There exists no better salve for a stressful week than seeing a big, dumb popcorn movie at the cinema. Spa retreats, bottles of wine, bike rides and Netflix accounts are wasted upon me; none of that can decompress me quite like a blockbuster does, especially when paired with a tub of buttery popcorn and red vines.
But when I watched Star Trek 2: Into Darkness this weekend, I couldn't relax. It was tough for me to get swept up by any spirit of wonder or adventure, when what I saw left me feeling so abjectly unsettled.
Within the first 20 minutes of the film, a dirty bomb rips the London skyline apart. The camera pans away from a long shot of the inferno consuming the city, as if to spare us from the jarring spectacle -- although it doesn't spare us from listening to screams of pain and horror perforating the soundtrack.
The first act of terror is out-staged by a second, when San Francisco gets attacked towards the film's finale. (No, I won't divulge "spoilers" in the strictest sense, although I hope what I am divulging spoils your perception of the movie, at least a little.)
Star Trek 2 reveled in scenes of urban terrorism on an epic scale, and frankly, it made me uncomfortable. Is it disingenuous of me to feel that way? After all, I've been watching movies where aliens, zombies, storm troopers, Nazis, and red-shirts get shot, blown up, lasered, and tortured my whole life. Are displays of terrorism any more offensive than the usual spectacles of violence I've habituated to?
I'd be the first to argue that spectacles of violence in the media -- especially when combined with a toxic representation of masculinity -- feed into a culture that espouses war and violence. It's probably an intellectual failing of mine that I still consume action movies with gusto, in spite of their tacit, insidious celebration of war.
But it's far more disingenuous to dismiss spectacles of urban terrorism as more of the same. They are not.
Star Trek is only one data point on a growing trend line: Urban terror has become en vogue in modern blockbusters. The latest James Bond movie features a dirty bomb that takes out a London skyscraper. The Dark Knight and its sequel reveled in terror -- no scene has made me squirm with anxiety more than the one in which Bane demolishes a football stadium mid-game. Apparently, Iron Man 3, which I have yet to see, assaults the audience with graphic scenes of terrorism even more egregiously than Star Trek, Bond and Batman put together.
Movie-makers are creating a whole terrorism genre, and the motivation is pretty clear: ticket sales. Producers want to to tap into a post-9/11 mindset to grab attention and get under our skins with images that look ripped from CNN coverage. It grips us, gnaws at us, maybe even unearths trauma (especially now, in the wake of the Boston bombings).
These movies make us think something profound is being said about these times we live in. Of course, nothing profound is being said at all. The appropriation of terror is exploitative -- it's a plot device meant to punch the audience in the gut. Even worse is when a plot is woven that is supposed to be an analogue of current events. In Star Trek, Captain Kirk is charged by a jingoistic commander-in-chief with making a preemptive strike on a planet that supposedly houses the terrorist responsible for the London attacks. Get the nod?
But these plots are pure sophistry. No political point is really being made; all the movie really does is terrorize the audience. I love Manohla Dargis's trenchant review of the new Iron Man movie in the New York Times, which describes this exploitation so brilliantly: The movie "at once invokes Sept. 11 and dodges it, and does so with a wink and a smile."
The biggest crime committed by Star Trek 2, however, is that the vehicle it used for such exploitation was a franchise renowned for its critical thought and incisive social commentary -- especially when it came to the topic of terrorism.
In the series Star Trek: The Next Generation, in an episode called "The High Ground," the Starship Enterprise's doctor is kidnapped by the leader of a group of nationalist separatists on the planet Rutia 4. The separatists execute violent acts of terror -- they detonate a bomb a cafe at the beginning of the episode -- but the doctor, who was kidnapped to perform medical operations on wounded nationalists, soon realizes that her captors may be violent, but are also capable of compassion, love and understanding. Their use of violence is abhorrent, yet the only reason they wield it is in response to an oppressive government that tortures, kills and abuses their people. Throughout the episode the question lingers -- what is terrorism? Can violence be justified in response to neocolonial oppression? How can cycles of violence ever come to an end?
May the next Star Trek movie tap into this vein of critical consciousness. In an age of post-9/11 terrorism, it would do us some good to drop the mindless representations of terror and embrace some mindful ones instead.
Erik Lorenzsonn is an editorial intern at The Progressive.