There will come a point during Star Trek:
Into Darkness where you will feel the impulse to walk
out. Follow that impulse. More than half the film is
delightfully entertaining, I’d dare say thrilling, and then,
somewhere near the close of the second act, they simply run out
of ideas and start ripping off better Star Trek films and not in
a good way. If you leave when you hear your own mind screaming,
“Oh, no,” you’ll be safely on your way with the resonance of an
action-packed (if empty calorie) adventure ringing in your mind.
If you stay past the warning point, things spiral dreadfully.
It’s worse than you can imagine, far worse than you suspect. For
nearly two thirds of this film, director J.J. Abrams merely
ignores long-time Star Trek fans. In the third act, he insults
them. Then bends them over and sodomizes them. It is moments
like these that I miss the late film critic Roger Ebert most; he
would have enjoyed going after Abrams with a machete for this
devastating affront to the very people this film franchise is
intended to cultivate. I can imagine him writing, “Into Darkness
is not so much a Star Trek film as it is more like What If The
Cast of ‘Glee’ Put On A Musical Version of Wrath of
Producer/Director J..J. Abrams continues to serve up his fast-food Persian bazaar take on Gene Roddenberry’s epic vision, stripping it of meaning and dignity while adding more running gun fights and spaceship battles. This misses the point that Star Trek was never about running gun fights or spaceship battles. Trek was always about us, a commentary on the human condition. The conceit of every Star Trek series, even the dreadful ones like Voyager and Enterprise, was that the main plot was always in service of the subtext; the message or commentary on our purpose and meaning as creatures unique in the universe. With both Star Trek and now Into Darkness, Abrams has aptly demonstrated he has no earthly (pun intended) clue of what Trek is actually about.
There is some terrific business during the opening scenes that fools us into thinking director J.J. Abrams has finally been baptized into the family and actually “gets” what Trek is about; the opening sequence being as good as Trek gets, with actual subtext and meaning and some cool-looking aliens. In the opening scene, the Enterprise is a science vessel and her crew are explorers—just as Roddenberry imagined them. But that’s all you get; Abrams almost immediately goes back to the Abrams-verse and never looks back to the opening moments of this film where he not only parodies the actors and performances but, for once, demonstrates actual science fiction chops. Abrams Trek is not, by any idle thought, science fiction of any kind. It is nearly bereft of science, Abrams perhaps rightly figuring movie audiences are mostly kids and they don’t actually want to learn anything, just bring on the phasers and monsters. But, no, wait: the audience for these films, like it or not, are 40-year olds, not fourteen-year olds, and we not only want to see the action, we want to discover something about ourselves and about the universe. Abrams will have none of that, and quickly abandons that dynamic once the credits begin rolling.
Like the preteens he so vibrantly brought to life in his excellent, semi-autobiographical film Super 8, Abrams echoes the surface of Star Trek while missing, entirely, its essence. He hits all the right notes, but there is no song. He mimics the characters we love (with notably hostility once again shown toward William Shatner, whose Kirk is jarringly and capriciously missing from Abrams’ chorus of Saturday Night Live caricatures of better actors and performances) while missing, entirely, the substance which provided the platform for those characters to come to life. Not the props or the special effects: the humanity within the context of the bigger story Trek was always committed to telling. Here, as with Abrams’ first Trek movie, there is no subtext, no larger story. Into Darkness is a delightful, quick couple of hours of glorious special effects and obvious plot twists, but it is completely soulless. So much so that when Abrams runs out of ideas in the third act and decides to start ripping off the Holy of Holies, the greatest Trek film of them all, he horrifies his audience with incredibly bad performances that not only fail to echo the original, but literally demonstrate the difference between actual acting and whatever it is these people had been doing for the previous hour and a half. By this, Abrams alienates (pun intended) entire generations of Trek fans, choosing, I suppose, to entertain the skim of those new to the franchise while spitting on the rest of us who know better.