Film: Star Trek Into Darkness

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Star Trek Into Darkness | Director J.J. Abrams | Score: 5.5

J.J. Abrams is a man who clearly understands the important beats and movements of a well-timed action flick, the ways to set up his audience for the big finish in order to leave them breathless, but he’s not so good with the subtleties. He’s all quick pans, dizzying camera work and 21st Century hyper-edits, all of which succeeds in inducing a head rush, so much so that its only after the movie ends and the lights come back on that you realize how inane and overstimulating the whole thing was.

With his second Star Trek installment, Abrams has more or less kept us where we left off last time. James Kirk (Chris Pine) is still irresponsibly bedding down comely alien women and making absolute hash of the Star Fleet regulations he’s supposed to commit to heart; Spock (Zachary Quinto) is still discovering the painful emotional experiences of his human half in a tumultuous relationship with this new-jack Lt. Uhura (Zoe Saldana); Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) still gets to complain about everything; and the Enterprise and the rest of her steady crew are all finding out just how much damn fun it is following a captain who refuses to follow the rules when they don’t suit him.

Shortly after we begin, however, things take a turn for the worse. Kirk, due to an absolute whopper of a disregard for the Prime Directive (take no action that interferes with a planet’s development), loses his command of the Enterprise right around the same time Star Fleet is struck from within and a huge secret command center is reduced to rubble. No sooner does the high command convene an emergency meeting than they are all attacked by a rogue Captain (Benedict Cumberbatch), who seems to harbor a great deal of animosity towards Star Fleet for reasons yet unknown.

The Captain then flees to Cronos, the home planet of the Klingons, which, he assumes Star Fleet would never try to infiltrate for fear of starting a war. Naturally, this kind of mission is all Kirk needs in order to re-establish his command, a move blessed by Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller), an old-school warhorse commander who might be hiding a thing or two in his motivations.

Along the way, old-school “Star Trek” fans are given innumerable shout-outs, from the appearance of a tribble to famous lines — “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” (Dr. McCoy’s infamous “I’m a doctor, not a…” construction also gets trotted out) — even a throwback cameo from an old friend, all of which is throwing raw steaks to the lions, as it were.

All of which is made necessary by a plot that strains even the lowered standards of Big Action Flick fare. The film’s midpoint twist shocks you into submission at first, but an even remotely longer glance confirms that it makes almost no damn sense. It’s a re-hash of a re-hash of an episode from the TV show’s original first season, which might initially enlist gasps but quickly becomes almost comically ridiculous upon any sort of reflection.

The rabid fans of “Star Trek” are legion and legendary, back in the TV show’s initial mid-’60s run, they were the first fanbase to galvanize and successfully petition a TV network to bring back and otherwise absolutely doomed show (though, as the end result was the seriously misbegotten third and final season, “success” is somewhat qualified), and they have been supporting creator Gene Roddenberry’s vision more or less ever since, through various TV spinoffs, an animated series and innumerable feature films — most of which, pretty terrible. When TV demigod J.J. Abrams was brought in to reboot the original show, it was with the implicit idea that he would attempt to bring the original flavor of the TV show, while greatly enhancing its breadth, and re-populating the cast with hot, young actor facsimiles.

Most problematic of the first Abrams’ film was Chris Pine’s Kirk. For all his showy, pot-bellied bluster in later years (that pesky third season was when things started to go downhill for William Shatner), the first two seasons of Shatner’s captain were stalwart. Kirk was a man driven by his responsibilities, sometimes overwhelmed by them, but never less than gallant and respectful. Pine’s young Kirk was none of those things, a wise-cracking, sleazy lothario who abused authority and refused to keep anything in his pants.

In the new installment, most of the actors have benefitted from the previous experience. The whole ensemble feels more comfortable in their roles, more connected to each other, yet Pine is still playing Kirk as a particularly shameless frat boy, bedding down twin alien women and disregarding the squares in the Star Fleet hierarchy as he sees fit.

Fortunately, Abrams downplays Kirk’s involvement in the film’s thrill-rush climax, giving Spock the lion’s share of the most pivotal action scenes. By the end, it would appear as if Kirk has finally learned a thing or two about commanding a starship (his earlier boast to a higher-up that he’s “never lost” a crewmember despite his freelancing, shall we say, goes by the wayside), so we can only hope by the next inevitable sequel we get less of this preening, petulant captain and more of a true and reasoned leader of men.

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Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success.  You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.

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