“Bones, get that thing off my face”
Director J.J. Abrams’ reboot of Star Trek four years ago was a refreshing, original take on a world possessed by countless offshoots because screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman used its science fiction genre to both retain and destroy existing mythology. A red matter black hole sending the Romulan Captain Nero back through time allowed their new universe to stand on its own as a parallel reality to the original show’s rather than forever remaining in its shadow. Orci and Kurtzman impossibly crafted a franchise free from the psychological constraints audience members place upon canon as they covet making sure Kirk, Spock, and company grow into the characters they’ve known and loved. The new embodiments live with different pasts and therefore unknown futures. They may now be molded without preconceived limitations.
I believe this is key to the franchise’s success because any fanboy whining about this and that going against William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy’s acting choices forty-five years previously can be muted by simply stating, “this is a different timeline”. It’s a genius way to make an existing product one’s own and Abrams, Orci, and Kurtzman have an empty canvas on which to paint as a result. So what would they come up with to continue this new saga? What new-look alien species would be introduced and what old villain would be revamped to fit the current lens flare/glare-filled aesthetic? Rumors swirled it’d be Benicio Del Toro as the iconic Khan Noonien Singh until his passing on the role and Benedict Cumberbatch’s eventual announcement as John Harrison allowed the mystery to continue.
All the above led to the inevitable creation of massive expectations I constantly tell myself to avoid. Perhaps it’s this level of excitement that unavoidably hampered my overall declaration of Star Trek Into Darkness as a masterpiece, but I’m not so sure since I still had a blast watching the USS Enterprise’s newest voyage. There are ground-level firefights with a retooled, visually minimalistic Klingon race; chaotic photon torpedo destruction as Kirk (Chris Pine) and company battle evil forces within the Federation; and numerous examples of Cumberbatch’s Harrison effortlessly using hand-to-hand combat without breaking a sweat. We’re also thrust into getting to know the Enterprise inside and out while it gets pummeled, spending time in the medical bay, engineering, and even within the warp core. It all adds up towards potential annihilation.
Despite the numerous examples of tempting fate, however, none of these enemy forces ever truly live up to their billing. We’re told about the Klingons being discovered and how they have begun expanding their borders along with a threat of war, but it all appears mere set-up for the future. We’re exposed to a fracturing of sensibilities within the Federation as peacekeeping may prove impossible without a little offense on the side, but this duality is nothing new. And as far as what or who John Harrison is, the good to bad to good to bad cycle only minimizes his time to be truly evil. Rather than have a normal antagonist, Star Trek Into Darkness decides to make its battles coax out the inner struggles already raging within Kirk and Spock (Zachary Quinto).
This isn’t a bad idea to have except for the fact Star Trek already touched on the subject. Beginning the sequel with Kirk and Spock locking horns on the subject of emotion versus logic before their partnership is fractured in a way only Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood) can help mend felt uncomfortably redundant. From there we find tragedy, reunion, and an extreme test for the Enterprise’s captain to discover utilitarianism while his commander digs deeper into human deception—all enthralling points of contention better served with a simpler story. The infusion of so many opponents comes off as a deflection from exposing an otherwise thin plot instead of building a richer, involving environment. The film is not so much about defeating an adversary as it is surviving against all odds.
Truthfully, the only reason this becomes a point of contention is because Cumberbatch is so good at portraying his duplicitous villain. There is a palpable sense of malice in his eyes, voice, and demeanor as we learn what sort of revenge fuels his fire. He is a force to reckon with and utterly captivating as he shifts allegiances to reach his goals. So seeing him prove little more than a tool with which to build political issues upon as the Federation grows inside a universe revealing its dark secrets is disappointing. Where the filmmakers hoped their shrouding Harrison in mystery would enthrall us in guesswork before astonishing us with an endgame, they only transformed his amoral superman fearlessly dictating terms into a plot-serving pawn devoid of the autonomy that made him seem so unpredictable.
And if too much is happening to declare a true antagonistic force, it’s no surprise to also see characters like Sulu (John Cho), Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and Uhura (Zoë Saldana) get pushed to the background. Simon Pegg’s Scotty and Karl Urban’s Bones are written with the type of comedic flare that makes rendering them moot impossible, but they also receive the more complex roles too. In the end it’s the Pine and Quinto show as both actors prove how perfectly cast they are through powerful screen presence and a rapport built on respect. They each get drawn into the “Darkness” of the title more than once as their ship’s disintegration metaphorically provides a visual representation of their exhausted bodies and souls, but they ultimately become the bringers of the light necessary to prevail too.
Abrams, Orci, Kurtzman, and new (old) collaborator Damon Lindelof have made a character piece that will hopefully construct a nice bridge to whatever comes next—not the standalone fight for good I anticipated. Their iteration still contains a much younger crew than any Star Trek properties before it so I understand this desire to keep the film steeped in trials necessary for Kirk and company to earn the experience and maturity crucial to surviving the wars to come. The installment remains equal parts funny, harrowing, honest, and aesthetically gorgeous but just can’t match the intensity of the first with its common enemy. Everything I hoped it would be as an action flick, it’s tale of honor and responsibility noticeably lacks the focus to fully captivate on a deeper level.
 Photo credit: Zade Rosenthal Chris Pine is Kirk in STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, from Paramount Pictures and Skydance Productions. (c) 2013 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
 Photo credit: Zade Rosenthal (Left to right) Zoe Saldana is Uhura and Zachary Quinto is Spock in STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS from Paramount Pictures and Skydance Productions. (C) 2013 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
 Photo credit: Zade Rosenthal (Left to right) Benedict Cumberbatch is John Harrison and Karl Urban is Bones in STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, from Paramount Pictures and Skydance Productions. (c) 2013 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.