Major spoilers ahead
The mission of Star Trek might be to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, but the concerns of the latest star Trek movie, Star Trek Into Darkness, are strangely earthbound. And I don’t just mean because it’s more interested in phasers and explosions than in pseudoscience and applied phlebotinum. I’m referring to how, even as it ramps up into a full-on action flick, Star Trek Into Darkness offers up a surprisingly nuanced critique American military power.
It’s no secret that Star Trek Into Darkness is meant as a post-9/11 allegory about American foreign policy. In fact, we’ve known this since 2009, when director J.J. Abrams and screenwriter Roberto Orci revealed that they thought the sequel “need[ed] to do what [Trek creator Gene] Roddenberry did so well, which is allegory,” for “modern-day issues,” like torture, terrorist threats, and politicized wars. Star Benedict Cumberbatch, speaking to BBC America earlier this month wasn’t afraid to be more specific: “It’s no spoiler I think to say that there’s a huge backbone in this film that’s a comment on recent U.S. interventionist overseas policy from the Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld era,” he said. And then there’s the message that appears on screen right before the credits: “This film is dedicated to our post-9/11 veterans.”
If you’ve seen the film, you already know all this, because much of its commentary is right there on the surface. Though it’s set in the year 2259, many of the film’s key lines sound lifted right out of today’s political discourse. After Khan orchestrates a terrorist bombing of Starfleet’s main archive building, attacks its high command, and hides out, Osama-like, in a mountain cave in an uninhabited corner of enemy territory, Admiral Marcus orders Kirk to fly to the edge of enemy space and execute Khan using a payload of classified, high-tech torpedoes that are capable of seeking out enemies from long distance. In other words, he orders an extrajudicial killing by drone strike. The fact that this measure isn’t strictly kosher under Starfleet law worries Spock, who reminds Kirk of Khan’s right to due process, noting that there is no Starfleet regulation that allows the killing of a Federation resident without a trial. Soon, Kirk is persuaded by Spock’s argument that the mission is both against Starfleet regulations and morally wrong, and decides that he will personally lead a manhunt on the enemy planet, called Kronos, where he will capture Khan and return him to Earth for trial.
Some have suggested that the film’s allegory more or less ends here. Over on Flavorwire, Jason Bailey argues that “a few lines of sloganeering dialogue is, sadly, the extent of the film’s consideration of this hot-button issue.” But, while things get quite a bit muddier in the developments that follow, that doesn’t mean the movie loses sight of its allegory. After all, it’s a muddy issue—and the film carefully reflects that. While Kirk and Spock oppose drone warfare, the film shows the very real dangers of the alternative, a manned action to capture and prosecute the terrorist. First, there’s the high risk of casualties: When Kirk’s search party lands on Kronos, they’re swarmed by Klingons, and are nearly captured and killed. Second, there’s the risk of provocation: Their capture in enemy territory might precipitate a deadly war with the Klingons, the movie reminds us, and the fact that they’re there in person gives them even less of a chance at plausible deniability than a strike from afar might.
While portraying the dangers of a police action, the movie also finds a clever way to suggest the strategic downsides of using drones. Since we can’t see both plans play out, the movie suggests these dangers in a slightly more abstract manner, through an image. It turns out that the 72 special torpedoes aboard the Enterprise each have a man or woman stored in cryosleep inside of them, the surviving members of Khan’s crew of supermen. In other words, the torpedoes have two of the risks of drone strikes literally built into them. First, the crewmembers represent the potential for innocent casualties—they’re not the target of the strike. And second, they represent the danger of how military action, especially when it leaves civilian casualties, can result in further radicalization: After all, the supermen were literally engineered as a way of defeating the enemy, before they became an enemy themselves. The movie seems to acknowledge the symbolism of the torpedoes in one of its closing lines, in a speech delivered by Kirk: “There will always be those who mean to do us harm. To stop them, we risk awakening the same evil within ourselves,” Kirk says. The choice of the word “awakening,” spoken right around the same time we see these potentially dangerous crewmembers stored away in cryo-sleep, is surely no coincidence.
This theme of the dangers of blowback and militarization is made quite literal in the film’s final twist. It turns out that the warmongering Admiral Marcus is, in many ways, the Big Bad, and that it was he who awakened Khan in the first place, to fight the Klingons. (Given that the Klingons of the original series traditionally stood in for the Soviet Union, this parallels the U.S.’s support of the Afghan mujahedeen in their fight against the Soviets.) Marcus turns against the Enterprise, and is not afraid of using Khan’s terrorist attack to provoke a war with the Klingons. (Some commenters, including frequent Slate contributor Alyssa Rosenberg, see in this turn of events a hint of 9/11 Trutherism—the idea being that the Admiral was complicit in Khan’s terror attack because he needed a pretext for war. But it’s not Marcus who orchestrates the attack on London. It’s Khan.) Just like George W. Bush, Marcus invokes a terrorist attack in an attempt to start a war on a country that had nothing to do with it.
The admiral’s move toward militarization then leads to the most catastrophic instance of blowback yet: Khan commandeers Marcus’ spacecraft to crash into the skyscrapers of San Francisco, resulting in casualties reminiscent of 9/11. (Abrams has acknowledged that he’s wanted some of his movies to be cathartic for those traumatized by 9/11, and this is his most 9/11-esque moment since he produced and masterminded Cloverfield.) It’s this tragedy that Kirk memorializes, when he warns of “awakening the same evil within ourselves.” If Starfleet hadn’t ramped up for war, and awakened Khan, Kirk suggests, this tragedy never would have happened.
Would the film have had a louder “message” if it showed only one side of this complex issue? Yes. Would it have been better if it didn’t take on this kind of allegory at all? Probably—I for one would prefer less exploitation of our memories of 9/11. But, since they went there, they could have done a lot worse. The film’s message may not be new, or surprising, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a worthy one.