Conventional wisdom about writing is conventionally wrong.
There are fanboys who quibble with director J.J. Abrams for making a fun summer movie instead of a serious Star Trek film, as if we’re talking about Shakespeare here instead of Klingons and Khan and photon torpedoes.
These grumpy critics complain about too much action and “fun” and not enough hard science and long conversations about dilithium crystals or whatever.
I say, get over yourselves.
I also say this: J.J. Abrams and his writers are clearly having fun, and it shows. It showed in the first STAR TREK and it shows in STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS.
As a speaker, or an actor, you want to feel the emotion you want the audience to feel. When you watch a Christopher Nolan film, whether it’s about Batman or Guy Pearce not being able to remember who killed his wife, the feeling is quite different: serious and somber and haunted.
Emotions matter. Audiences want to feel something, and in the summer — when Hollywood isn’t trying to win Oscars with Serious Films with Very Serious Actors looking Seriously Sad while they wear period costumes from the 1940s or 1840s — people sitting in those theater seats are paying good money to have fun.
So if you want a slow, somber STAR TREK film about science and all that, fire up STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE and wake me up when it’s over, because that thing should be sold as a sleep aid.
We’re here to dissect STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS and say why it works, as a story. It works wonderfully because J.J. Abrams and his writers care about setups and payoffs, reversals and revelations, Easter Eggs and echoes.
I want to talk about the setups and payoffs, because they’re fundamental, and J.J. Abrams and his people get them right.
Warning: this thing is chock full of spoilers. Don’t read it if you haven’t seen the movie.
Setups and payoffs
If you care anything about storytelling, hey, the setups and payoffs in this film are gorgeous.
Everything ties into everything else. There are no orphaned payoffs, no setups that lead nowhere.
In fact, most setups pay off at least three different times.
Two key examples:
The first time we see Benedict Cumberpatch as Khan, he’s (1) offering to heal a Starfleet officer’s daughter, and he does it with a sample of his own blood. That blood later (2) resurrects a tribble after Bones injects it with some of those same blood cells and (3) brings back to life a certain somebody who (4) saves the Enterprise and crew by entering a radioactive chamber to restart the warp core and such, which echoes (5) some other famous scene in STAR TREK II: CORINTHIAN LEATHER DOES NOT REALLY EXIST, BUT RICARDO MONTALBAN IS STILL AWESOME.
The 72 long-range photon torpedoes loaded onto the Enterprise are an even better setup that pays off at least 10 times. Ready? Khan escaping to a Klingon planet causes (1) Admiral Marcus to give Kirk the experimental, long-range torpdoes, which (2) make Scotty resign because he’s not allowed to scan the experimental torpedoes, meaning they might take the Enterprise out of warp and blow them up, while (3) the torpedoes let Carol Marcus sneak aboard the Enterprise as a science officer in the first place leading to (4) the revelation that Carol is the daughter of Admiral Marcus, (5) Scotty resigning makes him loose on Earth and free to go investigate what evil thing Admiral Marcus is building out at sector 24-11-whatever, (6) Sulu’s threat about surrender or get torpedoed makes Khan surrender because (7) the torpedoes contain his frozen crew of fellow super-humans, which causes him to (8) team up with Kirk to sneak aboard the ship of Admiral Marcus who’s busy shooting holes in the Enterprise until (9) Carol bargains with her father not to destroy the Enterprise because she’s on it, so he simply beams her aboard his scary dreadnaught until (10) Khan takes it over and demands that Spock lower the shields on the Enterprise so he can beam this torpedoes and crew over, which Spock does since (10) he and Bones already removed the frozen crew and set those 72 torpedoes to explode.
I’m probably forgetting three other payoffs from that one setup involving the best MacGuffin in my memory.
Most films or novels have trouble making their lone plot device make any kind of story sense. J.J. Abrams and his writers don’t have any trouble at all. They tie every major plot point together, and every character, with one thing. Brilliant.
Bonus clip: Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner in their best scene.
Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award (PNWA 2013). Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.