Of Timelines and Plotlines: Why Star Trek Into Darkness crash lands on Kronos but misses kairos by a mile


As expected in these kinds of space operas, the beginning of J.J. Abrams latest trek into, uh, darkness, is a death-defying escape from the indigenous people of a foreign land a la Raiders of the Lost Ark. Our big escape comes when Spock hopes to use a type of cold fusion bomb to freeze an erupting volcano, costing the Vulcan his life and ceasing the cosmic ballet indefinitely. But Captain Kirk is no fat lady, a staple of the ballet, and decides it best to risk his crew’s life to save his best friend.

But before doing so Kirk rhetorically asks, “Would Spock do the same for me?” And never one to understand the meaning of the word rhetorical, Kirk’s science officer Bones replies, “He’d let you die.”

Five minutes into the film, Abrams, like Babe Ruth with 3-D glasses, calls his shot: By the end of Star Trek Into Darkness, Spock would prove Bones wrong.

However, while this makes for endearing drama to follow-up the fantastic adventure of film one,”Would Spock do the same for me?” isn’t a question Abrams can answer.

Fundamentally, like all big budget Hollywood spectacles, traditional narrative overrides subversion, and the most successful (read: homogenized) versions of these narratives follow these formulas closely, fulfilling promises the storyteller makes in the first act. So, if Clooney derides the idea of marriage in act one, because he’s so happy being single and ready to mingle, surely by the end of the film, Julia Roberts will lock that shit down. And this also happens to engage us because of two lines of action: Kairos, Greek for the supreme moment, and Chronos, or, as we in the 21st century call it, time.

Kairos and Chronos work together to give us our catharsis, release, or whatever makes you go, “Hey, that was pretty good. Gotta get that Blu-ray.” To break this down and further, explaining why Star Trek doesn’t quite master the immortal jesters of time and moment, I’ll use another film that Abrams should take some extensive notes on: Star Wars. In Star Wars, we meet Luke Skywalker, a boyish farmer who wants  nothing more than waste time with his friends buying power converters and join the rebellion against the galactic empire. Over the course of the film, we watch the boy step into a larger world, unsuccessfully negotiate transport to Alderaan, and learn to trust in himself, rather than his targeting computer, and blow up the Deathstar. From the beginning of the film to the end, Luke changes, and this happens because of Chronos and Kairos.

Chronos is your timeline, plotting the action, if you will, from point A to point B to point C. It’s on this that we see the actions Luke takes. Kairos is the supreme moment where Luke must take his shot. It’s what the action, both internally and externally, leads to. If Luke makes it, he saves the galaxy and proves his worth to himself. He misses thousands more will be needlessly slaughtered in the Empire’s desire to rule the galaxy by killing everything in it, because good is dumb.

J.J. Abrams used this very much to his advantage in 2009’s Star Trek, where he overcame an incomprehensible plot to deliver a story about pilot and his friend with the ears. The director accomplished this by constantly showing Kirk in need of assistance, testing Kirk’s ability to grow in time to save the universe. Slight scenes, which should require no obstruction are punched up with space allergies, giving Kirk yet another obstacle and a chance to see why he can’t manage the Enterprise on his own. There are, after all, like, a million other qualified crew members on that ship.

And that is where Star Trek Into Darkness fails. It confuses its thematic concerns (Kirk and Spock’s relationship) with its dramatic one (the longtime rivalry of two new characters). Abrams sets up a question placing a thematic climax at the end of the film: Spock must risk the life of his crew to save Kirk, proving his friendship despite a severe lack of emotion. This payoff, despite what the film seems to think is happening, never occurs.

There are moments in the film where Chronos and Kairos meet, where the thematic and emotional concerns of the characters meet the plot. The best example of this, and the best scene of the film, appears when Kirk, Spock, and Spock’s girlfriend Uhura (played by the criminally underused Zoe Saldana) head to the Klingon outpost of Kronos (irony!) to find the fugitive Khan – and granting me the opportunity to write the nerdiest sentence ever. Aboard their small ship, the three hash out their differences, namely Spock’s complete disregard for their feelings and his selfish decision to give his own life to save that of the indigenous species from the beginning. Spock can be so incorrigible. This scene works so well, because the story of their relationship meets their adventure, and their tension could have a negative impact on the mission. Put simply: There’s danger as a result of their emotions. The stars align, and dramatic and thematic elements converge.

But from here, the film has a very difficult time doing that again. The Enterprise gets wrapped up in the backstory and intentions of Khan. This backstory, which has nothing to do with the Enterprise and everything to do with Commander Marcus, some other guy who isn’t Kirk or Spock, becomes the larger focus of the film, raising questions about militarism, preemptive strikes, justice, etc. Everything other than would Spock save Kirk. Eventually, Abrams hunkers down and decides that he has to deal with this. But Spock never gets the chance to risk everything to save Kirk, instead he risks nothing and saves Kirk. We are left with two characters who went on an adventure where the outcome had no effect on their personality.

Star Trek Into Darkness confuses the catharsis of the dramatic turn with its thematic one. Assuming that Spock risking nothing to save Kirk and Kirk risking everything save Spock is the same thing offers very little in the way of change, which is what we’d like to see these characters do. Abrams sets a course for a very specific moment in which the internal and external questions of the film are answered. Unfortunately, the film never finds that moment.

  1. great post. i loved this movie. it was one of the best of the year to me. check out mine on this topic https://wellthatsdifferent.wordpress.com/2013/05/24/star-trek-into-darkness/

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