I was so nervous I shook my head, it was a struggle but there was pleasure at the end

trekinto

The 2009 reboot of the Star Trek franchise, directed by J.J. Abrams, was better than any such pillaging of pop culture’s past has a right to be. Ingeniously drawing on the exact time travel tropes that contributed to some of the more mortifying moments in the long history of Gene Roddenberry sci-fi creation, Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman recreated the story with an updated sensibility while keeping all previously existing continuity firmly and faithfully intact. It was a sterling piece of entertainment that was also a respectable tribute to what had come before. Unfortunately, its success and the dictates of modern filmmaking meant that Abrams and his team were basically beholden to pull it off again, which leads to the arrival of Star Trek Into Darkness. While still vivid fun, it also suggests that diminishing returns is a nearly inescapable phenomenon.

The crew of the starship Enterprise, familiar to audiences since 1966, remains intact, not quite committed to lengthy half-decade missions yet, but still dispatched to different portions of the universe to do a little exploring. The film begins as the crew is in the process of violating the Prime Directive of the Federation, which insists that Starfleet officers must not interfere in the lives and development of the alien races they encounter. Orci and Kurtzman are again credited screenwriters, this time alongside Damon Lindelof (one of the many producers with his name on the new iteration of the series) and their purpose with the early sequence is clear: setting up some of the philosophical conflicts between the characters, while also trying to unsettle the characters’ placement within the confines of the story. It’s fine, but it’s also transparent, moving pieces around to keep the audience guessing as to when things will lock into place. As foreshadowing to the ways in which the film will invert Trek history later, it’s a little more intriguing.

If there’s any quality that Abrams has brought to both of these Trek films, it’s an engaging playfulness, a sense of the invention that can come from looking at tried and true material anew, as if rummaging through a trunk of colorful Vaudevillian costumes. Abrams and company don’t inspire with originality, even within the confines of this single film, in which multiple sequences build to the image of someone jumping from a high point into the midair of a lengthy plummet. It’s less of a recurring motif than a willful miring in redundancy. That also arises in the staging of the story, which often comes across as an extended series of set pieces. They may hang together well and ultimately add up to an enjoyable whole, but there’s also the somewhat flattened sensation of watching a amusement park ride get bolted together rather than watching a satisfying story formulate and build.

Fine as Star Trek Into Darkness is, it may be for the best that Abrams is moving on to Star Wars, presumably taking most of his creative cohorts with him. He’s successfully toyed with the most iconographic elements of Trek, and it’s difficult to conceive of the series holding his interest much further. And by the evidence of the current film, he’s pulled together a set of actors capable of carrying this franchise further than the able but limited journeymen who occupied the roles before. Chris Pine still has a whiff of William Shatner’s over-emotive bravado, but with a tempering of humility that the original Kirk could never pull off. And Zachary Quinto absolutely owns the role of Spock now, drawing on Leonard Nimoy’s wonderful work but giving the half-Vulcan a nicely splintered inner life. The rest of the cast is admirable if necessarily limited in their opportunities, but special commendations should go out to Benedict Cumberbatch for his roaring work as the antagonist who will remain unnamed here. Even if Abrams completely disembarks for a galaxy far, far away, he is leaving this franchise with a crew properly equipped to go boldly, presumably for a long time to come.

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