Jokes about J.J. Abrams and his love for the lens flare used to be cute, but they take on new meaning after you’ve been subjected to Star Trek Into Darkness. The light scattering comes so frequently and swallows up so much of the screen that portions of the actors’ faces are often obscured while a performance is delivered. This should not be. It shatters the illusion that sitting in a darkened theater is supposed to create, and – more importantly – it is artistically out of place. The dreamy haze of the lens flaring is constantly at odds with Star Trek‘s grounded fictional science.
This speaks in part to the disconnect that longtime fans feel between the source material and Abrams’ revised take on Gene Roddenberry’s creation. The science fiction of yesteryear’s Star Trek was always firmly moored to an established foundation. Even if you didn’t possess the knowledge that the series’ futureworld marvels were built on established theories, there was always an ever-present sense of legitimate pseudoscience seeping out from every frame and every jargon-filled utterance.
Abrams is a born storyteller with a real knack for weaving the sorts of fantastical tales that Old Trek tended to rein in. He managed to strike an effective balance between knowing nods to franchise lore and sci-fi blockbuster spectacle in his 2009 series reboot, but Into Darkness swings too wildly toward both extremes. It’s either too slavishly locked to referencing the roots of the series or too caught up in melting audience eyeballs with searing visual splendor.
The finished work feels forced more often than it doesn’t, and little room is left for the viewer to ever settle into the sort of happy middleground that 2009’s feature so effectively toed. Star Trek Into Darkness is perfectly entertaining as a work of blockbuster spectacle, but the source that it draws from feels more like a distant speck in the rearview than it did before. This is the best kind of fanfic, writ large across a big screen with all of the Abramsverse trickery that you might want. It’s still fanfic though, and we all know how readily that stuff is accepted by diehards as canon. It isn’t.
It’s too bad, as there’s a fun ride here buried deep beneath the surface-level annoyances of lens flare, winking references, and shaky handheld action. Abrams packs in a little something for everyone. Franchise diehards get to keep a running tally of backward-facing nods, to Klingons, to Tribbles, to everything from Bat’leth to Daystrom. Mainstreamers get all the eye candy they could possibly want in the beautifully rendered virtual scenery and slickly choreographed action, at least when the camera takes the time to stop jumping around and takes things in. There’s real tension in the plot too, even if it telegraphs itself a bit too heavily at times.
This is a difficult story discuss in the context of a review, with Abrams taking a spoiler-a-minute approach that keeps you guessing even if you’re nearly positive that some Big Reveal or another is coming. For all of the twists that Trek takes as the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise barrels into the darkness of a corrupt Federation and a looming war, nothing ever feels truly surprising. This may be less true for those viewers that don’t tug on geeky Internet threads in the run-up to release, but that highlights yet another problem: even in the midst of the non-stop parade of references, Into Darkness never taps into what a diehard fan would really want.
Klingons and Tribbles are merely things. It’s fun to see them on screen as realized in this Abramsverse take on Star Trek, but the feeling of unknown adventure and discovery that is so intrinsic to everything that the series represents is nowhere to be found. This is a tale of intrigue, one where shadowy plots and political machinations ultimately take center stage. It is a Big Story with a sweeping focus, but it feels all wrong. Strip away the Enterprise, the familiar names and nods, and you’ve basically got a distant-future follow-up to Mission Impossible III.
The performances support this refusal to embrace the core ideals of Star Trek, less because of any one actor’s lacking talents and more because the writing just isn’t there for those in the supporting cast. The Enterprise crewmembers get their expected moments to ham it up in front of the camera, but we come back now to how forced it all feels. Karl Urban continues to deliver the best Deforest Kelley impression out there, but it’s all one-liners. Simon Pegg and Anton Yelchin feel like under-realized caricatures of Scotty and Chekov, respectively. John Cho’s Sulu is nearly invisible. Zoe Saldana’s Uhura would be as well, if not for her necessary presence as the Love Interest.
The three main players – Chris Pine’s Kirk, Zachary Quinto’s Spock, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s newcomer antagonist John Harrison – fare better, but only just. Pine finds his inner-Shatner, blustering around like an outer space cowboy until he learns some all-important Lessons and rises to challenge of being the leader that everyone knows he can be. Quinto is similarly steeped in the teachings of Leonard Nimoy. His continuing relationship with Uhura is often played for laughs, but effectively so. Spock has always been one of science fiction’s most brilliant straight men, and Quinto nails it yet again.
Cumberbatch is a fresh-faced new arrival and he brings a real sense of menace to his performance, an impressive feat for a character that could easily have been written as a one-note Villain. His Harrison exists in a grey-shaded space, a fact which becomes increasingly apparent as we come to know him in the film’s second and third acts. The success of the character is a combined result of writing and performance: the script paints a meaty and complex figure in Harrison, and Cumberbatch rises to the challenge of delivering a captivating take on the writers’ words.
The result is an uneven pre-summer blockbuster that is nonetheless absolutely worth seeing on a giant screen. Abrams gives good fantasy, and while Star Trek might not be the best platform for such an approach, this remains an objectively entertaining film. Diehard fans will benefit most from putting aside all preconceived notions about what the story could or should be and simply letting it wash over them. Like 2009’s reboot, Star Trek Into Darkness is one for the mainstream that takes to heart a familiar pointy-eared fellow’s memorable bit of sage advice: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.”