The following is riddled with spoilers from start to finish, so be warned.
Militarizing the Dream
One of the frequent concerns I’ve seen voiced on-line in the lead-up to the release is the sense (quite understandable from the trailer) that Abrams has turned Roddenberry’s peace-loving vision into Warhammer 40,000 (I exaggerate for effect). While a case could certainly be made (given the film’s frenetic pace and action scenes) of a cake being had and eaten too, one of the main thrusts of the plot is precisely about averting the transformation of Starfleet into a military power. Scotty refuses to authorize experimental photon torpedoes on the Enterprise, not hesitating to tender his resignation. Kirk gradually realizes he’s being used as a pawn to trigger war, and backs away from doing so. In fact, by the end of the film, we are rejoining the original TV series, as the ship heads off on her five-year mission of peaceful exploration. The possibility that future films will put the “Trek” back into the storylines is enticing.
The Role of Women
This is, I think, the most obvious and inexcusable flaw in the film. While Uhura and Carol Marcus have a little bit more agency than the passive non-entities of Oblivion, that’s not saying very much. Marcus, in particular, is reduced to distressed-damsel eye candy. Uhura’s romance with Spock, meanwhile, intentionally or not, winds up serving primarily to emphasize that the real, meaningful relationship is between Spock and Kirk. All of this is even more disappointing when one considers the film’s status as a parallel universe retelling of Star Trek II. There, Carol Marcus was the creator of Project Genesis, and a character whose entire existence was not defined by her relationship with a man. Nor did she have to suffer the indignity of a lingerie scene.
The Wrath of Khan and the Affective Limits of Postmodernity
Now, it must be said that the re-interpretation of Star Trek II is enormous fun. I could not repress a giggle of delight at the circumstances that led to Kirk and Khan heading off on a mission together. That was cool.
However, as the film moves toward its resolution, and revisits the beats of the original film, some limitations of the approach become apparent. Nowhere is this more true than when the “Death of Spock” scene comes back with positions reversed. This is supposed to be the emotional climax. Instead, it plays as a high-concept joke, and Spock’s cry of “KHAAAAN!” is a hair’s breadth away from Darth Vader’s “NOOOOO!” in Revenge of the Sith. The emotions here are second-hand, drawing largely on our memories of the last time we saw this scene. But back then, there was the emotive force of a friendship that had lasted decades. Here, the youth of the characters, and our recent acquaintance with them, reduces the impact. But the biggest obstacle to emotional engagement is the fact that we cannot escape awareness of the intertextual game the film is playing. “Oh look,” we say, “they’re re-doing that famous scene.”
I do not mean to be dismissive of the worth and potential postsmodern art here. The highlighting of unquestioned assumptions embedded in narrative, to take one example, is important work. But this is an artistic strategy that engages the reader or viewer intellectually, rather than viscerally. Abrams’ work, by and large, is not very emotionally affecting for precisely this reason. I certainly enjoyed Super 8, but it never let me forget that it was the Lost Spielberg Remake of It Came from Outer Space. Joss Whedon has very similar sensibilities to Abrams, and we see their result in the Drew Goddard-directed The Cabin in the Woods. As so many pointed out, the film is hilarious, but never scary.
Of the films where Abrams has been involved, Cloverfield is the most interested in the visceral (whether this works for the individual viewer or not). Its film references are there, but more submerged. Its goal is to make the viewers feel the chaos and terror of the unfolding events. For the first time, a giant monster rampage is portrayed solely from the perspective of the fleeing, trampled masses. Its primary references also reach beyond the movies. Like Godzilla in 1954, it uses its monster to invoke a recent national trauma.
Star Trek: Into Darkness also invokes 9/11, it seems to me, when Khan aims his crashing Dreadnought at Starfleet Academy. But Godzilla or the Cloverfield monster are so removed from the human as to be clearly symbolic, and are a very effective way for art to examine trauma, and do so (yes) viscerally. With Khan, the echo is too on-the-nose. A human flies a ship toward skyscrapers… and the payoff is an exciting foot chase. Hmm. A bit dubious.
This post has been more about my concerns with the film than my enjoyment of it. And I feel I should wrap up by emphasizing, again, that said enjoyment was considerable. The film is vastly entertaining and witty. And where I have some issues with the film, even these flaws are, I think, fascinating in their execution.