[Warning: ahead there be spoilers. If you haven’t seen Star Trek Into Darkness yet, and if you don’t want to know plot details, save this review for after you leave the theater. It will, I hope, explain why it is that you feel so cheated.]
Walking out after my showing of Star Trek Into Darkness I found myself eavesdropping on a couple, a man and a woman who looked just about old enough to remember the original series on television. I hardly know anything about Star Trek, the woman was saying, turning to her partner, and I’ve never been much of a fan. But I really liked this movie! When can we go see it again?
This is an understandable sentiment, and I have a lot of sympathy for it. J. J. Abrams’s take on Trek is slick, fast-paced, packed with fistfights and gunfights and monumental battles in space. It has underdog heroes, hardly graduated from Starfleet academy, taking on villains of overwhelming strength from Earth’s ominous past, or from the highest echelons of twenty-third century society. Chris Pine’s Kirk is dashing (if not particularly in command); Zachary Quinto’s Spock is compelling and well-acted (if not particularly Vulcan); and even if you don’t know that he is bending over backwards to do the world’s best impression of DeForest Kelley, Karl Urban’s McCoy is difficult to dislike.
And have I mentioned the music? Definitely some of the best music in any Star Trek — film, series, or otherwise.
Star Trek Into Darkness, I’ll admit, had me going almost all the way through the film. It wasn’t great Trek. It wasn’t The Undiscovered Country, or Deep Space Nine (though it certainly borrows conspicuously from it!). But it was good enough that I felt I could forgive the cringeworthy red-planet intro, in which the Federation unfurls its banner of colonialism, mocking an alien race in whiteface for their “primitive” beliefs and technology, using the Enterprise to unilaterally “do what’s best for them” with a missionary zeal resonant with (redolent of?) Europe’s period of colonization. It was good enough that I could ignore the implausible bits of the plot, justifying them to myself as perhaps less implausible, even, than many of the elements of The Wrath of Khan on which the film is based. It was good enough that I found myself (inwardly) cheering and clapping when the film quotes Spock’s death scene — only in reverse (“I have been, and always shall be, your friend”).
The film had me. Until, that is, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Khan
crashes an airplane into the World Trade Center crashes a spaceship into Starfleet Headquarters. After that, it’s unforgivable.
The thing about Star Trek Into Darkness is that the film as a whole works a lot like Khan’s attempt to pose as Section 31 special agent John Harrison. Outwardly, the film is all Starfleet — with the uniforms and iconic ships, the Klingons and Vulcans, and a grounding in references to prior story. But scratch the surface, and it can’t maintain its elaborate facade. Scratch the surface and it’s devoid of the optimism of Star Trek, of the problem-solving storylines that are the bread and butter of prior incarnations, of the ethical dilemmas, and of the moralizing (both for better and for worse). Heck — when John Harrison’s cover is blown and this Enterprise crew finds out he’s Khan, they can’t even manage to do the simplest kind of background research, and ask the computer who that is. Quinto’s Spock has to use the “call a friend” lifeline and get in touch with Leonard Nimoy in retirement to explain how dangerous this guy is. What’s up with that?
Sarah, I think, put it particularly well when, livid, she called the film a mediocre action movie cobbled together out of the detritus of other Trek. It manages to be entirely sentimental for the texts that precede it, and simultaneously devoid of all the substance, the thematic richness, that warrants feelings of sentiment for those other texts.
It manages to show us glimpses of a broken Klingon moon (The Undiscovered Country), of nineteen nineties cryo-chambers (“Space Seed”), of tribbles, of Chekhov saying “wessels,” and of McCoy saying “Dammit Jim….” But it doesn’t pay those references back with characters overcoming their prejudices, or encountering their worst selves, or using brains rather than guns to solve their problems. Instead, it’s a snazzy-but-generic shoot’em up with a nostalgic TV tie-in, in which the characters and the audience are no richer in experience and wisdom at the end then they were when they started.
We can see this with Chris Pine’s Kirk who, as I said in my previous Trek post, has all of the privileged, frat-boy, sleep-around swagger of William Shatner’s rendition, but none of the commanding presence, and certainly none of the honor. Like Pine’s Kirk, Shatner’s puts his friend’s life before his duty, defying orders and all but commandeering the Enterprise to go and save Spock (The Search for Spock). But Shatner’s Kirk learns something from the experience, and accepts the consequences of his actions even when it means a demotion.
Pine’s Kirk, on the other hand, begs and pleads and tries to wheedle indulgence out of an angry Captain (Admiral?) Pike. He gets mad at Spock when Spock is truthful about the events that led to his being trapped in, and then rescued from, an angry volcano. And he does everything he can to cover up the truth himself. Kirk only gets the Enterprise back through a series of extraordinarily unlikely coincidences. And his journey back to the big chair involves no growth and no self-reflection at all.
To be fair, Chris Pine’s Kirk does have to make a moral choice — not to launch what amounts to a drone strike to kill the rogue John Harrison at a distance. But it’s a third of the way through Into Darkness, and he only does the right thing because he’s pushed into it by Spock’s vehement advice and Scotty’s disgusted request to be relieved of his post. After that, the film is all hairbrained action until he sacrifices his life to save the Enterprise from crashing into Earth. And even that is ultimately low stakes. Kirk is far too much of a teenager, and his shirt isn’t nearly red enough, for either the character or the audience to believe he’s anything but immortal.
The film’s last act — Khan’s entirely predictable page from the bin Laden playbook — makes Into Darkness‘ philosophical bankruptcy plain. As Khan escapes from the wreckage of the U.S.S. Vengeance, now embedded in the smoldering remains of Starfleet headquarters, Spock abandons the civilizing force of logic, finally finding his humanity not in compassion, but in a firestorm of berserker rage. Uhura defaults to her best George W. Bush impersonation, telling Spock with cowboy terseness: go get’em. And we have no moral dilemma at all about whether Khan deserves to live or die. Instead, we’re left with only the lesser utilitarian mandate to preserve Khan’s life, not because an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, but because only Khan’s living blood can restore Kirk’s irradiated carcass to life.
But it’s even worse than that, really. Star Trek into Darkness‘ final act makes it abundantly clear that not only is Abrams not interested in the secular humanist message of the Roddenberry-Berman days, he’s determined to undermine it, destroying the taleworld institutions that make it work. Like the demise of Vulcan in the first film, the destruction of Starfleet headquarters, and with it much of San Francisco, does nothing that’s key to forwarding the film’s plot. But it does everything to smash the icons that make Trek Trek. Vulcan, though a touch tedious at times, represents the kind of peaceful, reasoned enlightenment that characterizes the evolved and improved future of Roddenberry’s vision. And Starfleet, though home to a scattering of self-righteousness, represents the optimism that humans can form coalitions across differences in race and species, and can reach out across the stars not to conquer and acquire, but to make diplomatic connections and make life better for everyone.
In my more generous moments, I think that the problem is that J. J. Abrams has missed the point — that somewhere along the line, he decided that it is the engrossing plots and high-quality special effects of the original series that made it such a long-lasting cultural icon, and that all that philosophizing was only getting in the way of our enjoying its immortal conflicts, like the one between Kirk and the Gorn.
But I’m not really that generous.
What’s actually going on, I think, is that while Abrams plays with the pieces and parts of the Star Trek universe that make it recognizable, and offers enough in the way of allusions and inside jokes to pacify the fans, what he wants is to make Bourne in space — or Alias. What he wants is yet another thriller about amoral people with thin or incomprehensible motives, actioning their way across the galaxy to satisfy the audience’s need for instant gratification. And while that’s fine as far as it goes, it’s not Trek. And to say that it is is bad for the franchise’s long-term health, and disrespectful, ultimately, to its fans.
One angry trekkie: signing out.
Update: disgruntled fans, trust me. Take a minute and go read this from io9. It’s totally worth your time!