A funny thing happened on the walk out of Star Trek Into Darkness: I plummeted from a high of soaking in fun visual splendor and adrenaline-churning large-scale action sequences to a middle ground of frustration once I actually took a moment to ponder some of the plot points connecting all the lens flare-soaked glory.
If you're a fan of 2009's Star Trek, you were likely charmed by director J.J. Abrams' ability to enthusiastically introduce us to a set of well-matched characters, commandeer thrilling action pieces and confidently usher his audience through a reasonable (albeit not particularly sophisticated) plot. The film stands as a successful melding of entertainment value and homage for fans -- precisely what should be expected of a summer blockbuster branded with the name of a beloved franchise.
That’s why you'll likely find the director's follow-up to be a bit lacking, eclipsed in the planetary shadow of its predecessor when it comes to both character and plot development, while upping the action ante to the point of distraction. The highs are pretty high, though, beginning with a gorgeous opening sequence rivaling that of the 2009 film.
It's clear that Abrams enjoys hanging out with his characters as much as we do. His adept eye for casting was showcased in Star Trek, and the chemistry between his actors is no less diminished in Star Trek Into Darkness. Unfortunately for the second film, Abrams’ enthusiasm doesn't quite follow through to effect, and the players are often plunged into shallow scenarios and given nothing but predictable, contrived material with which to work. (Karl Urban's Bones is perhaps the most shining example of this unfortunate effect; he's reduced to nothing but bad one-liners, sucking the goofy charm from his character and replacing it with profound annoyance on the audience's part.)
Where the theme of 2009's Star Trek is self-acceptance and embracing one's destiny, Into Darkness settles firmly on the intricacies of family. The script's lack of depth begins right here: The idea of connecting a cast of characters via shared emotional plights (as opposed to juxtaposing them wrestling with said emotions individually) requires more of an effort than Abrams and his writing team seem willing to expend. Much of the camaraderie -- particularly that between Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and First Officer Spock (Zachary Quinto) -- feels laden with unearned, forced emotion. And the common thread is practically shoved down our throats throughout the film, starting with an inciting incident involving a Starfleet member desperate to save his dying daughter, continuing with Kirk's clashes with Admiral Christopher Pike, and even involving the film's antagonist (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), who taunts Kirk with comparisons of crew members as family. It builds to a swell beyond metaphor; it simply pummels the life-force from every character, transforming them into pawns moved along the script's very deliberate laundry list of items to be packed into the movie's 132-minute run time. Almost none of the intriguing philosophy we've come to know of Star Trek is showcased here -- it feels a bit like looking at the marketing posters for Into Darkness: an iconic image going down in smoke.
While the film's plot all but falls apart by the third act (truly, the audience is asked to swallow some pretty astounding leaps in logic), there are admittedly plenty of beautiful large-scale action experiences to satiate the big crowds. The troubling thing is, while one would expect the Star Trek reboots to cater to the masses, they don't necessarily have to feel that way. The 2009 film managed a semblance of intimacy between the maker and the built-in market, yet Abrams' recent comments about never being a fan of Star Trek feel about right where Into Darkness is concerned.
Cumberbatch serves as the film's breath of fresh air, at least, in spirit. Despite his character's inferior arc, he's a force in both presence and physicality -- both commanding and calculating in the absolute. And, for what it's worth, he seems to be having fun with it. Pine and Quinto remain perfectly cast, as does Zoe Saldana (as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura). Simon Pegg's Scotty gets in on some action, but is still relegated to slinging the story's biggest bits of comedic relief, although he's not as backed into a corner as Urban's Bones. Cast newcomer Alice Eve never quite elevates beyond the pretty face of the Enterprise's science officer, although she heroically does her duty of fulfilling the movie's bra-and-panty quotient.
While sophomore efforts are often a bumpy ride, especially following a reboot beloved by both a ravenous fan base and newbies alike, Into Darkness feels like even more of a divergence from the spirit of Star Trek's history, clocking in as a purely popcorn movie and missing the opportunities for more substance. The writing could do with a bit of practicing what its key character preaches, as many of the film’s plot points are in desperate need of Spock-style reasoning. It's a bit ironic that Pike chides Kirk at one point, "You don't respect the chair”; to take on a film labeled Star Trek is an automatic burden, and it cannot simply be brushed off.
Star Trek Into Darkness opens Friday nationwide.