It’s been four years since J. J. Abrams (sci-fi cinema’s auteur du jour) kicked the “Star Trek” franchise back into high gear with his dynamic reboot. Breathing fresh energy into the story of Kirk, Spock, and the U.S.S. Enterprise, Abrams delivered a fantastic reinvention of the classic series and paved the way for more adventures. “Star Trek Into Darkness” is the first sequel in what, presumably, will be a long-running saga.
Compared to the complex time-bending shenanigans of its predecessor, the storyline of “Into Darkness” is pretty linear. Hotheaded Starfleet captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), after witnessing the death of a mentor at the hands of terrorist John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), sets off on a mission of vengeance that takes him into the heart of hostile Klingon space. It soon becomes clear, however, that Harrison is not who he seems to be…nor are the Enterprise and its crew safe anywhere.
Upon exiting the theater, I felt conflicted.
On one hand, Abrams is a master of building strong characters and developing them in creative ways. This has been demonstrated across all his previous films (“Star Trek,” “Super 8,” “Mission: Impossible 3”). The most entertaining moments in “Into Darkness” are the flashes of banter that pass between crew members…and, as expected, all the actors turn in great performances (especially Cumberbatch, who brings a simmering energy to any role he plays).
That said, I wish as much attention had been paid to the story.
A filmmaker like James Cameron can get away with weak plotting, thanks to the use of gigantic, bombastic Old Hollywood sensibilities (“Titanic” and “Avatar” are ridiculously unsubtle stories, but work by eliciting visceral/emotional response). Abrams, however, has displayed a certain reluctance to swing for the truly epic; there’s always a certain thematic hollowness at the core of his films. This same problem has cropped up in a number of Marvel’s Avengers-era superhero films – in the rush to make familiar elements “fresh and exciting,” timeless underlying motifs end up obscured.
In the case of “Into Darkness,” this lack of real thematic substance manifests in the form of a highly deficient plot. The storyline is not good; it’s filled with holes large enough to drive a spacecraft through. Moreover, lacking the gleeful novelty of its predecessor (which might’ve caused me to overlook similar issues), “Into Darkness” suffers from a certain reluctance to settle into a narrative arc. Abrams has demonstrated an ability to develop his characters successfully across movies; unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the story. By the time the credits rolled, I found myself feeling as if I’d sat through a single episode of a potentially endless series.
Specifically, the problem is that some really solid and evocative material is available. The risk of an all-out war with the militaristic, expansionistic Klingon Empire is touted as an overarching threat…but by the end of the film, no one’s even talking about it. Harrison’s backstory as a “genocidal monster” is given literally one sentence of dialogue (Who is this guy? What does he really, really want? We never do find out.). In a Christopher Nolan movie, there’s usually a third-act turning point where things finally cohere in a great, cascading moment of revelation. It’s a thrilling experience to realize how the clues scattered throughout the story paved the way for a grand narrative twist…and I was hoping for something similar with “Into Darkness” (the clever use of “Future Spock” in 2009’s original “Star Trek” rises to this sort of level). But alas, “Into Darkness” careens to a pyrotechnic, effects-drenched finale that leaves countless questions unanswered. How will this film’s events affect the galaxy? We’ll never know.
(As a footnote, it’s worth mentioning that Abrams is set to take over the “Star Wars” franchise in 2015. A good example of the opposite problem is George Lucas – for what it’s worth, few storytellers have such a solid grasp of interweaving plots and themes. As was seen when he took the reins of the “prequel trilogy,” however, the mechanics of filmmaking and actual character development proved to be problematic. These are Abrams’ specialties; one can accordingly hope that these two titans of sci-fi will collaborate constructively on the forthcoming “Star Wars” sequels.)
Is it worth seeing? Sure. It’s exciting, well-acted, and a perfect summer popcorn movie. But those looking for anything more substantial are likely to be disappointed.
An immensely entertaining, but not particularly memorable, sci-fi diversion.
Normalized Score: 4.6
(Postscript: I may eventually revisit this review to discuss a few specific plot points. For the time being, I’m trying to keep it spoiler-free.)