Star Trek Into Darkness is such a brooding, portentous title for such a zippy goofball of a movie. Why Into Darkness? Probably because it sounds cool. The movie also sounds cool — the decibel level, as usual with these summer behemoths, is punishing — and looks cool. “Cool” has seldom been an adjective associated with Star Trek, at least among non-Trekkies; what franchise rebooters J.J. Abrams (director) and his writing cohorts Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci have done is to make Gene Roddenberry’s gentle humanist daydream safe for consumers of more steak-and-potatoes fare like Fast and Furious. To that end, lots of things explode and there are many, many chases, many races against the clock. This is a movie in which an event that would climax a frailer movie — Spock (Zachary Quinto) setting off a cold-fusion device inside a volcano to quell its eruption — is just the throat-clearing opener, explaining why impetuous Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) is busted down to First Officer.
Kirk saved an entire planet, but he wasn’t supposed to — he broke the Prime Directive, observe but don’t mess with alien civilizations — so, for his troubles, he gets demoted and loses his ship, the Enterprise, to his mentor, Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood). That doesn’t stick, though, because soon a terrorist (Benedict Cumberbatch) has someone set off a bomb in London (it’s nice to see that London will still have trees in the 23rd century) and tries to kill all of the Starfleet’s captains. This is bad, so Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) authorizes Kirk to take off after the terrorist and terminate him with extreme prejudice. The terrorist turns out to be Khan, a name familiar from a thousand internet memes featuring William Shatner bellowing it.
This is not quite the Khan we remember from the original Star Trek episode “Space Seed” and its feature-length sequel The Wrath of Khan; this rebooted Star Trek follows an alternate timeline, which theoretically means the crew of the Enterprise should be free to have all new adventures and encounter fresh new threats, not face off once again with a reiteration of a villain they battled 31 years ago in a different timeline. Benedict Cumberbatch seems to know he can’t compete with Ricardo Montalban’s beloved and richly campy reading of Khan, so he doesn’t even try; besides, he doesn’t have the dialogue. (And this movie, chasing as it does the Vin Diesel crowd, wouldn’t dream of having a Melville-quoting Khan spitting venom at a Dickens-reading Kirk. This Kirk might only pick up a book if it were lying atop an issue of Playboy, but it’s amusing that he’s still listening to the Beastie Boys.)
A Star Trek film lives or dies on the chemistry of the crew, and on that level the new movie sort of works. I like how actors such as Simon Pegg and Karl Urban seem to have enough reverence for James Doohan and DeForest Kelley to mimic the late actors’ mannerisms, but also enough of their own wit to make the characters their own. The characters are fun to spend time with. But the script deals in so many pointless twists and so much parking-lot logic (i.e., the kind of plot holes that make you go “Wait a minute” on your way to your car, and perhaps sooner) that there never seem to be any serious stakes. The movie hits the ground running and never stops; it gets winded with the frantic efforts to keep hustling us over all the plot speed bumps. Also, the movie ends with a glaring cheat that essentially means nobody in the Star Trek universe has to die any more. At least Spock stayed dead for a while, back in the ’80s when death still mattered in movies.
Fairly early on, I figured out how dumb Star Trek Into Darkness was going to be, so I just relaxed into the dumbness. It’s a top-notch light show (I saw it in 2D, so can’t comment on how effective the post-converted 3D is), scored with excitable flourish by Michael Giacchino. After a while I laughed at myself for watching a movie that climaxed, more or less, with a chase on foot between Khan and a really pissed-off Spock. This, I remind you, is a movie that begins with Spock stopping a volcano from erupting, and eventually winds up with the same mechanics — minus the hopping from airship to airship — that you see at the end of every fifth-rate cop show. The poor movie. It just wears itself right out. You almost want to offer it some iced tea and sit it under a tree for a spell.