Star Trek Into Darkness is but one of many transgressions the movie series has made “in the canon.” If we look to Gene Roddenberry’s initial concept for the TV series, it was based on a utopian, slightly hippy-dippy aspirational concept of human decency and upright-itude. Sometimes, and one would say more often than it didn’t, that aspect went a bit too far, forgetting that the Enterprise was a ship, and mostly an American one at that, doling out a degree of exploration that must surely be followed by colonization afterward. But that was a lot of overthinking for the time. The original Star Trek at least had good intentions.
If several reports are to be believed, and I have no reason to disbelieve them, Roddenberry was highly disappointed by the movie series — even the one considered to be the best, The Wrath Of Khan. His main gripe was the encroachment of gunboat diplomacy, and that these interstellar explorers were truly captains, commanders, and admirals. They would shoot to kill with more of an open hand befitting a militaristic bent than a scientific one, and that egalitarian notion of the needs of the many were subverted for the consummation of bro-lationships, that they would turn their prime directive over and over again, flipping through time as well as space, and directly altering outcomes. The reboot of Star Trek the Movie Franchise was born from just such a state.
Taken for what they are, the first and second of these, both helmed by the Bad Robot crew of Orci, Kurtzman, and Lindelof as writers and J.J. Abrams as director, have succeeded in creating big spectacle action-adventure flicks that totally miss the original intent and race toward the next big explosion. They are fun, but they’re also kind of brutal in their nihilism. The saving grace of Trek 1 was seeing how the makers would pull off the task of bending the original like taffy strands to come up with the new confection. The novelty carried it through, but it was always going down to the death of their revenge-thirsty enemy, committed by fire.
Spoilers forthcoming, but I suspect by now none of them are all that secret anymore.
The second film, Star Trek Into Darkness, seeks to reshape the shock of the current state of terrorist realities into popcorn fantasy; a concept which, on its own, would have deeply disappointed Roddenberry. Given that the original series ran for three years and spanned six movies on its own, the makers had plenty of material to work with and tons of avenues they could have taken. But like the forbidden fruit of crashing a ship into the citidel of morality set up as Starfleet Headquarters in San Francisco, the makers also could not resist reworking the one storyline that fans have been most ardent about: the Khan story.
Taken on its own, the movie is fun. You likely won’t turn off the Blu-ray disc. The special effects are stunning, provided the herky-jerky whip-pan cameras give you enough time to appreciate them or don’t induce a seizure. The growing friendship between Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) is endearing even if it all seems to come not from growing, but from exacting revenge through violence. Benedict Cumberbatch is chilly and effective as Khan, killing with no qualms…particularly in the scene where his “superior” bloodlust allows him to crush the skull of an adversary with his bare hands. And there again is that scene with Khan’s ambush of Starfleet officers, resulting in the death of Kirk’s father figure Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), and the crash toward the end, seemingly designed to gut the naivete out of the prissy, Dudley Do-Right trappings of the Star Trek idealism.
I don’t want to single out specific figures for ultimate fault. Anyone associated with the movie is culpable in some respect, but none more so than Damon Lindelof who just doesn’t seem to get it. When faced with grappling with the intentions of source material versus the desire to be zippy and pacey and get to the Big Boom, he runs for the plunger to the TNT. That was the case for Prometheus, the long-awaited prequel to Alien that had my hopes set way too high. Even there, Lindelof cannot shoulder full blame as veteran director Ridley Scott must have at least once thought, “None of this is making a bit of freaking sense anymore.”
But that desire to beat the ever loving crap out of your adversaries shows up again, and in nearly unrelenting fashion, in Star Trek Into Darkness. Perhaps as a nod to the reptilian brain, watching the movie provides a thrilling escape for a little more than two hours. All the creators of this flick are super-skilled in giving the people what they want, and every now and then you are rewarded with an unexpected delight. This is not a bad movie in most respects and is far and away more enjoyable than Prometheus turned out to be, but after the thing is done we are left with a bunch of really tough questions. Are Americans so traumatized still by terrors visited upon us that we’ve become addicted to seeing them played out metaphorically for our entertainment? Or are we so desensitized by it that it all has become cool again? If we once held as a principle that we could get along, talk it out, and study, are we better off now that we’ve grown up and shoot first?
I’m not a huge Trek fan. I’m certainly not an obsessive by any stretch of the imagination, but it does occur to me that this movie could have been any 21st century franchise. The villain could have been any villain. The framework is so generic that it could have accomplished everything it did without the baggage of being even remotely truthful to initial source materials. That’s the real issue at hand here. Given so many chances to stretch out and really explore, it seems we’re doomed to repeat the comfort of our ruts, retrofit into these supposed icons of pop culture. Put on the pointy ears all you want — in the end it’s one reiteration of Die Hard 3 after another. You can easily enjoy it for it’s basic pleasures, but that doesn’t necessarily justify its existence.