In 2009, director JJ Abrams showed how it was possible to update Star Trek into a fun, entertaining film while still remaining respectful of its source material. The film was a hit, and after four years, Into Darkness arrives in theaters. But while Star Trek was a fresh, new experience, Into Darkness is already showing fatigue under its shiny gloss.
Into Darkness takes place where the previous film left off. The young, charming, and rebellious James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is the captain of the USS Enterprise, boldly going where no man has gone before and boldly defying Starfleet protocols. But when a threat emerges back on Earth, the Enterprise and her crew must do whatever they can to protect Starfleet itself.
Just like with the previous film, Into Darkness’ cast is a treat to watch. Pine plays Kirk with a swagger and cockiness that channels William Shatner without being parody, and Karl Urban’s portrayal of Leonard “Bones” McCoy is a treat to watch.
Zachary Quinto is good, too. Logically.
The action, likewise, is exhilarating. Ships burn and crash through the atmosphere, and Abrams provides great set-piece action sequences that take full advantage of his cast’s youth and energy. Abrams has updated Star Trek for a more modern audience, and although it loses some of its intellectual nature, the rebooted franchise moves at a quick pace.
However, Abrams seems to have concentrated too much on delivering exciting action sequences than crafting an intelligible story. Into Darkness requires prior familiarity with the original movies in order to function as a cohesive experience. As a stand-alone feature, the movie fails to impart even the most basic information to the viewer, and leaves the uninitiated viewer feeling lost and confused.
One of the big “reveals” in this movie comes as the movie’s villain, John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), is being held prisoner aboard the Enterprise. Talking with McCoy and Kirk, Harrison dramatically announces that his name is “Khaaaan,” complete with foreboding and ominous music. But the film never bothers to explain why this is such an important reveal. It assumes the audience has at least heard of the villain Khan, and assumes that that knowledge is enough to satiate the audience’s questions. Even McCoy and Kirk look wary and unsure in the light of this new information, but in reality they should instead be asking, “uh…who?” For an audience member who has never seen Wrath of Khan, this reveal is meaningless, and the movie never deigns to explain who or what Khan is.
“Guys, it’s all explained in this 1982 movie. You do have a VHS player on this ship, right?”
Even Khan’s back-story is senseless without prior knowledge of Star Trek canon. Into Darkness takes place in the 23rd century, but Khan is said to have been frozen for 300 years on one of the first sub-warp starships. After awakening, his superior intellect and strength were used by the Federation to design new weapons and starships. But to the average audience member, this information makes no sense. How is Khan from the early 20th century if that technology didn’t exist back then? Where does his superhuman strength and intelligence come from? The movie never bothers to explain these apparent discrepancies. Though these questions were answered in The Wrath of Khan, a reboot shouldn’t require outside knowledge in order for its basic narrative to work.
Moreover, Star Trek Into Darkness is disturbingly self-aware. Callbacks to the original series and set of films are so frequent and obvious that it feels less a Star Trek film than it does a parody, almost like it’s going down a “greatest hits” list of Star Trek pop-culture knowledge. Characters say their catchphrases within minutes of appearing on screen, tribbles make a random appearance, Klingons are here because, well, people have heard of Klingons before! The movie feels like a hodge-podge of classic Star Trek moments the writers desperately wanted to include in the new film, but had no real idea of how to organically work them into the movie.
After such a fun and successful first film, it’s frustrating to see Star Trek fall into the same safe pattern laid out in its predecessors. One of the benefits of a rebooted franchise is that it allows the characters and story to start from square one, no longer beholden to byzantine plot threads or decades of convoluted canon. But Into Darkness is content to tread familiar ground, throwing reference after reference at the viewer at the expense of its own identity.
It seems the writers are at a point where good, original stories are not on their agenda. There’s literally a universe of possibilities they could take Star Trek, but instead we get more of the same. The effort of creating an alternate Star Trek timeline will go to waste if the new films simply repeat storylines from the past.
With such a great cast and talented director, the new Star Trek films deserve better. As it stands now, the film not-so-boldly goes where many others have gone before.