Star Trek has never shied from allegory — in fact, from the original 1960s series incarnation, creator Gene Rodenberry saw the show’s parallel universe as an opportunity to “make statements about sex, religion, Vietnam, politics, and intercontinental missiles.” His show, and the spin-offs and films that followed, offered up commentary on war, the environment, torture, and the like, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that J.J. Abrams’s new sequel Star Trek Into Darkness treads into the waters of political allegory. What’s surprising for the franchise (but not for the current moviemaking culture) is that it does it so shallowly.
Clear back in 2009, J.J. Abrams and writer Roberto Orci told the Los Angeles Times that they were looking to explore contemporary political issues in the sequel to their hit reboot (which mostly eschewed those tendencies). “It needs to do what Roddenberry did so well,” Abrams explained, “which is allegory. It needs to tell a story that has connection to what is familiar and what is relevant.” Orci concurred: “We got a lot of fan response from the first one and a considerable amount of critical response and one of the things we heard was, ‘Make sure the next one deals with modern-day issues.’ We’re trying to keep it as up-to-date and as reflective of what’s going on today as possible. So that’s one thing, to make it reflect the things that we are all dealing with today.”
“The things that we are all dealing with today” — that’s a little vague, don’t ya think? Well, come to find out, the socio-political commentary of Star Trek Into Darkness is about as sophisticated as you’d expect from Orci and co-writer Alex Kurtman, who also wrote the first two Transformers movies. Here’s how the story goes: there is a terrorist attack in London, followed by one on Starfleet HQ. Both are the work of Commander John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), who has “declared a one-man war against Starfleet” — a jihad, if you will. He is tracked to Qo’noS, at the edge of Klingon territory, and Kirk and crew are sent to his location on a weaponized Enterprise. They carry sophisticated torpedoes that will take Harrison out from a safe distance — a death penalty without due process.
In other words, they’re drones. Scotty objects to the weaponization of the ship, and resigns; Spock voices his objections to Kirk, who sees the killing of the terrorist as fair play, an eye for an eye. “Regulation aside, this mission is morally wrong,” Spock says. “It is, by its very definition, immoral.” The conversation — which concludes, unsurprisingly, with Kirk’s decision to forgo the killing-by-proxy and bring in the terrorist alive to stand trial — admittedly gives the viewer a pleasurable tingle of both recognition (hey, they’re talking about drones!), and self-satisfaction (I got the allegory!).
But the trouble is, that’s as far as it goes and as deep as it gets. A few lines of sloganeering dialogue is, sadly, the extent of the film’s consideration of this hot-button issue — aside from the ultimate realization that (slight spoiler here, but nothing you wouldn’t assume going in) the ultimate bloodshed and carnage following the villain’s apprehension is probably greater than would have resulted from carpet-bombing him.
That might be a problematic narrative destination, were it not for the fact that it doesn’t feel like a statement — it doesn’t seem informed by much of anything, in fact, beyond the desire to blow up as much stuff as possible. Abrams and his writers seem to have determined that a “connection to what is familiar and what is relevant” was about plot points and not provoking thought; they drop in obvious allusions to drones and due process, but don’t understand that making an allusion and commenting or acting on it are two different things. It’s another example of the sad schism between classic science fiction (concerned primarily with ideas) and the genre’s current incarnation (an unappealing mutation of sci-fi and action, mostly focused on laser battles).
Star Trek Into Darkness is an adequate sequel — it hits the ground without the burden of introductions, it has two or three terrific set pieces, the Kirk/Spock schtick has the enjoyable patter of an old vaudeville act, and Cumberbatch is a monster. It is also about 20 minutes too long, fumbling the ending (let’s go ahead and blame this on third writer Damon Lindelof) and spending too much of the first act on turgid dialogue scenes between Kirk and Pike. People talking to each other, it seems, isn’t really these writers’ specialty, and if that’s obvious in expositional passages, it’s painfully clear when they wade into the waters of “the things that we are all dealing with today.” What’s the point of raising vitally important contemporary issues if you don’t actually have anything to say about them?