Star Trek Into Darkness (rated M), a 3D film, is reviewed by Symeon Thompson, a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA).
Star Trek is arguably one of the best examples of the “stories as thought experiments” approach, allowing the investigation of ideas in a thorough, but accessible, way. The late Gene Roddenberry created it to explore the ideals of rationalistic humanism in action, and it has become a cornerstone of modern mythology.
In 2009, it was spectacularly re-booted by J.J. Abrams, who has further fleshed it out in Star Trek Into Darkness.
While on an exploration mission, the crew of the USS Enterprise save a planet on the brink of annihilation. In so doing, they end up violating the “prime directive” — the ban on interfering with the natural development of other civilisations — which leads to the disciplining of Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto), and the return of control of the Enterprise to Rear-Admiral Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood).
Back on Earth, an intricate plan is set in motion by Starfleet agent John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), beginning with the bombing of a secret data centre in London, followed by a direct attack on Starfleet headquarters that results in the death of Rear-Admiral Pike and the effective crippling of Starfleet command.
Upon discovering that Harrison has fled to the Klingon homeworld of Kronos, Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) reinstates Kirk and authorises a mission to terminate Harrison with extreme prejudice — a mission that supposedly “does not exist”, and that seems to have much more behind it.
Cumberbatch is superb as a character villain, his rich voice adding to his well-written complexity. Quinto and Pine bring blokey bromance to a very odd couple — one driven by abstract logic, the other by gut instinct; one unfeeling, and the other, almost but not quite, unthinking.
The 3D cinematography is of the “I just missed getting hit in the head by non-existent shrapnel” sort. It’s all about the action and will certainly satisfy the adrenaline-lovers, but once again is not a necessary part of the experience.
What is necessary, however, is some of the masterfully shot, near-silent set pieces that tell deeply emotional stories without dialogue, and prove that the film-makers aren’t just into explosions. They possess an incredible poignancy and delicacy that is a delight to behold.
Idea-wise, the story tropes are familiar without being fake. And, since this is part of prequel territory, what matters is not so much what happens, as how and why it happens.
There are no spoilers in saying that Kirk and Spock are alive at the end of the film, and that the Enterprise is about to set off on yet another mission. The fact that the events of this film pre-date the original TV series should give that away.
We watch how the heroes grow. — how Kirk becomes a man of honour and integrity, and Spock emotionally sensitive. We watch the set-up of what is to come, while all the while perceiving oblique comments on the human condition.
This is the crux of Star Trek. It is “propaganda”, in the best sense of the word, for scientific humanism. This is the belief in the innate perfectibility of man and environment, tempered by the recognition that there are many obstacles to such “perfection”. It shares with neo-conservatism a love for the “noble lie” as the simplest pretext to remove such obstacles.
One need not be a Starfleet science officer to realise that this whole “noble lie” business is rather risky. Recently, this was superbly explored in the Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises. But it remains one of Star Trek’s favourite themes. It is an entirely logical one, and might seem little more than a philosophical quibble, but it is an idea that can, and does, cause problems in our world.
The success of Star Trek comes from its recognition of the truths inherent in the world and in human nature. Kirk’s hubris might be his undoing, yet his adoption of humility is a clear sign of his heroism. The agendas of certain individuals arise from the noblest of motives, but their unscrupulous pursuit of them transforms them into villains.
Crucially, it is about the choices that are made. These choices might be for good ends; but if the means are evil, then the outcome is poisoned from the start. This is a theme particularly suited to science-fiction-type stories. It can be seen in the Iron Man series, and in Superman and in Batman.
“We make our own demons” was the opening line of Iron Man 3. We make them because we often mistake them for angels.
The moral of Star Trek Into Darkness is given away in the title. If we step into the darkness, then darkness will progressively engulf us and we will mistake it for the light. It is about discerning the difference, taking calculated risks, and not just acting for the right reasons, but rightly.