Silver Screen: Star Trek into Darkness ****
Trekkies who thought J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek reboot often played more like a secret Star Wars movie will have even more to quibble with in the sequel, Star Trek into Darkness, which is heavy on shootouts and moves at a breakneck speed. Casual fans will be treated to a consistently entertaining bit of sci-fi silliness that provides the first real thrills of the summer blockbuster season. (Sorry, boring-ass Iron Man III.) This second Star Trek is indeed a lot of fun, but often at the expense of the big ideas and themes of peace and progress that made Gene Roddenberry’s television creation a classic.
In the last installment, Abrams and frequent screenwriting collaborators Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci assembled their crew, and here they get to send them on their first real mission. Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk is still a cocky, inter-species womanizer, but he’s a broader, more slapstick version. His right-hand Vulcan, Spock (Zachary Quinto), is still logical but leans more toward nerd superhero. Bones (Karl Urban) is as exasperated as ever, Sulu (John Cho) is flintier, Scotty (Simon Pegg) is funnier, and Chekov (Anton Yelchin)... well, he certainly has an accent. It’s a dynamite ensemble that reinvigorates some of the most iconic characters in American pop culture.
The crew is facing bureaucratic fallout over their actions on a distant planet-- as shown in the too-Spielbergian opening sequence-- when disaster strikes Starfleet in the form of a mysterious stranger (the fantastic Benedict Cumberbatch). He assaults a gathering of officers, leaving Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood) dead. Eager to avenge his mentor, Kirk takes the Enterprise on a secret mission toward Klingon territory on orders from Admiral Marcus (Robocop’s Peter Weller). But Marcus’s orders to fire experimental weapons on a planet to kill the assassin cause conflict among the crew, who question the legality and legitimacy of the plan. Soon the crew finds themselves caught between political machinations back home and the emergence of one of their oldest and deadliest foes.
If “political machinations” sounds boring, worry not-- there’s precious little of that, and not much debate about the moral consequences of the Enterprise’s mission, either. Any time one of the characters even gestures towards Star Trek’s heady pontificating, something explodes and a fresh action scene breaks out.
In fairness, they’re pretty sharp action scenes, beautifully rendered to capture both the majesty of space and technology as well as the adrenaline rush of combat. It’s dazzling in the moment, but it doesn’t add up to much. Too often Abrams’s notion of franchise innovation is simple role reversal. That was evident in the first movie, where now the romantic tension onboard is between Spock and Uhura (Zoe Saldana, mostly relegated to a girlfriend role) rather than Uhura and Kirk. Abrams does the switch again toward the film’s climax in a too-clever nod to the second installment of the original series.
Star Trek into Darkness is smartly executed, but not terribly smart. The old Star Trek movies were mostly unwatchable, save for Wrath of Khan and Search for Spock, but the television series reveled in moral dilemmas and metaphors for social issues. It’s a bummer to see this stuff, in many ways the core of Star Trek, thrown by the wayside in service to the slick, effects-driven fun more familiar to the significantly stupider Star Wars. It’s great to have a genuinely fun, well-constructed version of Star Trek going again, but it’s a shame-- and probably unnecessary-- that the cost is to sacrifice the franchise’s essence.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.