The review for “Shark Sandwich” was merely a two word review which simply read “Shit Sandwich”. – Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner, This Is Spinal Tap)
In my 2009 assessment of J.J. Abrams reboot of the Star Trek franchise, I focused most of my commentary on principals Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto, who as James Kirk and Spock carried the film despite its lazy plot. Laziness abounds, however, in this sequel and novice actors cannot save it.
The plot concerns a mysterious (read: banal) villain named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). Fans of the original Trek series will note that John Harrison was a crew member incapacitated by Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban) in the episode “Space Seed”. This is likely to be the first and second largest kick to the gut for Star Trek fans. Yes, (major spoilers ahead) the rumors are true. Mr. Cumberbatch is actually Khan in this “alternate timeline”. So not only did Mr. Abrams whitewash Khan, an Indo-Aryan übermensch played by a Mexican, but he also whitewashed a completely peripheral crewman named Harrison, played by a Filipino. If Mr. Abrams was so hell bent on haphazardly recycling the best of Star Trek’s movie villains, why did it never occur to him to use his own Lost actor, Naveen Andrews, an Indian-Englishman? Or how about reserving the talented Pakistani-American Faran Tahir for the role instead of wasting him in the preceding film as the USS Kelvin’s captain? Mr. Tahir, some will remember, is a credentialed villain-player, as the terrorist in Iron Man. Slapping a bad wig on Faran’s head, calling him Mogambo and naming the film Star Trek: Mr. India would have worked better.
If the character recycling isn’t bad enough, the film is riddled with borrowed nostalgia. It begins on the planet Nibiru (“moons of Nibia” my Trekker readers?) with Kirk and Spock flagrantly violating the Prime Directive of non-interference—a running joke that never gets old, but here you feel like director Abrams is explaining the joke as he’s telling it. The chase sequence, complete with tribe of humanoids who blink up instead of down, is loaded with sharp color contrast probably to wow viewers in the 3D exhibitions but it’s still just a blatant reference to the opening escape sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The movie is loaded with cringeworthy nods: Kirk’s relentless womanizing, McCoy’s labyrinthine metaphors, “family” jokes between Kirk and Carol Marcus (Alice Eve), “KHAAAAAAAN!”. It doesn’t strike me as any kind of effort in storytelling so much as it is J.J. Abrams’ latest roller coaster ride. You know it’s a bad sign when the success of a film rests on screenings postponed until the evening before release and they go to great lengths, even flat-out lies (nothing new for writers Damon Lindelof and Roberto Orci who insisted that the castaways from Lost weren’t dead), to conceal a character’s identity—if you knew, you probably wouldn’t go. And then there’s the title, “Into Darkness”? Between the cast and the ship’s lens flare-flooded bridge, the film couldn’t be any whiter. The original Trek had a sense of nuance. When the chips (and warp engines) were down, and Kirk was desperate, he fumbled his words on a dimly lit bridge. When Spock sacrificed himself, we didn’t get a long fucking soliloquy nor did it take Spock eight minutes to get to the antimatter chamber. Then there’s the phone call to Vulcan, which sets up the most audience-insulting expository cameo in recent cinema history—telling instead of showing us why Khan is dangerous.
The filmmakers’ most egregious conceit, however, rests in Kirk’s moral platitudes about a Starfleet Admiral (Peter Weller) who, like better Admirals before him (Star Trek VI anyone?), wants to go to war with the Klingons. It’s no secret that series creator Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future lie in stark contrast to the dystopian visions of writers like Ray Bradbury (a double-insult that Spock at one point in the film is re-assigned to the USS Bradbury). While Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan remains one of the most popular films, director Nicholas Meyer’s Horatio-Hornblower-in-Space plot defied Roddenberry’s ideals. When Mr. Meyer returned for the sendoff of Shatner, Nimoy and company in the sixth installment, Gene Roddenberry was on his deathbed and had very little say in the matter. True, those films contained in one minute of screen time more humanity than all of J.J. Abrams’ intellectually-bankrupt action extravaganzas combined. However, for all Kirk’s blathering about Starfleet’s exploratory mission, Mr. Abrams gives us action ad nauseam and relies solely on borrowed nostalgia for manufactured semblances of humanity. Despite Mr. Quinto’s and Mr. Pine’s best efforts to imbue gravitas, the filmmakers betray their hypocrisy every time it dares to tell you that Starfleet’s mission is nobler than war.
There’s a line early in the film when Lt. Uhura (Zoe Saldana) confronts the Klingons (another nod, in a sense, because every Trek fan knows how Nick Meyer stupidly insisted on a cultural joke that made Uhura look like an imbecile at translating Klingon). She tells one of the Klingon soldiers that Khan/Harrison has no honor. Neither does Mr. Abrams, whose most asinine parting shot is to dedicate the film to victims of the World Trade Center attacks right after co-opting our most disturbing memories in an action sequence, intended purely for emotional effect—a large spaceship plowing into a bunch of skyscrapers.
J.J. Abrams seems to want so badly to be another Spielberg—a manipulative tugger of heartstrings who began with good intentions, wanting to entertain everybody. However, Mr. Abrams falls monumentally short in his ability to tell a story that stands on its own merits. For all the novelty of a mirror universe redux, the preceding movie’s plot and villain were unconvincing. Here Abrams pulls the ultimate conceit basically saying he doesn’t care what fans liked about Trek, he wants to make teenage action nonsense. Isn’t pilfering an established franchise to further one’s blockbuster ambitions rendered superfluous if you willingly alienate the core audience you were trying to score for free? He might as well have made Fast and Furious 7: In Space, No One Can Hear You Drift.
Star Trek: Into Darkness • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 • Running Time: 132 minutes • MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence.