wait 30 seconds to get undressed, or step in another room? (Answer: super bowl ads demand a panty shot, but we Trekkers should demand more!)

** Moments of great disrespect to the legacy of “Star Trek,” like: Carol Marcus implying that Kirk the Jerk pulled a “love 'em and leave 'em” on Christine Chapel. Pardon me? Christine Chapel? You mean . . .Gene Roddenberry's wife? If this isn't Abrams and his gang “marking their territory” on Roddenberry's version of “Star Trek” in the most disgusting, phallocentric way, then I don't know what is! (Eh, I'll allow that Abrams, who time and again in interviews has proven he doesn't know, and doesn't care, about “Star Trek” history didn't mean it this way. But someone should have spot-checked this and changed the pointless fan-wank namedrop to somebody else.)