By Bob Clark
Though it began and broke new conceptual and thematic ground on television, and wound up thriving in spin-off after spin-off years later, the Star Trek franchise only really took hold and proved itself as something viable once it channeled its creative energy onto the big screen. That’s not to say that The Motion Picture was a resounding success– despite the talent and pedigree of director Robert Wise, special-effects guru Douglass Trumbull and of course the entire returning cast of the television series, that first film venture proved itself just a little too remote for most audiences. Amounting to something of a high-concept, somewhat more linear cousin of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the movie has quite a lot going for it if you want a piece of hard science-fiction that could stand tall with any of the speculative episodes that came before it on television (its script began as a pilot for a return to the small-screen, which wouldn’t happen until The Next Generation). But it was a little too slow for the mainstream crowd, and even a little trying on the patience of fans, who missed the adventurous, swashbuckling style that William Shatner cut on television as Captain Kirk, and that’s what they got in droves in The Wrath of Khan, perhaps the one movie perhaps that lives up to its reputation as a sequel that doesn’t just match the original, but handily outpaces it.
Since then, it seems that nearly every succeeding Star Trek theatrical venture has tried to imbue itself with at least some of the swaggering manner of Khan, or even pattern itself after its basic structure of space warfare and revenge storylines, this in a series that began as a vision of mankind coming together from all differences to reach a better society, free of hatred or conflict of any kind. In a sense, it’s only natural that the franchise should rely upon it as a standard narrative, as it provides a very nice way to contrast the high-minded social themes and concerns inherent in Gene Roddenberry’s hopeful look into the future with more personal motives, allowing an audience to better appreciate the sometimes more distant utopian aspects. The fact that the film also married this with the killer sci-fi MacGuffin of the Genesis device, capable of bringing life to a dead planet or wiping out the existing natural order of an inhabited world, and was moreover willing to take real chances with the status-quo of the series and add legitimate life-or-death stakes to the mix helps it stand above even the better imitators in the franchise. First Contact places a worthy, if distant second, mostly thanks to Patrick Stewart’s commanding lead and the genuine menace of the Borg, as well as a nifty inversion of the Captain Ahab tropes, but it’s by no means the only Trek film that attempts to resurrect the vengeance-themed goalpost of Khan, most of which have been middling affairs. But none have been so direct in their appropriation or as epic in their failure as Star Trek Into Darkness.
Picking up where 2009’s time-traveling reboot of the series left off, what we have here is mostly a rather complete recycling of the same narrative elements that the original series’ episode Space Seed and The Wrath of Khan used, retelling the same basic plot points with a younger cast, and characters switching in and out of their respective places from the original timeline. We still have all the same players occupying their characters– Chris Pine playing Kirk less as the showboat adventurer of Shatner and more douchey frat boy in dire need of having a chip knocked out of his shoulder with a sledgehammer, with Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban not so much performing Spock and Bones as delivering impersonations that could be mistaken for Disneyland animatronics. Joining the fray is Bennedict Cumberbautch as the lead villain, who in all fairness pours just as much menace and relish into his performance as his predecessor, but not enough to make up for box-office bait like this being the reason that we only get three episodes of Sherlock a year. In addition there’s a distracting subplot involving Peter Weller as a Starfleet admiral pursuing a militaristic course that subverts the organization’s utopian ideals of exploration and peace in favor of trying to start a war against the Klingon Empire with futuristic black-0p technology– in other words, the basic plot of The Undiscovered Country and Insurrection, which earn points for not copying and pasting the Khan revenge story outright, despite both still being a little dull.
In that sense, Into Darkness is at least in good company among the more middling Trek efforts, but not so much because it’s dull– rather, it’s so unrelentingly bombastic and explosive in its pace and action formula that it quickly becomes deadeningly monotonous. One of the things that writer/director Nicholas Meyer, himself a Trek novice at the time, understood was that the series was essentially a naval adventure of the Horatio Hornblower or Master & Commander ilk set in space, and the template he established of cat-and-mouse style capital-ship battles is one that the best films of the series have followed for how they favored both the actors, who could chew plenty of scenery in the command-deck portions, as well as the special-effects spectacle by creating something distinctive from the more kinetic duels and dogfights of Star Wars and its ilk. When directing the 2009 reboot J.J. Abrams seemed only all too willing to throw out the more strategic starship shootouts of the series in favor of a hyperactive brand of digital fireworks that makes Michael Bay’s Transformer movies look docile by comparison, throwing volley after volley of laser blasts and explosions into sequences that have the standard shake-and-bake look of action movies whose makers think that coherence only stands in the way of realism. This gets ramped up even more throughout Into Darkness, which piles on so many additional chases, shootouts and attacks in its running time that there’s barely any time left over for anyone to figure out how to get their hand into the right position for a Vulcan salute.
And this in and of itself wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing– First Contact jettisoned the capital-ship combat mostly and focused on the Borg, basically amounting to a cybernetic variation on the zombie genre– if it weren’t for just how derivative the sequences Abrams stitches together feel. It’s especially sad considering how unique the best of his work on television could be, like the sensational pilot to Lost, but here as a mercenary auteur for Star Trek, it seems like all he can do is steal set-pieces, story beats and atmosphere from a whole decades’ worth or more of more original adventures and slap a Starfleet logo on it. In allowing Cumberbautch to be taken under arrest all as part of an elaborate plan, it joins the ranks of Skyfall, The Avengers and the Dark Knight movies and their increasingly far-fetched Rube Goldberg plotting masterminds. In weaving together a mad dash through the insides of the Enterprise as it loses control of gravity during a firefight it copies the same stunts that Inception pulled, with perhaps even less visual grounding. And in a late-climax series of escalating chase and fistfight across a vast futuristic cityscape it recalls not only Minority Report and the latter-day Star Wars films, but also films that have already been drawing from the same well for their own derivative action sequences.
It was bad enough when Len Wiseman’s Total Recall remake owed far more to Lucas & Spielberg than it did to the Paul Verhoven original, to say nothing of Phillip K. Dick, and when Into Darkness begins looking more like Wiseman’s nested-dolls of ripoffs and homages, it becomes hard to see it as anything other than pop-cultural wallpaper– a reboot wrapped in a remake inside a retelling. The fact that Abrams has moved on to another one of those franchises is all the more telling in how cynical and impersonal his time in Trek has been, and it doesn’t bode well for how he’s likely to treat even a series he’s spoken fondly of. It’s all the more disappointing to look at his original television creations and see how corporate his vision has become after being drafted into pre-existing franchise filmmaking, from Mission: Impossible onwards– even his so-called original movie Super 8 felt less like a work of real inspiration and more an attempt to genetically reverse engineer the manner of 80’s movies Spielberg directed and/or produced under Amblin. Like that film, the most descriptive thing that can be said of his Star Trek films is to paraphrase a filmmaker who has had the time to throw a quote from Khan into one of his own revenge-fantasy pastiches– “It’s a wax museum with a pulse,” but I’m not certain at all its heart is beating.