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.
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.
Kirk's bravado stands out because we were supposed to have left this type of leadership behind. President Bush traded on the cowboy archetype in the days after 9/11—promising to capture Bin Laden "dead or alive," and touting his "gut" as the source of his decisions—and, well, it didn't exactly work out. His gut was unable to protect us from 9/11, from Hurricane Katrina, and from economic collapse, and voters responded in part by electing the ostensibly more thoughtful, reasoned Obama in 2008. Hollywood reacted similarly. In the first decade of the 21st century, we were greeted at the multiplex by a succession of tormented, ambivalent heroes—Chris Nolan's Batman, Iron Man, Jason Bourne—who reflected the new, deeper understanding that actions have consequences and it is better to think first rather than shoot.
Star Trek Into Darkness recognizes that this change has taken place but prefers things the way they were before. In its opening act, Kirk learns a lesson in humility. In a scene straight out of Lethal Weapon, he's dressed down by his superior for taking an unnecessary risk and then stripped of his command. We find ourselves nodding in agreement with his boss (Bruce Greenwood) who notes that Kirk, if he continues to show little respect for the rules, will one day get his entire crew killed.
And that's almost what happens. Kirk saves the day in the end, but he succeeds by embracing the same cocky, rogue attitudes that he was chided for at the start of the film. His final act is certainly selfless, but it is driven by the same blind courage that he demonstrated all along. To further drive the message home, the most cathartic moment of Star Trek Into Darkness comes when Spock puts aside his cold Vulcan reserve and beats a villain nearly to death. The victim is none other than Harrison who, earlier in the movie, Spock argued should not be killed without a trial.
That the film ends up siding with Bush-like leadership comes as a bit of surprise, after the thoughtful rhetoric of the first half. But that muddled political message reflects our schizophrenic political culture. America may have sent Bush packing with the lowest approval rating in modern history, but Obama's Spock-like approach to politics has not made governing a divided nation easy. When liberals urge Obama to "go Bulworth," as they did last week, aren't they asking him to put aside reason and logic, and unleash his inner cowboy? Aren't they really begging him to "shoot from the hip?"
Of course, movies are perhaps not the best place for America to work out its post-9/11 trauma. Action heroes have to be brave and mostly brainless; that's how they've been doing it in Hollywood for more than a century. When the film settles the Kirk versus Spock debate in favor of the former, it conveys that we may not be as advanced as many would like to think. If we are ever to truly learn the lessons of the Bush era, we need a movie where Spock is the hero.