Look, Benedict Cumberbatch is playing Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness. It’s been all but confirmed for ages now, and it’s such a non-surprise, the film itself even tosses out the reveal like it’s no big deal. This isn’t a movie built around that revelation. And with that character’s presence, certain story beats were a given. I was prepared for that, ready to let the film be its own take on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. What I wasn’t prepared for was how much this new film aped not the 1982 classic, but J.J. Abrams reboot from all of four years ago. He must think our memories are really short.
Because once again we’re presented with the story of a brash, hot-headed young Captain James T. Kirk who learns what it takes to become a leader. Into Darkness even takes great pains to deprive him of the Enterprise only to have him get it back again what feels like almost immediately. He goes through most of the same beats with Spock and Dr. McCoy as he did in the first film too. There’s another time-lost villain posing a threat to the planet, and even another scientific deus ex machina waiting around to save the day. We even get the Enterprise once again racing off where no man has gone before, actually beginning the famed five-year mission everyone had assumed they were off on at the end of the last film. For a film that’s taking an awful risk in mirroring perhaps the best-loved iteration of Trek ever, it’s puzzling that it wouldn’t choose to offer a little more originality to compensate.
As for how it fares as a redo of Wrath of Khan, it can’t help but suffer from not having a decades-0ld TV episode already dispensing with the backstory. The film has to spend time filling us in on who Khan is, which comes as no surprise to longtime Trek fans and has zero resonance for anyone unfamiliar with “Space Seed” and Wrath of Khan. Not even a ham-handed cameo by Leonard Nimoy as Spock Prime gravely intoning the severity of the danger posed by Khan can provide enough heft. And the truth is, Cumberbatch really didn’t need to be Khan for this story to work. His initial campaign of terror against the Federation is big enough and ruthless enough to make him a credible threat without having to drape him in the spirit of Ricardo Montalban. The film already introduces a secret division within Starfleet working on top-secret military projects; why not just have Khan be a genetic experiment who rebels against his creators? It would still have echoes of the original Khan story without being a retread, you’d still be able to have Peter Weller’s corrupt Admiral Marcus behind it all, and you wouldn’t have to spend time explaining an old Star Trek episode in the middle of things.
Another reason the Wrath of Khan parallels fail is that the lesson learned here isn’t as deep or significant as Abrams and company seem to think it is. In the original film, an aging Kirk is forced to deal not only with the mistakes of his past but with the uncertainty of his future. He’s not just afraid of growing old, but of growing useless. And despite the grave losses suffered at the hands of Khan, he emerges reborn, staring into the coalescing Genesis planet and saying, “I feel young.” The big lesson of Into Darkness seems to be that yes, Spock can beat the crap out of somebody if pushed hard enough, and that Kirk is willing to sacrifice himself for his ship and crew. The truth is that these iterations of Kirk and Spock — and of Trek itself — are too young and inexperienced for the ordeal of Khan have any of the resonance it had in Wrath of Khan. There’s no weight of years on them, no strength of friendship. So when Into Darkness has its go at Wrath of Khan‘s famous death scene — this time with Kirk on the wrong side of the glass — it’s diluted not only by the knowledge Chris Pine isn’t going anywhere, but by the Kirk/Spock friendship having barely begun. We’re being asked to haul in our fondness for the older film to lend this one its emotion.
And it’s too bad, because when Into Darkness is just being a big, loud summer science fiction blockbuster, it’s tons of fun. Abrams and the cast drop right back into the easy chemistry they established the first time around, the action is epic, and Cumberbatch absolutely knocks it out of the park with his performance. If this could have just been its own Trek, echoing the past instead of mimicking it, it would have been a much more satisfying film. Right before the credits roll, the Enterprise swoops gracefully across space as Kirk intones his obligatory monologue, promising strange new worlds, new life, and new civilization. Let’s hope the next Trek film finds some new life of its own.