2009's hugely successful sequel/prequel/reboot Star Trek did a lot more than apply the paddles to the moribund Trek brand after a brief, apathy-induced interregnum. It also opened the franchise up to a wider, more diverse audience than it ever enjoyed in the previous four decades, through ten feature films, six TV series, and mountains of licensed memorabilia. Given that Star Trek practically invented the pejorative perception of geekdom, that's quite the feat, and given that considerable feather in his cap, it's understandable that director J.J. Abrams would leverage that success to go bigger and wider with his follow-up, Star Trek Into Darkness.
What's less understandable is why, given the sky's-the-limit free rein offered by the time-twisting, alternate reality shenanigans of the previous film, which effectively took a phaser-beam to the Gordian Knot of accumulated Star Trek continuity and "canon," Team Abrams instead assembled a patchwork pastiche for their curtain call, one that gleefully scavenges familiar moments from prior iterations of the brand, but with none of the accrued emotional heft. If the previous film was your entrée into the franchise, then you'll likely find this the perfect sequel. But for anyone with any knowledge of or fondness for Trek pre-Abrams, Into Darkness is a decidedly mixed bag that strives mightily to achieve a resonance it hasn't earned.
As the story begins, we're one year removed from the last go-round, with newly-minted Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) firmly ensconced (or so he thinks) in his role as commanding officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise. When a routine survey mission on a primitive planet goes awry, Kirk ends up violating the Prime Directive (the Federation's most cherished principle) by exposing his ship to the planet's pre-industrial natives, thereby altering the course of their natural development in the process. Resulting from this oopsie, Kirk is demoted in rank, with his former captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), once more assuming command of the storied starship.
But before we can acclimate to this new status quo, the chairs are shuffled again thanks to the terrorist actions of one John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), a disgruntled Starfleet crewman with designs on bringing the organization down in as violent (and visible) a way as possible. It's not too long before the Enterprise is dispatched by Starfleet honcho Admiral Marcus (RoboCop himself, Peter Weller) to bring the fugitive to justice, in a chase that takes them from Earth to the homeworld of the animalistic Klingons (making their first appearance in this series), and back again -- with one member of the crew paying the ultimate price. Maybe.
One thing you have to give Abrams credit for is that he knows how to keep things moving. Star Trek Into Darkness, like its predecessor, is rarely dull -- at least visually. It bounces from spectacular action set piece to spectacular action set piece with such hurtling rapidity that there's nary a beat to ponder the broader implications of just how unrelentingly dunderheaded it is. That, coupled with Abrams' taking full advantage of his IMAX and 3D enhancements, makes for a cinematic experience that's a feast for the eyes, if not the mind.
Unfortunately, give more than a moment's thought to the contortions of the script by returning writers Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman (with an assist from Damon Lindelof), and your eyes are liable to roll back into your head. Again and again, internal logic is sacrificed on the altar of "bigger is better." And at every turn, a potentially interesting set-up for a compelling story direction is quickly abandoned for whatever new shining object gets the filmmakers' attention. Hey, it's the Klingons! Remember them? Oh, gone. Hmm, what's all this about a secret cabal inside Starfleet? Wait, never mind.
And then there's the big bad, Harrison. It seems like the problem that's plagued every Trek flick for the last thirty years is just how to live up to the considerable shadow cast by Ricardo Montalban as the villainous Khan, whose presence helped make 1982's The Wrath of Khan, written and directed by Nicholas Meyer, the unquestionable Best Trek Ever (true fact). Whether Malcolm McDowall's Soran in 1994's Star Trek Generations, Tom Hardy's Shinzon in 2002's Star Trek Nemesis, or Eric Bana's Nero in the 2009 movie, the refrain is always the same: "Yeah, he's fine and all, but he's no Khan!"
Sad to say, it's the same case here. Benedict Cumberbatch acts the hell out of the role, even when he's not given anything particularly worthwhile to work with by the writers, who allude to the character's backstory while leaving out the bits that would make him the most compelling. Cumberbatch has rightly garnered accolades as the title character of the BBC's Sherlock, and his menacing baritone of a voice coupled with his piercing eyes no doubt make him an imposing figure here. But despite the actor's very best efforts, and like so many Trek baddies before him, John Harrison is no Khan.
Part of that is because the filmmakers seem to be at cross-purposes as to how they want us to perceive him, going out of the way to portray him as conflicted and almost sympathetic (he sheds tears for his lost compatriots, he helps a sick little girl), while also taking pains to emphasize that yes, he's a very bad man (the latter assurance is delivered via an info dump from a beloved Trek figure whose presence feels perfunctory when it should be celebratory). That by itself wouldn't be a deal-breaker, but instead of trekking into new, heretofore unexplored story directions, the movie is so bound and determined to create parallels with The Wrath of Khan that it's practically begging to be found wanting in the process.
How else to explain the out-of-the-blue inclusion of Alice Eve as scientist Carol Marcus, a character who fans will likely remember from her previous appearance in yep, you guessed it, Wrath of Khan, as the mother of Captain Kirk's son, but who serves no necessary purpose here (other than a particularly egregious, "Here I am in my underwear" moment). How else to explain a third act development cribbed so ham handedly from Khan and reinterpreted so wrongheadedly that it not only lobs a photon torpedo through whatever remaining dramatic tension there is here, it has the added bonus of reaching back in time and cheapening the previous flick as well.
Also, for all the explosions and fisticuffs and laser beams (and there's a lot), Into Darkness is remarkably Earthbound for a movie with the phrase "Star Trek" in the title, with very little "boldly going" to be had. The watchword here is "revenge," whether via Harrison or Kirk. Often in the past (and as recently as this week) Abrams has protested-too-much how Trek held little interest for him as a child, and that disinterest is largely confirmed here. He's so intent on turning Trek into Star Wars that I'm actually kind of glad he'll be moving over to his first love so he can stop making like Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo, dressing Kim Novak up in another woman's clothes.
I remember two summers ago when I reviewed Super 8, Abrams' homage to the Spielberg-esque fantasy pics of his childhood, I made the comment then that I'd probably have more appreciation for the film were I not so familiar with the cinematic tropes he was recycling (skillfully recycling, but recycling all the same). Well, in many ways the same problem applies with the director's approach to Star Trek Into Darkness. Were I coming in cold, with my first and only exposure to the brand via the 2009 reboot, than this would probably be impossibly gripping stuff. But I'm not, and so it isn't. Lest we forget, this isn't Star Trek 2, it's Star Trek 12.
With all that said, the biggest advantage of the previous movie was the cast, and that advantage is still in play. For all the mischaracterization of Kirk, Pine remains a compelling lead, for all the ways that Zachary Quinto's Spock has moved afield of the Leonard Nimoy model, he's still a great presence, as is Karl Urban's Dr. McCoy, etc. At the close of Star Trek Into Darkness, we're once more on the cusp of seeing the "strange new worlds" the end of the last film promised. Back then I was excited for what would come next, and while I'm disappointed in what we got, the optimism remains. I don't know who's taking the helm of the next entry, but here's hoping they can seize on the clean slate they have before them to truly, if you'll permit me to mix my Trek metaphors, "Make it so." C+