Star Trek Into Darkness: To Shamelessly Go Where Better Writers Have Gone

Directed by J. J. Abrams
Paramount, 132 minutes, PG-13
* *

Star Trek Into Darkness is an early candidate for the most overhyped and disappointing film of 2013. I do not make such a statement lightly. Maybe I’m not a get-a-life Trekkie who speaks Klingon, but I’m enough of a junkie that if a future episode sends the Enterprise off in search on intergalactic kale, I’ll probably go. Star Trek Into Darkness has exciting action sequences, Benedict Cumberbatch, and dazzling special effects, so what’s not to like? The script and the direction for starters.

When Abrams, et al. decided to reboot Star Trek in 2009, they turned to the original series (TOS) and recast it with younger Shatner/Nimoy/Kelley/Doohan/Nichols doppelgangers. Abrams also took us back to the characters’ pre-Star Fleet Academy days, though he certainly didn’t take us back to the cheesy TOS sets of 1969. Although the Enterprise is technically older than any of the various TV series versions of the ship, it’s far more sophisticated. Fine; this is science fiction, not history, so we can forgive a few anachronisms. The Enterprise is a toy of beauty. Now the bad news–director J. J. Abrams has also signed aboard to reboot Star Wars, and Into the Darkness suggests he’s already closer in style to George Lucas than TOS creator Gene Roddenberry. Despite its acclaim, Star Wars bored me in that it was all explosions, interstellar dogfights, and optical tricks. Trek has always been special because, like a soap opera, its characters develop in relationship to one another. Not so much in Star Wars, unless you think there’s depth in a beeping tin can or a metal-encased obsequious British butler. In the new Trek, things blow up–a lot! The non-stop action sequences leave less time for relationships, so what does Abrams do? He steals–shamelessly and ham handedly.

I could go on about the Into the Darkness story arc, but if you’ve seen Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, you’ve already seen the alternative universe version of Into Darkness, including numerous shot-for-shot remakes and verbatim lifted dialogue. The only switch is that Kirk and Spock reverse roles. It’s all there–immanent destruction at the hands of Khan (Cumberbatch this time), the ship saved when an officer sacrifices his life to crawl inside the reactor core (Kirk instead of Spock), and even the “needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one” speech. There’s even a stowaway­–young Carol Marcus (Alice Eve), whom TOS fans will recognize as Kirk’s future wife and the architect of Project Genesis. There are four “writers” listed for Into Darkness, but Harve Bennett and Gene Roddenberry’s heirs should sue for theft of intellectual property. Simply flipping roles from Wrath of Khan reminds me of a clueless college frosh who thinks plagiarism is avoided simply by changing a few words.

Is there anything new in Into Darkness? Not much. By now we know that Zachary Quinto is an amazing Spock, that Karl Urban and Simon Pegg can inhabit the roles of Bones and Scotty, and that Chris Pine positively channels Kirk-รก la Shatner. (He even has limited range, just like Shatner.) I suppose there are a few changes. First of all, Roddenberry never left threads untied, as Abrams does by forgetting to tell us what Scotty sees when he investigates coordinates given by Khan, or revealing how Spock manages to solicit advice from his older self. (Yes, I know that one is also a recycled plot line that insiders will get, but it’s really there so Abrams can toss in a gratuitous Leonard Nimoy cameo.) The biggest departures are that Spock seems to have swallowed the emotion chip Commander Data so desperately wanted in The Next Generation TV series, and that he wants to have sex with Kirk. We see Spock kissing Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and witness Kirk checking out Carol Marcus, but there’s so much homoerotic longing between Spock and Kirk that one expects to see them buggering in a bulkhead.

Into Darkness is all flash, no substance. Ticket receipts suggest Abrams’ thrill-a-moment pacing is popular, but one should never confuse boffo box office with originality. Nor should one confuse art with artifice, the latter of which is the most appropriate term for what Abrams has done with Star Trek. My fervent hope is that he gets so sucked into Lucas World that he passes on the next Trek film. We can label the current effort, “To boldly go repeatedly where better writers have gone before.” –Rob Weir

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