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Signifying Nothing

by Shawn Stone on May 23, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness
Directed by J.J. Abrams


Perhaps the most intriguing parts of J.J. Abrams’ sequel to his Star Trek reboot of four years ago are the opening and closing scenes. At the beginning, we join the starship Enterprise at the start of the “five-year mission” to “boldly go where no one’s gone before.” And, much as in the original series, they’re mucking everything up. Kirk (Chris Pine), McCoy (Karl Urban) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) are trying to save the primitive inhabitants of a planet that’s about to explode—and breaking every rule in the anti-imperialist book. In the end they succeed, but at the cost of violating their (allegedly) most important prohibition—“the prime directive”—and leaving behind a comical new religion.

Take away the sexy uniforms, curious makeup and clunky science, and you’ll find an amusing, admiring critique of imperial power in Gene Roddenberry’s original concept. The Enterprise, as a representative of an intergalactic space union, was never supposed to get involved with the local population—but they always did, and the show usually winked at the space explorers for doing so.

You're a very bad man! Star Trek Into Darkeness

In Star Trek Into Darkness, Abrams and his usual posse of writers wink at the concerns of the old series, and then, inexplicably, set about to introduce the political and military arguments of today.

If only they had restrained themselves.

Abrams gives us an exotic master terrorist (Benedict Cumberbatch) who levels a building in London and then attacks Star Fleet HQ, and pairs him with a Dick Cheney-style figure (Peter Weller) intent on using an unrelated event to start a war with a different enemy (in this case, the Klingons).

Much has been made of the way Abrams drops so many beloved Star Trek characters and creatures into this movie; one critic derided it as “nerd service.” But that’s not really what it is; it’s more in the nature of placating the nerds, giving them a tribble for their trouble. And it’s not like Abrams and company are really engaging with the major issues troubles of our time, either. The main plot is just a contemporary frame on which to graft familiar (and profitable) characters and then pad out with one outlandish action sequence after another.

At the end of the picture, after the villain has been vanquished and the political order restored, Kirk and company take off on that five-year mission to “explore new worlds.” Here’s hoping that in the next installment, Abrams actually has them do this.