THIS IS AN ARCHIVAL POST THAT WAS FIRST PUBLISHED IN NOVEMBER 2013
Since 9/11, Hollywood blockbusters have been obsessed with the power of symbolism. Comic book movies in particular have traded on the potency of symbols as a means to emphasise their story’s emotional and thematic points. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is the most obvious example, with Bruce Wayne turning his childhood fear (bats) into a symbol designed to intimidate Gotham’s criminal underworld. In 2011, Captain America used the red, white and blue to question the nature and role of American heroism in the modern world, while a year laterAmazing Spider-Man had Spidey pass his iconic mask to an imperiled child because “it’ll make you feel strong.” Most recently, 2013 has seen Man of Steel offer a rational explanation for Superman’s famous shield, which now doesn’t represent an ‘S’, but hope. It’s an appropriate evolution. One DC hero began the trend by using symbols to strike fear into villains, another continued it by using symbols to inspire hope in victims.
It’s not only comic book films that make such striking use of symbols, of course. 2013 also saw the release of Star Trek Into Darkness, J.J. Abrams’ much-criticised sequel to his 2009 reboot of Gene Roddenberry’s famous franchise. The film has attracted such vehement opinions from fans in part because of how much it relies on previous Trek outing, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). Into Darkness reconstructs entire sequences and character beats from Nicholas Meyer’s classic, and of course brings into the fold Khan Noonian Singh, the original Trek films’ most beloved villain. Some see this as a lack of creativity, even an insult to Wrath of Khan and its creators, but I see it as one part of the film’s point about symbolism. Khan, the embodiment of anger and vengeance for Meyer, is for Abrams only a secondary villain, behind Peter Weller’s scheming Admiral Marcus. The film therefore asks us to re-evaluate our preconceptions. Who is the real bad guy? And what factors contribute to the choice we make?
Star Trek Into Darkness is not merely an exploration of evil though – that would take it too close to the territory of The Dark Knight, which presented perhaps the Noughties’ most defining portrayal of evil in the shape of Heath Ledger’s Joker. Instead, Abrams looks at how evil can be beaten and good triumph. Is this a physical process – does good succeed by physically attacking evil? Or is it a moral process – does good succeed by staying true to its values and inspiring more virtue than evil can inspire bad? Abrams ultimately suggests that the second option is the way forward, and does this through two means. Firstly, through the film’s narrative, which finds a revenge-hungry Kirk attempt to take out Khan for killing Admiral Pike. Secondly, through its use of the Starship Enterprise as a symbol of hope and exploration. Abrams first framed the Enterprise in such a way early in the first film, when he establishes that Kirk and the ship are destined to be together with a long, reverential shot of the future captain and his under-construction vessel. Here he peppers these scenes throughout as Kirk’s dilemma are played out on the canvas of the iconic ship. These scenes are explored below.
The film opens on a primitive planet called Nibiru. The Enterprise is visiting the world to activate a cold fusion device that will stop a volcano from exploding and destroying all in its path. In an effort to preserve the Prime Directive, the ship is hidden in the planet’s ocean, but when Spock gets trapped, Kirk has to act, ordering the Enterprise out of the ocean, towards the volcano and in full sight of the planet’s inhabitants. The Prime Directive has been thoroughly violated now, and Abrams shows just how much the incident will affect Nibiru’s inhabitants and their future in the sequence’s final shot, which sees the natives gather together in a huddle. The chief is drawing an image of the Enterprise in the sand, and when done, the group begin to worship it. Michael Giacchino’s heroic Enterprising Young Men theme begins, Abrams places his camera directly over the drawing in a God’s Eye view, and slowly the picture fades to the real Enterprise flying through space. The Enterprise’s symbolic value has been established, but will it fall to or transcend the test that Khan will subject it to.
The next time we see the Enterprise in any great detail is when the ship is docked ready for Kirk and co. to board it. The scene recalls a similar moment in the first film when Kirk and Bones are taken to the vessel for the first time. In that scene, Abrams shoots the boarding from a low angle, giving the moment a sense of significance and nobility, something emphasised by a rousing rendition of Giacchino’s Enterprising Young Men. Here, however, such values are absent. Abrams again shoots the ship from a low angle, but there’s a feeling of distance and dread, with Giacchino’s music playing like a march, giving the scene a gloomy militaristic feel. As Kirk heads off with the intention of breaking Starfleet and moral code and killing Khan, Abrams and Giacchino remind us of how utterly wrong this situation is by subtly undermining our expectations for the scene.
ENTERPRISE VS. VENGEANCE
In what is probably the film’s key sequence, Abrams makes a powerful narrative and visual statement that sums up the film’s themes and its use of symbolism. By this point, the Enterprise has intercepted Khan and attracted the attentions of Admiral Marcus (who wants Khan dead) and his ship the USS Vengeance. The names, of course, sum it up – Enterprise representing the future, peace and exploration, Vengeance representing all things past and violent. This, in tangible form, is the film’s central tension, and Abrams ensures that is conveyed to the audience in a number of shots that establish the hulking size of the Vengeance and the relative smallness of the Enterprise. Most notably, he presents us with a wide shot that shows the two ships facing off against a beautiful celestial background. They’re like Old West gunslingers vying for control of their beautiful environment – a comparison that’s wholly appropriate. Just as Westerns focus on the nature of law and justice, order and chaos, so too does Star Trek Into Darkness.
THE FALL AND RISE OF THE ENTERPRISE
Khan commandeers the Vengeance and kills Marcus during the ensuing battle, and once in the captain’s chair, he turns the ship’s arsenal on the Enterprise. All but annihilated, the ship’s heart, the Warp Core, breaks down, sending her and her crew into freefall towards Earth. Again, Abrams lets his expressive camerawork speak for itself. As evil threatens to destroy good once and for all, Abrams uses skewed Dutch angles plunges the screen into darkness, with the characters illuminated only by red warning lights. Kirk ventures to the Warp Core to get it back online, and when he finally gets to his destination, Giacchino’s music turns into an elegy as the Captain gives up his life to save his crew. The Warp Core back, music and visuals suddenly shift. The calming blue and white of planet Earth take over from the unsettling red and blacks of space, and the Enterprise sinks beneath of bank of cloud before rising heroically from the bottom of the screen. Giacchino’s music soars and Abrams shoots reverentially from a low angle to emphasise the change further. The Enterprise is back and moral order has been restored.
BATTLE OF SAN FRANCISCO
Abrams has one final twist though. As the Enterprise restores balance, the Vengeance sinks beneath it, plunging down to San Francisco at an incredible rate. From out of the purity of a blue sky, this ‘Dark Enterprise’ emerges as initially a dot on the skyscape before coming to consume the screen. It finally crashes into the city below, destroying buildings and killing thousands, in a harrowing sequence that is all-too-familiar for an audience weaned on news images of terrorist atrocities. Consumed by anger after Kirk’s death, Spock beams down to San Francisco to pursue and ultimately kill Khan. The film has reversed on itself – while before Kirk was looking for revenge, now it’s the calm, logical Spock – and its moral code threatens to do the same; if even Spock is ready to kill, what hope does Starfleet have? But Spock doesn’t realise that Khan’s survival (and his genetically-altered blood cells) is the only way Kirk can be brought back. Mercy is therefore the only option as the film makes a powerful point about the good that can come from rejecting further bloodletting and embracing moral right.
A NEW FIVE-YEAR MISSION
Abrams concludes this story and neatly sets up the next in a final scene which finds Kirk and crew at a “re-christening” ceremony for the Enterprise. He reasserts his and Starfleet’s dedication to exploration, to good, and insists that we must “remember who we once were and who we must be again.” The speech then cuts to the Enterprise, with Abrams providing the audience with long, loving shots of the ship’s interior and exterior. Kirk delivers the franchise’s famous ‘To Boldly Go’ speech, and boldly go the Enterprise does as it shoots off into space to discover new worlds. Echoing the shot that ushered in the title card (and therefore the Enterprise-as-totem image we saw on Nibiru just before it), Abrams’s camera slowly moves into the trail of vapour left in the ship’s wake. The camera zooms forward into the credits themselves, the specks of vapour resembling stars whizzing past a spaceship. The film and its message is complete, it’s somewhat strange title now fully revealed. By rejecting the figurative darkness of the soul, the Enterprise is now free to journey into the literal darkness of space and bring some light to it.
It’s a shame that Star Trek Into Darkness has attracted so much scorn. It’s not a perfect film, but it is an intelligent, mature and unique one. Blockbusters during the last decade have become bogged down in misery, suggesting that the world is a deeply dark and depressing place and that those in power will not only do nothing about it, but are actively contributing to it. Into Darkness trades on that to an extent, but also realises that there’s a certain nihilism to it that Abrams sensibly rejects. In its place, he offers hope that we, like the crew, can transcend the darkness and find something more inspiring. We just need to find our own Enterprise.