Full disclosure: I’m an avid trekker — or “trekkie” as the media prefer to call us. That means that this critique of Star Trek: Into Darkness, J.J. Abrams’ latest installment in the revamped Star Trek franchise, must first begin with lavish praise. In fact, Abrams deserves nothing less than rabid appreciation for re-introducing this inspiring sci-fi universe to yet another generation of young, idealistic movie-goers.
For starters, Abrams manages to re-imagine and re-invigorate an entire cast of loveable characters while upgrading an epic story with spectacular effects and compelling modern-day allegories. He carefully adapts the narrative to the uncertain moral turbulence of our times (fighting terrorism vs protecting human rights), while paying proper deference to menacing threats and villains from the 1960s Cold War context that birthed the whole enterprise (grin).
Unfortunately, what’s been lost in translation has been the rich, multi-layered character struggles of yesterday — whether the original Spock’s long journey from self-sacrifice, rebirth, and evolution into wise statesman (and dear friend) or Data’s many years of transcending his robotic limitations to discover, explore, shun, and ultimately embrace emotion (albeit with a microchip regulator). There are, to be sure, memorable and joyful moments of character development in the Star Trek reboot, but they’re mostly bite-sized nuggets made for 10 second commercial spots, tightly squeezed between high-octane special effects sequences.
All of this is to be expected, of course. Big budget action flicks are as competitive as ever these days, and so, the pleasant niceties of complex and empathetic characters are often first to be sacrificed. It’s just very hard for me to feel the same passion or gravitas as when Spock said to Captain James T. Kirk: “Jim, I have always been, and always will be your friend,” or even when Data reacts enthusiastically to hearing from his creator that he is “Not less perfect than Lore!”
Still, my central beef with Star Trek: Into Darkness is far deeper, and admittedly, totally unfair to the franchise. For the Star Trek narrative — or rather, its “neo-religion” of progressive technological progress — is shared almost universally by sci-fi authors, movie producers, and storytellers the world over. At its core, it’s a vision of increasing energy use, increasing human ease, and increasing mobility — not just around our beautiful blue orb, but across our solar system, galaxy, and beyond.
Accustomed as we humans (or at least we industrial humans) have become to cheap and abundant energy and the ceaseless introduction of new consumer goods and whiz-bang techno-gadgets — it seems only natural that the destiny of humankind is to one day transcend this earthly realm, and spread the gospel of material progress to the stars, does it not?
It does not.
Lurking behind the cover story of terrorism and modern unease is an even more troubling development: the endgame of fossil-fueled civilization, and hence, the end of space travel.
Sound absurd? Not really.
Let’s take a moment to piece together the evidence: the desperate rush of invasions by powerful nations into the last remaining oil- and gas-rich territories (Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, to name only a few); mounting unrest and revolutions in those same regions as energy and food costs rise; the mad scramble by energy corporations into remote regions (deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic and highly polluting extraction from Canada’s “tar sands”); “like there’s no tomorrow” wealth grabs and tax cuts by the elite as joblessness, poverty, and inequality grows; and the increasing ferocity of global warming super-charged tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, and typhoons — not to mention the attendant global risks to food security, water availability, and seaside populations that climate change represents.
The scaffolding of industrial civilization is starting to show some serious fractures, and no replacement energy sources or technological miracles are ready-and-waiting to save it. If the good folks at the Association for the Study of Peak Oil are even close to being right in their prediction that we’ll soon have to live with less and less overall energy to conduct the activities of modern life, then we’d better stop dreaming of star treks and start coming back to Earth.
That one-time energy bank beneath the earth’s surface that fossilized millions of years ago isn’t coming back. We’ve used most of it already, to power our vehicles, light up our cities, and yes, take us beyond the confines of our planet. But now, faced with the coming end of that generous endowment, we must finally make peace with our own homeworld and one another.
In some ways, the realization that our species will not, of its own accord, traverse the vastness of space is very sad. We humans are brilliant, deeply creative, and capable of profound love. We’ll simply have to wait for other species with greater resources to find us, and hope that they too, had conceived of some “prime directive” which forbids them from interfering in the cultures of other worlds — at least not until we’re ready.
In other ways, the fact that we’re finally bumping up against ecological and energetic limits is of great relief. Perhaps some of the worst-case scenarios of climate chaos may simply not be possible. At long last, maybe we’ll find the courage to transform our lives, our communities, and the broader culture to live within the natural cycles of our precious planet.
Perhaps J.J. Abrams could call the movie Earth Trek: The Journey Home.