Star Trek Into Darkness Cumberbatch Pine

Dir. J.J. Abrams
(2013, PG-13, 123 minutes)

During an interview on The Daily Show promoting Star Trek: Into Darkness, I think director J.J. Abrams unintentionally copped to dumbing down the Trek franchise to attract a wider audience. Specifically he said, “I never liked Star Trek when I was a kid … it always felt too philosophical to me … [Star Trek fans] were much smarter than I was. I couldn’t get it, and so we tried to make it work for people like me …”

Abrams got his wish, and so did Paramount. His two films bear the recognizable Star Trek name brand, toned down the actual Star Trek personality, and delivered effectively made if somewhat generic CGI-laden summer blockbusters that have made a bajillion dollars at the global box office – or, to be more specific, a combined $823 million to date. But is it Star Trek? Kinda sorta, but not really, and that’s by design; it’s probably the same reason Abrams was also handed the reins to the next Star Wars movies. He’s safe, reliable, mostly inoffensive, and most importantly he’s bankable.

But considering other filmmakers who have put their unique stamp on well-known pop culture entities – Joss Whedon‘s Avengers, Christopher Nolan‘s Batman films, Sam Raimi‘s Spider-Man – Abrams’s work feels anonymous by comparison. He gives us brash heroes, fiendish villains, and lots of explosions, but not much personality behind the camera and not much surprise in the screenplay (written by his frequent collaborators Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, and Roberto Orci). He doesn’t take any chances with the material, just pitches it right down the middle.

That said, Into Darkness is more or less on par with Abrams’s previous Trek, though perhaps slightly more compelling due in large part to a more interesting villain, a diabolical terrorist played by Benedict Cumberbatch with great tension, menace, and a moral conviction that adds a welcome layer of ambiguity.

Chris Pine and Zoe Saldana in Star Trek Into Darkness

“My eyes are up here, sir.”

But everything else is more or less the same. Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) is still an arrogant playboy spectacularly unsuited to commanding a starship; in his first scene, he is fleeing a primitive alien race after stealing, for no apparent reason, a holy relic. From a screenwriting perspective, the theft seems intended only to justify a chase scene, but it dually serves to demonstrate his incompetence as a diplomatic representative of the human race.

Spock (Zachary Quinto) is still struggling to balance his Vulcan logic with his simmering emotions. He’s still dating Uhura (Zoe Saldana), who continues to show up for work dolled up in heavy makeup and dangling earrings that can’t be Starfleet regulation. She also still wears a skimpy miniskirt that unfortunately is Starfleet regulation in this universe; despite updating so much from the original series, Abrams has decided, in two consecutive films, that 23rd century servicewomen should be dressed like 1960s cocktail waitresses. But if that’s the direction we’re going in, in the next film I want to see Pine and Quinto dressed like Zapp Brannigan. Fair is fair.

Zapp Brannigan Futurama

Live long and sexy!