I had the chance to go see “Star Trek: Into Darkness” recently. As a big Trekkie (and Star Wars Fan–I cover all the bases of nerdom), I was extremely excited to see the film. Here, I will survey a number of worldview-level issues in the film. There will, of course, be SPOILERS in what follows.
I was a bit taken aback by the portrayal of primitive religion in the movie. At the very beginning, the crew of the Enterprise is engaged in an effort to save a primitive indigenous population. Kirk steals a scroll, to which the natives were giving obeisance. It is apparently something they worship, and when he finally unrolls the scroll to slow them down, which causes them to stop and worship, the situation is shown to be absurd. Once the Enterprise reveals itself, however, the natives immediately forsake this scroll and worship an image they draw in the dirt of the ship.
I may be a bit hyper-critical here, but I can’t help but think that this picture of primitive religion is a bit off. Sure, it’s science fiction, but the people are clearly human-like and it is easy to uncritically imagine the scene as a facsimile for how human religion may have played out. I cannot help but be extremely skeptical of this scenario. First, the notion of a bunch of simplistic idiots whose faith can shift from one moment to the next was odd. Second, the notion that primitive persons automatically worship whatever they see or cannot explain seems inaccurate. I admit that I have not studied the formation of religion as much as I hope to one day, but even what reading I have done reveals an enormous amount of debate on how religions formed and developed. No work I have read, apart from that of those with clear agendas (and little interaction with the archaeological, sociological, and anthropological evidence), has suggested that religion developed just by people seeing a bird and immediately worshiping it. Granted, the Enterprise is more than a bird, but it still seemed odd. Third, I can’t help but think that rather than immediately forsaking their holy scroll, the people would have turned to it to find guidance to discern the meaning of the events they had witnessed.
Again, I realize I am here being extremely critical, but I feel that if a movie is going to engage with religion, it should attempt to do so in an honest fashion. Trek‘s portrayal was, I think, a bit disingenuous.
The Prime Dire… wha?
Star Trek’s metaethical system essentially centers around the “Prime Directive.” The Prime Directive is complex, but essentially boils down to the notion that people should not interfere with lesser-developed cultures. Those who have seen “Into Darkness” know that in no way did the main characters follow this. But as Maureen Moser at Reasons to Believe pointed out, the Prime Directive essentially entails a kind of moral relativism wherein no one is capable of judging other cultures as morally evil. But of course this seems absurd. If, for example, one ran into a lesser-developed society which was exterminating certain groups, it seems obvious that this is a morally wrong action.
In the case of the film, one is forced to wonder–as it seems Kirk did–whether it really is morally satisfactory to allow an entire society to be destroyed simply for the sake of not being seen by that society. Is it morally right to ignore the fates of other societies?
Looking more broadly at the Trek universe one sees again and again that the characters cannot operate within the constrictions of ignoring the ills of other societies. Should we?
Admiral Marcus seemed to lack any kind of motivation other than a desire for militarizing the Federation. I thought this was particularly hard to believe, especially when that motivation made him not even hesitate to carry out atrocities in front of his daughter. Frankly, I saw no real reason for him to go as insane as he did, which made this part of the film harder to believe.
Khan, of course, was the big “secret” going into the movie. I called it back when the character was first shown. Of course it would be Khan. But why did Khan do what he did? He was fairly clearly motivated by revenge, but there was more to his character behind the scenes.
It was revealed that Khan was a war criminal who was conducting a genocide against any whom he found to be “imperfect.” I can’t help but think that this line, was was basically incidental to the plot, is one of the better talking points from the movie. After all, is the destruction of the “imperfect” is exactly what is taking place within our society with issues such as abortion and euthanasia. On the other side, we see the unwillingness to “give a handout” to those who are hungry or in need. Our culture is steeped in a notion where we do not value the “imperfect,” whether they be elderly, unborn, mentally disabled, or poor. Moreover, one must wonder: who defines perfection? I can’t help but think that a character like Khan is not that different from the evils which are occurring each day within our society.
When Kirk has given his life to save the crew of the Enterprise, one crew member comments that “It was a miracle.” Spock responds simply, “There are no such things.” I admit that I was baffled by this comment. After all, the series of events which had just occurred in the space of the previous 5 minutes of the film were so over-the-top that the only reasonable explanations were either Hollywood meddling (of course, this was the case) or the hand of the divine.
I vividly remember someone a few rows down in the theater audibly scoffing when Spock said this. Why would this be a reaction to a line like this? Well, simply put, some things are so beyond probability, luck, and circumstance that they cry out for explanation.
Overall, I enjoyed the film. But I realize that I enjoyed it more as a Trekkie than I did at a worldview level. It seems as though the writers attempted to raise some tough questions, but never got around to providing satisfactory answers. When answers were easy to see (as in the case of miracles), a main character like Spock flatly contradicted it. Those who watch the film with worldview-glasses on will find much to discuss. I think the film is worth seeing simply to start up discussions about miracles, relativism, and even some specific ethical issues. I could see the clip at the beginning used as part of a larger discussion on the history of religion. Of course, as a Trekkie, I also think it is worth seeing for the sake of its place in the Star Trek canon. Let me know what you think.
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Be sure to check out my other posts on movies (scroll down for more).
Star Trek’s Prime Directive and Moral Relativism– I found this post fascinating. It explores the Trek universe to discuss the metaethical view of relativism.
Engaging Culture: A Brief Guide for movies– I reflect on how Christians can engage with popular movies in order to have meaningful conversations with those around them.
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