The following review contains spoilers, as that is the only way to discuss how the film reflects contemporary realities.
Gene Roddenberry, when he developed Star Trek, acknowledged that he created a “new world with new rules,” which he could use to examine contemporary issues in society. Director J.J Abrams and the writers of the latest film in the franchise, Star Trek: Into Darkness, appear to have decided to honor the spirit of Roddenberry by drawing upon the pressing societal issue of militarization.
On the planet Nbiru, the crew of the USS Enterprise is on a mission to observe a primitive civilization. First Officer Spock (Zachary Quinto) ends up being endangered by an exploding volcano and Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) decides to violate the Prime Directive, a principle that dictates the Federation will not interfere with the alien civilizations which they discover or observe.
The violation compels Spock to submit a report to Admiral Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) informing him that, even though Kirk saved his life, the Prime Directive was violated. This results in a demotion for Kirk and Pike reassumes command of the Enterprise. However, Pike wants him to still be an officer in his crew.
An act of domestic terrorism occurs against a secret installation. The suspected terrorist is believed to be one of their own, John T. Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). Kirk and Pike attend an emergency meeting at Starfleet headquarters. He apparently blew up a library archive, but why? Just as Pike is discovering why he would have wanted to explode an archive, the headquarters comes under attack from Harrison. He knew they would call an emergency meeting and wanted to eliminate high-ranking officers in the command.
Harrison flees to Kronos, the Klingon home world. Admiral Alexander Marcus (Peter Weller) orders Kirk to lead an operation to target and kill Harrison with a new kind of photon torpedo. He acknowledges this could start a war with the Klingons, but he believes war is inevitable, an allusion to how President George W. Bush was willing to exploit the 9/11 terror attacks to go to war in Iraq.
Spock opposes assassinating Harrison with photon torpedoes, as it would be depriving Harrison of life without charge or trial. He also argues extrajudicially killing Harrison would be a violation of Kronos’ sovereignty. Kirk was ordered to kill Harrison when they got to Kronos. Ultimately, against the order of Marcus, he leads a team to capture Harrison alive.
Aboard the Enterprise, Harrison reveals his true identity. He is a superhuman named Khan, who was genetically-engineered. Marcus woke him up from a 300-year cryogenic sleep to take advantage of his savagery and have him develop weapons to aid in war against the Klingons. And, the photon torpedoes actually contained 72 cryogenically frozen colleagues that would have died if they were all fired upon Khan.
Marcus wanted to weaponize Starfleet and approach the universe as if it was a battlefield. The Federation’s purpose, however, had been to keep peace and not start wars.
A central theme is militarization. In fact, at the end of the film, Kirk delivers a speech where he warns fellow officers in the Starfleet that they should all be wary of the thirst for revenge and awakening evil within themselves.
The classic line, “Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before,” directly repudiate the direction that Marcus wanted to take Starfleet.
As Roberto Orci, one of the writers told the Wall Street Journal, “The original Star Trek mirrored the Civil Rights movement. It mirrored some progressive ideas that were not exactly popular at the time, like relations with the Soviet Union during the Cold War as represented by having a Russian officer. We felt that Star Trek was always embedded in its best forms in the world that we live in. The world that we happen to currently live in involves issues of terrorism and of war and of sovereignty. So surely recent events and the things happening in the century were part of our calculus.”
In other words, the elements of the movie that seem to comment on war and sovereignty are, while subtle, intended to explore such issues. (There’s even a message before the credits that pays tribute to post-9/11 veterans, which could be considered an injection of reality into the story world.)
It stands in sharp contrast to the recent film, Zero Dark Thirty, which celebrated vigilantism and policies in the war on terrorism that have transformed the world into a battlefield. Those on the raid to kill Osama bin Laden show little restraint in killing people in bin Laden’s compound, who have not fired any weapons at them. They are not careful in making sure bin Laden is captured alive. In fact, the team is very pleased that a bullet hit him in the head and he was killed.
The capture of Khan has a value in the film. The crew would not have found out about the threat Marcus posed to them if they had not taken him on board.
The above only speaks to the tie-in with how the film reflects on our time. It does not delve into all the homages to previous entries in the Star Trek franchise. However, the effort undertaken to speak to current issues of the day could be an homage to Star Trek in and of itself.
Quinto said on “Real Time w/ Bill Maher,” “Roddenberry really believed ultimately in humanity and with a lot of faith and optimism, but the stories always reflected the society in which they took place. So, he was really allegorically tackling a lot of social issues in the ’60s that weren’t really openly discussed.
“I think the darkness is a reflection of our time, for better or for worse. I think people go to the movies to be confronted or immersed in things that maybe in their real lives they’re a little less eager to look at.”
As someone who regularly writes about the current administration’s global assassination policy, it is refreshing to know that there is a blockbuster science fiction film that Americans can go to this summer that confront them with a scenario that has unfolded multiple times.
I don’t expect the tie-in to reality to change anyone’s mind, but I do think it will give Americans an opportunity to imagine that it is possible to respond to threats or attacks without aggressively starting and waging perpetual war. And, since the genre of science fiction has always been most powerful when it draws from contemporary issues, I consider this film to be much more than just another movie for longtime fans of the Star Trek universe.