Star Trek Into Darkness: Getting Us Past 9/11
[This article contains spoilers to the film. That said, what are you doing?! Go see it!]
I recently saw Star Trek Into Darkness, the sequel to the 2009 Star Trek, directed by J.J. Abrams and starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Simon Pegg, and an array of other role-reprisals. Suffice to say I thought it was a fantastically engaging and entertaining experience. I would hardly consider myself a Trekkie, but these recent films have helped me become excited about the ideas and lore of the franchise. Star Trek speaks to the inherent human desire to explore our surroundings, learn about other cultures, and summon the courage to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
One thing about Into Darkness that piqued my foreign policy-oriented interest in particular was the parallel Abrams seemed to create between the actions of antagonist John Harrison, a.k.a. Khan (played superbly by Benedict Cumberbatch), and the events of September 11th, 2001 and the subsequent “War on Terror”.
In the film, Admiral Marcus has exploited Khan’s intellect and close bond to his cryogenically-preserved crew mates to build a massive and highly weaponized new starship, the USS Vengeance. Marcus’ ultimate goal is to provoke what he sees as an inevitable war with the Klingon Empire. It would appear that Admiral Marcus represents an amalgamation those in the Bush Administration, such as Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, who were eager to begin a needless war with Iraq. The exploitation of Khan, and Khan’s betrayal of Marcus, is reminiscent of the U.S. support for Afghan Mujahideen against the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 80s, and their subsequent reversal and hostility toward the United States. There is also an active campaign by Marcus to silence the dissent that Kirk, Spock and the crew of the USS Enterprise offer to his bellicose plans.
As the film approaches its denouement, Khan pilots a hijacked USS Vengeance directly into San Francisco, the location of Starfleet headquarters. The destruction is unimaginable; tens of thousands could be presumed dead as the starship mows down several skyscrapers. Khan survives due to his superhuman strength and healing abilities, but is finally captured by Spock. The similarities to the 9/11 attacks are unmistakable.
While the U.S. response to 9/11 involved going to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the response in the film is quite different. Though it was Khan who committed the act and not an international (-galactic?) terrorist group, leaving nobody else to pursue for the sake of justice, it is not clear that the public in the universe of Into Darkness is aware of this. For all they know, more could be coming. But in the ceremony to honor those killed by Khan, the speaker urges healing and remembrance rather than revenge. Indeed, my suspicions about the aforementioned parallels were confirmed when I saw the entire film was dedicated to veterans of post-9/11 conflicts in the ending credits.
To me, this speaks to our need to avoid seeing ourselves as victims, constantly bristling in preparation for endless war, surrendering civil liberties for an imagined safety.
I have always enjoyed the work of J.J. Abrams, and Into Darkness is no exception. The cautionary tales, dedications and parallels between recent U.S. foreign policy and the Star Trek universe that he built into this film are expert and seamless. It is useful to have such skilled storytellers, as all too often, the lessons we ought to learn slip by in the chaos of the moment.