Saturday, May 18, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

Ever since the second Star Trek movie, The Wrath of Khan, was released, fans have been negatively comparing every single one even tenuously similar to it.  The entry was a hallmark, saved the franchise after an underwhelming reception to The Motion Picture a few years earlier, filled with action and resonating character work.  It was the first time the adventures of Kirk demanded a sequel, which it got with The Search for Spock, which spent much of its time reflecting on Khan's key moments.

Star Trek Into Darkness is the first time we get a movie that not only deliberately echoes Khan but arguably improves on it.  The big mystery every fan has been attempting to solve since the presence of Sherlock actor Benedict Cumberbatch's villain was announced turns out to be exactly what they long suspected but the filmmakers struggled to deny (much like The Dark Knight Rises last year with Marion Cotillard's Talia disguised as Miranda Tate).  Cumberbatch indeed plays a character named John Harrison, but Harrison is secretly Khan, the genetic superman created sometime in Kirk's past three hundred years earlier (previously but now only roughly our own time), awoken to create havoc once more.

That I'm writing about this directly is because I want to write about what truly energizes Into Darkness.  Many observers said the 2009 reboot Star Trek lacked the social relevance that had previously been one of the defining elements of the franchise.  If that was indeed true, then this new film does everything possible to reverse that.  The 1966-1969 original series famously did everything it could to get around network restrictions concerning the topic of the Vietnam War, and now we're getting the 21st century equivalent.  Make no mistake: Into Darkness is about the Iraq War.

The story is all about trying to decide if the right thing to do really is always the right thing to do.  It begins with Kirk's (Chris Pine) efforts to rescue Spock (Zachary Quinto) from the maw of a volcano, breaking the Star Trek rule known as the prime directive about exposing primitive species to technology years ahead of their development and thus altering the course of their future in the process.  He becomes demoted as a result, subject to serving under Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) all over again.  Pike has always been Kirk's biggest supporter, but even he sees the basic flaw in his character, in that he never stops to question whether he's right.  It's always been assumed that Kirk always is.  Into Darkness is one of those times where we all stop to question whether that is really the case.  Famously in Star Trek: First Contact, we ask the same question of Captain Picard.

Actually, Into Darkness is a lot like First Contact, which itself was a lot like Wrath of Khan.  Picard in this instance, however, might find a better parallel in Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller), the war-hungry instigator who draws the parallels to Iraq.  In Star Trek terms, Iraq is the Klingons, the alien species who are just as identifiable to the franchise as Spock's Vulcans.  Marcus uses Khan for the same reasons it might be said that both generations of President Bush wanted to deal with Saddam Hussein, because that was a problem the United States created in the first place, and they felt it was necessary to finally deal with it.  The second Bush, the argument further goes, really went to Iraq to finish what his father started.  Some of that can be found in Oliver Stone's W., if you'd like another cinematic exploration.

Do you really have to worry about any of that?  Do you have to think about all those nasty politics that have been so divisive in our culture for at least the last decade?  Not if you don't want to.  Star Trek previously explored this territory, the post-9/11 landscape (Khan is also a terrorist who attacks London early in the film), in the Star Trek: Enterprise Xindi arc, and the nature of war in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Dominion arc.  Yet Klingons have been a reliable menace for decades.  Admiral Marcus calls them a foe Starfleet is destined to clash with, and indeed fans know that to be true.  The sixth movie, The Undiscovered Country, is all about finally confronting that reality, an assassination thriller about the heavy cost of peace.

There's plenty of action, plenty of humor, and if you want to see this Khan ham it up, there's even a scene for that impulse.  Yet some of the best moments echo the best moments of Wrath of Khan, and that may be what the most devoted fans take away from Into Darkness.  The fan backlash to Superman Returns six years ago accused it of being too derivative of the Christopher Reeve movies that preceded it.  There's a small risk of a similar feeling falling on Into Darkness, but it's alleviated by all those moving parts around it, keeping events lively and engaging.  It's relevant to viewers on just about every level.  This is no one-trick pony.  There's little risk that any one element will be the one that defines it.

The bottom line is, like the best movies, there will be a different interpretation to engage every viewer.  Filmmakers love to try and please all the demographics of age and sex, but Star Trek Into Darkness is the rare movie that will cross over any one version of its events, a common experience that speaks to the very heart of the spirit its franchise has always represented.  Someone else said that it boldly goes where other Star Treks have gone before.  That is an incredibly positive interpretation, and perhaps the best thing that could be said about it.

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