Having seen Star Trek Into Darkness twice now, and having very much enjoyed it, my aim is to avoid spoilers here whenever possible, for the sake of those readers who might intend to see the film but haven’t gotten around to it yet. That said, if you’re really worried about it, I’d say close your browser now and get to the nearest cinema. It’s a movie well worth your time (and money)—and is perhaps the best space opera film since 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back.
It isn’t perfect, of course. There’s been a bit of backlash over the controversial racebending of one especially beloved Trek character. And Captain Kirk’s womanizing is in full force, despite the six or seven years that have elapsed since the last Abrams Star Trek picture. Damon Lindelof even issued an apology for the gratuitous, half-nude Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) scene.
The film also features a few eye-rolling moments of scientific impossibility played out casually and without alarm or explanation. Not that you really expect a Star Trek movie to be free of such “artistic liberties,” you understand, but nevertheless they are noticeable.
But what I took to be profoundly bold, and dealt with in a tasteful, mature manner, is the film’s commentary on post-9/11 jingoism and the culture of fear that has taken root in the West in the aftermath of George W. Bush’s presidency. There are two principal villains in the film: one alienated from his homeworld, whose motivations are at times hard to grasp; and one who holds high office in Starfleet, whose actions and authority make clear his warmongering agenda.
I’d argue that Into Darkness’s plot is not deeply allegorical, but rather an intelligent exploration of our notions of good, evil, and the whole spectrum between—of our notions of deterministic destiny, choice, and justice.
Back when the news hit of Osama bin Laden’s assassination by SEAL Team Six, I recall feeling a deep sense of dissatisfaction. What had we gained? An alleged corpse. The great CIA story that became Kathryn Bigelow’s 2012 zeitgeist film Zero Dark Thirty. Was it justice? I’m still unsure.
At the time, I was taking a mandatory college course, called Reflections: Suffering, Evil, and Hope. When the professor asked for our gut reactions to the terrorist’s death, I was the minority opinion. The only one, in fact, who was not elated at the news of bin Laden’s death. Later that day, I said to my ethics and philosophy professor, Dr. C. Hannah Schell, “We’re bloodthirsty,” meaning we as a nation. As a Western way of life: Our culture of fear.
Spock (Zachary Quinto) remarks to Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), in Alan Dean Foster’s novelization of the Star Trek Into Darkness script,
“While I harbor only the ultimate disdain and contempt for the individual known as John Harrison, and desire strongly that he receive the punishment due him, I must point out that there is no Starfleet regulation that condemns a man to die without a trial—no matter how egregious his offenses.” (Kindle e-book edition, Simon & Schuster)
I believe in the final, filmed version of Quinto’s dialogue, Spock instead adds something to the effect of, “—a fact which you and Admiral Marcus seem to be forgetting.”
It seems fairly evident that screenwriters Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof saw the villainous John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) as an opportunity to explore not only the growing threat of domestic terrorism, but also the problems that arise from institutionalized revenge—thanks, perhaps, to the troubling politics at play in American foreign policy.
When Kirk, Spock, and Lieutenant Nyota Uhura land via shuttlecraft on the barren, warlike planet of Kronos, it quickly becomes evident that the Klingon race is a stand-in for the political and cultural other. Most likely, given the subtext of more or less every quasi-political Hollywood film of the past decade, for the Middle East in particular.
The irony at play in this action-heavy sequence is that Uhura warns of the Klingons’ capacity for torture and murderousness; then, after Harrison intervenes by opening fire upon them in the middle of her efforts at diplomacy, she proceeds to draw the blade of the Klingon warrior in front of her and stab him in the leg.
The Klingons as a group are discovered to be far less of a threat than the former Section 31 agent Harrison, despite Admiral Marcus’s earlier insistence that war with Kronos has become increasingly inevitable. Yet they’re the ones Kirk’s crew has been ordered to attack.
In other words, Star Trek Into Darkness shows the manner by which we tend to place all blame for any grave injustice not upon entire nations, or specific political blunders, but instead upon a single human scapegoat, regardless of how dubious or vague the facts surrounding a particular conflict prove to be. Even if the war itself ultimately has little to do with the one declared responsible.
We want quick gratification. A name and visage toward which to direct our collective hatred.
But with tears streaming down his face, something truly haunting Harrison behind those chilly eyes of his, we can’t help but question the narrative at play. Question our justifications for even the most clear-cut of wars. There are those who assert, for instance, that the organization known as al-Qaeda is little more than a fiction of the English-speaking world’s media. Where that’s true or not is irrelevant: Either way, we need a humanistic, peacekeeping force like Starfleet—like the United Nations, like Amnesty International—to propagate the gifts of peaceful coexistence, understanding, and, most importantly, the idea of forgiveness.
Abrams’s Into Darkness forces us to give pause, and reconsider the motivations at play behind militaristic campaigns and their xenophobic leaders—the “Masters of War,” as Dylan calls them.
As Captain Kirk reflects in the film’s ending, to seek revenge upon wrongdoers is to risk losing our own sense of right and wrong. In Foster’s novelization, the captain goes on to say in his speech,
“We are gathered here to pay our respects to fallen friends and family. We take solace in the knowledge that we honor those who lost their lives doing what they believed was right. And no matter what path they took, we hope that in death they can find forgiveness.” (Simon & Schuster)
That is something I fear we may be hard-pressed to find in the Western world, even twelve long years after the atrocities of September 11, 2001. To forgive is such a foreign concept to us. And yet in a sense, sealing Harrison away in cryostasis is a sign that we’re somehow, as Kirk would put it, getting better—but as a nation whose deep-seated ideologies stem from the war crimes and bomb scares and genocides of the twentieth century? Well, we still have so very far to go.
I applaud the filmmakers and studio heads at Paramount and Bad Robot not only for being willing to admit this, that our collective kind hasn’t quite learned to forgive and get along with one another, but also for having the fullness of vision to dedicate the movie and its bold message to those brave souls who have served among U.S. and NATO Coalition forces in the wake of that single, unforgettable morning that shook the innocence from our once-great nation forever.