In the first scene of Star Trek Into Darkness, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and Doctor McCoy (Karl Urban) flee a horde of pissed-off primitives who look like the second-century Scots of The Eagle and act like the Skull Islanders in the 1930s King Kong. The planet is as red as Mars but much lusher; this scene was probably conceived before John Carter tanked, but it hearkens back to the same period of sci-fi pulp—the dark ages that Ray Bradbury and Robert A. Heinlein and, yes, Gene Roddenberry, wrested the genre from. Spears whiz past and one’s own inner primitive gets hooked. But then, in willful defiance of Starfleet’s mandate against meddling in the affairs of the technologically challenged, the Enterprise warps past the natives, and they draw the starship in the sand. Will there be ethical consequences to this mental pollution? Will the power-mad supervillain land on this planet and install himself as a god? Could the darkness into which the title says we’re heading be the same as that which Joseph Conrad got at the heart of? Nooope! Because then the filmmakers would have to be aware of a work of art or literature that’s not Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan—and on the evidence of this flick, they aren’t.
If this was a movie made in the spirit of the pre-J.J. Abrams Star Trek franchise, rather than an amusement-park ride hiding behind a famous brand, it might’ve gone there—or at least boldly tried to. I won’t pretend that the old days were all better ones. Rewatching the episodes can be painful: the dialogue is often dull-witted with delivery to match, expounding on obvious ideas bungled by banal direction—and I’m not just talking about the shoestring ’60s series, which has a hallowed place in the kitsch hall of fame next to black-velvet portraits of Elvis and poker-playing dogs. But even at its most Boy Scoutish, the old stuff was unified by a curiosity, both scientific and moral, that made it special and made it endure. Unlike Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Hunger Games, or Game of Thrones, which have primary authors from whom universes have spun out, the fictional universe of Star Trek, in keeping with its democratic ideals, was built on by writer upon writer, series upon series, decade after decade; it was densely populated and intricately linked; and though the strange new worlds that it passed through were all, in grand sci-fi manner, reflected in turn, the franchise had a core—ever familiar and almost autonomous. Abrams and his crew have trashed this unique asset, and worse, seem as thickheaded as Klingons. They have no new take on the material; they just distill it to its most commercial essences and milk it for self-parody, with some wit and jarringly modern patter tossed in for smirks. It’s no coincidence that their only frame of reference—out of a project of universe-making unseen in its complexity since the Big Bang—is Wrath of Khan. Khan is the best of the movies (nudging out First Contact, in my opinion), but, more importantly, it’s the most mainstream. That’s how little respect they have for their own instincts and putative passion for the franchise. It’s a Khan job.
Although the plot is held together by clichés that wouldn’t escape the delete key even in fan-fic, at least there’s more linkage than there was in the 2009 Star Trek—though the comic highs are lower, maybe because the whole conception is a joke that inevitably gets stale when repeated. (Abrams became a better storyteller with Super 8, which is certainly an auspicious development; but his brightest moments in Star Trek were slapstick routines and skits.) Pine earns his name with the degradation heaped on Kirk over Spock: Why is this cocky space-jammer so pathetic that he needs to hear a Vulcan tell him “I love you”? (One peculiarity of this reboot is that it’s adolescent and yet emasculated; there are more grown men bawling here than in a Lifetime movie.) But Pine makes Kirk more frazzled than William Shatner ever did, and he makes the combination of restless and wry both fresh and endearing. (Leonard Nimoy, in his cameo as Old Spock—who functions as a Magic 8-Ball—could be a dude in a Spock costume making minimum wage at Six Flags. Some continuity this is. Has he gone back to disowning the character?)