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?)
Even at my most nerdily sentimental, I never expected “art” from Star Trek, or from most summer tent-poles, for that matter; but this bitches’ brew of gutlessness, dismissiveness, and laziness—which may all ultimately be traced to incompetence—is degrading, especially as I must admit to having enjoyed it. (It’s like a roller coaster, I guess: It’s fun while it lasts, but you want to barf when you get off.) Domestic terrorism is used as a plot device—when the villain saves the life of some anonymous character’s daughter, and then the father goes kamikaze, was this part of some kind of pact? (In the age of teleportation, one might expect more sophisticated revenge schemes.) Then there are the little grandfathered-in details: haven’t we bypassed stowaways by the 23rd century, and since when could the Enterprise park right outside the Klingon homeworld and not get so much as a ticket? Kirk gives his life for the ship so that Spock’s death in Wrath of Khan can be restaged in reverse; but whereas it took Spock a whole movie (albeit not a very good one) to be resurrected, Kirk’s up-and-at-’em in five minutes thanks to a cheap deus ex machina and a callous disregard for the very feelings the filmmakers were trying to evoke. (Consistency of tone was one of the few things that The Dark Knight Rises got right, because Christopher Nolan had a conception and tried his best to stick to it.) To their credit, these screenwriters try for an allusion to drone strikes, even though the moral murk lasts no longer than Kirk’s death-nap. And there’s some toying with military secrecy and adventurism that is familiar from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, and then some. But since there’s no context for why a preemptive war with the Klingons would be desirable, apart from hearsay, it seems like no more than a plot convenience—which in this context means an excuse for yet another starship crash or phaser fight. Into Darkness is a foolishly hypocritical movie. It has—of all characters!—Mr. Spock beam away for the sake of a fist fight, only to have someone later pooh-pooh vengeance in passing. It venerates the crew’s mission as explorers, and yet sets its course for the tried-and-true by way of the boneheaded.
At a time when filmmakers try to gerrymander politics into superhero vehicles that can’t support it, we have Abrams and the dweebs behind Transformers rebooting a literal vessel for ideas and running it aground. They don’t care about gadgets, even in this gearhead golden age; can’t trouble themselves to imagine that a pub or apartment might look different in 200 years; can’t even give us an Enterprise that doesn’t look like a hair dryer. (They’ve pimped Shatner’s ride like a lowrider.) It’s all about the awesome—effects that aren’t novel, but look kickass when they punch your face in 3-D—with emotional dry runs and reruns that consist primarily of goading Spock into admitting his man-crush on Kirk. (McCoy’s been kicked out of the triumvirate, probably because his mucid metaphors—though parodic—are insufferable.) This waste and brutalization of, like it or not, American icons, is sad and perverse on way more than a personal level. Sure, I’m happy that, since Abrams’s first Trek into darkness, The Next Generation has been ascendant—among meme-makers, at least. And, yes, it’s reasonable to go wide of the Trekkie mark in aiming for broad appeal. But quality blockbusters like Skyfall can still reach a mass audience without insulting its intelligence; and, if anything, Star Trek is more broadly accessible now than ever before. I think the franchise earned its reputation as a nerd haven by yoking the weird and out-there with a square framing device: the five-year mission. One could say that that’s like strapping fantasy into orthodontic headgear, and at times one would have been right—but even at its most prosaic, the show’s mission was to expand one’s way of seeing, and, every so often, it succeeded quite beautifully. Nowadays, weirdness is pervasive to the point of its losing its power; and the sci-fi concepts (like aliens or time travel) that were once mitigated by Starfleet’s goody-goody astronaut-bureaucrats have now seeped into the mainstream, denuded of context, to parallel the experience of a life lived within clicking distance of Google. But the flipside to the normalizing of time warps and mind melds and aliens—and their horror-film cousins—is that they’re banalized in a whole new way, used to satisfy short attention spans that crave the weird because it structures tired material in a way that seems new. (That’s how time travel functioned in the 2009 Trek.) And I have little taste for “weirdness” as an end run around good storytelling, or for the dullness of spirit that makes fantasy mundane. Into Darkness both keeps the square frame and hangs it around a conventional shoot-’em-up. It offers no vision of the future, and, worse, no interest in it.
It’s rather like I’m dropping nuclear bombs to ward off an army of ants; I get that. Will I go see the next one in Imax and 3-D? Well, I go on sick roller coasters again even if they’ve made me puke. This film has no brains, but nor does it have any pretensions—apart from its passing itself off as Star Trek. Branding aside, it’s garbage. Fortunately, there are infinitely better Star Trek movies being made, like Looper or Source Code. Without Star Trek it’s just Into Darkness, and I hope its makers have the taste to turn the lights back on before the next installment. With any luck, someone will heed Matthew Yglesias’s advice, and put Star Trek back on TV first. What’s being done to it here is the equivalent of making Star Wars without the Force—and that just so happens to be Abrams’s next project.