'Star Trek Into Darkness': To boldly disappoint

J.J. Abrams’ new film Star Trek Into Darkness has just enough thoughts floating around its unexceptional script to make the viewer conscious of what could have been, but not enough to make it interesting. Its visuals are flashy enough to entertain but not dynamic enough to transfix. It is a profoundly disappointing movie.

The plot, briefly: prematurely promoted starship captain James T. Kirk disobeys standing orders to try to save a primitive species of aliens. He is caught, demoted, then swept up into a manhunt for a wanted fugitive and a conspiracy within Starfleet command. To the degree it can be said to have a theme, it warns about the dangers of militarization. There’s rich potential in analyzing the tensions of a highly armed military body genuinely devoted to peace, potential the movie is uninterested in examining. Indeed, to do so would betray a greater sense of self-awareness than Star Trek Into Darkness appears to possess, because it is itself a more militarized, action-oriented version of past Star Treks.

Character development is less stunted though hardly impressive. The film is a coming-of-age tale in which its only two dynamic characters, Kirk and Spock, must learn to accept the trappings of adulthood — Kirk setting aside his considerable ego to care for his crew, and Spock abandoning his attempt to deny emotion altogether. But these are simply basic character beats, drawn broadly and not dwelled upon at any length. They are interesting primarily as a counterpoint to this film’s antecedent, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which featured a 51-year-old William Shatner and addressed, with considerably more elegance than Abrams, a group of adults coming to terms with the decline of middle age.

Abrams intends for viewers to draw comparisons with Wrath of Khan, _sprinkling references to that classic, arguably greatest Star Trek film throughout. Throw-aways, gags, characters and subplots all reference the prior film, in what is doubtlessly the cleverest aspect of the script by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof. But even this highlight is telling in that it is a shallow mockery of intellectualism, content to merely refer to ideas and art without actually engaging them. Even the original, low-budget 1967 TV episode on which _Wrath of Khan _was based managed to be more thoughtful than _Into Darkness, whose plentiful references reflect the shortcomings of this Age of the Remix.

It is not an unenjoyable movie, containing generally fine acting, typically excellent special effects and a series of mildly entertaining action set pieces. But this is no mere popcorn flick. Its plot and characters could be so much more interesting but fall sadly short through general lack of interest by Abrams and the writing trio (who were reportedly concerned with making the movie appealing to an international, non-English-speaking audience by shying away from the talky stuff).

The most curious thing about Star Trek Into Darkness is not actually about the movie at all, but rather why its similarly action-first and intellectually unambitious 2009 predecessor did not provoke the same disappointment. The 2009 Star Trek film was actually very entertaining despite its shortcomings. Partly it gets graded on a curve because it shoulders the burden of introducing all the characters and rebooting a universe. That film also drew much of its limited intellectual energy from the clash between the archetypes of the major characters — a well that can only be drawn on so many times before it begins to go dry.

If there is optimism to be found in this latest Star Trek film, it lies at the end, when after two entire movies the USS Enterprise finally gets its famous five-year mission to explore new worlds. That setup leaves creative room for a more interesting sequel, while financially the movie’s overseas success could build the brand loyalty to bring audiences back to a less flashy sequel. With Abrams himself set to jump ship to his own true sci-fi love, Star Wars, perhaps this rebooted Star Trek franchise could belatedly take the next step to become not simply entertaining but satisfying.