With Star Trek Into Darkness, director J.J. Abrams not only saddles his film with a terrible title, he also makes the same dreaded mistake he made with its 2009 predecessor, namely to twist Gene Roddenberry’s original vision into meaningless summer popcorn thrills. What was once an exciting and idealistic philosophy has now been reduced to the level of mindless action and flashy special effects; there’s plenty of technique, but there’s very little heart. I’ve repeatedly stated, in one form or another, my belief that sequels/adaptations/remakes are in no way beholden to their sources, that filmmakers should be free to alter storylines and characters as they see fit. If the end result isn’t entertaining, however, if the audience isn’t being told a story so much as having its senses assaulted, this only indicates that the filmmakers had no understanding of the source, and therefore shouldn’t have been allowed to mess with it.
One of my biggest issues with the 2009 film was that there was virtually no character development, that the actors were hired essentially to do caricaturish impressions of well-established Star Trek personalities. My hope was that the sequel would spend less time being a long-winded insider reference and more time actually bringing the characters to life. Alas, it does an even worse job than its predecessor at giving them dimension. No, that wasn’t a cheap shot at the decision to have the film released in 3D. But while I’m on the subject, I think we all know by now that 3D so rarely contributes anything significant to the experience of watching a movie, especially an action movie with lightning-quick cuts and unsteady camerawork. So it should come as no surprise to you that Star Trek Into Darkness doesn’t much benefit from it. Only the credits seemed to be floating between the screen and my eyes.
The ads have done a very good job keeping the plot a mystery, so I honestly don’t know how much I can and cannot reveal. Let’s start with the fact that the entirety of the Enterprise crew returns. These are: Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine); First Officer Spock (Zachary Quinto); Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana); Lieutenant Sulu (John Cho); Dr. McCoy, or Bones (Karl Urban); Chief Engineer Scott, or Scotty (Simon Pegg), whose Scottish accent has never been thicker; and Ensign Chekov (Anton Yelchin), whose Russian accent is just as overbearing as Scotty’s. Also returning is Rear Admiral Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), albeit for a short while only. New to the film is Starfleet Admiral Alexander Marcus (Peter Weller) and Science Officer Carol Wallace (Alice Eve), the latter joining the Enterprise crew under circumstances Spock deems questionable.
After Starfleet Headquarters is attacked in a blaze of aerial laser blasts, Kirk and his crew must travel to the forbidden Klingon planet of Kronos and bring to justice the man responsible. This would be the mysterious John Harrison, who masterminds a terrorist attack in London after medically intervening on behalf of a dying little girl. Harrison is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who thoroughly hams it up but doesn’t seem to be having any fun in the process. As to whom Harrison really is and why he’s motivated to do what he does, I’m afraid that would be giving too much away. Let it suffice to say that the Enterprise has in stock a series of high-tech photon torpedoes, and that, for some reason, Scotty is forbidden from giving them each a thorough onceover.
There are times when the film plays more like a parody than serious entertainment; there’s a pervasive and completely inappropriate sense of humor at work, as evidenced by Kirk and Spock’s bickering, McCoy’s tendency to comment on every situation through metaphor, and the lover’s spat between Spock and Uhura, which is itself a ridiculous and unnecessary plot point. Although the entire film is laced with tiresome references to the Star Trek universe, the entire last act is one of the most shameless displays of pandering I’ve ever seen; it begins with the sudden introduction of a character that doesn’t belong in this universe and ends with a blatantly insincere homage to one of the older Star Trek films. I had to grit my teeth and claw at my armrests in order to stifle agonized groans of incredulity.
When I learned that J.J. Abrams would be helming the seventh episode of Star Wars, scheduled to be released in 2015, I didn’t give it a second thought. But that was before seeing Star Trek Into Darkness, at which point I still had hope that Abrams would correct the mistakes he made with the 2009 film that preceded it. Now, I’m filled with worry. If he can compromise the integrity of one beloved franchise, there’s no telling what he can do to the other. Perhaps it will work to his advantage that Star Wars is more space opera than science fiction, and therefore has greater latitude with its escapism. But even then, I’d hate to see the narrative archetypes and spiritual themes of the first six episodes reduced to eye candy and comedy relief. I’ll get back to you in two year’s time.