Star Trek Into Darkness
Reviewed by John David Ebert
Star Trek Into Darkness is a perfect specimen of what I have termed “post-classic cinema,” which refers to the characteristic nature of the cinema of the past decade or so, which is a type of cinema with a completely different ontological status from that of the Classic period of the 1970s and 80s. Post-classic cinema eschews all forms of originality, and proceeds by means of Cloning, Grafting, Folding and Hybridizing all previous forms of cinema. Star Trek Into Darkness essentially “folds” Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan into the inside of its narrative topology (in the same way in which Derrida said that he could have “folded” his book Of Grammatology inside Writing and Difference), and then, using that as its basic narrative skeleton, proceeds to Graft and Sew onto its anatomy various scenes and motifs from previous films. The helicopter assassination scene from Godfather Part III, for instance, is “cut” from that film and then “grafted” onto the new Star Trek narrative in a sequence in which the film’s primary antagonist, Khan, attempts to assassinate all the heads of the Federation who are present at a single meeting. The look of the futuristic San Francisco, likewise, has been cut and grafted from the city of Coruscant in The Phantom Menace. (For some reason, these films never take sea level rise into account: by the 23rd century, most of San Francisco is going to be under water).
There is, then, nothing “original” about Star Trek Into Darkness, but then originality no longer matters to anyone in the days of “post-classic” cinema. Films are now like genetically modified organisms that are produced through hybridization processes in lab-like conditions. The resulting product is clean, sanitary and gleaming, but wholly, completely and thoroughly artificial. While Star Trek Into Darkness may be the most entertaining Star Trek film since the days of the early films starring the original cast, when one looks more carefully at the film with microscopic circumspection, one can find the tiny serial number with the words “Made in L.A.” which stamps the product with all the prefabrication of one that says “Made in China.”
Take, for example, the cast of the two J.J. Abrams films themselves: once the original cast members are too old to be put into these movies, under the conditions of post-classic cinema, they can be simply “cloned” by replicating the original cast with younger look- alikes which, like clones, physically resemble the originals but, also like clones, have something “not quite right” about them. The chemistry between the original cast members, for instance, is now gone, for their clones have replaced them with a stiff and unfeeling ersatz quality that destroys the sense of camaraderie, irony and wit that made the original television series and the first movies so much fun to watch in the first place.
The directorial style of J.J. Abrams, too, is equally ersatz, for he is also a perfect exemplar of post-classic cinema, in this case, of the new ontological status of the director as forger, for his style is a perfect imitation of a “hybridization” of the visual styles of Steven Spielberg (especially his use of light) and George Lucas (with his “eye candy” touch for handling machines). Abrams is the perfect director for the upcoming Star Wars sequels because he can copy the works of the masters with such faithfulness that it is almost like trying to differentiate an original Rembrandt from equally convincing works by whole schools of his imitators. Star Trek Into Darkness looks like it could have been directed by either Spielberg or Lucas, and if one didn’t know who the real director was, one might be hard put to tell the difference.
The story, as I said, “folds” Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan inside of it because it is basically a retelling of that film: here we see Khan once again awakened from cryogenic slumber (as in the original TV show) and let loose upon the world (as in the original movie) looking for vengeance, only now he is recoded with a layer of post-historic semiotics that recall the hunt for Osama bin Laden. In this film, it is Kirk instead of Spock who must “die” as an attempt to save the Enterprise, but who is revived through a miraculous technology of using Khan’s genetically engineered blood cells to save him (which is a significant clue to the nature of this GMO version of Kirk).
The battle scenes are spectacular and fun to watch, but they too have been cut and spliced, in this case, from the opening battle sequence of Revenge of the Sith. (And this film, too, like Sith and Return of the Jedi, has an opening prologue with its own mini-plot that involves a sci-fi “humanitarian intervention,” but it is a sequence that is rather lifeless by comparison with Lucas’s skillful prologues).
Everything certainly looks great in this film: the costumes, the sets, Abrams’s perfect imitation of Spielberg’s glistening rays of light that go slicing prismatically through every frame. But it is, in the end, merely a genetic hybrid of films, as well as Star Trek plots, that we have seen many times before.
As with all post-classic cinema, it is backward-looking in its orientation, full of admiration and reverence for the sci-fi classics of the 1980s. But it proceeds along the Asiatic agrarian model — different from the West, which has always planted with seeds which produce new plants — of using “cuttings” taken from other plants to simply grow new clones, or else hybrids of preexistent ones.
Let’s face it: the days of cinematic originality are now long since behind us.
Film, with the present shifting of its ontological status from celluloid to digital, has now become an art form that resembles the corporate patenting of genes by corporations like Monsanto that are force-fed to farmers, which they have no choice but to use, or else give up their ancient, agrarian way of life altogether. Star Trek is a patented gene that can be used to grow, harvest and regrow new clones and hybrids, just like the coming wave of Disney sponsored Star Wars films. When the inception of new prototypes is no longer the goal, you can simply transform the originals into spores that can clone themselves into endless copies, each with but slight and subtle differences from their originals. Hence, the similar fate of the Alien, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones and Mad Max franchises, and soon also Blade Runner. We can expect a whole harvest of coming Blade Runner films, too, that will paint their digitized images onto future IMAX screens as so many “replicated” images.
Thus film in the age of digitization and genetic engineering: it is all part of a monocrop culture that has come to stamp out all other varieties and forms of indigenous species that might escape the overcoding of the big corporations and their patented characters, codes, lines, globes and flows.
Endless seriality and repetition without Difference.