There Are Plenty of Straws
Benedict Cumberbatch is the shiny new thing in Star Trek Into Darkness. Sort of. His John Harrison is at once the most compelling and least predictable figure amid a dauntingly predictable ensemble. But he’s also caught up in the same reboot-retro dilemma the franchise faces, apparently by definition. And so he can’t be shiny or new enough.
A onetime Starfleet star, Harrison’s grudge against the organization seems vague at first, only noted to the extent that he’s blowing up Federation facilities in London and San Francisco. As this second film of the rebooted franchise gets underway, these attacks are presented as something of a personal issue for Captain Kirk (Chris Pine), one that re-raises the perpetual question for that franchise, how to negotiate between being a good soldier who follows orders (never his precise strong suit) and a moral-and-emotional individual. Pine’s version of this negotiation isn’t quite so quirky as William Shatner’s; rather, he’s a proper franchise player, pithy and packaged, brave and bromantic.
As he makes the negotiation this time, Kirk goes through a couple of phases, first underdogged (he loses command of the Enterprise), then redeemed, again losing his command of the USS Enterprise before he regains it. As he underscores his commitment to the ship, and oh yes to the vast crew that is more than once termed a “family,” Kirk tilts one more time between the two poles embodied by his closest colleagues, the medical officer Bones (Karl Urban) and the science officer Spock (Zachary Quinto). Per expectation, each shares a crucial moment or two with the captain and each is assigned dialogue that marks his predetermined role (“I am Vulcan, sir, we embrace technicality,” or again, “Damn it Jim, I’m a doctor, not a torpedo engineer”). Spock acts out at east some of these moments with the help of his girlfriend Uhura (Zoe Saldana), ensuring the bromance remains nominally hetero and also that she can double down on her job as “communications officer.”
With such possible models for behavior arrayed around him, Kirk—and the movie more broadly—engage the problem presented by John Harrison. That problem is both ongoing and dated. Like J.J. Abrams’ previous Star Trek-ian outing, this movie mixes jokey affection for the TV series with current-eventsy revamps. He’s both known and unknown, in the sense that he’s a revisitation of a villain from the TV series, a genetically engineered superhuman feeling abused by engineers (it’s no small gesture of affection that one of these, Admiral Marcus, is played Peter Weller, still best known as another aggrieved engineering marvel, Robocop). Before you can say, oh, Roy Batty or Luc Deveraux or Bane, or even Aldrich Killian, Star Trek Into Darkness is immersed in a series of lessons regarding the war on terror: the dark side is still the dark side, violence breeds violence, we make our own demons.
Just so, Harrison commits mayhem, upsets Kirk, and heads off to an unpopulated province on Kronos, the off-limits Klingon planet, more or less inviting Starfleet to come get him, likely inciting a war with the ever prickly Klingons. Marcus, performing as the militaristic father figure opposed to the more diplomatic Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood), arms Kirk with 72 photon torpedoes and sends him off on a vengeance plot, glowering like Dick Cheney. That Kirk backs off his first instinct to follow exactly this plan is a function of his loyalty to Spock, Bones, and Scotty (Simon Pegg) too, all of whom argue against killing a man without at least the semblance of legal or other process. (During their debate, Scotty terms his captain “James Tiberius Perfect Hair,” a line that distills this combination moral-media-verse matter to its essence: the winner wants to look good while he wins.)
That Kirk chooses to mount a Seal Team Six-style mission to collect Harrison rather than fire those 72 missiles suggests he’s at least thinking about Pike’s less muscular, less hell-bent approach to the Federation’s mission-creeping universe domination… er, democratization. That he ends up confronting an opponent who seems to argue for more muscle is less actual complication of the dilemma than it is submitting to the demands of today’s summer blow-up movies. When the Enterprise proves less than mighty in a contest of who has the most and biggest weapons, the fight changes shape, such that individuals engage in isolation plays (Scotty or Chekov [Anton Yelchin] running through the ship’s bowels) or pair off in literal hand-to-hand combats.
None of these engagements—and there are too many as the film winds on—has much to do with the film’s (maybe) primary question about how to live in a world with terrorists. Rather, they turn the question inside out, suggesting that for all the worry about the costs of vengeance, it’s good to deliver it anyway, and then, okay, repeat the worry, briefly, in a summary speech at film’s end. It’s not that you expect much more than cursory or even careless abstracting of troubling moral and political dilemmas. But you might wonder why a film like this—a summer tent-pole movie, a beloved franchise entry, a popcorny spectacle, and guaranteed money-maker—engages in this sort of gesturing at all. Why, as Manohla Dargis asks of Iron Man 3, raise the specter of “terrorism as a game”?
The obvious answers might be that such references make movies seem timely, if not informed, clever, if not smart, and maybe updated, if not new. That last point, the fundamental oldness of the new Star Trek movies, is perhaps the most telling. While the makers surely feel pressure to deliver to the fierce franchise fans, they might also consider that what many such consumers love most about their object is that it does do something actually new, that it provokes arguments and challenges assumptions. Star Trek Into Darkness doesn’t do that. Instead, it does what you expect, putting Kirk and Spock at their usual odds only so they can proclaim their love for one another.
Which makes it all the more too bad that Harrison can’t break out. In part his engineered stuckness is a function of someone’s determination to re-invoke Leonard Nimoy’s Mr. Spock, who’s just good to see, even in a brief staticky-screen cameo. But it’s also a function of what rebooted franchises do by definition, which is to avoid invention and rely instead on repetition.