Star Trek Into Darkness is like fan-boy fiction on a $185 million budget. It’s reverential, it’s faithful, it’s steeped in Trek mythology.
It’s also an excessively derivative what-if rehash of themes and interactions that came before, most of the characters lesser copies and even caricatures of the originals. The scenario’s been hijacked and rejiggered from better Trek plots of decades ago, the best verbal exchanges lifted nearly verbatim from past adventures.
In short, the new chiefs of Starfleet aren’t coming up with much to call their own.
They pile on the spectacle in a way that’s never been seen before in Star Trek, whose old big-screen incarnations were so notoriously underfunded they had to go back and borrow props, miniatures and visual effects from previous installments. The action in Into Darkness is top-notch, the visuals grand, though the movie’s needless conversion to 3-D muddies the images.
But the heart is, well, halfhearted, as though the people of the 23rd century are there to mouth the standard logic-vs.-emotion, needs-of-the-many-vs.-needs-of-the-few patter of Star Trek to count time before the next space battle or ray-gun shootout.
Director J.J. Abrams was most definitely not a fan-boy for this franchise when he made 2009’s Star Trek, which reintroduced Kirk, Spock and the rest of the starship Enterprise gang with a time-travel twist.
Abrams grew up a fan of Star Wars, the next space saga he’ll be reviving with the launch of a third trilogy. But his key collaborators, screenwriters Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof, are Trek fan-boys to their marrow.
The 2009 reboot replayed and tweaked elements connected to 1982’s Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, and Into Darkness mines that vein further. Some of it is cool in an alternate-history way, but the filmmakers remain so closely in orbit around yesteryear’s Star Trek that they wind up zigzagging fitfully through the Enterprise’s greatest hits.
Into Darkness opens with a splashy action sequence to reaffirm the cockiness of Capt. James Kirk (Chris Pine) — with his willingness to flout the rules — and the icy intellect of half-Vulcan First Officer Spock (Zachary Quinto), who’s willing to sacrifice his life to stick to the Starfleet playbook.
It’s clear these two don’t play well together, but just as the space brass is about to split them up, Starfleet is hit by savage terrorist attacks by mysterious desperado John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). Kirk, Spock and their Enterprise crew are dispatched to take Harrison out with weapons that could prove the mother of all drone strikes.
But loyalties slip and shift as the Enterprise uncovers the strange history of Harrison and his connections to a hawkish Starfleet admiral (Peter Weller).
Along the way, Spock hits some speed bumps in his romance with Zoe Saldana’s beautiful and brilliant Lt. Uhura, while Kirk meets Alice Eve’s beautiful and brilliant Dr. Carol Marcus.
The rest of the gang keeps up their routines. Curmudgeonly Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) gripes and moans, helmsman Sulu (John Cho) ably steers the ship, navigator Chekov (Anton Yelchin) does his precocious shtick and engineer Scott (Simon Pegg) works his technical miracles.
The big find here is Cumberbatch, who joins Ricardo Montalban, Christopher Plummer and Alice Krige in a fairly limited roster of great Trek villains.
As Abrams moves on, it falls to some next-generation filmmaker to carry on Star Trek if more sequels follow. Abrams hasn’t really guided the franchise into deep space, but he leaves it in a good place for successors to tell some rip-roaring sci-fi stories, without relying on reruns of old Trek glory days.
Star Trek Into Darkness
Rated PG-13, 132 minutes.