Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

Benedict Cumberbatch menaces the screen in J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek Into Darkness.”

Much has been made (at least on the Internet) of the “missing” colon in the title of “Star Trek Into Darkness.” Though the film itself doesn’t push any summer-sequel boundaries, this unexpected punctuation choice seems to me at least a refreshing reminder to actually consider what the title is saying, rather than just giving us a free pass to automatically dismiss the qualification (can anyone actually name all the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films?). This is a rather unique case where removing the colon actually still leaves us a coherent phrase.

But I can only say, then, that if this is what a “star trek” looks like, God only knows what J.J. Abrams’ “Star Wars” is going to turn out. There isn’t a whole lot of trekking done in the latest franchise installment (the intrepid Enterprise and its crew spend most of their time either in the immediate vicinity of Earth or literally stalled over the Klingon home world of Kronos), but there’s a whole lot of darkness, in the form of explosions, murder, betrayal, and free-falls through the great vacuum of space. Paired with “Iron Man 3,” Abrams’ film proves that Hollywood is hell-bent on exploiting the mayhem and destruction of terrorism for entertainment purposes.

Unlike its Marvel-ous companion, however, “Star Trek Into Darkness” at least isn’t at war with itself (extensive PG-13 violence notwithstanding). It wants to engage, on an admittedly superficial level, with ethical conundrums of militarization and retribution. Other than an all-too-brief opening venture, the familiar crew of the Enterprise doesn’t get much of a chance to fulfill their stated mission of exploration – for many die-hard fans, that will probably violate the spirit of the more philosophically-minded television series, but in these bleak times I don’t think it’s all that outrageous to wonder how such well-established characters would respond to the modern specter of terrorism. I don’t know if Bill Shatner and Leonard Nimoy were ever tasked with hunting down a galactic Carlos the Jackal, but if they were, it might look something like this.

The setup for this sequel to Abrams’ 2009 reboot is relatively straightforward and condensed: Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and his first mate in most senses of the word, Spock (Zachary Quinto) must hunt down a rogue Starfleet agent, John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), after Harrison carries out an attack on a London archive. To say much more about the plot would rob the film of several enjoyable, though hardly original, narrative twists. Suffice to say that once the Enterprise follows Harrison to his hideout on Kronos, we are treated to a healthy smorgasbord of Things That Are Not As They Seem. Disclaimer: TTANATS, while flavorful, are not necessarily filling.

Looking at his two “Star Trek” films now, it’s quite obvious that J.J. Abrams was far more interested in the “Star Wars” brand all along. The 2009 reboot and “Into Darkness” are not so much science fiction as they are space opera. “Chemistry” and “magic” are essentially interchangeable here, establishing a world of high fantasy and melodrama that just happens to take place on board a spaceship. If that’s your cup of tea, there’s a host of likable actors present to make that fantasy enjoyable, even amongst the overwrought, obnoxiously loud action set-pieces. It seems absurd that anyone would rather see some pixels pretend to crash into a bunch of other pixels than watch Benedict Cumberbatch glower at people, but Abrams does occasionally make this mistake.

Cumberbatch is more or less the only new face to appear in “Into Darkness,” but he brings the screen presence of ten Grinches, plus two. Whether it’s the peculiar angles of his face or the menacing diction he puts into every syllable, the popular British TV actor commands the audience’s full attention every time he appears – we can only hope that Hollywood has taken notice and that the actor will soon be entertaining Cumberbunches of mainstream offers. Alice Eve also joins the party as Dr. Carol Marcus, a name that I’m told will have great significance to Trekkers but I’m afraid is foreshadowing at best here. Her part is so negligible you could even blink and miss her completely and insultingly gratuitous underwear scene.

The returning gang is all much the same as they were in 2009: generally agreeable, and admirable at filling their roles without trying too hard to emulate their predecessors. Quinto in particular continues to acquit himself as the ever-logical Spock – it’s a letdown that a climactic tussle between him and Cumberbatch is resolved with green screen and stunt doubles rather than a battle of wits, since Quinto is the only one who doesn’t seem to wilt under the Brit’s wordless condescension. The size of the ensemble (and the significant running time devoted to lasers and punching) means that some of the secondary characters get shortchanged; I for, instance, would’ve been happy to cut a few lines of Karl Urban’s crabby one-note Bones in exchange for more of poor, owervhelmed Chekov (Anton Yelchin). No complaints, however, when it comes to the amount of Simon Pegg as Scotty, who always brings just the right mix of levity and fanboy devotion to the proceedings.

Try as it might to be a spectacle, “Star Trek Into Darkness” isn’t spectacular. It’s a solidly entertaining blockbuster that hews to the same techniques that made the first film in Abrams’ rebooted series successful. Current mainstream sensibilities don’t allow films to show potential for originality; but they can at least deliver on what they promise. If the title is enough to grab you, Abrams is content enough to deliver.

Now playing in theaters.

Verdict: 2 ½ out of 4 stars

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