The early praise that J.J. Abrams’ new Star Trek is receiving is an indication of just how low our expectations have sunk for the summer blockbuster. Star Trek Into Darkness is a chunky, clumsy movie that alternatives between three speeds (or machs, if you will). It rockets through incoherent action sequences; it dawdles with some off-color comedy and genuinely charming banter; and it grinds to a halt with rather mind-numbing jawing about morality and ethics. As a thriller, its supposedly surprising twists and turns can be spotted from a galaxy away. The film’s characters offer the familiar personality quirks of the classic Star Trek cast, slightly exaggerated, with plenty of knowing, self-referential jabs, and a decided effort to amp up the pathos. And the film’s cinematography is drizzled camera flares that flash and flicker and generally busy the screen with little effect save cinematic makeup.
The movie launches with an Indiana Jones, Star Wars-in-Endor McGuffin. Enterprise Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and ship doctor Bones (Karl Urban) are chased out of a primitive temple on a strange planet while Spock (Zachary Quinto) hangs precariously over an erupting volcano. The premise sets up a moral quandary for the young, impetuous captain: to save Spock he must reveal the enterprise to the natives, thus ostensibly altering the natural evolution of the species by tipping the hand of the future. Spock, logically, tells Kirk to let him die. Kirk can’t leave his friend behind.
That’s the moral dilemma that’s played out in a number of scenarios over the next two-plus-hours. Kirk’s antics get him demoted and removed from the Enterprise, but when a defected star fleet officer starts blowing things up and trying to kill the star fleet’s top brass, Kirk finds himself back in the captain’s chair on a secret mission to hunt down the rogue officer. He keeps having to decide between life and death. To kill or to capture the fugitive? To launch torpedoes into the Kingon planet or not to launch the torpedoes? To join in the admiral’s war or not to join in the admiral’s war? And finally, to risk his own life to save the Enterprise, which, per usual, finds itself falling out sky, or not to risk his life? It sounds like a tough question, but in the context of a big, heroic movie like Star Trek, is there really a question at all? Kirk answers all of the above questions in the manner that will inevitably force more action onto the screen.
Pine’s Kirk is the big problem with the new Star Trek. A whinnying, blubbering James Dean-riff who feels more like a character from Beverly Hills 90210 than a starship commander, it’s unconvincing that he would ever rise up the corporate ladder at Loews, much less the international star fleet top command. Spock, luckily, counterbalances this miss-read Kirk with a sharp and captivating reprise of the beloved character.
I don’t want to be too dismissive. These moral dilemmas do frame an interesting set of conflicts, most interesting when the character of Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) is reintroduced to the storyline. Khan was cryogenically frozen and is now defrosted. When Kirk finds this super villain aboard his ship, he engages in a game of wits, the two men forming a momentary alliance they each hope to dissolve when the time is right.
These scenes between Kirk and Khan, like some of the banter between Kirk and Spock, or Spock and Uhura (Zoe Saldana), who is Spock’s main squeeze in the new movie, are the film’s best. That shouldn’t be surprising. Star Trek, unlike its other 70s-era space adventuring cousins, was always primarily about setting its clearly delineated character types into a dire situation whose solution required brains, not brawn. But in this new Star Trek, the brawn gets more screen time. Thus we get long, lingering scenes of Kirk and Kahn flying in spacesuits through a debris field. The tension, supposedly, is whether or not they will make it. But do we believe for a minute Kirk and Khan are going to die before the film’s climax? We never would, that is, unless we were led to believe that this entire thing is a Talosian illusion. Spoiler alert: it isn’t. I wish it were.