It's standard practice these days for summer blockbusters to frame their action in political terms, but J.J. Abrams's Star Trek Into Darkness has been louder than most in commenting on current events. The original Star Trek series often used its sci-fi elements to address the contentious issues of the day, but the first film in this rebooted franchise—2009's Star Trek—was curiously light on topicality. Abrams has lurched the other direction, making Into Darkness a catchall allegory for the War on Terror, weaving issues such as extrajudicial killing, drone warfare, blowback, and militarization into its plot. But there's a deeper, more primal political message to the film, one that's surprising to see from a Democratic partisan like Abrams.
The plot certainly appears at first to offer to a liberal perspective on the War on Terror. The U.S.S. Enterprise's latest mission is to kill a terrorist, former commander John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), who has attacked Starfleet Command, killing dozens of officers. Several crew members object to the mission—Scotty whines, "I thought we were explorers" and Spock objects to the assassination on moral grounds—but Kirk is out for revenge. After tracking the terrorist to his hiding spot in, ahem, a cave on a distant planet, Kirk eventually complies with Spock's wishes and captures, rather than kills, the target.
It is a setup for a thoughtful discussion of the merits of fighting terror with terror, and the first half of the film interweaves the politics with the plot well. After Harrison reveals his true identity, however, most of the surface-level political drama evaporates as Abrams opts for a slam-bang action finale. In other words, the film becomes more like the rogue Kirk and less like the intellectual, logical Spock. That's a more significant shift that it might seem: The competing values of Kirk and Spock make up the subtextual throughline of the film, but they also offer a perfect distillation of the political divisions that have defined America since 9/11.
When the Star Trek reboot was released in 2009, more than a few pundits noticed a parallel between Spock and our newly elected president. Obama's mixed racial heritage was the most superficial comparison (Spock is half Vulcan, half human), but, perhaps more significantly, each were said to eschew purely emotional decision-making and tout reason and logic as fundamental virtues. These qualities were seen as separating Obama both from his 2008 opponent, John McCain, who used his impressive history as a war hero to portray himself as a man of action, and from George W. Bush.
Kirk's bravado stands out because we were supposed to have left it behind. Lately, we've been greeted at the multiplex by heroes—Chris Nolan's Batman, Iron Man, Jason Bourne—who understand it is better to think before shooting.
The Spock-Obama analogy becomes more convincing in light of the fact that Kirk, Spock's philosophical opposite, seems modeled after the man Obama replaced. As depicted by Abrams and actor Chris Pine, the captain is a future-day American cowboy. His cinematic ancestor is not William Shatner but John Wayne and Clint Eastwood—or even rogue-cop types like Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson. These classic American heroes are defined not by their smarts or composure, but by their arrogance, their courage, and their insistence on listening to their hearts rather than their intellect.