Star Trek Into Darkness: Light on the Darkness but Still a Fun Ride

The multi-hyphenate JJ Abrams, writer-director-producer-ADHD wunderkind, pulled off quite the coup 4 years ago when he skillfully revived a beloved franchise even ardent fans thought was toe up. Abrams admitted he’d never seen the show, yet he managed to capture the most important aspects for many fans–great characters and a spirit of adventure among the stars.

Abrams and company do it again in Star Trek: Into Darkness. This time, amid debates about the Prime Directive and lots of clever banter, a superhuman supervillain attacks Star Fleet itself and Kirk and company go after him amid debates about vengeance vs. justice and lots of clever banter. I’m not really clear on what the title means by into darkness, since there’s no more darkness here than a lighter episode of Battlestar Galactica (the new version) and there’s considerably more humor. But I’m okay with that. Abrams directs with a sure hand for scenecraft: when to begin a scene, when to end it, when to blow shit up. I don’t need Star Trek to be constant heart of darkness moral horror.

The writers continue to make good on the brilliant twist of the first film: using the stupid Rambaldi ball from Alias to both excuse the divergences from the original series and reimagine beloved aspects and storylines. I will admit to wishing they had not tread such familiar ground, but they are trying to reach a wider audience and sometimes you gotta’ play your heavy hitters. Spoiler alert though I’m sure everyone and their dog knows by now: there is no more heavy hitter in the TOS Trekverse than Khaaaaan! Except maybe the Borg.

Speaking of writing: I was terrified to see Damon Lindelof’s name added to the writing team of Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman; PTSD from Prometheus and also from some episodes of Lost with Lindelof’s name on them. But the soup isn’t ruined from too many chefs, not even chefs who wrote the dialogue in Prometheus. Here’s a blog post from writer Guy Bergstrom about set ups and payoffs and how to brew a great plot.

The actors once again pull off resembling the originals but not being carbon copies. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto are perfect as the slash icons Kirk/Spock, bickering like the old married couple they always were while all that chemistry bubbles underneath. Karl Urban does his best with the underwritten role of Bones. NuHura, played by Zoe Saldana, is as strong and smart as the original. The unexpected Uhura/Spock pairing (Upock? Spura?) continues to pay off and I’m digging the surprising Kirk/Uhura friendship.

The only false note among the characterizations? Scotty. I adore Simon Pegg and he’s engaging and fun. He’s just not Scotty, the stalwart nuts-n-bolts guy of TOS. And what’s with the random sidekick?

Benedict Cumberbatch manages to be convincing as the superhuman supervillain. (Yes, Cumberbatch is his real name–Jon Stewart should nominate him for the most Dickensian surname of the year award.) Cumberbatch made for a slinky, slightly sociopathic Sherlock in the new BBC series. Here, he overcomes his pasty Brit boyness and beefs up nicely for the action-heavy role.

(Spoiler alert: Given the character’s name, Khan Noonian Singh, couldn’t they have found a Brit with at least some Indian blood/brown skin in him somewhere? I know Ricardo Montalban wasn’t Indian, but he was brown. And who cares? Remember those guns?)

The new movie is taking a lot of heat from critics and bloggers. (Here’s a scathingly amusing take from i09-The Spoiler FAQ.) I don’t disagree with the criticisms overall. I just didn’t notice them while I was watching the movie and that’s the mark of compelling storytelling. To those lifelong Trekkies who are comparing it unfavorably to the original series and the movies, I have this to say: “I’m gonna crack my knuckles and jump for joy–I got a clean bill of health from Dr. McCoy.” Remember the space hippies? Or how about Star Trek the Motion Picture, a rip-off of a middling TOS episode and one of the most ass-numbingly boring entries in any scifi series?

And then there was the first few seasons of Star Trek Next Gen, the first of DS9 and almost all of Enterprise.

Iconic doesn’t mean flawless. We didn’t love the original series because it never made any mistakes or got stupid. This latest installment of the venerable series holds up the fine traditions of action, humor and humanity amid the stars.

4 out of 5 stars.

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