Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Star Trek: Into Darkness and Theological Anthropology

Warning 1: SPOILERS to follow. If you haven't seen Star Trek: Into Darkness (you really should, and it's worth the extra few bucks to see it in IMAX 3D) and you don't want to know what happens, bookmark this post and read it later.

Warning 2: major geekiness follows, of both the sci-fi and theology varieties.

You have been warned.

Before seeing the new Star Trek movie, I read a number of reviews that had wildly different takes on it. Some said that it was amazing and the reason you go to the movies in the summer. Others couldn't get over the massive leaps in logic and the rather deux ex machina nature of the ending. Still others fixated on all the references to other Star Trek stories. I figured that someone had to be wrong and someone had to be right.

Well, it turns out that they're all right, in their own way. The effects are incredible, if somewhat overbearing. And there are lots of references not only to other Star Trek stories, but to other movies, as well. A fight scene near the end makes one think of the Mustafar battle between Obi-wan and Anakin in Star Wars episode III. A scene near the beginning where "John Harrison" wipes out many of Starfleet's top officers seems very similar to a scene in Godfather III. I kept waiting for an admiral to protest leaving his lucky coat.

I think this latter aspect of the movie says a lot about the cultural moment we find ourselves in, where we're obsessed with irony and seem to award cool-points for one's ability to make as many clever pop culture references as possible. Family Guy and the Scary Movie franchise are prime examples.

The frequent references to other Trek stories struck some as lazy storytelling. After all, the JJ Abrams reboot found the best of both worlds, blending the established universe and characters with a clean slate/alternate reality thanks to some time traveling Romulans. The photo above appeared in the very first trailers, and I figured that's as far as the reference to the final scene in Wrath of Kahn would go. It turns out I was wrong.

Why not take advantage of the clean slate? Why not introduce new characters and new stories? After all, the alternate timeline leaves them un-beholden to the Trek cannon. Why tempt fate by risking the new Kahn not measuring up to Ricardo Montalban? (no worries there- Benedict Cumberbatch owns it)

We don't know if the filmmakers are making any kind of explicitly theological or philosophical statement. Probably not, as JJ Abrams has said he initially preferred Star Wars over Star Trek because the latter was "too philisophical". Nevertheless, he has created shows like Lost that have all sorts of latent theology, whether intended or not.

But, narrative choices aside, simply looking at all the similarities between the "old" timeline and the "new" raises questions of theological anthropology: how we understand humanity overall and individual personhood in relationship to the divine.

The similarities between Into Darkness and Wrath of Kahn go far beyond the presence of the titular character. A core idea explicitly stated by Spock in both movies is that "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few", both spoken at times when he was prepared to sacrifice himself for the good of a larger group.

Both films feature a main character entering a lethal radiation zone to fix a mechanical problem that would allow the ship to warp out of danger, saving the crew, but killing the person in the process. In Darkness, Kirk even tells Spock that his self sacrifice is "what you would have done".

Both death scenes feature a conversation between Kirk and Spock through the glass, the person on the outside having to be held back from trying to rescue their friend (again, see the photo above). And, of course, both characters are resurrected sooner or later so the adventures can continue.

Again, putting aside the question of what the screen writers were thinking, how is it that such similar things would happen in two different timelines? The alternate realities were created by time travelers who altered Kirk's life in a major way by ensuring that he grew up without a father. The butterfly effect resulted in Kirk and Spock meeting and forming their friendship under extremely different circumstances.

From these differences, one might conclude that such formative events might have led Kirk to become a fundamentally different person, one with whom Spock would have never developed a friendship. In fact, the first movie heavily suggests that their friendship would never have happened if not for the intervention of Spock Prime (the Spock from the original timeline who ends up in the alternate). But neither of these conclusions turns out to be right.

So clearly, there is the latent idea in the story that one's circumstances only have a superficial influence on who one is at the core of their being- that there is some kind of fundamental created personhood that cannot be undone no matter what happens to us. In other words, nature is more powerful than nurture.

The Arminian aspect of my theological heritage doesn't like the implications here. If Kirk and Spock are fundamentally wired to be a certain way, are they really free to choose these actions that come from their gut? Is their choice to sacrifice themselves to save others really heroic if it's not really a choice?

Then again, there is something appealing about a story where nature trumps nurture. The fundamental goodness in each of these characters, particularly the way they make one another better, can't be changed by those external circumstances. Perhaps that says something about the perseverance of grace in the face of all obstacles.

That would, of course, also suggest that Khan was going to be evil no matter what. But he's genetically engineered to be a megalomaniac, so perhaps the bad hands he's dealt in each respective timeline override the fleeting glimpses of altruism and genuine human emotion he displays at certain moments.

So, do you agree with the theological anthropology inherent in Into Darkness? Are we who we were created to be, regardless of things that happen to us that are out of our control? Or does nurture have a much bigger influence than Abrams and company give it credit for?


B Smith said...

There is a comfort in some of the overlapping storylines. I would not be a fan of the new storyline if Kirk and Spock were not friends. It took me a few times watching the first movie to get use to them being "enemies" at first. There is a Multiverse element in this storyline and it shows that even as some choices change the future some events overlap in certain ways. The reversal of Kirk and Spock from the storyline in Wrath of Khan was a little cheesy, but nice nod to the old series. We all knew that they were going to bring back Kirk some way, they've got too many more movies to make.

Despite the new timeline and clean slate, there are some elements that the fanbase would not abide. Kirk and Spock's friendship is as vital as the Enterprise herself.

All that being said, one thing I did not like was the revamped Klingons. Call me old fashioned but Klingons need more hair.

Dan McNeeley said...

For the most part, the theology is over my head, partly because I can't think about it without recognizing the fact that the movie had to be written to succeed in the real world.
I personally believe the we are the sum of our genes plus our experiences, so if the similarities between the two Kirk's life experiences outweigh the differences, they would share the same basic personality and values.

Kirk and Spock HAVE to be friends, that's a pillar of the concept, along with McCoy. I thoroughly enjoyed the homage given to the source material. McCoy's line "We're trying to rescue you" is directly lifted from a TV episode (The Immunity Syndrome, I believe). The death scene and "KHAAAANNN" were beautiful, and done in such a way that you could have heard a pin drop in the theater.

The thing to me is that these are the same characters I've known since 1966. Yes, some of their personality traits are overemphasized, but Kirk is still Kirk. I can almost see Shatner doing those lines. That is why, generally speaking, Trekkies are embracing the reboot.

That, and JJ does cool action scenes...