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Star Trek Into Darkness, J.J. Abrams‘s second entry in his reboot of the eternal franchise, has been engineered rather than directed, calibrated to deliver sensation on cue and stocked with just enough new character twists to keep fans rapt. At its core an intergalactic manhunt tale about a traitor to the cause, the production gives the impression of a massive machine cranked up for two hours of full output; it efficiently delivers what it’s built to do, but without style or personality. The widely admired 2009 series relaunch pulled in $385 million in worldwide box office (an unusual two-thirds of that in the American market), and this one should follow very closely in that trajectory.
Continuity is assured by the full team reboarding the U.S.S. Enterprise for this flight, from the attractive and capable cast headed by Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Zoe Saldana to writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (now joined by producer Damon Lindelof) and other key behind-the-scenes hands. As seen in normally dynamic 3D Imax, however, the film looks surprisingly flat, bordering on cheesy; the images are pale, thin and bleached out, makeup and facial blemishes are magnified, and the very shallow depth-of-field in many shots (not the CGI but real photography) works against the point of the format. After a steady progression in the brilliant visual quality of big-budget, effects-heavy major releases during the past couple of years, this one takes a few steps backward.
Not that this incident-jammed yarn is dull or uneventful, far from it. For a genre film of this sort, extra attention has been paid to provide the leads with morsels of human dimensions, including crises of conscience, uncertainty, fallibility, hidden motives and character traits that determine that they sometimes just can’t help themselves; these are details that are not essential but nonetheless prove welcome as they create undercurrents that weren’t always there in Star Trek TV episodes or in the previous 11 feature films.
Right off the bat, feelings that surface between the adamantly unemotional Spock (Quinto) and the overtly admiring Uhura (Saldana) add something to an otherwise rampantly hectic opening action sequence set on a volcanic planet. For his part, Kirk (Pine) contents himself upon his return to Earth with a briefly shown three-way with two babes. But the good times end there, as Kirk is upbraided by his superior (Bruce Greenwood) for insubordination and lying about his last mission, his captaincy revoked, while Spock is reassigned. The fundamental difference between the two is nicely played up all the way through: Kirk will cover for his colleague and do what’s expedient at the moment, while a Vulcan, as Spock reminds, cannot lie. Both attitudes can cause trouble.
But nothing like the trauma provoked by out-and-out bad guy John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), an insider who is immediately identified as the terrorist behind a huge explosion within a Starfleet archive, causing enormous damage to a very vertical 23rd century London. With Harrison quickly fleeing to the planet Kronos to hide, Kirk regains his stripes and the Enterprise sets out to capture the criminal without setting off a full-scale war with the local Klingons.
Even here, moral issues between Kirk and Spock come into play that are marginally more engaging than the cranked-up action sequences that are manufactured every 10 or 15 minutes, too often with a rote, push-button feeling to them. Spock objects to the entire nature of the mission, declaring it illegal and “morally wrong” to assassinate a suspect rather than returning him for trial. The flight seems further compromised by the presence of a stranger, Carol Marcus (Alice Eve), a blonde hottie who’s the daughter of a Starfleet admiral (Peter Weller), whose own motives seem more than a bit suspicious given his insistence upon transforming the Enterprise into a warship by the installation of special rocket torpedoes.
The crew manages to take Harrison, but under rather different circumstances than anticipated, and the revelation of his true identity will come as no surprise to fanboys who live to unearth this sort of information. There are deceptions and numerous chess moves made purely on hunches or, in Spock’s case, by his exceptional ability to determine the precise odds on any eventuality. Desperate suspense scenes chime in like clockwork, sometimes dully spurred by technical malfunctions, and one has Kirk and Harrison zooming through space in outfits that recall the two decades-old The Rocketeer. In the end, justice is served and the day is won, but not without another major city, San Francisco, taking it severely on the chin.
The returning actors all fit their roles with absolute comfort, while the deep-voiced Cumberbatch asserts fully self-justified treachery and Weller and Eve nicely essay equivocal characters. But after impressing well enough in his previous big-screen directorial outings, Abrams works in a narrower, less imaginative mode here; there’s little sense of style, no grace notes or flights of imagination. One feels the dedication of a young musician at a recital determined not to make any mistakes, but there’s no hint of creative interpretation, personal feelings or the spreading of artistic wings. Those anticipating Abrams’ take on Star Wars as he embarks upon that franchise will no doubt have plenty of opinions about its future based on this professionally capable but creatively humdrum outing.
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