Star Trek Into Darkness (J.J. Abrams, 2013)

I was never a particularly big Star Trek fan. I have seen several episodes of each TV incarnation with the exception of Enterprise, I enjoyed a good deal of those, but I never felt the need to turn it on despite being in a household full of Trekkies. The Voyage Home is a movie I saw several times as a kid because when my brothers wanted to watch a Star Trek movie it was the one that I was most likely to agree to. I know “City On The Edge of Forever” and “The Trouble With Tribbles” and the various catch-phrases, from “Live long and prosper” (with the accompanying hand position, of course) to “Dammit Jim, I’m a doctor, not a miracle worker!” and the Vulcan neck-pinch, etc, but I wouldn’t call myself a fan.

One could argue that makes me unqualified to talk about Star Trek Into Darkness, but I would argue that it actually makes me more qualified. I can catch the jokes and references but I also have no objection to straying away from canon, taking on a different tone, or altering characters’ personalities in the interest of drama. To me, this is its own movie (and a sequel to the 2009 movie), not an extension of TV characters from the late ‘60s. So with all of that said, I’m here to tell you that Star Trek Into Darkness is both a solid political statement and an enjoyable Star Trek story despite a few noticeable script issues.

Great sci-fi cinema is somewhat of a rarity these days, where impressive special effects and attempts to be described by high-schoolers as “mind-blowing” are more important than serviceable allegory and thematic resonance. Star Trek Into Darkness is certainly guilty of putting a lot into special effects (special effects that, quite frankly, aren’t terribly impressive): an over-scaled series of life-or-death battle scenes at the movie’s end run about 20 minutes too long. But there’s also a clear allegory, too. After an attack on a Star Fleet archive, the captains and their first-officers gather in a room to discuss what to do about the guilty party, John Harrison (a scene-stealing Benedict Cumberbatch), he mounts another attack. It’s a quiet, inoffensive reminder of 9/11, and the events that follow are both attacks on the Bush Administration as well as nuanced examinations of Obama’s and observations of the malleability of power.

Following these attacks, Admiral Marcus decides to chase John Harrison to his hiding place in the middle of Kronos (where the Klingons live) and kill him with a torpedo despite the fact that it will cause war with the Klingons. If that sounds a bit like Osama Bin Laden hiding out in the Middle East, ignoring Judicial law, and finding a dumb reason to start war with uninvolved parties ala Bush, that’s because it is.

But it gets a lot more complex from there. The new photon torpedoes that were developed are going to be used to kill Mr. Harrison without him knowing, even if it is without a trial. But then Spock convinces Kirk maybe he should follow the rules, and so they decide to try to take him personally, and the violence that ensues shows maybe sometimes, those drone—err, torpedo—strikes might be the way to go. Except that those torpedoes have a cryogenically frozen person in them. Yes, the movie’s equivalent of unofficial, extra-judicial drone strikes has built-in, untargeted “collateral damage” in the form of another life. All seventy-two of them. In this particular case, it’s hard to say what the right decision was.

As the story progresses, we see that Admiral Marcus is certainly no better than Harrison, and his abuse of power for self-gain and deliberate secrecy is another comment on post-9/11 government. It’s also one of Star Trek’s central themes, the malleability and misleading nature of command/rank and the acceptance and (mis)use of power that comes with it. Kirk is demoted to commander early in the film only to bounce right back, Sulu has to play captain for a bit, a resigned-Scottie comes through despite not officially being a member of the Enterprise, Lieutenant Uhura  takes charge a couple of times, and Marcus’ daughter finds a way aboard the ship without ever getting assigned. These ranks are constantly turned into a big deal, with characters addressing each other as “Captain” or “Lieutenant” with constant drama about everyone’s status, but it rarely seems to matter. Sometimes the guy at the top is the bad guy and the commanding officer isn’t always correct, or even identifiable. Writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof are making a point out of the importance of space between how we perceive power and leadership and where it actually lies. Tradition is constantly toppled, and the viewer is regularly forced to guess who has power and what exactly that will mean. Even the concept of red shirts—the de facto lowest rank in the Star Trek universe—is no longer sacred. Crucially, these concepts occur regularly across much stiffer boundaries, with a racially diverse cast of characters all assuming positions of power at various points in the film.

Where the writing team goes wrong is in making everything too big. There may not be fifteen minutes of this film that go by without a life-or-death situation occurring. As a result, character relationships suffer. The romance between Ohura and Spock loses its importance for longer than it should, and Kirk’s womanizing lacks importance despite regular emphasis. When you think things have calmed down, they get crazy again, and the bombardment of suspense becomes almost as bad as the dull moments in lesser blockbusters. Abrams, however, has a sure hand behind the camera (despite a much maligned overuse of lens flare) and is constantly able to integrate humor into the 132 minute ride to keep things loose and effective even in the redundant or excessive moments. There are a couple annoying character dumps, where pure exposition conveniently updates us on yet another imminent threat, but these also work slightly toward developing a Kirk/Spock dynamic in their regularly-opposed conclusions. In other words, the film is a bit overwritten, but only the ending, which unintentionally brings to light how underdeveloped the relationship between Kirk and Harrison actually is, is a complete misfire, a tedious mark of what could have been instead of another decent-enough sci-fi trip.

In other words, Abrams and his collaborators have created a good but problematic space adventure, but also a smart piece of political cinema. Storytelling issues are more momentary than constant as high suspense keeps the film enjoyable even through its weakest spots. Just as importantly, a heavy reliance upon post-9/11 foreign policy never feels exploitative. Between the two, Star Trek Into Darkness demonstrates that it’s possible to be smart and substantial without giving up the fun associated with franchise blockbusters.

Grade: B


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