You probably won’t be surprised to learn that I’m a life-long Trekkie. I’ve seen all of the movies (even the absurd Star Trek V) and most of all five series. I also thoroughly enjoyed J. J. Abrams’s in-universe reboot of Trek history four years ago as a great revival for the ailing franchise. Unfortunately, I have to say that the follow-up to that film, Star Trek Into Darkness, aims at topping it predecessor and seriously overshoots. It was fun to watch, but while the result has the veneer of Star Trek, under the hood, it’s too much over-the-top B-grade sci-fi to be really good.
Warning: spoilers below:
Let’s start with what Abrams got right. The latest Trek film builds up the dynamic among the young and as-yet inexperienced Enterprise crew, taking the steps toward turning them into a strong and compelling team. There’s a well-known villain with a devious, multi-layered plot that Kirk and company must foil to save the galaxy. There’s political intrigue and ethical quandaries. And, of course, there’s plenty of cool science and technology and lots of references to the original series and movies for the hardcore fans. It’s not a bad film.
Unfortunately, all of these things have a lot of untapped potential. The characterization, the plot, and the questions it raises all seem to take a back seat to the action. We start with Kirk and McCoy running through the forest from some primitive aliens for no apparent reason, while Spock tries to save them from a volcano with an unnecessarily complicated and dangerous plan. (See Phil Plait’s review in Slate for more, though he’s a little harsher than I am.) It gets some better, but you get the picture.
Star Trek’s technology is never used consistently, but Abrams’s version is far too overpowered. This happened in the last movie too, but the things I let slide then in the name of fun really bothered me the second time around. The Enterprise can get to the Klingon home world in a few minutes (or at most a few hours because Scotty says they were gone one day). Okay, I guess, but why does Admiral Marcus’s dreadnought need to be “three times faster”? And transwarp beaming? It’s one thing to do that once, and it’s one thing to have the bad guy use it again here, but why doesn’t Kirk just beam over to Qo’noS himself to follow him? The real way the handle that in Trek would be to make up some explanation for why it’s so dangerous that it can’t be used again, but this is never addressed.
But worse than the technological abuse is the fact that the moral and ethical questions that old Trek loved to play with are buried in the new film. Spock uses his famous line, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” but it’s a throwaway comment that’s never explicitly brought up again. Forrest Wickman, also at Slate, argues that there’s a surprisingly nuanced allegory for post-9/11 politics hiding under the surface, but there’s precious little screen time of characters discussing either side of it.
Then, of course, there’s the over-done homage to the original Star Trek II. The villain John Harrison, we learn halfway through, is actually the genetically-altered superhuman Khan Noonien Singh. I’ll let slide that they cast the British Benedict Cumberbatch to replace the Mexican Ricardo Montalbán, since they’re both supposed to be playing an Indian, anyway, but Khan the shadowy political plotter just doesn’t command the spotlight as well as Khan the revenge-obsessed maniac. Then there’s the role-reversal of the final scene of Star Trek II, lifted pretty much straight out, with Kirk dying to save the Enterprise. And if that was over-the-top, Spock yelling, “KHAAAAN!” is eye roll-inducing, at best. I’ll admit that it took me a few minutes to figure out how they would bring Kirk back, but there are far more creative ways that Abrams could have handled the whole thing.
All this may sound like I disliked the movie, but I didn’t. I had a lot of fun with it, and it was certainly above average for a Star Trek movie. Plus, it’s good to see the old crew on the screen again in any form. In spite of all the problems, I recommend seeing it, and I remain cautiously optimistic about the future of the franchise under Abrams’s tutelage.
My rating: 4 out of 5.