Beware, here be spoilers, but God give me strength.
If JJ Abrams wants to exercise his startlingly ‘innovative’ narrative muscle on a Mission Impossible, fine. If he wants to liberally splat lens flare over a monster movie homage to ‘seventies Spielberg, fine. If he wants to waste literally thousands of creative man-hours redefining pointless high-concept television, that’s up to him. I have no problem with that. However, if he wants to bounce Star Trek around like some cheap floozy at a screenwriting workshop, then I suggest he step outside.
Star Trek, you see, has a heart. It’s not Gene Roddenberry’s fault that the last two old school releases - Insurrection and Nemesis - let that vital fact slip through the fatty cracks of a turgid movie-of the-week morality and tanked so spectacularly that Paramount went searching for a Messiah, a man who could finally free Star Trek from the paralysing bonds of its own canonical continuity – and I admit, four years ago I was one of those relieved & refreshed millions who rejoiced when Abrams wiped it all away with the first Pine/Quinto Star Trek.
I was blinded by the enthusiasm and excitement and life that suddenly seemed to be coursing through the franchise. The time-twisting destruction of Vulcan and the premature death of Kirk’s father provided the tabula rasa to redefine Trek’s three pivotal characters for a new generation, and I walked away convinced that, perhaps, the entire point of Star Trek should always be Kirk, Spock, and McCoy – that, without them, it’s nothing. What choice did JJ have?
So, I was very excited about Star Trek: Into Darkness. It was our chance to see Abrams’ first truly original marks on his blank slate. What strange new worlds would he explore? Which new civilisations would he seek out? I mean, he’s hardly going to just retrofit Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is he? Ha ha, that would be stupid. Wouldn’t it?
There’s a lot more to it than that, thankfully. The film opens with Kirk & McCoy distracting a primitive tribe while Spock descends into the heart of an erupting Volcano that threatens to eradicate them all. The tribe are saved and Kirk plucks Spock from the fiery jaws of death, but at the expense of exposing the tribe to the Enterprise, thus breaking the Prime Directive, a fact that Spock naturally can’t fail to point out in his report to Admiral Pike, who consequently relieves Kirk of his ship (“You don’t respect the chair.”) He’s soon back in the saddle, however, when ‘John Harrison’, an ex-Starfleet secret agent turned ‘terrorist’ blows up London and kills most of Starfleet’s flag officers in an audacious air attack before fleeing to Qo’noS, the Klingon homeworld.
Kirk & Co are charged with “hunting the bastard down”. What follows is a frenetic cocktail of revelation, conspiracy, and bizarre homage. Benedict Cumberbatch, though, is brilliant as Harrison, playing him as the perfect anti-hero, a megalomaniac with a purpose, a lethal weapon loyal only to his true family. He’s not even the proper villain in ST:ID either, but then neither is he ‘John Harrison’. He’s someone else. He’s someone iconic.
And that’s the shame, because Star Trek: Into Darkness is otherwise so very nearly there. To be a truly great movie, a blockbuster has to be more than the world’s most expensive rollercoaster du jour; there has to be a point where it at least tries to have a heart, and ST:ID has several such points (when Spock explains why he chose to ’feel nothing’ in the heart of the volcano, for one) but then Abrams makes a totally dumb-arse choice. He undermines everything by transplanting, verbatim, scenes & lines from The Wrath of Khan, instantly deflating his alternate reality and inviting (to me) unfavorable comparisons.
I can see how it can be justified as a twist in that fresh reality, but the way Abrams does it makes no sense – we have not spent enough time with these actors for that exact dramatic beat to fall anything but flat, so it just feels like a cocky move made to display his power – “look, I have such total command of this franchise that I can make Scotty stand idly by while Kirk risks his life – and I can do that while recycling thirty-year old dialogue!” It’s a magician’s trick, and it feels cheap.
But then that’s what I’ve always suspected Abrams to be: a magician, not a master. He’ll never be a Spielberg, or even a Lucas, but he has the keys to the latter’s empire now and Lord alone knows what outrageous liberties he’s going to take with it. Don’t get me wrong. Overall, I enjoyed Star Trek: Into Darkness - Chris Pine is an excellent Kirk and Quinto an exemplary Spock.
JJ Abrams, though, is no Nick Meyer.