The Red Badge of Savagery – “Star Trek Into Darkness” Review

Early on in Star Trek Into Darkness Kirk engages some Klingons in a rather brutal shoot out complete with fisticuffs. Kirk is left with one of the few indications that anyone in the future bleeds: a small cut on his right cheek. The cut is looks like an inverted “V” and suspiciously like the insignia for Star Fleet. This is the closest that Into Darkness gets to symbolism. Kirk is wearing red badge of savagery, if you will. Which turns out to be the core intent of Into Darkness.

After Spock accuses John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) of having been exploited for his intellect Harrison says:

“He wanted to exploit my savagery! Intellect alone is useless in a fight, Mr. Spock. You, you can’t even break a rule – how can you be expected to break bone?”

In three sentences there stands the mission statement of Star Trek Into Darkness: savagery wins out over intellect. Originally known for being an intelligent (if at times silly) science fiction show, Star Trek has met its modern day maker in J. J. Abrams, who eschews intelligence for brawn. As well as distilling the conception of the battle of good and evil down to a comfortably digestible one. Heroes must punch the villains harder than the villains can punch back. However, despite how disposed towards big action and spectacle the film is, Abrams and Co. are able to imbue it with enough heart that it establishes an emotional connection with the audience.

In 2009, Abrams and his writers took the world that Gene Roddenberry built and gave it the shot of adrenaline it needed to survive. Now, four years later, that adrenaline charge is still going strong, and to expend all this extra energy, everyone is punching somebody.

Kirk punches. Harrison punches harder. Scotty gets punched. Karl Urban’s Bones McCoy would have punched someone, given the chance. Even Spock, a man of pure ration, who purges himself of emotion, is eventually thrown into a vengeful rage. In this moment we are called to cheer as he sets his sights on John Harrison, determined to terminate with extreme prejudice. When Spock reaches his quarry he unloads in a furious flurry of fists before finally uppercutting us into a blackout. No. Really. He uppercuts across frame and we get a hard cut to black. Did we just get knocked out? With all the whirlwind action, perhaps we did.

Abrams and Co. know what sells: violence. But they also know what makes it worth the while: heart. By giving Kirk and Spock character arcs where Kirk learns the value of sacrifice and Spock learns the value of fraternity, Into Darkness is able to hook its audience into giving a damn about all the punches being traded on screen.

Star Trek Into Darkness isn’t interested in symbolism, heady science fiction, or moral ambiguity. It concerns itself with emotional and visceral thrills. In this endeavor the film is pleasingly successful, even if it feels like it’s punching you in the face occasionally.