Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) is, in part, an exercise in nostalgia for me since I watched the original run of the television show. To see the same space vehicle boldly going more than forty-five years later is somewhat remarkable given the obsolescence of culture. For the most part, what we found interesting and exciting back in the 1960s is dull and dreary today. Having a crew with the same names and adjacent accents still sitting on the bridge of a starship and commanding a worldwide audience puts the franchise into an elite group of long-life products. Only the comic book heroes like Batman and Superman who also had their television versions featuring Adam West and George Reeves respectively, have had longer runs. Indeed, Star Trek is one of a few original television shows to have maintained its reputation — matched by Doctor Who which was first screened in 1963.
My reason for starting this review in this way is because one of the two essential questions at the heart of this film rehearses the same argument we had been having since the end of World War II. In the 1960s, we were just finishing rebuilding after the devastation caused by the German bombing and my generation was all for peace by bringing people together in co-operative ventures. It was therefore heartening to see the message of the original Star Trek as a united Earth going off to explore and, wherever possible, make friends. We’d seen only too clearly what happened when petty nationalism got out of hand and militarism prevailed. Although the Enterprise had weaponry such as phasers and photon torpedoes, these were not often used and, for the most part, only in self-defence, The hand-held weapons had the virtue of being able to stun rather than kill. So this film encapsulates the debate by having two key ships on display. There’s the USS Enterprise in its Constitution Class form and the USS Vengeance which is a Dreadnought Class vessel developed by Khan Noonien Singh (Benedict Cumberbatch): a straight military vessel designed to fight the Klingon Empire. So here comes the question. When people sign up as recruits into the Starfleet Academy, are they going to learn the words of Kumbaya (a song associated with the notion of spiritual unity) and put the Prime Directive into action wherever possible, or are they going to boldly go with photon torpedoes at the ready and shoot down anything that stands in their way of conquest? The answer, of course, is the Federation that emerges in the unfolding television series would be impossible if everyone operated on a shoot first and ask questions afterward basis. Although the Klingons and the Romulans have warrior-based cultures, they both fight for the Federation in the Dominion Wars although the Romulans are resistant to the end.
The point of this film is that if Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) gets his way, Earth will follow the Romulan path of expansion through conquest, starting with the Klingons. This is not an unreasonable perspective. It would be naive to assume the space-going races we might meet will all be welcoming. In a competition for planets on which to seed colonies, any races that share the same environmental needs could elect to fight over the prime real estate. Only if there’s a balance of power is there an incentive to negotiate. Thus, on a precautionary basis, Earth should always have a strong military capacity so that we can demonstrate fighting capacity if diplomacy fails. The dividing line between offensive and defensive power is a narrow one and I suspect this film rather oversimplifies the debate. Scotty (Simon Pegg) is very quick to object to the new torpedoes. He’s apparently been quite happy with the old torpedoes and for him to get all high-and-mighty is nothing more than a plot device to get him off the Enterprise. The views of the other characters who comment on the issue are also superficial. I think this an opportunity missed to explore the issue with our “modern” sensibilities.
The second essential question featured is hypocrisy. This is at the heart of the relationship between Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto), and between the do-gooders of the Enterprise and the political machinery of Earth. Starting with the one-to-one relationship, Spock is only half Vulcan and therefore has some understanding of human psychology. Even if this were not the case, his logic could predict how Kirk will react in different situations. So when Kirk defies the Prime Directive and rescues Spock, it’s entirely foreseeable that Kirk will cover up his infraction. Spock is therefore magnificently stupid to put in a complete report. To claim an inability to lie as the excuse is the height of hypocrisy. He’s perfectly capable of lying if the needs of the many require it. The film therefore charts the emotional arc as Spock resolves an internal debate on the nature of friendship and the need for accommodating emotions. After all, his own father married a human and, with Uhura (Zoe Saldana) very much in play, he has a similar decision to make about that relationship.
This version of Kirk is interestingly monomaniacal and phenomenally lucky. In other circumstances without Bones (Karl Urban) to protect him, he would probably be locked up as a danger to himself and others around him. He can’t even remember who he’s slept with let alone how many other people he’s dealt with over the years. All you can say about him is that he’s fixated by the needs of command and loyal, in the abstract sense, to the crew of whichever ship he happens to be on. So even though it puts everyone else at risk of being caught in the exploding volcano, he rescues Spock. This is the musketeer approach to command, “All for one, and one for all.” Similarly in the relationship with the political and military structure of Earth’s government, Admiral Marcus can’t be acting alone. This scale of investment could only be sanctioned by a powerful subset of Earth’s command. The ending where that same Earth government sends Kirk and the Enterprise out of the way on a five year mission is also preparing the ground for continuing its own militarism without anyone high-profile and inconvenient around. All Kirk has done is kick the can down the road and he should not be looking so pleased with himself as he warps away from Earth at the end. He’s actually giving up the political fight and running away. When he gets back, he’ll find a fleet of Dreadnought Class vessels and the Klingons beaten into submission.
So where does this leave us? At two hours and twelve minutes, this is too long. There are endless examples of scenes inserted or dragged out to add in extra minutes when what we have is a potentially brilliant script if we left not less than twenty minutes on the cutting-room floor, e.g. cutting down the chase on Kronus, the transfer between the starships, the gratuitous sex scenes, kicking the warp engine, and the fight in San Francisco at the end. So this looks great with some genuinely impressive CGI. The ideas are good albeit not properly developed. Benedict Cumberbatch lights up the screen as the villain of the piece. Zachary Quinto is also impressive. The result is the second-best blockbuster in what has been, to date, a lackluster 2013. J J Abrams is to be congratulated. He got enough right to justify a third in the series. Star Trek Into Darkness is worth seeing.