Although it is still too early to define the year in movies, one trend has already revealed itself: the Eighties are back.
By Noah Gittell
Although it is still too early to define the year in movies, one trend has already revealed itself: the Eighties are back. To date, we’ve had star vehicles for ’80s action stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, and Sylvester Stallone. “Iron Man 3” revived the career of writer/director Shane Black of “Lethal Weapon” and “The Last Boy Scout” fame.
At first glance, “Star Trek Into Darkness” seems a purely 21st-century creation. J.J. Abrams, who left an indelible impression on the zeitgeist with his TV shows “Lost” and “Alias,” is at the helm of the rebooted classic sci-fi series. But the latest in the series recalls the “Me Decade” as well, rewarding the arrogant and foolish choices of its own rogue cop, Captain James T. Kirk.
It begins with a dangerous mission in which Kirk ignores protocol and risks his crew’s lives to save Spock, who is stuck inside an exploding volcano. It’s an impressive action sequence that Abrams will top twice later in the film – if nothing else, the young director understands the proper rhythms of a summer blockbuster, as each jaw-dropping sequence tops the previous one.
Soon Kirk and Spock are called into the office of their superior, where they receive a dressing down that recalls a scene from any number of “Starsky and Hutch” episodes. Kirk and Spock are briefly separated and then reunited. Although there is a love interest for both characters, the primary relationship, as always, is between the two men. They must fight a terrorist (Benedict Cumberbatch) who harbors several secrets. Nothing is what it seems, and Kirk is eventually forced to team up with the dangerous criminal to take on an even bigger, unexpected foe. Much as in “Iron Man 3,” the enemy proves to be within.
In the role of terrorist John Harrison, Cumberbatch creates a memorably monstrous villain. Harrison is a Starfleet Commander turned bad, and he charms Kirk and the audience alike, convincing us that he’s not the evildoer we thought, before the plot twists again and his motives get murkier. It’s a difficult, layered role for any actor, and Cumberbatch, who proved adept at slowly revealing a character’s thoughts as the lead in the BBC’s “Sherlock,” is enormously effective.
The rest of the cast is game, although none really stand out. Franchise newcomer Alice Eve exists simply to give the teenage boys something to ogle. John Cho (of “Harold and Kumar” fame) returns as Sulu and gets a few moments to shine. Simon Pegg remains a steady source of comic relief as Scotty. The only character I really wanted to see more of was Bones (Karl Urban) who, with his concrete tasks and smirking asides, seems the most reflective of our world.
Throughout it all, the relationship between Spock and Kirk is paramount. Both actors (Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto) are at the top of their game, but their relationship resonates deeply at this particular time and place. The dilemma that comprises much of the first half is whether Kirk should follows his boss’s orders to kill – rather than capture — a terrorist who attacked Starfleet Command. Spock, of course, notes that it is immoral to kill a suspect without judicious review, as well as against Starfleet regulations. But this plotline, seemingly ripped from the headlines of The Washington Post, fades as the film progresses and a new enemy emerges.
What remains fascinating is how the cocky Kirk and the logical, by-the-book Spock represent the ongoing battle for America’s soul in the post-9/11 era. Kirk’s go-with-my-gut style is clearly evocative of George W. Bush’s leadership, while many have noted that Spock, with his mixed heritage and reasoned approach to decision-making, is reminiscent of President Obama. The scene in which Spock finally snaps and mercilessly beats a bad guy will surely be cathartic for liberals in the audience.
Kirk is still the hero, and his transformation is less clear. He starts out cocky and arrogant and ends the same way. But how else could it be? No matter how much our political landscape may have changed, it is pretty tough to make a summer blockbuster that values humility and intellect over brawn and bravery.
The most that “Star Trek Into Darkness” can do is offer hints of a smarter, more restrained hero underneath Kirk’s movie star arrogance, and leave us hoping that the logical and ethical Vulcan one day gets a movie of his own.
My Rating: See it in the Theater