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My 12 for ’13: Star Trek Into Darkness & Fighting for the Future…

This is my annual countdown of the 12 movies that really stuck with me this year. It only counts the movies released in Ireland in 2013, so quite a few of this year’s Oscar contenders aren’t eligible, though some of last year’s are.

This is number 6…

Star Trek Into Darkness won’t win any awards for scripting or plotting. It’s very hard to succinctly explain the various overlapping evil plans directed by the movie’s two competing villains – who knows what at which point, and how that makes sense in the context of their objectives. Star Trek Into Darkness is a bit of a hot mess when it comes to storytelling – an overly convoluted plot that spends far too much time homaging what come before, when it should be boldly going somewhere new.

And yet, despite that, there is an ambition to Star Trek Into Darkness, a willingness to embrace big ideas and questions about cynicism and optimism, about hope and fear, about the attitude that people adopt towards the future. At the most basic level, that’s what Star Trek is. Into Darkness doesn’t have the same space as a television show to delve into those questions, nor to offer the same degree of nuance.

However, it’s a willingness to ask them that is quite endearing.

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It is worth noting that there is something vaguely hypocritical about attacking Star Trek Into Darkness for being highly illogical or contrived, or being too dependent on references to what came before, while lauding what came before. Star Trek is widely (and correctly) regarded as one of the most optimistic and hopeful presentations of a potential future for humanity. For the four decades it was on and off television, it was a show that was willing to ask big questions and to tackle big issues.

Anchorman 2 featured a quick clip from Star Trek as a joke, cutting that first interracial kiss from Plato’s Stepchildren into a montage on interracial love. That might not be the first interracial kiss on television, as is so often claimed, but it was a risky and daring move – an example of Star Trek reaching for the stars. The “half-black, half-white” aliens from Let That Be Your Last Battlefield have become part of pop culture iconography, perhaps the most widely-accepted of Star Trek allegories.

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And that’s only scratching the surface. Audiences in the sixties got to see Star Trek dealing with the Vietnam War in episodes like A Taste of Armageddon or A Private Little War. The show could do more intimate fables and allegories like The Devil in the Dark, a story about not judging a book by its cover. There was a boldness to that classic Star Trek, a willingness to deal with the big issues of the day.

And that arguably extended to the show’s spin-offs. Star Trek: The Next Generation offered an interesting look at transgender rights in The Outcast, at a time when the issue was still taboo on network television; euthanasia was the subject of Half a Life. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was willing to look at homosexuality in an abstract way in Rejoined, and also offered an examination of why the franchise’s optimism meant so much in Far Beyond the Stars.

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The show meant a lot to a lot of people. Nichelle Nichols might be exaggerating slightly when she talks about how Martin Luther King asked her to stay on the show, but there’s no denying the importance of Uhura. Whoopi Goldberg became a recurring supporting character on The Next Generation because Uhura had meant that much to her as a young girl. Star Trek meant a lot to a lot of people, and it was always willing to try to embrace these big issues. For all its (many) problems, Star Trek: Enterprise devoted its third season to a probing look at the War on Terror.

However, there’s also a willingness to over-stress the willingness of Star Trek to push the boundaries. As great as it was to have a multi-national crew in the sixties, Sulu or Uhura or Chekov never really got to do anything particularly impressive. At most, they tended to get “moments”, rather than episodes – and it’s telling that Sulu and Uhura never even got first names on the classic show. It’s also worth pointing out that the classic Star Trek was also a rather visceral show. It was fond of “big issue” stories, but it was also quite fond of action adventure plots featuring Kirk punching the enemy into submission.

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There’s also a very serious argument to be made that the spin-offs really dropped the ball. The Next Generation was broadcast in the late eighties and nineties, but proved remarkably unwilling to explore homosexuality or the spread of AIDS. A script written by veteran writer David Gerrold, Blood & Fire, was brushed aside and only resurrected recently for a series of fan films. The closest that The Next Generation came to dealing with AIDS was a recurring motif of the ship getting infected in the first and second seasons.

(Enterprise would be the first Star Trek show to deal with AIDS, but only as part of a network enforced initiative. Star Trek never actually had a major gay character. Actors like Andrew Robinson and Dominic Keating would suggest that they had played characters as gay, but that never shone through in the scripts. Novel writers attempted to suggest that minor character Lieutenant Hawk from Star Trek: First Contact was gay, but this was only possible because he was barely developed in the film.)

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Star Trek: Voyager and the first couple of years of Star Trek: Enterprise tried their damnedest to stay away from anything that might be vaguely controversial or potentially provocative. For all that fans talk about the willingness of Star Trek to push boundaries or deal with big ideas, it’s worth noting that the franchise has never been entirely consistent. Sometimes it is ahead of its time, and sometimes it is well behind its time.

And all the criticisms of JJ Abrams’ Star Trek films fail to take into account that Star Trek is always a franchise that worked differently in cinemas than it did on television. Most obviously, with the exception of the less well-regarded movies (Star Trek: The Motion PictureStar Trek V: The Final Frontier, and Star Trek: Insurrection), only two of the classic Star Trek films were really driven by “big” ideas – Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

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Those account for only half of the “classic” films that are wide accepted to be “good.” Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek: First Contact were both largely powered by the concept of “Star Trek does Moby Dick… in space!” So, we’re left with the kind of strange reality that “Star Trek does a big issue-driven story” is precisely as successful at the cinema as “Star Trek does Moby Dick.” Which probably explains why JJ Abrams’ second film wound being issue-driven. His relaunched/rebooted Star Trek had pretty effectively returned to the “Moby Dick… in space!” well.

It’s worth noting that Star Trek Into Darkness is hardly the most astute allegory for the War on Terror. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight remains the most effective treatment that Hollywood has produced of the philosophy and ethic of the War on Terror. Star Trek Into Darkness is a bit more simplistic, a bit less nuanced. Far from an exploration of the consequences of proactive intervention, it’s pretty much a basic cautionary tale. When pressed for a way to avoid the moral quagmire of a perpetual ideological conflict, it advice is rather simplistic: “don’t do that.”

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Star Trek Into Darkness doesn’t have any easy solution to the brewing conflict between the Klingons and the Federation. It has no easy resolution to the pending war. At the same time, it suggests that launching unmanned strike drones to attack targets enemy territory, increasing the power afforded to the military and fixating on vengeance as a viable political ideology are all things that people who want to avoid (or de-escalate) conflict should probably not be doing.

It’s hardly the most elegant of solutions, or the most sophisticated of proposals, but then it’s perfectly in keeping with Star Trek‘s utopianism. While Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home suggested that whaling would rob the planet of a wonderful species, it had no real solution to the problem beyond “you should probably stop whaling.” While Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country hinted that certain vested interests seek to perpetuate conflict in order to ensure their own relevance, people are basically good enough to stop that from going too far.

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There’s a beautiful simplicity to the politics of Star Trek Into Darkness, which feels like it fits with the broader themes of the franchise – the belief that people are basically decent and will eventually figure out the right thing to do. After all, Star Trek is a futuristic franchise built on the idea of a future where mankind didn’t blow itself up – where creatures like Khan are the exception rather than the rule, historical flukes.

Star Trek Into Darkness is built on the prospect that there will be some point in the future where the only way that that a paranoid hate-monger like Admiral Marcus can find somebody who thinks like him is to thaw the poor guy out. Like Abrams’ first Star Trek film, Star Trek Into Darkness is built around accepting optimism and hope above cynicism and nihilism. Kirk reciting the “Captain’s Oath” is cheesy as hell, but it’s also the kind of thing that can only be offered in earnest.

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Yes, Star Trek Into Darkness has flaws. It has lots of flaws. The racial politics of casting Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan are unsettling – but it’s interesting how many people are willing to excuse the original casting of Ricardo Montalban as an Indian Sikh. (A Sikh without a beard, on top of the obvious ethnic issues.) John Cho was perfectly right to rather subtly call the film out on that sly and ill-judged decision.

(Then again, the decision to cast Cumberbatch as Khan seems to stem from the film’s most serious story-telling flaw – an over-reliance on the iconography of the past. So much of Star Trek Into Darkness is a resampled “greatest hits” package of iconic Star Trek moments, with a sense that the script is more interested in hitting these recognisable notes than it is with telling a good story. Replaying Spock’s death with Kirk doesn’t work if Kirk can’t stay dead for more than fifteen minutes.)

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The use of Alice Eve as eye candy feels a little outdated, although the filming of a gratuitous sequence involving Khan shows that Abrams’ is an equal opportunity offender – the scene of Eve in her bra and panties would seem a lot less gratuitous had that scene made it into the final cut of the film. These are serious problems – and they keep the film relatively low down the“best of” list – but they aren’t inherently fatal.

It’s also worth noting that – for all of these problems – Abrams’ Star Trek has found more use for the characters of Sulu and Uhura than the first three seasons of Star Trek and the first two of the classic films combined. Indeed, Zoe Saldana’s version of Uhura is a dynamic and exciting character in a way that the original simply never was. It’s clear that Abrams’ and Saldana’s Uhura has effectively replaced McCoy as part of Star Trek‘s holy “trinity”, making that triumvirate decidedly less white and male. This is a good thing. While it’s not as good as it should be, it’s still something the welcome.

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After all, even the best of the Star Trek films come with very serious flaws. The Wrath of Khan, the movie that Into Darkness is so often measured against, is a movie which relies on (a.) Starfleet somehow misindentifying a planet, (b.) Kirk not informing Starfleet about that time he met a genocidal dictator and marooned him on an alien world, (c.) Kirk’s ex-girlfriend and illegitimate son just happening to get into the path of that vengeful genocidal dictator, (d.) a continuity gaff involving a character who never actually met Khan and (e.) the Enterprise yet again being the only ship in the sector during an emergency.

These problems are forgiven, or at least mitigated, by a sense of adventure and fun – of excitement and enthusiasm. And that is very much the case here. Into Darkness is the best directed blockbuster of the year. The first two sequences are among the most exciting set pieces of the year. Abrams frames the pre-title sequence as a classic Star Trek adventure condensed down into five minutes. He then manages to tell the entire story of a suicide bomber in two minutes, with only the sparsest use of dialogue.

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Both sequences demonstrate that Abrams is one of the best action directors working today – that comparisons to Lucas and Spielberg might not be entirely unfair. Abrams is a director who has a very classical approach to film, one built on classic blockbuster and emotional sensibilities, and his vision is able to compensate for most of the deficiencies with Into Darkness‘s script.

Star Trek Into Darkness might not be perfect, but then great movies seldom are. Instead, it’s solidly entertaining and boldly enthusiastic.

Our top twelve films of the year:

Honourable Mentions

12.) Blue Jasmine

11.) Lincoln

10.) Much Ado About Nothing

09.) Iron Man 3

08.) Philomena

07.) Only God Forgives

06.) Star Trek Into Darkness

05.) Stoker

04.) Gravity

03.) Rush

02.) Django Unchained

01.) Cloud Atlas

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2 Responses

  1. Thank you for saying what I’ve tried to say since seeing this movie. I personally think Undiscovered Country is perhaps the best ST film, and even that one has issues. All of them do. In fact, I’ve argued that many of the flaws of Into Darkness are classic Trek flaws, which show that the film is actually staying true to form for the franchise rather than some sort of anomaly. I also agree that the suicide bomber scenes was incredibly beautiful and moving, and I’ve yet to see anyone besides you point it out (not to mention it revolves completely around a nonwhite family). Honestly, for the rest of the film, I think better pacing would have made everything else more palatable. The cast superbly brought the story to life and made moments work that in lesser hands would have fallen flat.

    Thanks again for this review.

    • Thanks Michelle. I’m surprised that sequence hasn’t garnered more discussion. Yes, it’s a little heavy-handed, but it’s dialogue light and conveys everything you need to know in two minutes. It’s a wonderful mode of storytelling that requires incredible technical craft, but I suspect it’s overlooked because it is a lot less “showy” than other directorial approaches. Abrams is a great visual storyteller, not necessarily in terms of visual aesthetics (although, say what you will about lens flair, I loved the production design), but in terms of momentum and clarity. I can’t make sense of what the two villains knew about each others’ plans at various points in the movie (wait, so Marcus gave Kirk drones with people instead of fuel, but still planned to have Kirk bomb the Klingon homeworld with them?), but I always knew what was going on in that particular moment.

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