Ryan: I think we’ve got a modern day Shakespeare on our hands with J. J. Abrams. Elizabethan parlance lent an artistry to The Bard’s plays that Abrams lacks (and we’ll never have again), but Shakespeare was also a popular entertainer. There are none better than Abrams today, who packages rich, emotional, ethical, philosophical, and political themes in wildly entertaining films. Can you imagine the pitch for Into Darkness?
Abrams: We start with Spock in a volcano and the Enterprise submerged in the ocean.
Studio Head: Great! Done! How much money do you need?
Richard: I agree. Once again J.J. Abrams proves himself to be not just a master of directing special effects, but also story. Perhaps more than any other director working today, he understands that the purpose of popular science fiction is not simply to amaze the senses (which this film does ravishingly) but to teach us something about the human condition.
Under many sci-fi/fantasy directors (especially Christopher Nolan) the title Into Darkness would be an indicator of the color palette and the anti-hero personalities of the major characters. Under a director like Michael Bay (God forbid) the actors would just be highly poseable action figures as the machines did the fighting. Abrams, on the other hand, dares to offer likeable, humanly flawed characters living in the still essentially utopian world of the Starfleet Federation, facing dark times.
Acts of terror, and the approach to searching out the perpetrators and what to do with them once found, are the film’s central ties to our own century’s political and moral dilemmas. The “darkness” of the title is to be found not just in the terrorist (a young Khan, played with singularly English relish by Benedict Cumberbatch), but in the violence and militarization of the state in reaction to that terror (embodied by the pitch-perfectly cast Peter Weller as Admiral Marcus).
A.O. Scott, writing for the New York Times, has lamented the film’s action movie explosiveness at the expense of the Start Trek franchise’s traditional nerdy idealism. As Scott wrote: “Maybe it is too late to lament the militarization of ‘Star Trek,’ but in his pursuit of blockbuster currency, Mr. Abrams has sacrificed a lot of its idiosyncrasy and, worse, the large-spirited humanism that sustained it.”
I found the film to be brimming with ‘large-spirited humanism.’ Abrams and Cumberbatch even managed to humanize Khan, bringing complexity to a character that was mainly a camp figure when played by Ricardo Montalban in Star Trek II. And I can think of no better scene pitting the human against the machine than Kirk’s self-sacrificing kick-starting of the reactor core. This was the true climax of the film (not the admittedly over-the-top fight scene between Spock and Khan) and it didn’t involve a single phaser fired or punch thrown.
Ryan: You bring up the terrorism component of the film, and it’s handled in interesting fashion here which echoes the recent attacks in Boston. That large(r) scale attacks are just as likely to come from Americans (or people who have been living here “for a while”) shouldn’t be a shock to us (remember Oklahoma City) even though in the aftermath of Boston it clearly was for many observers. I’m always a fan of films that critique violent solutions to violent problems and the ethical justifications that accompany them. However, I wonder if the 9/11 motif if a plane (or other airborne vehicle) crashing into a city hasn’t worn out its welcome? Or are filmmakers waiting on the terrorists to make their next move?
Richard: It’s almost like the filmmakers don’t think the terrorists have gone far enough. This summer we’ve had two—count them—two Attack on the White House movies. Post-Boston, however, I could very well see movie writers and directors returning to the small-scale terrorism suspense of something like Phone Booth. Not to poke fun at tragedy, but can you see the final scene as FBI agents storm Bed, Bath & Beyond trying to find the one pressure cooker that’s loaded?
But enough about politics and the philosophy of states, terror, and war. Can we focus on the most important relationship in this movie—Kirk and Spock? “Bromance” does not even begin to describe the love these two have for each other. Supposedly only a few missions into their careers, and already they’re bickering like an old married couple. The looks they exchange—including the “emotionless” Spock—sear the screen with Bogart and Bergman intensity. There is a female love interest for Spock, Uhura, and a sex interest for Kirk, Carol Marcus, daughter of the Admiral. (Somebody explain to me again why she has a British accent?) But as usual in action/buddy films, the women get little actual screen time and undergo little character development. Just like Ben-Hur and Butch Cassidy before them, it’s all about the boys.
In Kirk and Spock, we have a prime example of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s homosocial triangle, in which avoiding the uncomfortable possibility of actual deep feeling—even erotic feeling—between men, forces the male characters to sublimate their feelings in the “safe” third party of a woman. But try as she will, Uhura will never be able to pry free the Vulcan death grip that Spock and Kirk have placed on each others’ hearts.
Ryan: I think you’re right on with the bromance commentary, which is evident in Abrams’ first installment as well. I don’t think it’s been done any cooler or smoother since Butch Cassidy. It’s the ways in which Abrams and writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof choose to reveal this through a deft combination of dialogue and action. In one of the most intense moments in the film, when Uhura, Kirk, and Spock are about to land on the Vulcan planet, we have the lovers quarrel between Uhura and Spock and Kirk and Spock. All the while, Spock is demonstrating the lack of feeling about which he is speaking. Just a brilliant combination of writing, directing, and acting.
Richard: This kind of action/love scene between men has been going on since the dawn of film. Let us not forget the full-on man-kiss between fighter pilots Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen at the end of the first Best Picture winner, Wings in 1927. As Clara Bow said of her role in the film: “Wings is a man’s picture and I’m just the whipped cream on top of the pie.”