I wouldn’t call myself a “trekkie.” I don’t speak a word of the Klingon language, I’d never dream of attending a Star Trek convention, and I feel no compulsion to ever wear a Star Trek related costume in public. All that said, I love me some Star Trek. I’ve seen every episode of every Star Trek T.V. series and I’ve seen the every one of the Star Trek films multiple times. And like many fans of the series I was hungry for some new Trek when J.J. Abrams rebooted the franchise in 2009. There hadn’t been a new Trek film since Star Trek: Nemesis bombed in 2002 and there hadn’t (and to date hasn’t) been any Trek on T.V. since the somewhat underrated “Star Trek: Enterprise” was cancelled in 2005. And it’s that hunger which probably made Abrams’ Star Trek so disappointing to me. I could acknowledge that it was an entertaining and fairly well made film, but it was also lacking in the two things that made the franchise special: smart science fiction and enduring characters. I couldn’t get behind that film, but I did hold out hope that it had laid the groundwork for superior films to come even if it had to pander a bit in order to get a wider audience on board. I’d like to say that Star Trek Into Darkness was the return to the Trek we all know and love, but for the most part it’s more of the same.
This sequel picks up a year or so after the events of the 2009 Star Trek and Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) seems to have learned nothing since his battle with Nero. He’s still cocky, arrogant, irresponsible, and the opposite of everything that a Starfleet Captain is supposed to be. This attitude finally lands him in hot water when he blatantly disregards the Prime Directive while on an away mission. It looks like he’ll be demoted for that stunt, but then a former Starfleet agent named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) carries out a terroristic attack on earth and then flees to the Klingon homeworld of Kronos. Knowing that Kirk is the kind of captain who’s willing to get his hands dirty, a hawkish Starfleet Admiral named Alexander Marcus (Peter Weller) reinstates Kirk’s rank and sends him to Kronos with one simple mission: exterminate Harrison with extreme prejudice.
The first Star Trek has a number of problems, and one of them is that it really stretches to contrive an excuse for Kirk to become the captain of the Enterprise in spite of his youth, inexperience, and reckless demeanor. He was a far cry from the largely disciplined officer that William Shatner once played, but to some extent I was able to go along with this depiction if only because the film was an origin story and there was some promise that the events of the film would teach him a little humility. Unfortunately, none of that growth seems to have carried over to this sequel. As the film opens Kirk is a completely irresponsible and adolescent fool and I wouldn’t trust him to manage a Burger King, much less a Starship. It’s downright painful to watch this character behave like an absolute cock for much of the film’s first half.
To some extent, Kirk’s demeanor plays into a not-so-subtle 9-11/war on terror allegory that runs through the film. Kirk is made to be a Bush-like cowboy who charges after a “terrorist” who’s hiding in a far-away and hostile territory. Were this film released in 2005 that would have been a topical and interesting subtext, but in 2013 it just seems kind of dated and given that this allegory is pretty much the film’s only claim to intelligence it really rings pretty hollow. Make no mistake: this is a summer action film pure and simple. Anyone looking for a more thoughtful Star Trek film can keep waiting because this ain’t it. That said, as an action movie, this mostly holds its own. There are a number of above average set-pieces in the film including a fun opening sequence which feels like an episode of the original series encapsulated into fifteen minutes.
I was always fond of the way that J.J. Abrams shot the first Star Trek (even if some people feel the need to reduce it to its incorporation of lens flare), and he continues that style here. In many ways these Star Trek films look and feel like they’re being filmed by someone who means business. The film has also addressed some of the issues I had with that previous film, especially that film’s prescient for idiotic comedy relief, but for every step forward that this film makes there’s at least a half of a step backwards. My hopes that this sequel would be an improvement over the previous film were misplaced. At the end of the day I’m right back to where I was on the first film, having to acknowledge that it’s a good enough film when compared to most summer blockbusters while kind of hating what it does to the iconic franchise that birthed it.
*** out of Four