The summer after 7th grade, I watched at least one of the three “Star Wars” movies (the only three that existed at the time) every day. My love of film goes deep, but “Star Wars” holds a special place in my heart. Because of this allegiance, I dared not dip my toe in that other universe–never wanting to go where no man had gone before. While I knew the nomenclature (Klingon! Beam me up! Borg!) and had seen a few episodes of one of its many televsion permutations, I was about as ignorant of “Star Trek” as a geek could get. Imagine my surprise, then, in 2009 when I saw–and thoroughly enjoyed–J.J. Abrams’s eponymous reboot. The inevitable sequel, “Star Trek Into Darkness,” is upon us and while it’s no “Empire Strikes Back” (we can’t all be perfect), it’s a hell of a fun ride.
The movie starts with a bang and is fairly relentless in the action department, even with its 132-minute runtime. People are constantly running, shouting, sliding, and blasting amid set pieces so gorgeous they would make Peter Jackson slow clap. A few hundred years in the future, a reckless, but talented, Captain James T. Kirk (an earnest Chris Pine) leads his crew of explorers to distant planets, supposedly to observe them, but then ends up trying to save the entire civilization (I hate it when that happens). This puts him in hot water with Starfleet and at odds with his First Mate, Spock (a sublime Zachary Quinto). Themes of obedience and loyalty are prevalent throughout the film, between Starfleet and Kirk, Kirk and Spock, and Spock and his girlfriend/comm officer Uhura 1 (Zoe Saldana). But even though all the pieces are there, the thematic underpinnings don’t quite gel in a way that would take the movie to the next level.
Much of the movie’s stumbles center around Kirk himself. Often, other characters shout at him, “If we don’t do X, everyone will die!” and then Kirk does X. While it is supposed to be a lesson in humility, it takes away his credibility as a true leader, and his more heroic actions later in the film feel less genuine. It’s unclear why Kirk isn’t just the future equivalent of a Formula One driver who bangs alien twins with tails instead of a Starfleet captain who bangs alien twins with tails–he seems to crave the action more than anything else (he and Abrams have that in common). Spock takes the lead in the narrative, and the movie is better for it, but it feels like Abrams (or one of the three credited screenwriters) couldn’t let Kirk fully take a backseat and truly focus on the more dynamic Spock. His past, and the way he deals with it, was touching, and offered some much-needed introspection in a sea of explosions and action scenes. The plethora of supporting characters each get solid screentime without it feeling shoehorned, but because of that, Spock and Kirk’s friendship wasn’t solidified in a meaningful way. I know some folks will disagree with me here, but I just didn’t believe that these two would hang out with each other off the Enterprise. Thus their climactic final scene didn’t feel earned.
Luckily, none of that shit matters. Seriously. The action sequences, jokes, and sets propel this movie to its rightful place as a rad summer blockbuster. At the age of 27, I’m rarely transported back to the days when I literally stood up in my seat (like during the “The Matrix”) or shouted with glee at a triumphant hero moment (like in “Independence Day”). “Star Trek Into Darkness” took me back to those times in the best way possible. A cinematic rollercoaster already, even the 3D added to the adrenaline rush. The camera bobs and weaves (despite the $190 million budget, Abrams still cannot afford a tripod), but technology permits it to explore the outside of the ship and still show the nimble crew fretting away inside. It was a nice choice by Abrams and helped give a sense of scale to the carnage. Overall, it was just exhilarating to watch heroes do really cool things in space. The combat and explosions, bountiful each, are exhilarating in a way that even last year’s “The Avengers” fails to match. This movie is some of the most fun I’ve had in the dark without taking my clothes off. 2
I’ve heard that true-blood Trekkies resent the shift from the witty, philosophical adventures of the television show to the dumbed-down action fest of the reboots. While I understand that point of view, I think these films are one interpretation of a rich and diverse fictional universe. Yes, Kirk is basically Maverick from “Top Gun.” Yes, the villain (a capable Benedict Cumberbatch) chews up so much scenery, he practically falls off the set. And yes, the tonal problems of the movie keep it from transcending its summer blockbuster billing. But this is a beautiful, big-budget, action-packed sci-fi romp, so go enjoy it. You’ll be glad that you did. 3