‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ Is A Boring Blockbuster, And An Okay Discussion of Extrajudicial Killing

This post discusses plot points from Star Trek Into Darkness in some detail.

Starships and Klingons and tribbles, oh my! I’d expected that Star Trek Into Darkness, J.J. Abrams’ follow-up to his 2009 alternate-timeline reboot of the venerable franchise, with returning writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, could have been any one of a number of things: a confident coming-of-age for Captain Kirk (Chris Pine), a return to the tradition of space exploration that defined the original show and movies, with some unintended consequences thrown in to accomodate the tastes of modern action audiences, and even continuation of the sci-fi screwball romance between Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana). What I didn’t anticipate is that as a blockbuster, Star Trek Into Darkness would be impressively generic, but that in a summer when drone strikes and extrajudicial killings appear to have been on many screenwriters and directors minds’, it would do one of the clearest (if not deep) jobs of outlining the debates over the American drone program for a mass audience.

When we meet up with the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise again, they’re on a planet inhabited by a primitive species that’s about to be destroyed by a volcano. Spock, in a potential violation of the mission directive to explore the world, uses cold fusion to stop the explosion, but not without endangering his own life in a way that prompts Kirk to come to his rescue by means that blow the Prime Directive not to speed up that species’ technological development quite literally out of the water, or without hurting Uhura, now firmly established as Spock’s girlfriend. Their actions, and Kirk’s filing of a fudged report of them while Spock tells the truth, get Kirk demoted to First Officer under Christopher Pike, who returns to command of the Enterprise, and Spock reassigned to the U.S.S. Bradbury. But their split it short-lived after a man identified as Starfleet officer John Harrison induces a fellow member of Starfleet to bomb what appears to be an archive, an attack that turns out to be a trap to lure Starfleet’s top commanders to a single for a strategy session. When Harrison attacks that session from the air, killing Pike and other high-ranking Starfleet commanders, Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) gives Kirk back his ship and permission to go after Harrison, who turns out to be rather more than he seems.

The details of what how they do so are remarkably noisy and remarkably forgettable. But the nature of Marcus’s commission to Kirk and company provokes the movie’s strongest throughline and most clearly-developed ideas. The question in Star Trek Into Darkness is whether or not Kirk should follow strategic detail of Marcus’s orders to, using new and advanced torpedoes, “park on the edge of Klingon space, you fire, you take him out, and you haul ass,” or comply with Starfleet rules and make sure that Harrison receives a fair trial back on earth. That Star Trek Into Darkness presents that choice at all, outlining the debate in very similar terms to the arguments about the use of drone strikes to carry out extrajudicial killings of accused terrorists outside of the United States, differentiates it from the other pop culture explorations the subject, which has become a strikingly common feature of movies and television this year, including Iron Man 3 and Fox procedural Bones.

The characters explore any number of reasons why Marcus’ orders are a bad idea. “There is no Starfleet regulation that condemns a man to die without a trial,” Spock tells Kirk once Marcus has made his mission clear. “Regulations aside, this is morally wrong…Our mission could start a war with the Klingons, and it is, by definition, immoral.” Engineer Mr. Scott (Simon Pegg) warns that the weapons themselves may be dangerous to the crew of the Enterprise, both physically and ethically. “I cannae authorize any weapon aboard this ship without knowing what’s inside them,” he tells Kirk, resigning his commission. “This is clearly a military operation. Is that what we are now? Because I thought we were explorers.” Kirk ultimately decides that he’ll side with Spock’s vision of the mission rather than Marcus’, declaring “I will personally lead a landing party to Kronos, where we will capture the war criminal John Harrison and return him to earth for trial.” Spock’s pleased, telling him “Captain Kirk, I believe you have made the right decision,” but initially it seems like Kirk’s call is governed less by a respect for rule of law than for his own sense of moral superiority. Once Harrison is in custody, Kirk tells him testily “You are a criminal…I was authorized to end you. And the only reason you are alive is because I am allowing it.”

But as the movie proceeds, it becomes clear that there are reasons to keep Harrison alive other than to give Kirk the satisfaction of yelling at him from the right side of a glass prison cell (a device even more popular in action movies than drones, these days, though the drones are gaining). Harrison’s blood turns out to be medically valuable, though Bones, who “synthesized a serum from his super-blood” is worried about the side effects. “Are you feeling homicidal?” he asks the first person treated with it. “Power-mad? Despotic?”

And Kirk comes to understand that there is value in following Starfleet regulations for reasons other than Spock’s comfort. Marcus, it turns out, put Harrison to use designing weapons for him as part of his vision for “a militarized Starfleet,” and planned the missile strike from space on his now-former employee to incite a war with Klingon because he’d like an excuse to use them—and to consolidate his own power in Starfleet. Despite references to Klingons in both of Abrams’ Star Trek movies, he, Kurtzman and Orci have done essentially nothing to explain what role Klingons play in the alternate timeline they’ve created, or to make us feel that they’re such an existential threat that Marcus might believe “If I’m not in charge, our entire way of life is decimated.” There’s some value to the suggestion that there might be reasons, other than an unwillingness to risk American lives in the field, that policymakers and military figures prefer extrajudicial killings of accused terrorists to trials. But the Marcus plot sits uncomfortably as a critique of the War on Terror in part because of Orci’s publicly-stated beliefs that the September 11 attacks were an inside job. When Kirk, having realized that following Marcus’ orders would have degraded both Starfleet and the Federation itself, addresses Starfleet Academy at the end of the movie and declares “There will always be those who wish to do us harm. To stop them, we risk awakening the same evil in ourselves,” it would be nice to know for sure that he’s talking about real foreign enemies rather than domestic ones dreamed into existence by conspiratorial thinking.

The movie’s critique of Marcus’ plan, and by extension, American extrajudicial killings, if it had devoted as much time to actually developing Harrison’s backstory (or place in Star Trek history), the state of Starfleet after Nero’s destruction of Vulcan, or the characters’ relationships to each other as it does to shots of people jumping off, dangling from, or sliding down things as the Enterprise weaves back and forth. Some of the problem is that Star Trek Into Darkness relies heavily on the expectation that audiences will be familiar with its analogue in the original Star Trek canon, and that this film doesn’t have to build its own emotional scaffolding as a result. But Star Trek Into Darkness suffers by comparison to its source material, removing any of Kirk’s moral responsibility for the events of the film, and, in keeping with the corporate needs of the franchise in which it’s set, avoids a climactic death.

For all of the success of its predecessor, Star Trek Into Darkness seems like a more tentative movie, less confident, less frequently funny—though Spock gots his share of terrifically passive-aggressive lines—and less sure of its relationships. It’s an awful shame to cast Benedict Cumberbatch as a villain only to define him almost entirely through his ability to take a punch or to kick someone else in the face. And it’s saying something that the movie is so busy, so terrified of boring its audience by pausing even for a moment that its crew’s climactic embrace of a five-year research mission feels like not just a restoration of Starfleet’s core values, but a much-needed break for the audience.