J.J. Abrams’s innovation on the “Star Trek” reboot was that he managed to take a long-standing institution, play with a very sacred universe’s timeline and still manage to canonize it. If he didn’t manage to impress me, and I was one of very few, it’s that doing so was his only innovation.
Set pieces existed for their own sake, as did stylistic camera twirls and lens flares. Dialogue teetered on being self-serious and self-referential without pausing for breath, and the plot that grew out of it didn’t make as much sense as it appeared. Even Roger Ebert pointed out that in this futuristic sci-fi epic, space battles were reduced to cataclysmic mayhem and sparring with fists and swords.
And although “Star Trek Into Darkness” improves upon that last aspect to the point that I enjoyed everything I saw, part of me wishes the Abrams from “Super 8” showed up, to dust off a cliché, and boldly go where none have gone before. Point being, if you’re looking for innovation here, you won’t find it.
But then critics called the first “Star Trek” the best popcorn movie in some time. “Into Darkness” continues handily on that tradition. It opens with a cartoonish, whiz-bang, action set piece befitting a Bond movie. Bright red trees and primitive natives dash past the camera as Kirk, Spock and Bones all speed through the bookish, procedural plot description and jam in a few one-liners in between.
And much of the movie takes place at this same velocity. A terrorist attack against Starfleet has just been carried out by a mysterious cloaked man with the Keanu Reeves era “Matrix” look (Benedict Cumberbatch), and all the officers are convened to plan a course of attack. At this meeting, the mysterious lone villain attacks again, and this time Kirk (Chris Pine) swears revenge.
He’s tasked with tracking and destroying the terrorist on the enemy Kling-On planet without starting a war. But when Kirk captures him instead and finds out his true identity, a whole conspiracy starts brewing.
One of the film’s most invigorating and original scenes has Kirk rocketing out into space, deftly maneuvering floating debris to make it inside an air shaft on an enemy ship, pending Scotty (Simon Pegg) open the hatch at the last second. The moment after he launches, the film becomes silent for the first and only time, and the moment is jaw dropping. After that, Abrams is literally hurling space junk into our line of vision along with the bookish narration from Kirk and Scotty’s frenetic antics.
To call this moment exciting is one thing, but to call it balanced would be another. And as elaborate plotting, CGI resources and characters just bursting with the desire to shout a catch phrase all mount on Abrams’s plate, his tendency is to simply juggle these million components at us at once.
It’s the reason why every conversation is cluttered with good-looking, but distracting lens flares, reflected electronic readouts, dwarfing and bizarre sci-fi sets and even floating dust from an explosion. It’s the reason this hectic, no-nonsense action movie shoehorns in themes of Kirk and Spock’s (Zachary Quinto) bromance, Spock and Uhura’s (Zoe Saldana) troubled love affair, Kirk’s daddy and authority issues and even political themes of war and armament.
The bright side is that Abrams’s dialogue, although not credited to him but certainly borrowing in his style, has deadpan wit and charm. Cumberbatch makes for a scene-chewing villain, and the rest of the cast’s ferocious performances give “Into Darkness” a convincing level of gravity.
But Abrams is dealing with so many themes necessary to make people care that all of it lacks the Spielbergian pacing and suspense that made “Super 8” feel so fresh. This is a CGI maelstrom as spectacular as any mainstream Hollywood epic today, but how much on concept alone is stuff we’ve never seen before? We’ve got fistfights atop flying truck beds and the hero fearlessly dashing into a dangerous radiation chamber to save the day. Even the space junk sequence I applauded above borrows from the original’s skydiving sequence.
Abrams already earned his stripes in respecting the franchise’s legacy. With this sequel, he should’ve taken these characters to new worlds, and one can only hope he’ll do so when he tackles an even bigger franchise, “Star Wars.”