Boldly Going Nowhere: Star Trek Into Darkness and Bad Screenwriting

2013 has been an overall mediocre year for movies for me. Aside from the few standouts I mentioned in my Year-So-Far review, it’s mostly been a lot of shrugworthy middle-of-the-pack material, momentarily entertaining and then mostly forgettable. There were, however, a few high-profile disappointments. Man of Steel was all about the action while painting the dialogue and characters with such broad strokes they might as well have been using spraypaint. Elysium retained a lot of the stylistic signatures you’d expect from Neill Blomkamp, but dumbed it down a ridiculous degree from District 9. But above all, the biggest and most infuriating disappointment this year has been Star Trek Into Darkness. And while Trekkers might complain about the various continuity alterations and the blockbuster-ing of their favorite franchise, my issues boil down to one simple thing: the script, and how awful it is.

(SPOILERS FOR EVERYTHING)

When I went to school for screenwriting, one of the primary lessons that was hammered home was the focus on character. We were taught to build fully-developed characters, and give them as much detail and specificity as possible, before ever starting the script itself. We were taught to figure out what their goals were, both externally and internally (one of my teachers described it as the Dramatic and Poetic Purposes; the former is the active physical goal, the latter is the emotional arc), and then the characters were meant to dictate the action to us. Aside from having a general idea of the ending, we were expected to just let the characters follow their natural course of action, based on how we had defined them.

A great example of how to do this properly is (ironically enough) JJ Abrams’ first Star Trek. That film is a clinic in how to create good, character-driven blockbuster entertainment, and in the process achieve some emotional resonance. Within the first twenty minutes of the movie, Kirk and Spock’s backstories and character flaws have been quickly and cleanly established: Kirk grew up without a father and has no sense of responsibility, while Spock struggles with controlling his emotions among logic-driven Vulcan society. The writers, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, then provide a series of dramatic moments that challenge those character flaws, and the arc of the story naturally grows from those challenges. Every major movement in the script results from the established nature of each character, including the secondary characters and the villain, and because of that the entire story feels more natural and believable.

The fact that Kurtzman and Orci did such a good job with this in the first film makes it even more frustrating that they (along with Damon Lindelof) could fail so miserably at it in STID. There are various other issues with the script overall, including the logic problems (why does Spock need Khan’s blood specifically to save Kirk when they have 72 other superhumans in custody already), the short-lived-to-the-point-of-irrelevance dramatic moments (Kirk losing command of the Enterprise only to get it back five minutes later, Kirk DYING then getting resurrected almost immediately), and the bland action sequences that could be in any non-space-opera movie (Khan’s attack on the Starfleet boardroom, the final footchase), not to mention all the Trek continuity problems. Oh and that Alice Eve underwear shot for no reason. But most of those issues would’ve been more forgivable (or wouldn’t have cropped up in the first place) if they’d built the same sort of character-driven script they’d made for the last movie.

In STID, Kirk and Spock are only given the most rudimentary arcs, which are mostly just repetitive from the last movie (Kirk has issues with responsibility, Spock has issues with emotions). And those arcs are only briefly touched upon, and not really explored at all. So without the main protagonists driving the story, it’s left up to Khan, the film’s “antagonist”, to motivate the action. Usually it’s not a good idea to let the villain dictate the action, though the way they initially use Khan would make this somewhat forgivable. But unfortunately for the famous villain, his writers didn’t know what the fuck to do with him.

Even worse, for the first two acts of the film they seem to almost have an interesting take on Khan. Rather than have the Enterprise discover him aboard the Botany Bay and then match wits with him, STID shows him having already been discovered by Admiral Marcus and put to work designing weapons in exchange for the safety of his people; Khan’s ensuing terrorism is to protect them. While the script takes this to a needlessly convoluted place (by having Khan’s identity obscured and then revealed with little actual impact), it does provide a chance to put Khan into a different context, making him more of an antihero than a villain. And for most of the second act this new take on Khan is actually explored, casting Kirk as an enabler of Khan’s wrath as opposed to the victim of it, and Admiral Marcus as the true villain of the piece. In this context then, I have no problem with Khan driving the action, and Kirk and Spock just going along for the ride and (presumably) learning something about themselves in the process.

Now if this had remained the actual spine of the movie it would’ve made Khan a more consistent character and would’ve opened up a possible character arc for Kirk involving his belief in the Federation and his combative instincts as a captain (using Khan and Marcus as examples of the potential paths Kirk could end up taking). Unfortunately Kurtzman, Orci and Lindelof- I’m going to call them KOL from here on out- decide once the third act rolls around that no, Khan needs to remain KHAAAAAAAAAN!!!! and be a villainous bastard because that’s the way Trekkers remember him so that’s how he needs to stay. So Kirk decides to betray Khan without a whole lot of justification, then Khan decides to blow up the Enterprise just because. And then KOL realized that it makes no sense that Khan be evil in the end so rather than do a full rewrite they go back and add a scene where Spock calls Spock Prime (Leonard Nimoy) and Spock Prime explains how evil Khan is because of what a different version of Khan did in a separate timeline. And then they do a whole role-swapped retread of the end of Wrath of Khan just because “Hey wasn’t that movie awesome?!?!”

When you combine this with some of the things that Roberto Orci has said about the development of the script (he said that they almost didn’t have Khan in the movie, and it sounds like they forced his inclusion into a plotline that was developed without his presence), it becomes clear that KOL forced the story to adapt to what they wanted to see in the movie, rather than what the characters they had developed dictated. Without giving Kirk and Spock legitimate character arcs to go on (that are not the same arcs from the last movie being repeated), and without giving Khan a consistent characterization at all, the whole script fails at basic story structure. So when KOL tries to trick us with the faux-death of Kirk, and the “surprise” betrayal by Khan, neither have much impact at all.

Perhaps most damningly of all, the script doesn’t really change much of anything at all in the overall scheme of the world. Other than the bad guy being defeated and a ton of damage being done to San Francisco, the world is the same and none of the characters seem to have been altered in any real way by the events of the movie. And that is the biggest storytelling sin of all.

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