Up in the air: J.J. Abrams juggles balls aplenty in a dynamic, overstuffed ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’

August 28, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 28, 2014

Star Trek Into Darkness, director J.J. Abrams’s second entry in the rebooted Star Trek series, is packed to the gills with characters, plot threads and action. Unfortunately, the 2013 film is guilty of trying to do a bit too much.

Into Darkness is fun, no doubt. It recapitulates one of the most popular narratives in the Star Trek oeuvre: The story of Khan Noonien Singh, a genetically engineered warlord who was frozen in a cryogenic tube and exiled from Earth after the bloody Eugenics Wars of the late 20th century. Gene Roddenberry’s pioneering 1966 television show featured Khan as the villain of the week in “Space Seed,” a first-season Star Trek episode; 16 years later, the character formed the dark heart of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which many still consider to be the best of the franchise’s dozen movies.

Abrams’s movie combines elements of both outings while adding plenty of new twists. Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch, charismatic but far paler than any man playing a character named Khan should be) and his frozen coterie of superhumans are discovered by a Starfleet commander other than the Enterprise’s James T. Kirk, and Khan’s 23rd-century machinations take quite a bit of unraveling as our heroes seek to learn just who he is and what he’s about. (As superfans already know, the movie is chockablock with dangerous newfangled torpedoes, and there are a pair of characters named Marcus, but there are no signs of the U.S.S. Reliant or the planet-shattering Genesis project.)

The film begins with an action sequence on the planet Nibiru, where Kirk (Chris Pine) breaks all the rules to preserve a primitive civilization and the life of his first officer, Spock (Zachary Quinto). The opening act sets up several character arcs by displaying Kirk’s immaturity and Spock’s refusal to engage with the emotional needs of his friend (Kirk) and lover (communications officer Uhura, played by Zoe Saldana).

A few minutes later, a Starfleet facility in London is destroyed and a gunship kills several officers at fleet headquarters in San Francisco. This prompts a furious Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) to dispatch Kirk to the Klingon home world, Qo’noS (pronounced Kronos), with orders to kill the fugitive responsible for both attacks. But it turns out that the fugitive is not who he seems, and neither are some of the other characters who are either crewing or focusing their attention on the Enterprise.

The movie’s later action sequence pile one atop the other: The Enterprise is assaulted by a sophisticated enemy; Kirk and Khan fly through space in order to infiltrate an immense warship; Enterprise tumbles toward the surface of a planet as its captain and engineer fight to reach the engine room; an enormous sacrifice is made in order to save the ship; a city is devastated by an astronomical impact; and, finally, a hero and a villain engage in kinetic chase and combat in and above the decimated urban landscape. That this synopsis only covers the last half or so of the movie hints at how overstuffed Star Trek Into Darkness truly is.

But as the saying goes, there’s more! Character arcs — Into Darkness is full of ’em.

One thread involves just what a science officer named Carol (Alice Eve) is doing aboard the Enterprise and just how she might play a key role in the mission’s deadly confrontations. Others concern Engineer Scott (Simon Pegg), who pops in and out at opportune moments after he suffers a crisis of conscience and a conflict with Kirk; Ensign Chekov (Anton Yelchin), who also pops in and out at convenient points; and Navigator Sulu (John Cho), whose ambition to command a starship gets multiple nods.

Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban) doesn’t undergo any emotional transformation, but he does provide occasional commentary and does some doctoring. Uhura’s contributions are a bit more nebulous, but she’s prominently featured during Kirk’s covert (and illegal) incursion onto Qo’noS.

One of Star Trek’s great strengths is the Enterprise’s diverse crew, who typically received short shrift on the screen during the original collection of TV shows and movies. In fact, a theme of Into Darkness is collaboration — the individuals efforts of Kirk and his companions is bound to fail without cooperation.

Don’t get me wrong. I give Abrams and his writers, Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof, credit for giving the entire ensemble something to do; the on-screen underutilization of the secondary characters was a key failing of Roddenberry’s show and the original-cast movies. But too often, Into Darkness’s character beats seem shoehorned into the action.

It doesn’t help matters that Kirk, while a decisive commander, is often ridiculously immature, especially in an early visit to Starfleet headquarters. It’s cringe-inducing to see Kirk bouncing around his first officer like a six-year-old about to visit the zoo for the first time. (Almost as puerile is the moment in this scene when the starship captain pauses to make a pass at two women who are walking by.) Yes, Kirk’s being a brash youngster is an integral part of Abrams’s rebooted Star Trek universe, but it’s odd to see a 20-something man acting so juvenile.

Another weakness of Into Darkness is its overly complex plot. The discovery and unfreezing of Khan, the terrorist attacks on Starfleet, the covert construction of a vast, exceptionally powerful warship — it’s a lot for viewers to keep up with. Which wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for Khan’s ludicrously devious scheme to liberate his frozen cremates.

Yes, the ancient conqueror is a genius, but his plans depend on (a) an admiral sending a starship with a certain weapon — in fact, with precisely 72 of those weapons — to a planet deep in enemy territory and (b) the captain of that starship declining to use or otherwise destroy any of those weapons. Into Darkness treads a fine line between the complicated and the ludicrous, but Khan’s intricate strategy would leave Rube Goldberg dumb-founded. Consider my credulity stretched beyond the breaking point.

(Also baffling: Why, during emergencies, would Starfleet routinely assemble its starship commanders and executive officers in a room when their ships are urgently needed somewhere other than Earth orbit? Is teleconferencing a lost art two centuries hence?

(Oh, and I know that the Trekverse is generally light on robots, but it seems quite weird that there wouldn’t be any machines on hand to use in sensitive and/or highly radioactive areas, such as the treacherous heart of a starship’s engine room.)

A few other touches in the movie also seem most un-Trek-like. The gray Starfleet dress uniforms call to mind the Imperial Navy of Star Wars more than they do anything from Roddenberry’s peace-loving United Federation of Planets. Civilian clothing, at least at the movie’s planet-bound climax, seems startlingly monochromatic. One enemy starship’s weapons sound surprisingly gunlike in a science fiction universe that has always shown energy-based beams lancing from ship to ship.

And as for Khan’s hairdo, which flops wildly from side to side, obscuring his face in a scene in which he single-handedly dismantles a squadron of commandos and patrol ships — what the heck is up with that?!

(While we’re on hair: As Anthony Lane snarked five years ago, Kirk’s coif frequently shifts its appearance — red in one scene, blond in another, red in a third.)

I had mixed feelings about Abrams’s 2009 Star Trek, which launched the franchise reboot. On balance, Into Darkness is a solid second step. It gets more right than it does wrong, and it’s definitely a lot of fun.

But in the end, it may set viewers’ heads whirling more than it does their hearts soaring, and that’s a pity.

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