REVIEW SYNOPSIS: Though it starts strongly, the sophomore journey of the fresh-faced crew of the starship Enterprise covers too little new ground.
SYNOPSIS: When a rogue Starfleet agent attacks a secret archive, Captain James T. Kirk is tasked with hunting him down and terminating him.
PROS: Good opening sequence; strong interaction between Kirk and Spock; good turns by Karl Urban and John Cho.
CONS: Anemic, especially in its revelations; far too derivative of the previous movie; laughable emotional sequences; action scenes that drag on far too long.
Star Trek Into Darkness, director J. J. Abrams’s follow-up to 2009’s Star Trek, is everything its predecessor was, only too much more so. This isn’t necessarily a good thing, though several good things work in its favor. Abrams’s gamble with making over Gene Roddenberry’s classic space opera with a new perspective on a much-beloved universe and fresh faces on seasoned characters reaped a handsome payoff, though astute audience members wondered if he could sustain what often seemed a one-picture trick. They had a right to question how a crop of young actors possibly could play roles so identified with elder thespians that they wove their dramatic tics into the fabric of their characters. Loyal fans, by contrast, knowing the full future history of the United Federation of Planets and the floor plans of the NCC-1701 U.S.S. Enterprise down to the last rivet, expressed honest trepidation at possible revisions to Roddenberry’s timeline, to say nothing of its philosophical underpinnings. The resulting Star Trek was an entertaining if occasionally brainless affair, balancing well the expectations of both a summer movie crowd and faithful Trekkers despite dangling plot lines and scientific rationales bent into configurations that would snap the most pliable rubber.
But it worked even after the novelty wore off, and proffered challenges for a sequel. Could Abrams and company make a follow-up that was less cluttered with the need to make the new timeline work and more focused on the things that made Roddenberry’s utopian vision compelling—namely, character and story?
For the first 20 minutes of Star Trek Into Darkness, the answer appears to be yes. As it opens on the planet Nibiru (beautifully realized with incredible red foliage), Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine, less compelling than before, a frat boy with the keys to the Enterprise’s nacelles) and Doctor Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban, outstanding as always) outrun a race of ivory-skinned primitive humanoids while science officer Spock (Zachary Quinto, again scarily similar to Nimoy) attempts to set off a cold fusion bomb at the heart of a nearby volcano. The set up, adding an attempt by Lieutenants Sulu (John Cho) and Uhura (Zoë Saldana) to rescue Spock, and taking place at breakneck speed, promises the adventure and philosophical underpinnings (Kirk, in an attempt to save this species from destruction, violates the Prime Directive) that made the show great even as it ignores basic questions (such as why, during all of this, the Enterprise rests underwater) that the series often answered with a quick line of dialogue. Nonetheless, Admiral Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) sees fit to strip Kirk of his command. His young career over barely before it has begun, what is the young ex-starship captain to do?
The answer comes when former Starfleet agent John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) bombs the secret Section 31 archive in London, then attacks a meeting of Starfleet Command before escaping to the Klingon homeworld Kronos. Admiral Alexander Marcus (Peter Weller, spending his silver years as villains) gives Kirk a simple assignment: find Harrison and, using 72 specially equipped photon torpedoes, terminate him. Spock has misgivings about the assignment, reminding Kirk that, even in this revised timeline, where utopia has given way to high-tech Bush Doctrine politics, Starfleet still does not terminate enemies without due process. Nor do its officers follow orders blindly; when engineer Scott (Simon Pegg) refuses to load the torpedoes without knowing the source of their power, Kirk dismisses him from duty.
As with the previous picture, action abounds — Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof channel the pace of Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark — but, as with the previous picture, at the expense of a logical storyline and action sequences that drag on way too long. Indeed, as the movie progresses from Kronos to the Neutral Zone, it makes less and less sense. (Say what one will of movies featuring characters from the original series, to say nothing of their next generation replacements, but at least they featured intriguing tales against a logically built backdrop.) Characters develop — Star Trek Into Darkness works best when it focuses on the relationship between Kirk and Spock — but never develop enough, a flaw exacerbated by emotion-free sequences that play almost laughably and anemic villains. Harrison’s (diehard fans will recognize the name) overriding plan, supposedly a threat to Star Fleet and the Federation itself, never coheres into something credible or (as the movie reveals elements of his character) particularly meaningful. The revelations, when they do arrive, let down more than inspire awe. Where Star Trek nodded knowingly, and at times affectionately, to the series’ earlier iterations, the sequel smirks at both its own self-knowledge and self-reference, as if poking the viewer in the ribs. Worse still, the philosophical ideas that drove the series are curiously absent. The movie proposes conflicts, but neither demonstrates nor resolves them. It stands as one of the shallowest movies in the franchise’s history.
For all of that, Star Trek Into Darkness never descends to the level of the series at its absolute worst. Even when it disappoints (and compared to one particular picture, it is very disappointing), and even as it slips in two different deus ex machinas, it remains a part of the special future envisioned fifty years ago…less utopian, more messy, but still recognizable. No, it never eclipses the series at its finest, when the cheesiest moments were features and not bugs, even as it tries to broaden its appeal to something more than core fans. With any luck, Star Trek Into Darkness will not be the last word in the Star Trek universe. Will the third time be the charm? There are always possibilities.