Star Trek – Into Darkness

Star Trek 09

Director: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Peter Weller, April Eve, Bruce Greenwood
Review: 3 stars (of five)

Although J.J. Abrams arguably squanders (again) a potentially great villain, he pulls off a Star Trek sequel with all the high-stakes, high-speed insanity of the first installment, but a better grip on the difficult art of breakneck story logic. That’s not to say that Abrams isn’t still putting runaway-train pacing ahead of all other concerns, but at least he rarely jettisons all pretense at logic.

(The weirdest nonsensical thing about this film is that the crew members all wear about six variations of uniform, which seems weirdly … fetishistic.)

One of Abrams’ triumphs in this sequel is that he, at moments, really captures the flavor of the original series. The opening sequence is, like the start of a James Bond movie, the tail end of a caper not strictly related to the story the film will tell. Star Trek 05It feels, despite the high-speed frenzy of modern action films, like the old show, and has so much promise that the rest of the film disappoints for never quite reaching that height again.

A similar retro strength of the story is its moral dimension. Benedict Cumberbatch starts out as a basic terrorist (the film comes out just a little too close to last month’s Boston Marathon bombing, but it doesn’t dwell on the carnage of Cumberbatch’s initial, explosive attack), and Starfleet’s response is a futuristic version of the controversial, extrajudicial drone strikes that the U.S. has relied on so heavily in the Middle East. While Kirk is initially caught up in an understandable thirst for vengeance, Spock delivers a compelling and succinct argument against government-sponsored assassination outside the court system. Later, Peter Weller’s Admiral Marcus provides ample example of how, in facing a new and frightening enemy, we might go too far in defending our liberties, until we become as corrupt and vicious as our foes. (The Into Darkness subtitle can only refer, ultimately, to this dark side of ourselves, of U.S. or Western democracy as represented by the Federation and Starfleet.)

Star Trek 08The story’s execution of this, by giving us a second villain who’s even flatter than Eric Bana in the previous episode, is imperfect, but nonetheless, it’s a welcome concept. At its best, Star Trek is always about more than action and adventure. Star Trek 07You wouldn’t know that by watching the rest of the movie, though. Abrams puts a lot of gunplay into the movie, making it feel like a more militaristic thriller, a Bourne Identity for the 23rd century. That’s not Star Trek, and neither is the closing action sequence, which is just a big chase/fight reminiscent of the floating-traffic bit in the second Star Wars prequel. Action directors today seem to think that louder, longer, and relentless is the way to deliver new thrills to jaded audiences, but it’s no more effective here than it was in the interminable climax to Iron Man 3.

Another plus: Abrams gives the larger cast more time to shine than their counterparts in the original movie series ever did. Uhura, Sulu, Scotty and Chekov each get at least one small, pivotal moment, whereas the original series often had little time for the crew beyond the core trio of Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Star Trek 03Perhaps it’s the focus on the larger crew, and a greater sense of personal relationship (they touch each other for reassurance and comfort a lot, brief little moments) that results in Cumberbatch getting less development.

But no, that’s not true. Where Cumberbatch could’ve been one of the great Trek villains, as compelling as Ricardo Montalban’s Khan, the script demands that he instead spend too much time impersonating Anthony Hopkins’ Star Trek 01Hannibal Lecter–though of course, the savage arrogance here means that Cumberbatch can remind us of nobody so much as his own Sherlock Holmes gone to pathological extremes. Cumberbatch is great, but he deserved more attention from the writers.

(The film also gives us Klingons for the first time in this series, and wastes them on a cameo.  This probably means, alas, that Trek 3 will be “all-out war,” given the way Abrams likes to push the action.)

The film plays a lot with our memories of past Trek adventures, with the climax, particularly, riffing successfully on a pivotal Original adventure. It’s a lot of fun to watch—Abrams is that kind of clever, playing with memories and expectations and surprise variations. He and his writers are less successful with Kirk’s story arc, which contains implausible plotting and a vague and forgettable emotional journey. And while the developing Kirk-Spock friendship is explored again, the antagonism between the two, when we know they ultimately belong together, makes it feel weirdly like a romantic comedy, like you want to yell, “Just kiss him, already.”

Star Trek 04

Ultimately, Into Darkness is an enjoyable film, and Abrams seems to be improving in his handling of the franchise, but his decision to pander to modern action styling rather than fully embrace what Star Trek is and should be means this series of films, despite a great cast, may never fully capture the old magic.