This article contains SPOILERS. But it shouldn’t have to.
“Star Trek Into Darkness” is now playing in theaters around the country. From the moment this sequel to 2009’s “Star Trek” reboot got the green light, nerd speculation has coalesced around the identity of the movie’s villain. Would director J.J. Abrams and his collaborators bring back Khan, the famous ubermensch who terrorized Captain Kirk and the crew of the Starship Enterprise in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan?” Would they utilize another, lesser-known villain? Or would they invent a new one completely?
Abrams wouldn’t say — because that’s Abrams’ schtick: he doesn’t say. He never says. It all gets back to his well-documented love of a storytelling and sales technique called “the mystery box” — inspired by a grab bag he bought at a magic store as a boy and never opened because, in Abrams’ words at a TED talk about the subject, as long as it remained closed the box stood for something bigger than the fifty bucks worth of cheapo magic tricks it contained. Closed, he says, “it represents infinite possibility. It represents hope. It represents potential.” The promise of what could be in the mystery box was much more appealing than the reality of what was actually in the mystery box.
For Abrams, “mystery is the catalyst for imagination.” And it has been the catalyst for many of his projects, from “Lost,” with its enigmatic island and perplexing hatches, to “Cloverfield,” whose trailer didn’t even mention the title of the movie.
The mystery box has been working overtime on “Star Trek Into Darkness.” First Abrams wouldn’t reveal the identity of the villain played by Benedict Cumberbatch at all. Then Paramount Pictures released a still of Cumberbatch doing a fine Hannibal Lecter impression with a caption naming his character as “John Harrison.” But there was no prior “Star Trek” villain named John Harrison — so why the need for all the secrecy? Cue more mystery box. Though some marketing has alluded to Harrison’s secrets or history, the filmmakers have remained extremely tight-lipped about what he’s doing, why he’s doing it, and above all whether he has any sort of past with Kirk and Spock.
Now the movie is out, and we can finally confirm, after all the questions and dodges: John Harrison is Khan. Harrison is actually an alias created by Khan — I’m paraphrasing here — to hide his true identity while enacting his revenge against a rogue Starfleet admiral played by Peter Weller. But here’s the thing: Khan has almost no reason to hide his true identity. it’s not like Khan is an international celebrity. No one recognizes his face when they see him in security footage or in pictures. Khan provides some other reasons in the film why he had to protect his real name, but they’re basically a load of baloney. The only legitimate excuse for Khan to “disguise” himself as John Harrison are those outside the film demanded by J.J. Abrams, for purposes of his mystery box.
The general problem with this whole mystery box approach to storytelling — and the specific problem in the case of “Star Trek Into Darkness,” which is a lot more fun when we think Benedict is just some random pissed off guy instead of a specifically pissed off guy named Khan — is that at some point, you have to open the box. And as Abrams himself admits in that TED talk, a mystery box is only exciting as long as it remains closed.
But Abrams values mystery so much he puts it ahead of common sense amongst his cinematic priorities. If this guy is “Khan,” the dude played so brilliantly in the TV episode “Space Seed” and “Wrath of Khan” by Ricardo Montalban, why doesn’t he look or sound anything like Montalban? Chris Pine’s Kirk is not exactly the same as William Shatner’s, but they share a certain appearance, attitude, and personal style. Zachary Quinto’s Spock looks a lot like Leonard Nimoy’s, and certainly he has all the same Vulcan mannerisms. Cumberbatch’s Khan bears almost no resemblance to the original one. How can he? In order to preserve the sanctity of the mystery box’s unveiling, we have to be surprised when he says his name is Khan. If he was wandering through the movie in a chest-exposing brown leather harness, we’d figure it out on our own.
Which is, when you think about it, sort of ludicrous — this entire movie’s twist is built around a reveal that should be self-evident. To make it work, Abrams and his team had to essentially de-Khan Khan — strip him of all his physical trademarks and tics. But if someone is so divorced from the source material of what they’re doing that their connection to it has to be explained in a big dump of exposition, is it really that big of a deal? At that point, why even do it at all?
A few late breaking (and not particularly fitting) third act twists — including another cameo from Leonard Nimoy’s “Spock Prime” and a riff of the iconic Spock death scene from “Wrath of Khan” — make Khan a bit more relevant to the story Abrams is telling. But when it comes right down to it, Cumberbatch’s character didn’t have to be Khan. He could have just been “John Harrison,” mysterious Starfleet superman gone rogue. The movie certainly incorporates bits and pieces of Khan’s mythology into the plot, but most of what he does is just generic super-villain bad guy stuff. Again, the only reason he’s Khan is so he can be a part of the mystery box.
What’s so interesting about these Khan contortions is the way they turn the last “Star Trek” movie’s greatest strength into “Into Darkness”‘ biggest weakness. “Star Trek” engineered this brilliant workaround for the original “Trek” continuity by sending Nimoy’s Spock Prime back through time, creating this alternate universe that skewed off into a tangent timeline. At the end of the film, Spock Prime meets Zachary Quinto’s young Spock in a spaceship hanger and tells his more youthful self that, in the future, he should “put aside logic” and “do what feels right.” Nimoy doesn’t come out and say it, but the implication is clear: you have my blessing to do something new. This “Star Trek” needn’t be beholden to the old one, or to the “logic” of stories that came before. Abrams and whoever else works on “Star Trek” after him can carve out a new destiny with new stories. They could do what feels right.
Having so elegantly found a way to tell new stories with old characters, “Star Trek Into Darkness” takes the ill-advised step of dragging the characters back to the familiar. After working so hard to justify fresh adventures with the old Enterprise crew, “Into Darkness” just rehashes an old one.
All the best parts of “Star Trek Into Darkness” are the new ones; the high tech adventure, the massive space battles, the comic chemistry between the actors, the dudes flying through space at breakneck speed. All the worst ones are callbacks. Other franchises can bear the burden of rehashing themselves over and over again, but not “Star Trek.” It flies directly in the face of this series’ ethos: “To boldly go where no one has gone before.” For all its strengths, that is something this “Star Trek” never does.