Star Trek into Darkness (3/5)
My first introduction to the world of Star Trek was not the original series but the second television show, Star Trek: The Next Generation. I may have seen reruns of the original series before I sat down with my family to watch the pilot episode of TNG, but if so it has been lost to memory. I do remember watching reruns of TOS after familiarizing myself with TNG and trying to wrap my head around the fact that these two shows were supposed to comprise the same fictional universe. As I got older, I eventually came to understand the shared philosophy between each iteration of Star Trek: a secular humanist view of the future. Star Trek exists in a world where the limitless optimism of the 1960s never died. I continued watching Star Trek shows and movies for years after my first introduction, but eventually I bailed sometime in the middle of Voyager’s run (my zeal for Star Trek had its limits). Still, the first three television shows found a unique way of exploring and commenting on creator Gene Roddenberry’s image of the future: TOS presented us with the dangers and surprises of exploration; TNG constructed a lived in image of different worlds attempting to share what sometimes seemed like a small galaxy; and DS9, freed from Roddenberry’s creative vision, actually started to question some of the mid-century zeal for the future that characterized the first two shows.
I started this review with this brief sketch of my relationship to Star Trek because no one goes into a long running series like this unencumbered. Even those who have never seen an episode of any of the many series have an image (right or wrong) of what Star Trek stands for. But you should know that I have an emotional, intellectual, and personal connection to the franchise, and this of course colors how I watched this movie. When J.J. Abrams first decided to reboot the series, I wasn’t sure what to think. I was cautiously optimistic that he would be able to capture some of the fun of the original, but I in no way expected him to mimic the same pop-philosophy that had always characterized the series and made its way, in abbreviated form, into the movies. (I can’t imagine that Abrams is much of a Herman Melville fan, for instance). Keeping my expectations in check helped me to really enjoy 2008’s Star Trek. Abrams transformed the movie into a series of sometimes enjoyable, sometimes dumb, and sometimes exhausting action set pieces, but he also managed to capture the relationship between the principal characters surprisingly well.
But where Star Trek had the benefit of low expectations, Star Trek into Darkness had the burden of showing where Abrams could take this series and the anticipatory build up of five years, a long time in-between movies. While it’s no unmitigated disaster, Star Trek into Darkness is a mixed bag. It suffers from the usual problems that plague J.J. Abrams work, like the fact that it works when the gears are moving and the audience has little time to reflect on what’s happening, but it starts to flail when things turn serious.
Typical of a J.J. Abrams joint, STiD begins in media res, with Kirk and McCoy fleeing a group of natives after stealing a religious artifact. They hope to lure the island community, a burgeoning society of sentient beings, away from an active volcano long enough so that Spock can set a cold fusion bomb that will deactivate the volcano, allowing the natives to live long enough to enter the Bronze Age. Kirk soon has to decide whether he should leave Spock to die in the volcano or if he should reveal the Enterprise to the natives and beam Spock out of danger. Obviously, Kirk decides on the latter, and in doing so he breaks the Prime Directive, a central tenant of Starfleet that says explorers should not interfere with the development of alien civilizations. Kirk leaves all of this out of his official report, but Spock doesn’t, which leads to Kirk’s mentor and senior officer, Captain Pike, dressing him down and relieving him of command of the Enterprise.
Shortly after Pike has taken command of the Enterprise, a mysterious terrorist played by Benedict Cumberbatch blows up a building used by Starfleet and later attacks a meeting of senior Starfleet officers who have convened to decide how best to tackle this act of terrorism. In the attack, Pike is killed, sending Kirk into revenge mode. It’s discovered that the terrorist, John Harrison, has fled to the Klingon home world, a warrior race that is on the brink of war with the Federation. So Captain Marcus, played by Robocop himself, Peter Weller, tasks Kirk and the enterprise with tracking Harrison’s location and killing him with a long range torpedo.
The clear modern analogy is drone strikes, a policy where we often ignore the sovereign space of other nations in order assassinate individuals suspected of terrorism, even if they are also American citizens. The crew of the Enterprise is naturally uncomfortable with the idea of assassinating a Federation citizen without a trial. Spock makes his disagreement with the assignment clear and Scotty goes so far as to stay behind rather than to be implicated in the assassination.
It’s obvious that this plot is attempting to address criticism that Abrams’s Star Trek is just dumb fun without any of the original show’s notions of philosophy. The use of science fiction to comment on contemporary politics was integral to what made the original series so memorable. Gene Roddenberry wanted to do more than entertain; he wanted comment on the civil rights movements of the 60s. In the end, Kirk decides to push aside his desire for revenge and captures Harrison. I have to commend Abrams and his screenwriters for not only addressing moral quandaries surrounding terrorism, but also for clearly coming down against drone strikes. It’s common for large blockbusters to throw in an allusion to terrorism now and then to give themselves an easy sense of gravitas, but for every film that handles the issue with intelligence (Batman Begins), there are many more films that drop the ball (The Dark Knight Rises). In fact, I would argue that STiD is better at handling the themes of terrorism, revenge, and justice than more overtly “real world” movies like Zero Dark Thirty. And while we will never know for certain, the film’s condemnation of assassinating our enemies would have been embraced by Roddenberry himself, who always came off as a bit of 60s radical.
It’s too bad, then, that the moment Kirk captures the terrorist, Harrison, the movie begins to fall apart. Fair warning: from here on out there are heavy spoilers. I avoided all spoilers before seeing the film, but I had heard the internet whisperings that Cumberbatch would be playing Kahn, the most notorious Star Trek villain. Well, he is Kahn. How a Mexican pretending to be Indian in the original Star Trek universe becomes a Brit in this universe, I’ll never know (perhaps they’ll explain this discrepancy in the sequel). Perhaps one of the most potentially exciting aspects of the first Star Trek was that Abrams and company had come up with a way of starting fresh without completely overwriting the long history of the series. All they had to do was construct an entirely new parallel universe. But it seems wrong headed for Abram to give himself all of this freedom, to tell the audience that we are now entering a world where anything can happen—we are not bound to continuity; this is my playground now—and then go ahead and retread characters and events from the old universe. There are so many possibilities in the world of Star Trek. Why give us more of the same?
But wait, it gets worse. Perhaps the most inexplicable moment in the entire film is a restaging of a famous scene from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but this time the characters are flipped. Fans of the Star Trek series will almost immediately guess what scene I’m referring to: the death of Spock. But here it is Kirk who sacrifices his life and restores power to the Enterprise. At best, this comes across as mistaken fan service, cosplay on the big screen. Abrams understands, rightly, that the death of Spock still has a strong emotional pull for geekdom. So he thinks that restaging it will conjure up the same sort of emotional memories. Instead, the scene plays out as rote. I felt like I had to endure the death of Kirk in order for the real film to resume. At its worst, this scene plays out as cynical miscalculation. Abrams, unable to conjure up something new, tosses out pre-masticated remains for the public. In my review of Super 8 (a film that has some fine moments), I said that Abrams was like a piano prodigy who can recreate the notes of a piece of music perfectly, but somehow the results are devoid of emotion. I can think of no finer example of this than STiD’s death of Kirk.
I don’t think Abrams understands what a disservice the death of Kirk did not only to his audience, but also to himself. Star Trek II is such a taught, well crafted piece of entertainment that to intentionally draw comparisons between it and STiD causes the latter to suffer. But it also shows how little Abrams understood what made the death of Spock work. Star Trek II smartly drew on the fact that the characters were getting older for dramatic weight. Early in the film, McCoy gives Kirk his birthday presents, including a pair of archaic looking spectacles. Death is becoming real to these characters. Sure, there’s element of survivor’s guilt—that these characters have survived trouncing through the galaxy while others haven’t. But it’s also the sense that age and death catches up with us all. This dread hangs over much of the film. But STiD takes place when Kirk and Spock are just beginning to understand each other. They don’t have the same history, and as young men death is not yet real to them. In order to understand this, a director has to know not only how to stage action, which Abrams does well, but he must also know how to weave thematic weight into his narrative, which Abrams has yet to learn.
But despite my rant, the movie is rather enjoyable until about two-thirds of the way through. It’s not a complete loss. The greatest boon this new series of movies has going for it are the actors. Abrams must get credit for assembling a great group of young actors who manage to fit their roles well. This is especially surprising, because the single greatest aspect of the original Star Trek was the relationship between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. It was easy to ignore the chintzy 1960s special effects when these three characters and the actors who portrayed them were on the screen. (I still wish that Karl Urban could get more screen time as McCoy in the new series). I sincerely hope that this crew has plenty of adventures left, and I think that one day Abrams might even become a great director of blockbuster entertainments. Until then, I’m happy for someone else to take over for the next installment.