in Review

Star Trek Into Darkness

Do not forget, don’t ever forget, that the creative team behind Star Trek: The Next Generation had four shots at making a good movie. Four shots, and like a poor marksman, they kept missing the target. One of the smartest shows on TV, a complex, weekly discussion of life, morality, and the spirit of exploration, and the best they could do were passable-to-bad action flicks. The same franchise that gave us (maybe) the greatest sci fi action movie of all time just could never make it work with a new cast. So JJ Abrams turned that shit around in 2009. He painted with broad strokes, brought back the original characters, focused on what everybody knew about the series. And it was good.

Somehow, the stakes are higher for the sequel. Yes, Abrams and the writers and the cast showed they could revitalize Trek universe and show us a rousing origin story, but with that done, would these new versions of the characters strong enough to propel a whole new adventure? And with the announcement that Abrams will be directing Star Wars: Episode VII, would he be able to prove he’s ready to direct a big deal sequel, something he hadn’t done since Mission: Impossible III? If he screwed this up, a profound disturbance would be felt in the force.

He didn’t screw it up. At least, not in the ways that matter most. The poorly titled Star Trek Into Darkness picks up sometime after the last movie. Kirk (Chris Pine), made captain of the Enterprise by Tyler Perry at the end of the last film, is a capable, but reckless leader. That recklessness gets the better of him in an early sequence, and the movie sets out to prove that he deserves to be the man in charge of the Federation’s flagship. It’s not the most exciting direction for the movie to go in, but it’s nice to see that the writers were more worried about Kirk’s ability to fail upwards than even I was.

On the other end of the spectrum is John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch, you can tell he’s British because his character is named after two Beatles). He’s just a big ol’ jerk. And a terrorist, in perhaps the least interesting aspect of this story. He’s out there blowin’ stuff up pretty early on, and he is quickly made the Federation’s public enemy number one. So Kirk goes after him, as he is wont to do.

This is a slick movie. Like, damn. It’s also a movie that you could tear apart if you wanted to. There are more than a few moments when I found myself asking, why are they doing this? Why is this a thing? And the answer to those questions was always because it’s awesome. People can teleport, why take the shuttle? Because it’s awesome. Kirk’s really smart, why’s he always trying to fight dudes hand-to-hand? Because it’s awesome. The Enterprise is a space ship, and again, people can teleport, why is it underwater? Because it’s awesome.

The thing is, you could go back to any Star Trek and ask similar questions. Why the hell do only senior staff beam into dangerous situations? Shouldn’t they stay onboard, and, you know, lead? The problem might be glaring obvious in retrospect, but as long as a movie doesn’t leave you constantly befuddled, I think it gets a pass. For the most part, I was happy to be taken on Into Darkness‘ ride. I wish it was a smarter movie, because it’s Star Trek, and it should be smart, but it’s not made for me.

And yet… There are some parts that make me wonder. When the klingons take off their helmets, the reveal of their rigid foreheads only means something to the fans who are aware that the species didn’t always look how they look. Alice Eve is in the movie for two reasons: that shot of her in her underwear for the trailers, and her character’s name, which will mean something only to series fans. Otherwise, she does basically nothing, which is sad, because we’re supposed to want her on this crew. One character reveals something about his or her backstory that will only mean something as to the fans, in the actual story itself its nonsense. And there are parts of the ending that go too far in paying homage to the earlier films, trying to recreate moments that frankly this new series hasn’t earned yet.

But like I said, it’s probably not for me. They tried making Trek movies that worked for both Trekkies and peasant-folk, and it didn’t work. Star Trek is a big deal, and damn near everybody knows about most of the stuff this movie references, and they’ll feel giddy when they recognize it. Outside of the Trek context, this is a tight action movie that cherry picks some of the best ideas from recent hits like Inception and Skyfall and throws them in space. That sounds pretty fun, doesn’t it?

But seriously guys, what’s your beef with the transporter?