Star Trek Into Darkness is the sequel to 2009's Star Trek, which itself is a soft reboot of the 60's television series. This one sees the crew of the Enterprise facing off against rogue starfleet agent John Harrison, who was awakened by a corrupt admiral after 300 years in suspended animation, in order to start a war between mankind and the Klingon Empire. Harrison is soon revealed to be a [spoiler alert:] familiar genetically engineered tyrant: Khan.
Taken as a whole, this film is really a bit more of an action film than a science fiction story. And, let's face it, modern filmmakers seem to have trouble separating the two genres, while younger audiences apparently think that sci-fi means "alien invasions and lots of CGI." The new Star Trek is certainly CGI-laden, but that's fine, if not albeit obscured by director J.J. Abrams' pesky lens flare. One might wish, however, that in between all the explosions and suspend-your-disbelief acrobatics (Kirk and McCoy do a death-defying cliff jump at the film's beginning), there might be a little more story.
There's plenty of character development, at least for certain characters. The chemistry between Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) is even better than in the first film; the actors play off one another nicely, and the snappy dialogue is priceless. Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) is less like the original version of the character, and more Cumberbatch's creation - equal parts menace, intellect, and cunning. Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana) gets a nice bit of screen time, and even gets in on the action, which is great. But it's a real tragedy that the role of Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) is greatly reduced, especially considering how well Urban plays the character, whose few lines happen to be some of the best in the film. McCoy is too important a character to be benched. Characters Sulu (John Cho) and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) also suffer from this. This suggests that Abrams struggled to manage the large ensemble cast, something other directors (see The Avengers) have had problems with.
The narrative is, by and large, conventional, as are the messages behind it. Into Darkness draws rather obvious connections to modern-day terrorism, government corruption, and war-mongering. Those are important messages, but I don't believe Star Trek is the best vehicle for them. Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek was above that; it told us that capitalism, human warfare, and terrorism were relics of the past. It offered more profound philosophical and ethical dilemmas, with an eye toward the future and an emphasis on diplomacy, not corruption. Abrams seems to forget that here.
Moreover, Hollywood seems to think that if it shoves a movie that is two parts action and one part social commentary down our gullets, we won't notice that the creativity is lacking. Granted, what story Star Trek does have is creative enough to separate it from the herd and render it a cut above other recent sci-fi contenders. But at times, there are too many winks and throwbacks to the original Wrath of Khan and, for that matter, the original series.
Admittedly, it was clever to [spoiler alert:] reverse the roles that Kirk and Spock had in The Wrath of Khan: Here, Kirk is gravely injured while Spock, enraged, is left to pursue and do battle with Khan. That bit of the film, by the way, is brimming with emotional resonance, and is an example of the main thing Into Darkness has going for it: the absolutely spectacular acting.
If Into Darkness is a letdown, it's only because it falls short of its full potential. We see the originality that it's capable of in the introductory scene, when Kirk and McCoy explore a vibrant, volcanic world with an interesting new race of beings. But from that point forward, just when everything seems so promising, we're dragged at warp speed back into all-too-familiar territory. It's still great fun, but when it's all over, what does Into Darkness actually have to call its own; to define itself and set itself apart with, in terms of the franchise as a whole?
We're given plenty of quick nods to the classic series; that's always enough to make the fans grin. But we were told this was supposed to be the Star Trek for a new generation. Might we expect some actual new material in the third installment? The actors can more than carry it. All lens flare jokes aside, the director can deliver it. If Star Trek 3 truly does boldly take us where we haven't gone before, I see no reason why it shouldn't be phenomenal. Until then, Star Trek Into Darkness is still a pleasant enough popcorn flick and a decent homage to the superior legacy that Roddenberry created.
"Star Trek Into Darkness"
Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Alice Eve, Simon Pegg, Bruce Greenwood, Peter Weller, Leonard Nimoy
2013, PG-13, 133 mins.
Photo: Star Trek official film site