Among Star Trek fans – and I consider myself one – The Wrath of Khan is often hailed as the best film in the series. Driven by great villainy, great friendship, and great sacrifice, the 1982 classic remains the emotional powerhouse of the franchise. Star Trek Into Darkness is only our second foray into director J. J. Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek universe, but already we’re boldly going where Ricardo Montalban has gone before. Khan is back, once again seeking that dish best served cold: revenge. The new film reinvents familiar characters and rearranges established events, playing on audience nostalgia with plotlines that reflect the past like a distorted mirror (though the story stands on its own well enough that newcomers to Star Trek can follow and enjoy it). Most intriguingly, the film analyzes its central theme of “wrath” with an explicitly post-9/11 sensibility.
Since its inception in the 1960s, Star Trek has set contemporary events in its futuristic milieu in order to provide thinly veiled commentary on political and social issues, from the Civil Rights Movement to the Cold War. Into Darkness follows the same pattern, envisioning a Starfleet that reenacts modern controversies about undeclared wars and the ethics of homeland security. But before taking things too seriously, remember Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, which took pride in making you laugh before reminding you to save the whales. Good Trek seeks to entertain you and make you think, in that order. Into Darkness includes serious underlying themes, but its tone is generally one of unashamed action-adventure.
Early in its running time, Into Darkness portrays two horrific, one-man strikes against Federation military and intelligence facilities; these terrorist acts set up the film’s examination of wrath and vengeance: what might motivate it, and, most important, how should we respond to it as individuals and as a society? In this movie, the villain isn’t the only character who feels the desire for vengeance. Captain Kirk loses a beloved friend in one of these attacks, and his fury makes him eager to hunt down and kill the perpetrator. Initially he doesn’t care about whether or not the terrorist deserves a trial; he’s willing to use long-range missiles (the sci-fi equivalent of drones) to assassinate him on alien soil and risk interstellar war in the process.
Kirk’s wrath is portrayed empathetically; it is eminently human to respond to loss with rage. However, the film allows Spock – who, in the aftermath of his planet’s destruction, has shut down all his painful emotions – to speak with detachment and challenge those violent instincts by urging a higher ideal: uphold the law, bring intergalactic criminals to trial, and protect the values of the institutions they attacked. Even in the midst of his grief, Kirk feels the power of that appeal and tries to listen to his own conscience.
Individual changes of heart, however, cannot easily overcome institutionalized paranoia. The movie portrays a Starfleet made militant by the massive attacks against Vulcan and Earth that were portrayed in the previous 2009 Star Trek film, a Starfleet that is expanding its covert operations and actively warmongering. Rather than standing against the iconic villain Khan, we discover that Starfleet coerced him into designing new weapons and war strategies for them. Khan comments that, despite their mandate for peacekeeping and exploration, the leaders of Starfleet “wanted to exploit my savagery” and blackmailed him into doing their dirty work. The bargaining chips they held against Khan were human lives, the lives of those he loved. Their terrorist threats begat his terrorist reprisals. In a final reversal, it is eventually Kirk who takes heroic action to end the cycle of violence, and Spock whose losses overwhelm even Vulcan detachment.
At one time or another in this movie, everyone wants revenge. But the story ultimately pulls its heroes back from that precipice even as the villains tumble over. Oh, there are plenty of spectacular shoot ’em ups, fist-fights and blood-lettings, but in the end the heroes discover the power that lies in saving rather than destroying life. Through them, Starfleet can be reoriented along its proper ethical axis. Kirk concludes, “There will always be those who mean to do us harm. To stop them, we risk awakening the same evil within ourselves. Our first instinct is to seek revenge when those we love are taken from us. But that's not who we are.”
All that, and a tribble, too. I’d say Abrams’ universe, though at times gimmicky and heavy-handed, continues to carry the torch of the original Trek’s idealistic spirit. For me, that made it well worth the price of admission.