Features / Reviews

It’s a Man’s Galaxy: Western Undertones in ‘Star Trek: Into Darkness’ (2013, dir. J.J. Abrams, USA)

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It’s open to debate as to what the ‘darkness’ in Star Trek: Into Darkness refers. Could it be the tone of this sophomore adventure, darker than its predecessor by barely a notch? Does it specify the planet of Kronos, on which the hostile Klingons reside and where Starfleet fugitive John Harrison flees from his pursuers?

Or perhaps it alludes appropriately to the voluminous darkness of outer space? JJ Abrams’ second take – and swansong – on the Star Trek franchise sensibly situates most of the action in and amongst the stars, recalling the series’ trademark space stand-offs. It’s a wise move; by confining the action almost exclusively to the planet Earth and its surrounding stars, Abrams leaves himself room to accord greater focus to characteristically distinct planets in the newly-revived Star Wars franchise, such as Tatooine, Endor and the like. Star Trek: Into Darkness is confident of its main character and appeal – besides Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and his first officer Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto) – being the USS Enterprise itself. To a trekkie, the greatest source of tension is derived from the status of the ship’s shield following a botched satellite negotiation.

Appropriately, the best explanation of the film’s subtitle is the continual failing power sources befalling both the Enterprise and the USS Vengeance. Their capabilities flicker on and off throughout their respective standoffs, requiring recurrent manual intervention to ensure the technology is fulfilling its prime directive: keeping everyone alive.

One person with no qualms about dying is Mr. Spock, who in the film’ s obligatorily explosive action prologue finds himself marooned in the centre of an erupting volcano. Spock’s indifference to his own mortality upsets colleague and lover Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana). She grows agitated with her precious Vulcan’s lack of emotion and respect for their relationship, though its Kirk’s corresponding annoyance with his first officer that really crackles; the captain’s instinctual actions draw unintentionally hysterical remarks from Spock’s mouth as the rest of his face struggles to muster an expression. The script’s at its best when it plays on the differences between the two best friends, an odd-couple pairing that morphs from light wit into heavy emotional pathos as the stakes increase.

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When the film kicks into high gear, the touching friction dissipates and every scrape of tension is unanimously deferred to the pursuit and capture of former Starfleet officer-turned-fugitive John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). The aforementioned planet of Kronos is the first pit-stop on what Spock objectionably classifies as a ‘military operation’, and it’s also the first chance for Kirk and crew to indulge their itchy trigger fingers. But Kronos here is a drab, dingy, unimpressive sty of a locale, resembling more of an immense CGI trash heap than a planet. What’s more, the conflict that transpires there is shot and edited with a disorienting disregard for spatial awareness. The human eye (or mine, at least) can’t fully decipher exactly who is where, or what is happening – although, this could also be credited to the dimming effect of the damnable 3D glasses we’re all encouraged to wear.

The film’s irrefutable comfort zone, then, is the deck of the Enterprise. Its interior retains a gleaming, glassy sheen, punctuated with burst of lens flare and the occasional bright yellow sparks that shoot up like water fountains whenever a missile strikes. The deck’s populace bring equal colour and vibrancy to the setting; Abrams has assembled a talented cast of actors that fit each of their respective roles like a glove: sceptic and metaphor-peddler Bones McCoy (Karl Urban), jerky navigator Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and rambunctious chief engineer Scott (Simon Pegg) all amiably round out the cast, with only John Cho’s Mr. Sulu given little else to do but mash buttons.

As journeys go, the quest to reel in wildcard Harrison comes secondary to the on-going leadership problem weighing down James T. Kirk. Harrison’s attack on Starfleet Command prompts the young captain to rush forth into an espionage mission primarily motivated by a lust for vengeance, one of a few fluctuating mentalities Kirk evaluates on his journey to discover a true authoritative capacity. The film is near enough a Western in its (shallow) exploration of this concept.

“Revenge is not who we are” is one of Kirk’s final lines to his comrades, and plausibly the takeaway message Abrams (along with screenwriters Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof) wishes to impart upon us all. However, acts of revenge in response to personal loss not only expedite the main narrative thrust; they also effectuate its completion. So when Kirk wards his Starfleet colleagues away from the vice of vengeance, one can’t help detect a hint of double standards – of a public leader admonishing private tendencies. That may well be the crux of effective leadership.

Kirk is never presumed to begin his voyage a full-grown man, after all. He’s still an adolescent with misjudged confidence; a boy playing a man’s game, figuring his steps as he goes along. The murder of father figure Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood) at the hands of Harrison leaves Kirk with one less commendable male influence than before and therefore less grounding for his literal flights of fancy. This absence brings to the fore the inescapable traits of Spock, whose ultra-rationalist utilitarianism proves to be Kirk’s foil during the decision-making process.

Queue further weight on Kirk’s shoulders in the guise of Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller); Pike’s savage successor wields a terrifying authority over the Enterprise epitomised by the much larger, looming USS Vengeance. Kirk’s trip inside the latter ship, contrasting the Enterprise by way of its shady, tenebrous insides, is feasibly the journey into darkness – and jointly, into the psyche of dark human impulses – that the film’s subtitle infers.

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Then there’s John Harrison himself, a dually mad and maddening enigma driven by cryptic motivations that confound both a reactive and furious Kirk, and Spock, pragmatic and restrained. One can surmise a certain derivative scenario from the trailer’s brief shot of Harrison trapped behind a transparent prison cell. He’s visibly taunting his captors in much the same way that Hannibal Lecter once did and dozens of villainous silver screen imitators have done since.

Although Kirk and Spock separately occupy affective and cognitive ends of the mental spectrum, pivotal moments occur whereby strenuous circumstances invoke an earnest attempt for one to empathise with the other. It’s Spock who ultimately compromises the furthest; indeed, the dry-eyed Vulcan’s camaraderie with his captain exposes greater human potential than his courtship with Uhura could ever hope to achieve.

The long-lasting bromance takes final precedence throughout, making new leaps and bounds from its formative stages in the first film. While it’s unquestionably refreshing to see oft-maligned, shoehorned romances take a backseat to other concerns within these action franchises, the conflicting masculine ethical standards coming to loggerheads here threaten to lock out the women altogether. Alice Eve as Dr. Carol Marcus, although resourceful, has little bearing on the tough calls; interestingly, it’s Saldana’s Uhura that must mediate between the males before they scrap, and interject when they do.

Joss Whedon’s Firefly and its movie sequel Serenity were the last works we considered to be Space Westerns, though Star Trek: Into Darkness comfortably fits the description (moreso, even). This isn’t a bad generic hallmark to approximate, but the sentiment on which the film rests its conclusion indicates a half-hearted development, and isn’t nearly worth the long slog it took to get there.

Observe the encompassing shot of James T. Kirk staring amusedly into the echoes of space, flanked by an appreciative Spock, who murmurs, “Captain, I defer to your command.” Uhura watches from afar, out of focus. This is, and always will be, a boy’s club. And all the boys want to do is scrap, and change light bulbs, and scrap.


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