JJ Abrams serves up an entertaining but surprisingly shallow sequel to his hugely successful Star Trek reboot of 2009. It is ultimately a glossy remix, which under scrutiny falls well short of maximum warp speed into your wonder cortex.
Anticipating the stylish lens flare on the whiter-than-white decks of the USS Enterprise, and with the same young cast of the previous Trek film, it looks like we are in for another treat from this director in his Hollywood ascendancy – Abrams was announced as the first director of Star Wars Episode VII while Into The Darkness was in post-production.
The film opens on a primitive world with an Indiana Jones-style pursuit of shrouded people by members of a tribal culture in threat of extinction from an erupting volcano. The white-painted tribal humanoids have glossy black eyes that are remarkably similar to the engineers from Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. Behold, the same screenwriter, Damon Lindlehof, has his fingerprints on this film, too. It’s a stunner of an opening as Abrams again pushes the interaction of the Enterprise and the physical world to achieve a strange sense of astonishing scale.
The problems come when we get into the main plot: a terrorist, Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), previously a Starfleet agent, has blown up a sensitive Starfleet installation to attract the attention of its best and brightest to his nefarious doings based on the Klingon home world of Kronos.
As seen in the trailer, he shoots up the resulting Starfleet security meeting, scattering chocolate bourbons, spilling coffee and top brass blood that is close to the heart of Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine). And pine he does, very suddenly with tears rolling down his face as if he’s been kicked in the balls. The Enterprise speeds out to Kronos with specially issued high-powered weapons and instructions to fire them at Khan’s location, with the dubious side effect of a possible escalation to war with the Klingons and an analogy to Obama’s use of drones to fire and forget on enemy combatants (maybe, I dunno). Hmm, best furrow your ethical brow on that one, Kirk old boy. But before Admiral Akbar can say “It’s a trap!” from a galaxy far, far away, it turns out… it’s a trap.
The logic of the plot feels rushed, with extra stuff added in great arcs of improv screenwriting to quickly justify the machinations of the bad guy(s). There is much crying (characters, not the audience) in this outing and it felt odd. Out of character performances forced by direction occur incongruously again and again at moments that feel like speed bumps in the flat emotional terrain of the film. And that’s the real problem with Abrams, he’s great at style, wit and panache, but awful at building a real relationship between characters, so that when a credible level of threat approaches, the sobbing has no value post disaster. The near death of a major character is solved in a lightning fade to black with none of the poignancy of, say, oh I don’t know, a certain scene from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That film contained real emotion and a moving speech after the death of a fellow crewman.
Zachary Quinto takes more of a back seat as Spock, with some truly strange moments of domestic dispute between him and Uhura (Zoe Saldana). There are also some (surely?) unintentional comedic dramatic pauses, for instance, when Khan reveals his real name to Kirk in a blistering close-up using his most deranged English accent, there is the mother of all pauses where the audience at future Prince Charles Cinema quote-along screenings will say, “Dun-duh-daaaah!” in dramatic tones to Kirk’s befuddled expression.
Posters advertising the film show a badly bruised Enterprise descending through the Earth’s atmosphere, sans shields and power, at risk – it is said quite clearly – of burning up on re-entry. But wait, the next shot we see is of the ship dropping through clouds post re-entry, fully intact. So JJ, was there really a threat of losing the ship, or were you just throwing some drama at the grand finale wall to see if it stuck?
The film asks for investment in story arcs that exist for only a few of seconds at a time, like some kind of Goldfish-memory concept of screenwriting. I’m looking at you, Lindelhof. It’s not particularly engaging for the audience and I really wanted to invest more emotionally and be rewarded for that. We never did find out what the “Darkness” was that the title promised. Never mind. At least it looked pretty and things went bang.