Star Trek: Into Darknessby Kavish Chetty / 07.06.2013
Science fiction often has a failure to imagine with sufficient complexity our future cultures; and what we get instead is the present propelled forward in time. Almost predictably, the geopolitics of our age neatly resolves and is transformed into “astropolitics”, an interstellar tension between a fearless and conquering human species and the “extra-terrestrial”, or aliens, who even by virtue of their name (“outside” or “beyond” Earth”) are designated as something which is not to be incorporated within the cosmopolis of humanity. The aliens are empty signifiers, free to absorb that connotative mesh of meaning colonialists have in prior centuries projected on their conquered others, or which we now associate with terrorism. So, the Klingon race for example, is a warrior species. It is not simply their culture – with its ritual suicides and emphasis on war and honour – which primes them as agitators, but their very biology, all the data of the phenotype: the “snarled teeth” and muscular structures. The Klingon of this vast universe is a noble savage by design.
Star Trek – at least this newest incarnation, and I claim no intimacy with its almost five-decade history – speaks to a very uneasy and latent content in the dominant political imagination by the way it chooses to present a certain kind of future, one which symbolically replicates or encrypts through analogy, various quasi-racist and imperialist tendencies already at work in ours. For another example, Into Darkness opens on a strange planet of magnificent red jungles, in which Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) is being wildly pursued by, and let’s resist the euphemism here, the “natives”. During his escape from this exploratory/anthropological mission to survey native aliens, he ends up exposing them to the USS Enterprise starship, and faced with the grandeur and spectacle of this machine, they all begin dropping to the ground in gestures of surrender and worship.
Kirk returns to home-base, having violated the Prime Directive, and is told by his superior that he interrupted a “primitive civilization” and “altered their destiny” – in other words, he has interfered in the teleology, the natural chronology of this people leading inexorably toward their particular fate. In doing so, he has exposed them to a fragment of the future which they are “not ready” to experience. They are further back in the developmental narrative than we are, because we occupy the real present, and rather than conceive of their culture as being synchronous with ours, it is in fact condemned to what Dipesh Chakrabarty called “the waiting room of history”. All of this really harkens back to the early 20th century colonial anthropological theories of development, and means we can look forward to a future in which Eurocentrism is superannuated by geocentrism or galaxy-wide anthropocentrism.
Into Darkness – its saturated racial and political allegories aside for the moment – commands: “come with us now on a journey through time and space”. It’s a visually arresting film, not quite as beautiful as say, Oblivion, but spectacularly produced. The cockpit of the Enterprise is upholstered in whites and reds, like a futuristic ice-cream parlour – a sort of Wakaberry circa 2256; its action set-pieces are well-wrought, like diving through asteroid belts or watching headquarters get torn apart by mounted laser cannons. Gone is the understated camp of the original series, and under the directorial impulses of J. J. Abrams, things are more keenly oriented towards an Iron Man 3 style of film-making: violent, ironic and meatier, so to speak, with Chris Pine resembling a sewn-together chunk of various male fleshes and its whole arsenal of masculine attributes: bold pectorals, face roughly etched in. Alice Eve plays Carol Marcus and is mostly absent from the film, except for a gratuitous and tame two-second shot of her in black lingerie, a corruptible Barbie.
Spock (Zachary Quinto) is effectively an autistic, one who mouths off on moral matters in an absurd utilitarian register, a real vibe-kill if ever there was one, and his romantic entanglement with Lt. Uhura (Zoe Saldana) is quite unbelievable: as if she’d have the patience to put up with an alien whose personality, whose whole disposition, is basically that of a high-functioning sociopath, incapable of empathy or other emotive drives. The film’s real charisma, then, is left to the absurd metaphors and comic relief provided by the ship’s Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban), because everywhere else is hammy Russian and Scottish accents.
It is difficult to resist the temptation, in explaining the plot, to return to the whole hamfisted political allegory of the movie. Commander John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) goes rogue and launches an assault on the Starfleet headquarters in London, annihilating some of its top members. Kirk is now assigned in a mission that is very closely aligned with his own private mission of vengeance, to track down Harrison and kill him. For this task he is supplied an arsenal of photon torpedoes, and told that Harrison is hiding on the Klingon homeworld: he is in an isolated province with no civilians nearby, and hence they are morally justified in shelling the shit out of his area and bringing his corpse back as a trophy. Obviously, Spock has an ethical paroxysm at the thought of not letting a criminal stand trial and their failure to follow orders is what licenses a whole saga of intrigue and conspiracy, in which Harrison turns out to be another supervillian from the Star Trek franchise and various duplicities are at play.
That’s the plot, but is anyone getting a pungent whiff of the Second Gulf War around all this? – Bin Laden (Harrison), vengeance mixed with politics, just-war ideology, the question of collateral damage, acts of terrorism, the threat of triggering a war, and all this set on a planet reigned under by a war-like species who don’t understand our way of life and are probably “jealous” of it, or something (read: some vague proxy for Islam).
Probably, I should be smacked for reviewing a Star Trek film in so posturing a manner, but these political allegories are by far the most stimulating element in a film which does its genre act in the smooth and accomplished way which these films usually do. The plot is baroque and makes no sense. The acting is uninteresting, or in some cases, deliberately irritating, and to this exhibit I summon Mr. Cumberbatch and the full routine of dramatic facial twitches he runs through in his desperate gambit to seem mysterious and powerful. The set-pieces are mostly quite exciting – fast-paced and well-choreographed – but what this film demands most strongly of all its viewership is that they can take the Wakaberry galactic forces seriously as a protagonist force for a film. Personally, I can’t vriet it.