STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS (2013, directed by J.J. Abrams, 132 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC The sequel to the J.J. Abrams 2009 Star Trek movie is not lacking in entertainment value. It’s as spectacular on screen as only a couple hundred million dollars can be but sad to say, it isn’t much of a movie. Never being more than a casual fan of the ubiquitous 2009 Paramount reboot, it is not quite sacrilege I feel regarding Abrams re-imagining of Roddenberry’s original series. Instead, it is disappointment at the Abrams’ Trek being so undistinguished on its own, its power mainly stemming from its endless pilfering from the original. It’s like a Star Trek “Greatest Hits” pasted together by a game dinner theater troupe, an idea that might have it charms, but is hardly praise-worthy in comparison to the ingenuity of the original.
Where the TV show’s original mission was exploratory, Into Darkness finds The Enterprise drawn into commission as a military ship. A former Starfleet commander (played able by the golden-throated Benedict Cumerbatch) has gone rogue, waging a one-man terrorist war on the Federation and killing Commander Pike, Captain Kirk’s mentor/father figure/Obi Wan (is it personal this time? You bet!) Kirk is given The Enterprise and 72 photon torpedoes with the mission to slip into Klingon territory (think Waziristan), where the rogue commander has taken refuge, and vaporize him. As things develop, neither the mission nor the quarry are quite what they seem and Kirk, the crew, and The Enterprise will find themselves pushed to their limits. Oblique references to current political events are given timid lip service, and just even this mild questioning of the military’s jurisdiction after a terrorist event seems responsible for the odd final title-card, dedicating the film to American’s post-9-11 veterans.
Despite all this tomfoolery, what lover of the past half-century of pop culture can resist the charms of the Star Trek franchise: the matching uniforms, the candy-colored lighting, The Enterprise in flight, and the arch of Spook’s eyebrows? The design of the original show was the bedrock of much of its allure, and it is still a thrill in the second go-around to see the set and costumes re-imagined with a blockbuster budget. Just watching The Enterprise rise from the ocean’s floor or seeing the stars blur when shifting into warp speed, or even hearing some of the same old sound effects, can send chills down one’s spine. It’s as if the TV-fed brain is defenseless against this kind of butter-and-salt for the mind.
But underpinning the original Star Trek‘s ground-breaking phenomenon was the Kennedy-style liberalism that imbued its sci-fi parables, with its then-unheard of multi-ethnic cast predicting a future that would evolve beyond the white-male-dominated past. It’s this moral dimension that set Star Trek apart from other fantasy shows of the day like Lost in Space or Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Roddenberry’s later series ran further with this premise, with a woman and an African-American man leading starships into an universe where complex cultural and political equations were examined. The action-driven 2009 reboot emphasized eye-dazzling digital miracles and mayhem over moral quandaries and cross-cultural understanding, with few complaints
As novel as the interracial cast seemed in 1967, it all seems a little quaint today. Sure Uhura and Sulu might have a place at the controls but Commander Pike, Spock and Kirk call the shots, with Scotty and Chekov being used mainly for the comic possibilities of their funny accents. The culturally diverse world of The Next Generation seems curtailed and in the film’s opening sequence Kirk and Bones have a run-in with a tribes of African-styled savages painted as broadly as any found in silent film (they do everything but yell “Ooga-Booga!”) Much like George Lucas’ The Phantom Menace, Abrams shows a predilection for racial stereotypes barely obscured by their alien skin. Am I being over-sensitive? (Yes, you are. And a little hey-you-kids-get-off-of-my-Star-Trek. — The Ed.) Maybe, I even cringed when Kirk called Spock by the seeming slur, “Pointy.” (Good grief.– The Ed.)
I can get used to the Spock/Uhura love affair (although I could do without Uhura nagging Spock to be more emotional, didn’t her mother warn her about emotionally-withholding Vulcans?) and can accept the tribbles sharing blood with Khan, but I still can’t cozy up to Chris Pine’s iteration of Kirk. Pine is undeniably likable on screen, with a affability that recalls a young Tom Hanks, but there is a seriousness lacking in him that makes him less-than-believable as the commander of a zillion-dollar space vessel. Where Shatner had that uniquely eccentric Shakespearean delivery, Pine’s California vibe has a TV-relatability that robs the character of the gravitas needed to make Kirk believable as a star-hopping leader of men. Besides, the character spends to much time seemingly oblivious to the operation of his ship, his success stemming not from his skills as a brilliant high-stakes gambler but as a reckless guy with impossibly good luck. In the last film, Kirk had parallels to out-going President George Bush (privileged hell-raising son who rises to his esteemed father’s rank by cheating, etc.) Here the comparison briefly arises again, when Kirk contributes his success to the clairvoyant qualities of his “gut.”
Yet most of these complaints have been about the re-imagining of the franchise, not the effectiveness of what is on-screen. Yes, I imagine that if you’re a 10-year-old meeting Kirk, Spock and Khan for the first time you might put Into Darkness up their with the best of the Marvel comic book adaptations of the last few years, just don’t beam me up, Scotty.