Years ago, my Dad and I watched an old Star Trek episode, in which the Enterprise was being attacked and the cast simulated the starship being hit from laser blasts by waving their arms and rocking back and forth. It looked like a bad day at Mime School. Decades later, there’s a scene in Star Trek Into Darkness where, once again, the structure of the Enterprise is being torpedoed and the people inside are being rocked by the impact. Only now, with a nine-figure budget and state of the art special effects, the scene doesn’t draw laughter and is anything but campy. Instead, seeing crew members knocked into walls, fearing for their lives and getting sucked out into space not only looks uncannily real but quite scary. What a difference between the old and new.
Differences in storytelling between past Treks and the new J.J. Abrams sci-fi adventure illustrates the strength and weaknesses of the latest installment. The story concerns the crew of the Enterprise on the hunt for a terrorist who goes by the name of John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch, in a commanding turn). Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) is enraged by Harrison’s arrogance and the weight of his crimes, while Spock (Zachary Quinto) recognizes something deeper, more troubling about him.
An intriguing aspect of this and the other Star Trek films is that they are all meant to take place in one universe, with one strand of continuity that extends to the TV shows as well as the movies. Star Trek Into Darkness pays homage to and even recreates story points from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. It suggests a tendency of life in the universe, human and otherwise, to repeat itself. Unfortunately, it also demonstrates how things were done much better in a film made in 1982.
Pine and especially Quinto are excellent, portraying their iconic roles with the respect, gravity and panache needed. I wouldn’t dare invite the wrath of Trekkies (let alone Khan), but an argument can be made that Pine and Quinto play their roles better than William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy ever did.
Abrams’ 2009 film made my top 10 best of the year list and is a superb example of re-establishing a franchise by letting character and story come first. One of the strengths of the 2009 film was that it was truly an ensemble piece, giving a large, talented cast ample moments to develop their roles and shine.
But in this busy new film, only Zoe Saldana as Uhura has as much room as Pine and Quinto to stand out. Her crewmates, particularly John Cho and Anton Yelchin, are barely in it. Karl Urban’s Bones is mostly on hand for easy comic relief and Simon Pegg’s turn as Scotty feels overly frantic, like he’s trying too hard for laughs.
Cumberbatch makes a strong impression, particularly during some effective, Hannibal Lechter-like encounters; he’s less interesting in the last act, when he becomes a standard villain who runs and punches away. Eric Bana’s villain in the previous film was stronger. The gifted Peter Weller’s supporting turn mostly reaffirms how natural his presence feels in science fiction.
The pace is rushed, as if the big moments were given priority over the quieter ones. This is a gripping adventure, but Trekkies should set their phasers to Lowered Expectations. Still, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry likely would have approved, as there is a mix of ideas and spectacle on display, though, in Abrams’ hands, his vision of the future isn’t as optimistic as it once was.
STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS
Score: *** (1-5 Star Scale)