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To Seek Out New Civilizations for New Life

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Zade Rosenthal
/Paramount Pictures

“Star Trek Into Darkness” does a good job of building things up before descending irredeemably into a place where no one can hear you scream. At first glance, it has everything necessary to get our backsides onto the seats. It’s the latest in the long line of the “Star Trek” movies, and the second since director J. J. Abrams rebooted with some success back in 2009. But once you leave the theater, you realize how dark it truly was. The setup: While observing life on a planet leftover from “House of Flying Daggers,” Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban, whose brilliance in this part is underappreciated) set in motion a chain of events which require Lieutenant Uhura’s (Zoe Saldana) boyfriend Officer Spock (Zachary Quinto) to be lowered into an active volcano. To save him, a whole bunch of rules are broken, which bring Captain Kirk back to Starfleet headquarters to be yelled at by Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) and Admiral Marcus (Buckaroo Banzai himself, Peter Weller). The yelling is cut short when a villain named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch, who clearly studied at the feet of Alan Rickman’s performance in “Die Hard”) shoots them up. This sends our heroes on a secret mission to either kill Harrison, or maybe actually — since the only non-American lead character (a very uncomfortable Simon Pegg) reminds Kirk that they aren’t soldiers — instead bring him to trial. Oh, and there’s a blonde named Carol (Alice Eve) who at one point changes her clothes.

On a surface level, the movie’s not actually bad. The C.G.I. versions of future London and future San Francisco are pretty cool, although the 3-D is completely beside the point. Noel Clarke, in a virtually wordless part right at the beginning, shows clearly the human cost of being involved in acts of evil, no matter the justification. The casting directors continue to do excellent work, as all the main parts are competently acted in tribute to the original television show but without being overshadowed by it. And the rainbow tribe of extras and small parts, with the entire human/humanoid diversity of skin color and hairstyles, ground the film in a way which is both futuristic and very current — a neat trick the costume and set designs also manage. But when we learn that John Harrison is not really Mr. Cumberbatch’s real name, the movie falls into a black hole. Spoilers aplenty follow.

We are supposed to think the movie is about the Kirk-Spock dynamic – a young captain developing the maturity and skills to be a real leader instead of relying on luck and instinct, and a young semi-robot learning that expressing emotion is the only way to be effective in times of crisis. But this is done in the service of the MacGuffin of bringing “Harrison” to trial for his crimes — a trial which never happens. Instead, after Officer Spock chases him through San Francisco and beats the tar out of him in a fight scene borrowed from “The Fifth Element,” his superblood is used to bring Captain Kirk back to life. Yes, Captain Kirk dies from radiation poisoning to save the Enterprise from disintegrating during a free fall into Earth’s gravity. It’s very dramatic. Messrs. Quinto and Pine even shed some manly tears about it. So, rather than bring a criminal to trial, “Harrison” is cryogenically frozen in a tube to be tapped like a barrel of bourbon; and we skip ahead to the relaunch of the Enterprise and Captain Kirk giving a rousing speech about moving into the future. We’re not supposed to find the treatment of “Harrison” disturbing. We’re supposed to be glad Captain Kirk is alive and Officer Spock can lose his temper sometimes. As long as our heroes have their emotional resolution, everything else can disappear.

Writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof have done the cinematic equivalent of a spoiled brat smashing up his room in a rage before slinking out for dinner as if nothing had happened. If you think about it, this movie will leave you shaking with fury like the mothers of uncontrollable teenage boys. Are you kidding me? You think you can act that way and get away with it? The world does not revolve around you. Other people have feelings too, you know?

Imagine if the movie had been made from “Harrison’s” — oh all right, really he’s Khan, the major villain of the second original “Star Trek” movie — point of view. His friends are being held hostage to ensure that he enables one organization to launch an unprovoked war certain to bring death to millions. When he succeeds in partially stopping this attack he is hunted down, then freed from jail only on condition of helping his captors. When he makes a break for it he is double-crossed, defeated in a fight to the death, then his body parts are harvested for medical procedures on others. And we’re supposed to believe he’s the bad guy.

Major Hollywood blockbusters have become notably more fascist since 9/11. We’re supposed to cheer for heroes out for personal revenge and treat anyone who stands in their way as disposable — unless, of course, they are women in their underwear, in which case they are objectified and disposable. Perhaps this is because most movies of this stripe are created and greenlit by the 1 percent, who are cossetted enough not to need to consider the effect their actions and desires have on others. Their works of art — who are we kidding, their products for consumption — are then supported by privileged young American men, who are not generally known for their empathy and selflessness. Even 20 years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine a major Hollywood movie with this kind of a plot. Back then a hero was someone who stood up an unfeeling system and re-established awareness of essential humanity (such as in, from the list of 1993’s top grossing films: “The Fugitive,” “Schindler’s List,” “The Firm,” “Philadelphia” and “The Pelican Brief”; if stretched this metaphor can include “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Indecent Proposal,” and possibly even “Jurassic Park”). Now we’re supposed to be on the side of the system which stamps out anyone or anything that does not serve the greater corporate machine. If you are not on the correct side your tears, your friends, your essential humanity can be frozen and thrown away. Into darkness, indeed.

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