The Lightweight Appeal of Star Trek Into Darkness

As before, the cast is lively, the plot ridiculous, and the action nearly nonstop.
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Throughout most of their respective histories, the worlds of Star Trek and Star Wars resided at opposite, though complementary, poles of the futurist-geek firmament: the former deliberative, technology-obsessed, and science fictive; the latter, visceral, imbued with mysticism, and space operatic. It's right there in their respective titles—a saga of exploration versus one of conflict.

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The distinction has never been total, of course, but it began to collapse altogether with J. J. Abrams's first Star Trek film in 2009, and its demise was rendered official with the news early this year that the director would also be taking over future installments of the Star Wars franchise. Abrams's latest outing, Star Trek Into Darkness, for better or worse, represents a final burial.

The Trekkie trappings are still in evidence—distinctly more so, in fact, than in the previous installment. The movie ruminates loudly, if never very coherently, about war and peace, vengeance and justice, preemptive attack and negotiated settlement. In case we're unclear on which side the film comes down—or how its lessons might be relevant to the present day—a central character helpfully summarizes at the conclusion: "There will always be those who mean to do us harm. To stop them, we risk awakening the same evil in ourselves." Are you listening, Vice President Cheney?

Ultimately though, such moralizing amounts to little more than narrative window dressing, which is perhaps appropriate for a film whose deeper message is that all rules—the Prime Directive, the injunction against altering history—are made to be broken. The rule-breaker-in-chief is again James Tiberius Kirk (Chris Pine), whom we first reencounter running though an alien jungle, pursued by primitive natives. (Is it just me, or did they sound for just a moment like Tusken Raiders?) It's not long before he's leaping off a cliff toward the ocean below—the first of several times in the course of the film that he will find himself at odds with gravity, a law he is unable to break.

In most respects, Star Trek Into Darkness bears a close similarity to its predecessor. The screenplay (by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof) is baroque and preposterous, with plot holes big enough to drive a Constitution class cruiser through. The action sequences are plentiful and characterized by a certain gee-whiz exuberance. This being an Abrams/Lindelof venture, there are multiple sets of Daddy Issues to resolve. And we are subjected to an escalating experiment in the human tolerance for lens flare, an effect that when rendered in 3-D has a neuro-ocular impact not unlike that of an oncoming motorist with his high beams on.

As before, the movie's strongest suit is its cast. Pine plays Kirk as one part Han Solo and two parts Evel Knievel. Zachary Quinto continues to find wit and nuance within the tight characterological constraints of Mr. Spock. Zoe Saldana (Uhura), Karl Urban (McCoy), Simon Pegg (Scotty), John Cho (Sulu), and Anton Yelchin (Chekov) round out the crew, and Bruce Greenwood and Peter Weller appear as Star Fleet admirals/Daddy figures—Dadmirals?—both good and bad. Benedict Cumberbatch makes a strong impression as the Villain Whose True Identity I Am Contractually Forbidden to Reveal, and Alice Eve makes almost none at all as new science officer Carol Marcus. (Her principle role in the film is to appear briefly in her underwear, thus achieving the dual purposes of supplying Kirk with a romantic interest for the next installment and reaffirming the commitment of any Trekboys whose enthusiasm for spaceships has begun to wane.)

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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