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Star Trek Into Darkness is, among other things, a much more incisive film about the Navy SEAL mission to get Osama bin Laden "dead or alive" (minus the "or alive") than last fall's Oscar nominee Zero Dark Thirty was. Of course, unlike Kathryn Bigelow's docudrama, J.J. Abrams' sci-fi fantasy doesn't come right out and state explicitly that it's about the war on Afghanistan, CIA black sites, or the assassination of public enemy #1. But if top-level science fiction of the past has taught us anything, it's that setting a story in the future or some other kind of alternate universe is often a very powerful way to talk about our own society and about monumental issues. And it's well-known that this was an enduring strength of creator Gene Roddenberry's first Star Trek TV series in the 60's -- a show which Roddenberry, who his longtime personal assistant claims was a humanist,  labeled later in his career as his "statement to the world".

I have never been much immersed in Captain Kirk or Captain Picard's voyages around the universe, but as a youngster I watched enough reruns of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy pondering thorny problems in their crew-neck boys' pyjamas that I picked up on the "in" jokes sprinkled through Star Trek Into Darkness. (You don't have to be truly "in" to get them.) Still, I have absolutely no opinion on how this, the 12th film about the travelers on the Starship Enterprise, compares with the rest of the canon, or how closely it sticks to the lore. But seeing such a high-profile event film, not just a main prong of the summer juggernaut but an empire of its own, deliver a super-sized popcorn movie while also taking on the ethical failings of the "War on Terror" -- now that is my kind of thrill. It makes me feel as warm and cuddly as a Tribble. Who knows but that it might even turn me into some kind of a Trekkie down the road.

In contrast to the stern CIA hierarchy in Zero Dark Thirty and the isolated obsession of its red-headed agent, we get instead in Star Trek Into Darkness a long-arm-of-justice mission which is questioned before the spaceship has even left earth. And one which Kirk certainly doesn't lead in isolation -- his loyal staff would never leave him alone that long. The young Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) does not lack a commanding presence, but his devoted crew are all so passionate, perceptive, and full of ideas, he can't make a decision or face a dilemma without someone registering a formal objection or making a prediction about the ramifications. This allows story complications to ensue, supporting characters to steal scenes, and humor to be derived from the difficulties of leadership, but it also enables a more democratic aesthetic to be presented than we might otherwise see in such a community (one which after all has a semi-militaristic discipline and precision, though as is pointed out in the film, the Enterprise is supposed to always stick to completely peaceful aims).

In other words, the characters in the new Star Trek do that which no-one in Zero Dark Thirty does for even a second: debate the ethics of their actions. And they debate topics we barely hear mentioned in the national dialogue. Yes, it is actually mentioned in a big Hollywood movie that a society living by the rule of law might actually want to arrest terrorists for the crime of terrorism and put them on trial, not just extrajudicially execute them. (I'm not saying things actually turn out all moral and proper in this Star Trek, but at least it's part of the conversation.) Furthermore, it is actually expressed right out loud in a "War on Terror"-era film that saber-rattling against foreign governments, and issuing ultimatums backed up by massive lethal force, might not actually be the best way to ensure the safety of the people one is responsible for protecting.

Unlike ZD30 and other recent mainstream movies with criminal masterminds responsible for devastating terrorism (like Skyfall), Abrams' second Star Trek picture doesn't pretend that the Enterprise has been sent after this villain with no holds barred because that is simply the noble, brave-hearted, high-class thing to do in the face of pure evil. On the contrary, Kirk, personally aggrieved by the vicious surprise terror attack on Starfleet early in the film, is shown as all too willing to spring into action without much forethought -- he doesn't even inquire about the huge stash of WMDs he's been ordered to load onto his ship. He doesn't really care whether finding the perpetrator "John Harrison" (played by British thespian Benedict Cumberbatch) will prevent other attacks and keep the Federation safe. He just wants payback. And the movie is very well-aware (and very adroit in the way it saves the reveal of this point for the right moment), that this emotion actually leaves Kirk open to manipulation. Namely, he is prey to manipulation by war-mongerers. To those of us who watched how the reaction of the American public, shocked and traumatized by 9/11, was molded into support for invasions of several far-flung countries, this reality might seem self-evident, but plenty of movies regard Kirk's kind of vengefulness as morally desirable, even as morally superior. (Fellow blockbuster Olympus Has Fallen oozes that kind of mentality.)

Though ZD30 and Olympus Has Fallen are vastly different types of films, they are also similar in the way they minimize the "causus belli" behind the actions of the terrorists they depict. By contrast, this latest Star Trek takes into consideration that its villain's heinous acts might reflect something that has happened to him and his people; that he may, after all, have a motivation. Star Trek Into Darkness does not, of course, justify the path Harrison's murderous genius chose, nor does it shed tears for him, but it doesn't mock his ancient grievances, either. And I'm sure it's not an accident that the barren Klingon planet where this terrorist has hidden himself is reminiscent of the cave-like terrain where Bush first took the alleged hunt for bin Laden -- nor was it likely unnoticed that there's a faint Afghan quality to the Klingons' mode of dress. And there's even a whiff of the CIA's old friendship with bin Laden's mujahideen when we find out that Harrison actually once helped Starfleet's command with military development -- before the relationship went all pear-shaped.

Another distinction of the Star Trek universe that's worth mentioning -- lest we assume that all big action movies are alike -- is that unlike such movies as Olympus Has Fallen, 300 , and Red Dawn, the intellectual character in Star Trek is not a thorn in the side of the manly men. Far from betraying the good guys, or being a coward, in this movie, the intellectual misfit is valiantly courageous, a paradigm of morality and self-sacrifice. First officer Spock (Zachary Quinto) is the kind of Voice of Reason who gave that term its good name. He holds everyone -- his superiors, his best friend, himself -- to high standards, and his Vulcan side lets him transcend human emotions and evaluate actions in their logical and ethical context alone. In that way, he really is like hard-core anti-war liberals, those who find themselves struggling upstream, buffeted by the crowds running in the opposite direction to support "targeted assassinations" and so on. (Now, it could be argued that the film undermines Spock's own perspective in the third act, but I think by that point the action has overtaken philosophy so completely that it would hardly register.)

ZD30's makers appeared to be baffled -- or unaware -- that there was criticism of their film from the anti-war and pro-human rights camp. They did not bother, either during the film itself nor in their awards season defenses of the movie, to contemplate the idea that perhaps there could have been another action taken with bin Laden besides killing him. However, that possibility is raised, by analogy, in Star Trek Into Darkness. As Spock points out, there are laws for these things. There are courtrooms designed to give every accused, even a terrorist, a fair trial. And the film illustrates what never seems to have occured to Bigelow or Boal, to Obama or Eric Holder, in the case of bin Laden; that a captured terrorist may have info on who his collaborators are.

I won't get into ZD30 's view on torture here, partly because it's complicated to interpret, but also because I have already gotten into it elsewhere.  

But we can clearly see a difference between Star Trek Into Darkness and another boffo box office hit: The Dark Knight. And it is gratifying to see Abrams offer an antidote to Christopher Nolan. Though in this film Kirk beats up a terrorist who is captive and defenceless, much the way Batman wailed on the Joker , this time there isn't the Frank Miller-ian implication that you have to become the evil you abhor in order to fight it. Instead, the outburst is completely gratuitous, and doesn't give Kirk any information -- nor cow his victim. In fact, Kirk just seems weakened by his stumble into the dark side; he is the only one who comes out of it all banged up, though his prisoner never lays a finger on him. And what the physical abuse says about character has already been set up by Kirk's nightclub conversation with his beloved Starfleet father figure: we've been reminded of the Kirk who had to rise above bar brawls to become a real captain, the hothead whose leadership ability can still be jeopardized by immaturity.

Of course, this is not the first big fantasy blockbuster to critique what the U.S. government has been up to since 9/11. There was, for instance, plenty of political allegory in the Star Wars prequels of the early 2000's (fittingly, since the original Star Wars, according to George Lucas' own statements, was about the Vietnam War). In V for Vendetta, the Wachowski siblings adapted a graphic novel about Thatcherism into a subversive analogy for George W. Bush's fear-mongering, repressive government. And James Cameron crafted a searing indictment of resource wars and corporate imperialism enforced by an explicitly American military -- with his state-of-the-art extravaganza Avatar. But Star Trek Into Darkness is no Johnny-come-lately to the party, either. It is not merely reconstituted criticism of the Bush Administration. It also points its laser beam on the policies of the sitting Democratic president.

The assassination-instead-of-capture of bin Laden happened on President Obama's watch; the failure to take any meaningful action against America's use of torture is at his feet; the bombing of other cultures continues under his command. All three of these come under scrutiny in this 12th Star Trek film.

And even more encouragingly, in terms of what might be getting discussed behind closed doors these days in the Hollywood Hills, it appears this Star Trek team may well have an opinion on how Obama has waged a "war on whistleblowers", to cite the title of Robert Greenwald's new documentary. Obama has relentlessly pursued whistleblowing against government abuses -- as seen in the treatment of Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, John Kiriakou, and Thomas Drake -- and this is especially grievous because, rather than utilize his Department of Justice to go after those who tortured during the Bush Administration and committed other war crimes, Obama has used it instead to prosecute those who let the cat out of the bag about the atrocities. Just when you're wondering if anyone in the Democratic stronghold of liberal Hollywood has even noticed (besides John Cusack, who writes online protest articles on the subject occasionally), lo and behold, Abrams comes along with an entertaining and moving defense of whistleblowers smuggled inside the new Star Trek.

Early in the film, Spock files a report about rule-breaking which he witnessed; a major violation, in fact, of the hallowed Prime Directive not to interfere with other races or peoples. Kirk allows a primitive planet to see the Enterprise rise up right in front of them, and it's a religious experience for the natives which may ultimately alter their belief systems -- or their technology, perhaps. (Kirk dismisses the idea of any ill effects.) Soon, Spock's report has gotten Kirk into serious trouble, and this causes a rift between them. The tension is then milked for much of the picture; Kirk is especially miffed since he was trying to save Spock's life at the time of the infraction.

Much comedy is made of the fact that Spock simply can't help his compulsion to do the right thing. (The same could be said, perhaps, of many whistleblowers. They are driven by an internal moral compass which will not permit them to see injustice without speaking up. And that just seems weird to folks.) Spock gets lots of flak for his strict morality, not just from Kirk but also from Spock's feisty girlfriend Uhura (Zoe Saldana). But of course it's his great charm as well, and moreover, time after time, he's right -- and his wet-blanket precautions turn out to be vital.

It is frustrating, however, that there's an initially important set-up of the story thread about Spock's tattling and an eerie glimpse of the indigenous people on the primitive planet starting what appears to be a Starship Enterprise-cult, but it's crowded out by the many other very active plot strands in the picture, and never revisited. I suspect, however, that the filmmakers did not forget about it -- this is movie #2 in a trilogy, and that tends to be the film that leaves a few things in play for the follow-up. Consequences may arise in the next movie.

And in any case, the inclusion of the Prime Directive, and warnings about its violation, in Star Trek Into Darkness has a great poetic resonance. First of all, the whistleblowers which Obama's DOJ has targeted all blew the whistle on violations, in one form of another, of what could be seen as the Prime Directive. Secondly, this rule was a cornerstone of the original TV series, and emerged from creator Roddenberry's disgust with the Vietnam War. Thus, if anyone ought to weigh in on America's military adventurism in the "War on Terror", and remind us that we really have no business interfering in the affairs of other nations, it's the crew of the Starship Enterprise. Glad to hear from them, and glad that they don't think everything got better when Bush left.

As Spock himself might remind us, true wisdom involves placing principles before personalities.

Originally posted to What are you watching? on Thu Jun 13, 2013 at 11:29 AM PDT.

Also republished by Star Trek fans.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (13+ / 0-)

    “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” --Margaret Mead

    by Jennifer A Epps on Thu Jun 13, 2013 at 11:29:36 AM PDT

  •  Right on! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Matt Z

    I wondered why so many reviewers missed this... It haunted me through the entire film.

  •  Excellent commentary (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Matt Z

    I agree with you that Heart of Darkness is a critique of our current "War on Terror" as the original was a critique of the Cold War, Vietnam War, racism and other social issues of its day.  

    I love Abrams' rebooted Star Trek series so far.  Both movies have lots of action but like the original TV series discuss important topics/issues of the time.  The new actors also have done an excellent job of bringing the original characters to life, not just mimicking the original actors.  The latter would have been insulting to the original actors, Star Trek fans, and the general audience.  I hope we see Nichelle Nichols guest star in one of Abrams' movies.  

    As far as the Prime Directive, it does have a logical flaw.  Human history shows that social, cultural, and biological interaction, both good and bad, were inevitable and helped our species to grow.  The Neanderthal clans became isolated from each other due to climate change and eventually they went extinct, while our ancestors flourished.  Trade from prehistoric times to now between different peoples and cultures were critical to the advancement of civilization on this planet.  Why wouldn't it be so between Worlds?

    In the original series, the Prime Directive was also a challenge to the crew of the Enterprise.  In a vacuum, it's an ideal, but in the real world or Universe not always practical.  Hell, even Nature doesn't follow the Prime Directive.  When a star explodes, it spews its debris and radiation light years from itself.  Gold and other heavy elements are created in the Super Nova.  Who knows what gas/dust clouds, planets or other stars are affected by this explosion.  Our very star system could have been born out of a Super Nova.  Same is true of ecosystems.  The asteroid that hit Earth 65 million years ago was probably the final straw in the dinosaurs' extinction, unless you agree that birds are descendents of dinosaurs.  That event triggered the dominion of mammals over the Earth.  The Prime Directive isn't so natural or primal.  It's a piece of man made logic.  It's well intentioned but like all things made by man, it is flawed.

    The danger with interfering with other cultures, especially those not technologically advanced, is that the technically dominant culture can be arrogant and exploitative of them, like Kahn was to Kirk and the Enterprise and white European culture was to Africans and Native American tribes.  Or the dominant culture could overlook a demagogue from the less advanced culture using the dominant group's technology to seize and exploit an advantage over his/her native opponents.  That's how Europe and the USA backed or propped up dictators in undeveloped countries in Africa, South Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.  The real problem with interfering with less advanced cultures is how exploitation is done, why its done and what kind of "footprint" it leaves on both the less technically advanced and the dominant groups.  

    And of course, who profits from the exploitation.  I noticed rebooted Scotty's question to the security guard on the giant black secret starship.  "Are you one of those contractors?"  That was an attack on our government's willingness to outsource security to for-profit corporations.  In the original Star Trek series, economics and corporate behemoths were not a main topic.  I wonder if Abrams will make them an issue in future Star Trek movies.

    May the rebooted franchise live long and prosper!

    ...wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows -- Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

    by PaganVoter on Thu Jun 13, 2013 at 01:23:28 PM PDT

  •  Regarding the start of the movie (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Matt Z

    I'm not sure there was a lot of deep thought put into it other than "This would be really freaking cool!" and "We need a reason for Kirk and Spock to have an argument." But if you want to argue it was, then you can take the position that while the rest of the film was an obvious indictment of the arrogance of power and in not following the rules in the quest for vengeance (and this is true for Kirk, Marcus, and Harrison, all three of them thinking they were beyond such things), the start of the film was an indictment of the opposite problem of mindlessly following the rules. In Kirk's ranting about not having to follow the rules, he does make a valid point: not only did he save the life of a crewmember, he saved the lives of the indigenous population who, through no fault of their own, were going to be wiped out by an event they, nor anyone else, was responsible for.

    Look at it this way: if there was a volcanic eruption about to destroy a village somewhere in the world, and a US Navy task force, capable of evacuating the entire bunch in the nick of time, was sitting offshore and just watching because they couldn't legally enter another country's airspace without formal permission having been received, I think many people would agree that Screw the Rules I'm Doing What's Right and we'll worry about the consequences later would be an entirely defensible and acceptable moral decision.

    Yeah, the native indigenous culture was influenced by the sight of the Enterprise, but at least they'll be alive for there to be consequences.

    •  Oh, I think the beginning of Heart of (0+ / 0-)

      Darkness had a lot of thought put into it along with the rest of the movie.

      The overriding theme was about "what would you do to save your family or family member and what price are you willing to pay for it?"  

      • The crew of the Enterprise saves a doomed hominid species at the risk of breaking the Prime Directive by the species seeing the starship and altering that species' destiny in an unknown way.
      • Kirk saves Spock from the volcano and they're neutralization process at the risk of losing command of the Enterprise.
      • Kahn/Harrison saves the archivist's daughter in exchange for the archivist detonating a bomb in his workplace causing fatalities.
      • In the wake of Vulcan being destroyed in the last movie, Admiral Marcus begins a militarization of Starfleet to prepare for what he believes is an inevitable war with the Klingons.  That fear and plan triggered him to wake up Kahn and exploit his intellect and savagery.  It never occurred to Marcus that Starfleet's ideals, the ones Kirk cites at the rechristening of the Enterprise, is its strongest weapon against totalitarian civilizations, like the Klingons.
      • Kirk is initially motivated to hunt Kahn/Harrison by vengeance after Kahn/Harrison kills his mentor and father figure Admiral Pike.  But Spock's logical challenge to Kirk's emotion calms Kirk down so he can employ his innate intuitive abilities to begin deducing the real problems he faces and realize that Admiral Marcus is setting him and his ship up to be fall guys for a war the Admiral wants to start.
      • Kahn seeks to liberate his people from Starfleet but what would he and they do with their freedom?  Commit more genocide of people they deem inferior?
      • Caroline Marcus is suspicious of her father's employment of new photon torpedoes and finagles her way on board the Enterprise to discover their real use.  She also attempts to use her position as Admiral's daughter to try to save the Enterprise from her father's death sentence.  Her father selfishly abducts her so he doesn't kill her when he destroys the Enterprise.
      • Scotty uses his engineering knowledge to sabotage Admiral Marcus's ship's weapons thus sparing the Enterprise at the first attempt to destroy it.
      • Spock learns from Kirk and alternate universe Spock that while Vulcan's can't lie, they don't have to voluntarily tell the whole truth.  He gives Kahn the torpedoes he wants but only after removing Kahn's people and setting the torpedoes to detonate shortly after Kahn transports them.  Thus saving the Enterprise from another certain death sentence and staying true to Starfleet's high ideals.
      • Kirk, Scotty and Checkoff work together to help restore power to the Enterprise.
      • Kirk goes where no person should have to go and voluntarily sacrifices his life to save the Enterprise and its crew from certain death again.
      • The crew of the Enterprise refuse to abandon ship upon Spock's orders in a show of unity that surprises Spock.
      • Bones resurrects Kirk by learning that Kahn's blood has phenomenal healing and resuscitation properties.  The Enterprise's officer crew/family is restored.

      The only thing that wasn't thought out in the beginning was stopping a Toba like super eruption.  I'm sure a few geologists and vulcanologists burst blood vessels at the thought of plugging up a massive volcano.  All it would do is tighten the "lid of the pressure cooker" and postpone the massive eruption for a later date.  

      Leading the species to an area where the Enterprise could shield them from the volcano's affects, provide food and water for them and teach them how to survive in the aftermath of the eruption would have been a more scientific solution but that would have been a long lasting project and not as exciting as running for their lives and jumping off a cliff to swim back to the Enterprise.  It also would not have set up the theme of this movie and the conflict that was central to it.

      ...wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows -- Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

      by PaganVoter on Fri Jun 14, 2013 at 02:07:12 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  And why Kirk is the hero in this movie (0+ / 0-)

        unlike Kahn and Admiral Marcus, is that he is willing to listen to criticism and change.  Einstein said "Change is the only constant in the Universe."  If there is a Prime Directive in Nature, it is what Einstein said.

        Kirk's strength is his adaptability and ability to "read" people, like champion poker players do.  He doesn't have the superior intellect of Kahn, but neither does he have Kahn's hubris and malignant narcissism.  Kirk enjoys being captain, but he's not afraid to turnover command of his ship to officers under his command that he trusts will make the right decisions.  It is interesting that Kahn never bothered to wake up another member of his crew to help him.  He had the time to stash them in torpedoes, but chose not to resuscitate one to assist him.  Wonder why?

        ...wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows -- Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

        by PaganVoter on Fri Jun 14, 2013 at 02:30:46 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Excellent summary. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Matt Z

    I heard a lot of people putting the film down as another ZD30-kinda film, as far as supporting antiterrorist actions goes, but it became apparent that those people hadn't actually watched the film, once I had.

    One minor niggle from a trekkie: Kronos isn't 'a barren klingon planet;' it's the Klingon Homeworld.  That province was abandoned.

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