thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Post-Post-Modern, Post-Post-9-11: Star Trek Into Darkness

In Uncategorized on May 21, 2013 at 9:46 pm
Sarah S.
Let’s get this complaint out of the way directly: the use of female characters in J. J. Abrams’ second offering in the rebooted Star Trek franchise is sigh-worthy at best, probably more like eye-rolling and groan-worthy, and possibly even merits serious hair pulling. Zoe Saldana is still awesome as Uhura in Star Trek Into Darkness but her interesting updates, including linguistic genius and unwavering confidence, are undercut in this movie by her damsel-in-distress situations. Speaking of “damsels-in-distress,” Alice Eve’s Dr. Carol Marcus (presented on IMDB as simply “Carol”) represents yet another female character who’s good on paper and easy on the eyes but doesn’t offer much but a way to nix any *ahem* suggestions of sexual tension between Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto). Point, match, feminists.
That said, for all those who have been complaining that Abrams’ Star Trek isn’t “Star Trek” enough: you’re nuts! In this flick, perhaps even more than the first, Star Trek returns to its philosophical roots of exploring what it means to be human and how we strive to be the best iteration of that humanness. And yet, obviously, this is not your father’s Star Trek. It’s so filled with Easter eggs its villain is the biggest one of all (also: worst kept secret ever) while its loving nods to the preceding mythology temper any sense of snark or unending, frivolous “play.” Indeed, the film’s self-awareness of its changed universe is so meta, and yet so well-conceived in its own right, that it transcends post-modernism and becomes, what? Something that gets beyond that circling anxiety, frivolity, and/or simulacra of traditional post-modernism and into something that mingles our contemporary fears for the future (aka, obsessions with apocalypse), loves for nostalgia and technology, and twinging hopes that extraordinary individuals—particularly if they work in tandem—may be able to improve the world.
*Here There Be Spoilers*
The film opens with the Enterprise crew trying to keep a volcano from erupting and decimating the planet’s pre-modern civilization. However, when things go awry and Kirk must choose between saving Spock and violating the “Prime Directive” (which dictates that Starfleet shall do nothing to meddle in the development of other cultures), Kirk of course chooses to rescue his friend. This leads to him being demoted to first officer under Admiral Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), who vouches for him so that he avoids court martial, and leads to Spock being reassigned to another ship. Meanwhile, a terrorist named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) blows up an archive and then uses the subsequent gathering of Starfleet top brass to attempt a massive assassination. Among the victims is Admiral Pike.

From the get-go, the film establishes male emotion as a key theme. We first see Harrison manipulate a father into blowing up the archive in order to save his dying daughter. Then we are treated to several touching scenes between Kirk and Pike, who has become the surrogate father that Kirk needs. Moreover, much like Kirk’s real father, he dies violently, a casualty of a vengeful enemy. Even our villain, John Harrison, who turns out to be a super-man from the late twentieth century (KHAAAN!!!!!), speaks with eloquence, his eyes full of tears, of his crew—his family—imprisoned in torpedoes by the ruthless Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller). There are lots of other examples but the core relationship of this film, of course, is that between Kirk and Spock, who were bitter antagonists in the first movie and who now find that, as original Spock claimed, they are in a friendship that will define them both. Acknowledging legitimate complaints about the weak female characterizations in the film, the male emotion on display goes deeper than in most action movies, combining the bromance with action cliches and then adding a healthy dash of real heart. The result is, again, that vaguely “post-post”: self-aware yet deconstructive yet strangely heartfelt simultaneously.

In response to Pike’s murder and the attacks on Starfleet, Kirk feels justifiably enraged. He receives permission from Admiral Marcus to retake command of the Enterprise and go after “Harrison,” who is hiding in an uninhabited area of one of the Klingon planets. Marcus expresses his belief that war with the Klingons is inevitable and authorizes Kirk to blast “Harrison” to smithereens using brand new, top secret, high tech, whizbang torpedoes. Kirk enthusiastically agrees but finds contention from his best friend and first officer; Spock argues that preemptively executing anyone, even someone as heinous as Harrison, goes against core Starfleet beliefs and basic ethics. En route, the Enterprise runs into technical difficulties that leave them unable to warp and Spock convinces Kirk to try to take Harrison alive. What they discover is an ubermensch: brilliant, with super human strength and potent emotions.
I must stop here to note that Cumberbatch is mesmerizing in the role of Khan. He’s the kind of actor who elevates the entire franchise (not unlike Christopher Plummer [The Undiscovered Country], Alice Krige [First Contact], and William Cromwell [First Contact] before him), making his fellow actors look better and work harder, all while creating a supervillain both chilling and strangely sympathetic.

Which leads to the other “post-post” of Star Trek Into Darkness. Since the terrorist attacks of 9-11, our popular films have treated us to various apologies for American culture and actions, resulting in a whole lot of very interesting, very conflicted artifacts. Perhaps the best example is Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight/Batman franchise, which switches schizophrenically between political allegiances and yet ultimately apologizes for Bruce Wayne’s unethical behavior because he’s a “hero” who keeps Gotham “safe.” (Confession: I do like those movies.)

But Star Trek Into Darkness suggests we may have come to a new point in our cultural dialogue, one that lets fictional characters in an imagined future wrestle with the emotions that terrorism brings—anger, fear, vengeance, grief—while ultimately choosing to listen to their better angels. The film upholds American ideals that have gone out of fashion since we began our “War on Terror,” ideals such as due process, trust, dialogue, and sympathy for the enemy. In the end, we’re made to empathize with Khan’s loss while condemning his actions. And Marcus proves almost a caricature of an evil American military officer (I almost expected him to berate Private Pyle), signaling the film’s willingness to criticize those who seek vengeance and cultural supremacy above decency.  I won’t give away the ultimate conclusion but let’s just say I hope we get to see Khan (marry me, Cumberbatch!) contribute to this story again.

On that note, what did ya’ll make of the post-film’s note of appreciation for 9-11 responders and US military personnel? Was that Abrams’ clarification or something the studio insisted on? I’ll admit, to me it felt safe, perfunctory, possibly even trite. Not that we shouldn’t appreciate most of these people but it felt like a chicken’s apology for the (perhaps) surprising perspective on display in Star Trek Into Darkness. Thoughts?

Two Star Trek “virgins” go see the new film; wackiness ensues.

This exists.

Favorite geek-out moments: The red shirts change into costumes—and survive the away team. More Scotty (Simon Pegg). Hikaru Sulu (John Cho) owning the captain’s chair like a boss (an Easter egg that I have not yet heard mentioned that nods to Sulu’s ultimate command of his own starship).  Bones asking Kirk: “Are you out of your corn-fed mind? The Tribble.

  1. […] New Girls Like Giants post on the newest Star Trek film. […]

  2. In case anyone’s reading: I feel I should note that the conclusion of my highly praised STID leaves a bit to be desired. Once the big alternate universe switcharoo had happened, they went for easy, action movie wrap-up.

    Also, I thought GLG readers might be interested in this apology from the film’s creators over the “misogynistic” display of Alice Eve in her skivvies:

    Plus, Abrams on Conan trying to even the score (Cumberbatch!):

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