J.J. Abrams of television's "Lost" sacrifices humanism and inventive storytelling for bloated Starship battles
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, May 17, 2013
LAST UPDATED: 01:40 a.m. HST, May 17, 2013
There is some intermittent complaining, in "Star Trek Into Darkness," about the militarization of the Federation's Starfleet. You may recall that the historic mission of the starship Enterprise was "to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations." While the crew on the first television series found its way into plenty of fights, the show itself always tried to stay true to the ideals of peaceful intergalactic ethnography.
You get a bit of that in the beginning of the new movie, the second in the rebooted franchise directed by J.J. Abrams, which takes place before all the stuff we remember from television and the first six feature films. James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is on the surface of a faraway planet overgrown with bright red vines and populated by primitive creatures with chalky white faces. For a few minutes, the nerdy, earnest multicultural vision of 1960s television is brought to life in the digital present, giving rise to an exciting sense of continuity. How great it would be to update the wit and sincerity of the original with the scale and velocity enabled by 21st-century moviemaking.
'STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS'
That hope is not entirely dashed. Pine and the rest of the cast, with some important new additions, continue to pay sharp and playful tribute to William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and others who first made the voyage from small screen to big. The identity of the main villain cleverly connects the movie to some of the very best episodes from long ago. But all the same, it's hard to emerge from "Into Darkness" without a feeling of disappointment, even betrayal. Maybe it is too late to lament the militarization of "Star Trek," but in his pursuit of blockbuster currency, Abrams has sacrificed a lot of its idiosyncrasy and, worse, the large-spirited humanism that sustained it.
In some of his television work — notably "Felicity" and "Alias"; most famously "Lost" — Abrams has shown both sensitivity to character and an inventive approach to storytelling. As a movie director, though, an opposite set of instincts too often takes hold, as he clings ever more anxiously to the conventions of the revenge-driven action genre. Hardly one to boldly go anywhere, he prefers to cautiously follow and skillfully pander.
After increasingly noisy and bloated starship battles, "Into Darkness" reaches a climax with the smashing of a North American city followed by a long fistfight on a flying metal platform. It's uninspired hackwork, and the frequent appearance of blue lens flares does not make this movie any more of a personal statement. Abrams will never be Michael Bay, who can make kinetic poetry out of huge pieces of machinery smashing together. Why should he want to be?
The good people at Paramount have asked me not to say too much about the plot, so I won't, except to note that it is pretty dumb and sometimes needlessly muddled. A terrorist bomb explodes in London (which, along with San Francisco, has a pretty cool futuristic makeover), and the hunt for the perpetrator leads to the uncovering of treachery within the Federation hierarchy and the threat of a war with the Klingons. Young Kirk, a hothead and a tomcat, is at risk of losing his ship, both physically and symbolically, as he navigates his daddy issues in the shadow of Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) and Starfleet Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller), a militaristic high mucky-muck in the Starfleet.
But story has always been the most disposable element in the "Star Trek" universe, and Abrams and the screenwriters (Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof) honor its tradition best when they treat the Enterprise as a hive of personalities and volatile connections. The difficult romance between Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) is complemented, and at times overshadowed, by the Spock-Kirk bromance.
The half-man, half-Vulcan at the center of those relationships — and also the logical thorn in the emotive side of Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) — is one of the great characters in American popular culture, and Quinto slyly and respectfully revises our sense of him. His performance is witty and self-aware but also entirely serious, and his Spock is at once the ship's stoical straight man and the guy with all the best jokes.
"Star Trek" is essentially "The Office" in space: an endless workplace comedy with bittersweet moments and secondary characters who spring vividly out of the background. (Here is the place to mention the scene-stealing Simon Pegg as Scotty; Anton Yelchin as Chekov; John Cho as Sulu; and Alice Eve as Carol, whose character's last name counts as a minor spoiler.) Or it would be a sitcom without the galvanizing presence of evil, arriving this time in the person of Benedict Cumberbatch.
Cumberbatch, pale and intense, has become the object of a global fan cult, and it's easy to see why. Whether playing a hero (as in "Sherlock") or a villain, he fuses Byronic charisma with an impatient, imperious intelligence that seems to raise the ambient IQ whenever he's on screen.
"Star Trek Into Darkness" does not quite stand by itself as a satisfying movie, but then again it doesn't need to. It is the leg of a journey that has, remarkably, lasted for nearly a half-century. I hope we never tire of Kirk, Spock and the others. I also hope that they stick around long enough to find a new civilization, since the one we have now does not fully appreciate their gifts.
--A.O. Scott / New York Times