<i>Star Trek Into Darkness</i>: Boys and Their Toys

After turning it over in my brain a bit, I think I've come up with an analogy for why Star Trek Into Darkness proves so disappointing as the second entry in J.J. Abrams's rebooted Trek film franchise. Bear with me a moment while I set this up: (Warning: Spoilers Follow)

Think back to when you were a kid and merrily collected all the toys based on your favorite films and TV series. (Hell, for all I know, you're still doing that today.) Now, there were a few different ways you could play with these action figures, playsets, vehicles and other pieces of colorful plastic: you could re-enact storylines from the movie or show in question or you could invent your own adventures that still took place within the specific franchise's universe and played by its rules. Or, if you were feeling especially creative, you could throw all that structure out the window and just create the situations you wanted to see. Luke Skywalker and He-Man joining forces to rescue Orko and R2 from the clutches of Cobra Commander? Go for it. Donatello getting doused in another batch of radioactive goo, which grants him super-strength that he then uses to fight the Hulk to a standstill? Hey, why not? This is the approach that Abrams and his regular co-horts Bob Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof (who penned the screenplay) employ for Into Darkness. They're big kids plugging their Trek action figures into a series of loosely connected scenarios that they've wanted to play out, but which are also light-years removed from what the franchise was intended to be. Into Darkness is sometimes fun, but it's never really Star Trek.

This is the point where I should stress that I'm not some Trek purist with a serious investment in seeing Gene Roddenberry's creation preserved in amber, unchanged since its maiden voyage in 1966. I've always been a casual Star Trek fan at best, and even then mostly of the movies rather than any of its various TV incarnations. (I've probably seen The Wrath of Khan and The Voyage Home more times than I've seen episodes of the Original Series.) Furthermore, I thoroughly enjoyed Abrams's first mission aboard the Enterprise, which lent the film series a sense of blockbuster spectacle it had always strived to achieve... but too often fell short. The '09 reboot also made some bold creative moves (killing off Kirk's father, blowing up Vulcan) that freshened up the franchise while still managing to capture the spirit of what had come before. At that point, of course, Trek neophyte Abrams still felt some sense of responsibility to the core fanbase and, if anything, bent over backwards to make sure they felt respected. (The entire storyline with Leonard Nimoy's Spock, for example, was a calculated and really pretty ingenious act of fan service, letting serious Trekkies know that the new movies would be taking place in a pocket universe, thus preserving the integrity -- and continuity -- of the timeline they knew and loved.)

More than $250 million in domestic box office returns later, though, and Abrams is suddenly a lot less concerned about keeping in tune with the franchise's past. Armed with a higher budget and flashier effects (including IMAX cameras and the now-ubiquitous 3D conversion), Into Darkness fully embraces the excess that the previous film warped in and out of. The tone for this outing is set in the pre-credits sequence, which finds the dynamic duo of Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) on an alien planet that they've been sent to monitor in secret, so as not to violate the ol' Prime Directive, which essentially translates as "Don't stick your nose in another culture's business." But that rule goes out the window when an erupting volcano threatens to decimate the planet's indigenous population, a fate that Spock seeks to prevent by beaming directly into the volcano with a device that will calm its fury. [Note: Upon review, while Spock is beamed out of the volcano at the last second, he's initially lowered into it. -- EA]

Meanwhile, a disguised Kirk has nabbed an artifact from an indigenous temple and is scampering Temple Run-style across this alien landscape until he arrives at the Enterprise's hiding place... beneath the ocean waves. How exactly can a starship function underwater? Who cares! Wouldn't Spock's internal logic detector inform him that venturing into an erupting volcano is a highly illogical idea? Doesn't matter! Abrams and his writing team wanted a splashy way to open the movie and ran with both of these scenarios for their cool factor rather than internal consistency. For a series that has so often prided itself on infusing its grand adventures with grand ideas, Into Darkness repeatedly and unapologetically sacrifices science-fiction thoughtfulness on the altar of blockbuster "Wow."

To be fair, a number of those "Wow" moments do deliver big-time, because Abrams is nothing if not a supremely confident showman. And as that opening sequence makes clear, his primary goal with Into Darkness is to use the Enterprise and its crew in ways that no one had thought to use them before, physics be damned. That's how we end up with such visually spectacular (and fundamentally absurd) set-pieces as a warp-speed drag race that ends with one ship knocking the other clear out of the warp gulf-stream or a scene where Kirk blasts himself out of the Enterprise airlock for a zero gravity flight between spaceships. But underpinning all these feats is the very real sense that Abrams and Co. aren't interested in anything but playing with their very expensive toys.

Certainly, the movie's plot is an embarrassment -- a series of half-formed story points that frequently don't track on a scene-to-scene basis. In fact, as a way of further demonstrating Abrams's disregard for Trek lore, it's worth noting that the basic premise of Into Darkness is predicated on an action that casually undermines one of the franchise's central tenants. As established by Roddenberry and mostly maintained throughout Trek's almost five-decade history, the Earth of the 23rd century is a virtual Utopia where petty jealousies and fears have been put aside. Finding dramatic, compelling stories to tell within that framework has always been one of the challenges facing Trek scribes (Michael Piller and Ron Moore have told some particularly amusing stories about trying to crack the Star Trek code) but the best episodes (and movies) have found ways to do it. The trio of Orci, Kurtzman and Lindelof get around that particular prime directive by simply ignoring it, instead drawing clumsy parallels between Future Earth and our post-9/11 present, complete with acts of domestic terrorism, a secret Homeland Security-esque division of Starfleet and high-ranking officials who willfully engage in duplicity and cover-ups for the "safety" of the planet. (As if this wasn't exploitative enough, Into Darkness ends with an onscreen tribute to 9/11 victims that comes across like a bad joke considering the scenes of urban destruction that precede it.)

And then there's Khan. C'mon... you didn't really buy that whole "Gary Mitchell" business, did you? Of course, Benedict Cumberbatch would be playing the most famous villain in Trek movie history. Unfortunately, while the writers have retained most of the basic building blocks of Khan's personality -- enhanced strength, giant ego, furious wrath -- they've forgotten to write an actual character for Cumberbatch to play. He's a sneering exposition-delivery device whose actions are dictated less by any discernable personal goals than by the requirements of the action sequences that Abrams wants to get to as quickly as possible. Worse still, Khan's role ultimately amounts to little more than an elaborate distraction from the movie's real villain, the aforementioned high-ranking official who springs his own badly-thought out plan halfway through the movie. It's a profound waste of a great character and a great actor. (Come to think of it, the villain was the weakest part of Abrams's previous Trek film as well, but at least that was an original creation. When you're daring to take on an icon Khan, you'd better bring your A-game.)

Speaking of wasted actors, the most dire consequence of Into Darkness's emphasis on spectacle over story is the way it sacrifices the best thing the rebooted series has going for it: the terrific ensemble. Going into the previous Star Trek, the big fear was that Pine, Quinto et al. would come across as kids playing dress up on Halloween. But Abrams's Spidey-sense like gift for casting (always one of his greatest strengths as a director) worked out yet again and the Enterprise's incoming crew proved more than suitable replacements for their predecessors. From Karl Urban's McCoy and Zoe Saldana's Uhura to Simon Pegg's Scotty and Anton Yelchin's Chekov, the most memorable scenes in the '09 Trek were driven by the interactions between the entire cast. Here though, those moments are few and far between, with Kirk and Spock mostly occupying the spotlight by themselves.

That's not to say that spending more time with Pine and Quinto isn't welcome; these two are as strong a team in their own way as Shatner and Nimoy were back in the day. But as with Khan, the filmmakers can't think of anything interesting it wants the stars to do beyond running, jumping and fighting their way from Point A to Point B. Their sheer lack of ideas for character-based material manifests itself most nakedly in the way it calls upon Pine and Quinto to re-enact one of the all-time great Kirk/Spock scenes... only to completely undermine the drama and significance of that moment not ten minutes later. Like so many of the movie's questionable creative decisions, this misstep goes back to that "boys and their toys" analogy. With Into Darkness, Abrams and his co-writers have dumped out their extensive Star Trek toy collection onto the floor of their playroom and have great fun crashing and bashing the figures together. But they're not interested in sticking around to clean up the mess.

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