Star Trek Into Darkness IMAX posterStarring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, Zoe Saldana, John Cho, Alice Eve, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, & Peter Weller

Director: J.J. Abrams

Screenwriters: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, & Damon Lindelof

In one sense, it is rather appropriate that J.J. Abrams has been handed the reins to the Star Wars universe. That once-spectacular franchise became tarnished in one fell swoop by unimaginative storytelling under the direction of George Lucas. Similarly, J. J. Abrams was given the responsibility of taking over the Star Trek film franchise and although he was given the job because the franchise was already floundering, he did not make it much better. Abrams’ interpretation of Star Trek may have achieved huge box office success, but creatively, Abrams has sucked out everything that made Star Trek great and has resorted to tried and true formulas to tell his stories rather than expand on the Star Trek universe created by the late Gene Roddenberry.

In this latest entry to the Star Trek franchise, we begin the story with Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) running away from a tribe of a primitive alien race and an erupting volcano. Meanwhile, Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto) beams inside the volcano to stop its eruption and save the alien race from imminent extinction. After barely escaping with their lives, the crew of the Enterprise returns to Earth. However, instead of receiving a commendation for his efforts like he expected, Captain Kirk is stripped of his captain duties, loses his ship, and is demoted down to a First Officer for his cavalier disregard of Starfleet regulations. While all this is going on, a terrorist attack occurs in London and the attacker is identified as Starfleet Commander John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). After a second attack that is directly aimed at high-level Starfleet commanders, Kirk is reinstated to Captain, handed back his Enterprise, and ordered to hunt down Harrison and kill him. However, Kirk and crew soon discover that Harrison is not who they have been led to believe and a far more sinister plot is underway.

Based on his past films, J.J. Abrams strikes me as someone whose entire universe of sources and inspiration consists of modern pop culture and whatever has gone mainstream. He seems to differ from the likes of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, whose inspiration for and development of Star Trek was inspired by real scientific theories and America’s exploration of space. Roddenberry was not looking to create a swashbuckling, action-oriented sci-fi series in the vein of Star Wars, Flash Gordon, or Buck Rogers. His approach was more intellectual. In sharp contrast, Paramount and Abrams have cast this approach aside and have remolded Star Trek into a hip, youth-oriented action series that is almost indistinguishable from Star Wars. It foregoes plot development and logic in favor of spectacle, humor, and a constant recycling of past tropes that have proven successful with fans.

I was not a big fan of 2009’s Star Trek. I grudgingly accepted the new, brighter and more colorful visual aesthetic that Abrams adopted for the series, but I was happy with the casting decisions he made for the core crew of the Enterprise. However, my biggest gripe about the film (and my biggest gripe with practically all of Abrams’ films) was the lackluster script and the easily forgettable villain who seemed to have been conceived as an afterthought when the screenwriters realized at the last minute that the story needed an antagonist. Worse, the film resorted to the oft-used device of having time travel incorporated into the story and having Leonard Nimoy return as the future Mr. Spock, presumably in order to attract die-hard Trek fans who were suspicious of this dumb-downed looking version of their beloved series. So with that said, I was not particularly enthusiastic about this sequel.

Star Trek Into Darkness is an improvement over the last effort and I don’t know whether or not that is due to the addition of screenwriter Damon Lindelof (Lost, Cowboys & Aliens, Prometheus). But as you can tell from the credits I just listed, the possibility that he lent added quality to the screenplay is as likely as the possibility that Bigfoot is real. So what works better this time? Two words: Benedict Cumberbatch (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Into the Univere with Stephen Hawking, the BBC’s Sherlock). This is the first time I have noticed this rising British star and I can now see why he has gained such a cult fan following. With his sinister voice and mannerisms, the icy-eyed Cumberbatch makes a strong impression as Khan (if you are interested enough in reading a blogger’s review of this film, then you are most likely already aware of the worst kept secret of the year), who has been reimagined as a terrorist.

The sequel has also improved on building the relationship between Kirk and Spock. Screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman had already done a commendable job developing this relationship in the first film, and here they develop it further by having Spock understand and appreciate what it is to have a friendship with someone. As an aside, I noticed that Abrams employed less lens flare this time around. It still exists in copious amounts, but at least you don’t see it in every single frame of the film like you do in the last movie.

As with the first film, the two best characters to watch continue to be Spock and McCoy. Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban perfectly capture the most memorable characteristics of these characters and I only wish that McCoy was given more to do in the film.

Aside from this, Star Trek Into Darkness is a disasterious mess. Let us begin with the title. What the hell does “Into Darkness” mean within the context of this film? That the crew of the Enterprise is going to get into some nasty shit against Khan? In that case, shouldn’t every movie with an antagonist have “Into Darkness” placed after its title?

When J.J. Abrams took over the Star Trek re-boot, his plan was to reimagine the series in a fresh, new way that would not be beholden to what had come before. Although I think his decision to tie in the new films with existing Star Trek continuity was a bad one, I was somewhat encouraged to see what Abrams would be able to bring to the table. Instead, we have basically seen nothing but a retread of what has come before. In Into Darkness, we are reintroduced to Tribbles, Neutral Zones, Harry Mudd, and Carol Marcus (Kirk’s eventual wife and the woman who gave him a son). However, the two most egregious and headshake-inducing moments are the Leonard Nimoy cameo (again) and the recreation of the famous death scene from Wrath of Khan. I honestly could not understand how Old Spock was able to suddenly appear onscreen on the bridge of the Enterprise and give Young Spock advice. Isn’t Old Spock supposed to exist in a parallel universe? So if that is the case, how did he appear like that? Magic? More importantly, what the hell was the point of this cameo anyway?

The Wrath of Khan re-enactment deserves its own paragraph. As this scene began to unfold, my eyes began to grow bigger and bigger in stunned astonishment that the filmmakers actually thought that re-enacting one of the most memorable moments in Star Trek lore would be a good idea. Notwithstanding the fact that this scene was entirely unnecessary, the whole scene falls completely flat on its face. For one, Chris Pine is just simply not a good enough actor to pull off dying. Watching him die was like watching some After School special where the kid with the leukemia goes through a long progression of closing and opening his eyes before finally succumbing to his disease. Also, the scene is SO self-conscious that, unless you have never seen Wrath of Khan (and in that case, shame on you), it is impossible to separate yourself from the Nimoy/Shatner interaction and watch this without referring to it. Consequently, you don’t feel the emotion that came with watching Spock die in Wrath of Khan. Compounding the lack of emotion is the fact that this is only the second film we have seen Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto together so that familiarity with their relationship is entirely absent. Finally, Spock’s yelling of “KHAAAN!” comes off as totally corny and hilarious, which I somehow doubt the filmmakers intended for me to feel.

As I stated before, I really enjoyed Benedict Cumberbatch and he is the best thing about Into Darkness. Unfortunately, the script does him a great disservice by underutilizing his character and by not knowing what to do with him. The film does a good job building up a mystery around the motives of his character and a sense of dread. We are continually reminded that Khan is physically and intellectually superior to everyone else. However, when Khan finally reveals himself to be the bad guy, he is quickly outwitted by Spock and defeated (temporarily). The audience is totally cheated out of seeing a long, drawn-out battle of wits between Khan and the Kirk/Spock. Where were the ship battles? Abrams is obviously not against recycling the same old shit from before, so why not also give us ship battles? When Khan resurfaces later at the end, we are treated to a lame chase and fight sequence across San Francisco that for some random reason ends up on what appear to be flying garbage trucks. In short, Khan’s use of his superior intellect is barely displayed and it should have been the central conflict rather than the convoluted conspiracy plot involving a corrupt Starfleet Admiral, played horribly by Peter Weller.

Star Trek Into Darkness aims to be crowd-pleasing at the risk of not being original. The plot is confusing and poorly developed and J.J. Abrams eschews Gene Roddenberry’s utopian vision for Star Trek to instead deliver a simplistic, popcorn action movie that is more style than substance. Abrams has decided to bombard us with an exhausting procession of high-note action pieces instead of building any sort of suspense or momentum that gives us an impression of the high stakes involved.