Beyond its candy-colored science-fiction swashbuckling, what was the 1960s Star Trek television series if not a comment on, and counterbalance to, some very troubled times? The show’s racially mixed crew and explore-strange-new-worlds wonderment gave a society at odds over skin color, politics and an ever-broadening role in foreign cultures a number of idealistic goals to strive for—to go boldly forth not only outward, but inward. Gene Roddenberry’s overarching vision (utopian to a fault) has persisted through most Trek incarnations; even when Klingons or the Borg attacked, you got the sense that the ultimate endgame was peace for all—that phasers would finally be sheathed and “Live Long and Prosper” salutes would prevail.
How things have changed: The second installment in J.J. Abrams & Co.’s reboot of the Starship Enterprise’s continuing voyages is defined by a relentless, simplistically solemn pall. At least the Abrams-helmed Star Trek from 2009 had a pretzel-logic playfulness; the portentously subtitled Into Darkness is attempting like hell to be a Trek for our troubled times. The franchise has been thoroughly Christopher Nolan–ized.
The film opens with a bizarre pro-interventionist teaser sequence in which Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) willingly flouts the Starfleet prime directive to save both a primitive alien species and his volcano-stranded friend, Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto). Kirk’s shrug-it-off insubordination should be familiar to anyone who knows the character, but the consequences are distressingly ephemeral. Though the powers that be take away Kirk’s ship, you can see a that’s-my-boy glint in the eyes of our strapping hero’s superior and mentor, Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood). For all his jabber about following protocol, it’s clear that Pike is enamored with this young hothead who doesn’t play by the rules. The implication is that we’d all be better off if more people would just say to hell with the repercussions and rush in with phasers blazing. It’s not long afterward that a mysterious terrorist named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch, blessedly lending shades to a warmongering cipher) wipes out a bunch of Starfleet heavyweights and Pike’s unspoken wishes are given vengeful form. What was that about rescinding your captaincy, Mr. Kirk? Never mind. Here’s your ship. Here’s your crew. (What up, sexy proton-torpedo expert?) Let’s roll!
As anyone who’s watched Alias or Lost can tell you, weightless melodramatics become House Abrams (his frequent collaborators Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof coauthored this screenplay). Being foreboding and setting up smoky intrigue matter more than following through, and when in doubt, distract ’em with fan-pandering soap opera and spectacle. It’s barely a secret that Into Darkness cribs many of its particulars from 1982’s beloved second entry in the original film series, The Wrath of Khan, though the callbacks all seem desperate—anemic attempts by lesser artists to launch themselves out of creative corners by standing on the shoulders of their betters. (When Into Darkness dares to do a role-reversal replay of Khan’s most heartrending sequence, it feels like sacrilege.) The crew’s many interpersonal tiffs, meanwhile, are pure histrionic filler, despite the actors’ best efforts. (Quinto has truly made Spock his own—thank heaven for performative pleasures.) Plus, the cliff-hanger scrapes, though engaging in the moment, have no lasting resonance. An impressive-looking action sequence involving two crew members flying through a space-debris field toward a very small air lock serves little purpose beyond its special-effects demo-reel sheen.
It’s not the first time Hollywood has churned out a vacuum of a blockbuster, but there’s something especially disconcerting about Into Darkness’s hollowness, given the visibly provocative content that, in true Trek fashion, is meant to put us in mind of our precarious present. A suicide bombing is shockingly bloodless, treated like a mere plot-move-along pretext. Authority is ignored—and death is cheated—with zero character-deepening ramifications; there’s nothing comparable to Spock’s heroic sacrifice in Khan. Then there’s the deadening finale, in which Harrison flies a rogue starship into a bustling metropolis. In composition, as well as in extras-plowing and building-toppling action, it shamelessly calls to mind the terrible morning that two hijacked planes weaved their way into downtown Manhattan, without ever earning the evocation. (Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds—a similarly dour and destructive blockbuster—at least showed wrenching sympathy for lives lost.) By the time the film gallingly concludes with an onscreen dedication to our post-9/11 troops (I wish I were kidding), you want to boldly go somewhere, all right…under a rock, until a more empathetic and enlightened stardate comes around.
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