“Captain's log, Stardate 6051, had trouble sleeping last night. My hiatal hernia is acting up. The ship is draft and damp. I complained, but, nobody listens." - Captain Kirk
"Star Trek XII: So Very Tired." - TV Announcer
It is linguistically impossible to overstate how boring Star Trek 12 is. It suffers from every problem a movie can have: bad writing, bad acting, bad special effects, the list is endless. Its awfulness is so complete that one wonders whether or not they even ran spellcheck on the script.
What pushes the film past merely being boring and into truly astonishing levels of bad is that none of its comprehensive problems are failures of craft. Very talented people worked hard to make it slick and professional on every level. The move is exactly what J.J. Abrams intended it to be, which leaves the inescapable conclusion that he somehow did this on purpose.
At its core, Star Trek 12 is an unwatchably clumsy remake of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That movie is based off of an episode of the original series in which the crew encounters a genetically enhanced super fascist named, coincidentally enough, Khan. On Earth, two hundred years before Star Trek's time, he was a brutal Asian dictator (he's Spanish, so it's historically plausible), then he got exiled in space and cryogenically frozen. The Enterprise finds him, Kirk stupidly gives him the run of the ship, and Khan attempts to take over. Spock and Kirk eventually regain control of the Enterprise, and Kirk decides to maroon Khan on an uninhabited planet, Ceti Alpha 5. Accompanying Khan are a group of his equally genetically engineered crew and a nubile Enterprise historian who fell in love with Khan's fine, Corinthian pecs.
In the movie, which came out in 1982 (fifteen years after the original episode was broadcast), Khan's wife is dead and Ceti Alpha 5 has gone from a garden paradise to a desert shithole to make Tatooine look like the fourth moon of Yavin.* So, Khan hates Kirk, and then takes over a different Federation starship to chase him down like the white fucking whale - literally.
(*That is the geekiest sentence I have ever written. Long may it reign.)
Among the many reasons that Wrath of Khan is the best Star Trek movie by a country mile is the fact that it is basically Moby Dick In Space. Melville's dense, symbolist tome about a captain hellbent on revenge underpins the entire story. A famously excellent and difficult novel got turned into a kickass sci-fi movie through the magic of Chippendale's dancers*, nightmarishly creepy brain slug torture, and special effects that look better than most CGI these days.
(*With the exception of two silent, token 70s babes, Khan's entire crew is played by male strippers.)
Star Trek movies have always been of uneven quality (to put it mildly), but Wrath of Khan is the only one that's good enough that it can be shown to and seriously enjoyed by regular people who don't care about Star Trek. Among its many themes and subplots are: worries about getting older, questions about the definitions of friendship and loyalty, civilian-military competitions over science, and the unresolvable philosophical challenge of how each of us choose to face our inevitable deaths. There's also a bunch of subtext taken from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (seriously).
Overlaying all that is an 18th century naval combat epic that happens to use phasers and impulse power instead of cannons and sails. Kirk and Khan circle each other in their respective ships and each captain makes moves and counter-moves to defeat the other. The two of them, in fact, never share a scene together.
Using that nearly bottomless source material, Abrams and his writers* came up with an incoherent action flick that features lots of fist fights and has an almost obligatory shot of the hot Science Babe in her underwear. The movie is such a mess that its subtitle, "Into Darkness", barely means anything on its own and has nothing to do with the actual story, which involves an evil admiral who's trying to start a war with the Klingons.
(*Orci and Kurtzman came back, and were joined by Damon Lindelof, who earned his own term in Alternate Universe Writer Prison for the grotesque mess of a screenplay that became 2012's Prometheus.)
They do have a pretty Enterprise, though. You gotta give 'em that.
Like its predecessor, it contains a whole host of minor Star Trek problems that only geeks would notice. For example, Vulcan Mind Melds are sacred and powerful ideas in most of Trek. Here, Spock does one to a dying man out of little more than impulsive curiosity and without the guy's consent, which is the Vulcan equivalent of brain rape.* There are also lots of minor writing tics, as when Kirk asks where the hull is damaged and gets the unhelpfully vague reply of, "Major hull damage, Captain" from some dude on the bridge, or when Khan refers to the nonexistent "aft nacelle" (nacelles are the big tubes on the back of the ship, there's a port nacelle and a starboard nacelle, but no aft nacelle).
(*See the way Leonard Nimoy does one to Kim Cattrall in Star Trek 6. It's intense and kinda disturbing, and Spock clearly doesn't enjoy doing it.)
Those are aggravating, but fly right over the head of every audience member who isn't already a Trek fan. However, there are also larger ones that anyone even paying attention to the movie can spot. Near the beginning, Khan escapes across the galaxy with a "trans warp transporter". Simply transporting all the way to the Klingon homeworld isn't something regular Trek can do, but even if you didn't know that, it's hard to miss the fact that when they decide to go after him they don't just use the same device. Instead, they concoct an elaborate strike mission that is made completely unnecessary by a capability we saw five minutes beforehand.
Jarring record scratch moments like that - and they are legion - don't require any special fondness or knowledge of Trek to render the movie an unwatchable mess. At one point, Dr. McCoy and Science Babe are on a planet trying to open a torpedo. We see them carefully plotting how to perform this delicate operation when McCoy's arm gets suddenly stuck. Science Babe then runs around to the other side and deactivates the thing in two seconds. The term "photon torpedo" doesn't need to be part of your vocabulary for you to wonder why she didn't just do that in the first place.
Other examples abound. In the opening scene, the Enterprise is parked under the ocean of a world inhabited by Stone Age aliens. This causes a problem when the aliens see the ship as it blasts out of the surface, but there's no reason for it to be underwater in the first place. Had it been in space where it normally is, there wouldn't have been the slightest issue.
Halfway through the movie, Scotty takes a shuttle to a secret military base. Not only does he not get detected by any sensors around this presumably highly guarded installation, but he flies inside of it in full view of a flotilla of other shuttles. You don't need to know anything about Star Trek to notice that the other shuttles have windows.
This version of Star Trek even lacks something as common today as Google. Khan is originally masquerading as a guy named "John Harrison". It is under that name that he is identified as the perpetrator of a bombing at a Star Fleet facility. Kirk even sees him, name included, on surveillance camera footage. Yet later, the movie treats it like a big reveal that "John Harrison" has only existed for a year and is obviously a fake. Trek knowledge or no, finding that kind of basic information is easily done by anyone (even in our technologically primitive time), and would stand out like a sore thumb in the most cursory investigation of a major explosion.
In what passes for the climactic space scene, the Enterprise is disabled and falling towards Earth. The gravity is supposed to be out, but even though they are in space, suddenly everyone is falling sideways. It's one thing for Trek to do things that Physics 101 says are impossible, like teleport matter and travel at many times the speed of light. It's quite another for the movie to have a Michael Bay Armageddon level of "fuck you, science". Children know that people are weightless in space.
It's all an excuse to make Kirk and Scotty running through the ship a harrowing experience, including a literal cliffhanger when they're draped off a catwalk. But the movie can't even sustain its own conceit as scenes of characters falling sideways down hallways are intercut with others of them with their feet normally on the floor. The gravity problems exist only long enough for a stunt, then they go away.
In these ways and more, Star Trek 12 reveals not only its contempt for its rich and varied source material, but for rudimentary logic as well. Scenes that are supposed to be thrilling or dangerous, like McCoy maybe getting blown up by a torpedo or Kirk dangling over a railing because gravity is sideways, are neutered of even the least bit of suspense by the complete nonsense of it all. Equally as bad, huge plot holes are exposed at nearly every turn, robbing the story of any tension or even basic common sense.
Star Trek 12 is so hapless that it can't even copy and paste scenes from Wrath of Khan competently. In the original, Spock sacrifices himself to save the ship from Khan. Horribly burned by radiation, he and Kirk share a death scene that is one of the most famous moments in all of Star Trek. And while he does come back - this is Star Trek, after all - it takes an entire movie to do so. In this one, Kirk dies the exact same way, but his horrible burns look like a minor rash and he's dead for a whopping eight minutes of screentime. Superficially, it's the same scene, but without any of the context or payoff that made the original great it's nothing but a chintzy knock off.
Relentless contempt for basic storytelling and for the science fiction franchise the studio is pumping for cash are bad enough, but what truly clinches Star Trek 12 as a creative non-entity is the utter irrelevance of Khan. Shorn of the backstory and context that made him such a great villain the first time around, this version of Khan is just a bog standard British movie villain. His only two distinguishing characteristics are that he's very strong and that his blood can apparently heal a wide variety of ailments. Nothing he does in the movie necessitates him being a genetically engineered superman from the past, or even being named Khan.
Kirk and Khan the White are about to banter. They do that a lot.
For evidence of just how pathetic the movie and its empty name of a villain truly are, compare the respective endings. In 1982, Khan's ship is crippled and he, grotesquely injured and surrounded by the bodies of the crew who died for his revenge, detonates a super weapon in an attempt to take the Enterprise to Hell with him, all while quoting Melville. Here are his final words:
"No, Kirk. The game's not over. . . . To the last, I will grapple with thee. . . . No. No, you can't get away. From Hell's heart, I stab at thee. For hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee."
In 2013, Khan gets arrested after getting into fisticuffs with Spock and says literally nothing. He just grunts, roars and screams, an unintelligible series of "Yarghhh", "Ahhh", and "Bwaaahh" as he and Spock punch and smash each other. It is the dumbest possible ending, especially when you consider that it's all taking place on a flying platform of some kind in San Francisco. (It bears more than a passing resemblance to that confused chase scene where Anakin jumps from one flying car to another at the beginning of Attack of the Clones.) That the greenscreen background behind them is atrociously fuzzy and fake is a sort of bonus awfulness.
It's one thing for writing to be lazy and thoughtless (at one point, Kirk actually uses the worn out and very un-Trek cliche "thrown under the bus"), but to deny your vaunted villain even the dignity of a final line is truly hacktacular. The original is the high point of a fifty year old franchise, and, given the budget and freedom to attempt to match it, the best thing Abrams and company could come up with was a grunt filled fistfight. A shot for shot remake of the original would've been more creative.
Continue to Chapter 6 - Star Wars 7: George Lucas Sold Low