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.)

For all its chasing and falling and fighting—and the movie supplies a great deal of each—Star Trek Into Darkness is at its best when the Enterprise crew are merely bickering and bantering among themselves: less space opera than soap opera. Indeed, I would have been happy if Abrams had taken away their high-tech toys altogether for a while, a la Iron Man 3, and left them to their playful squabbling.

But no, there are fugitives to capture, and warp drives to repair, and Klingons to stare down, and special effects budgets to be spent. It all works well enough, in its openly dizzy way, for the first hour and a half or so, and that may provide enough momentum to power most viewers over the finish line. (The movie clocks in at a relatively forgiving 134 minutes.)

For my part, I found my interest flagging in the final act. Without giving away details, Abrams inverts a classic sequence from Treks past, and in so doing reaches simultaneously for an emotional crescendo and an extended inside joke: It's unclear whether we're supposed to laugh or cry. Moreover, amid the principal cast's mortal melodramas—characters saving one another's lives, dying for the greater good, etc.—the movie scarcely pauses to note, let alone mourn, the lives of tens of thousands of San Franciscans it has implicitly sacrificed in the service of a special effect. (I'm hardly a stickler, but it does seem that a film explicitly dedicated to post-9/11 veterans might be a bit less casual about toppling skyscrapers in a major American city.)

Until that point, though, Star Trek Into Darkness is a loose and giddy ride, a more recognizable heir to George Lucas than to Gene Roddenberry. Only time will tell whether it's a good idea to make Abrams the future custodian of Star Wars. But given where he's already taken the Trek franchise, it's almost certainly a redundant one.