A strange thing happened while I was watching Star Trek Into Darkness, director JJ Abrams’ sequel to the 2009 reboot of the classic science-fiction franchise. While the frame fills explosions and mayhem, I realize the movie is more fun to think about than it is to watch. Abrams and his screenwriters accomplish something tricky: they include all manner of references to the original series; the character moments are well-earned; and the plot directly addresses Star Trek’s ongoing identity crisis. There are so many moving parts that it weighs down the whole. But while blockbusters are not successful when a set-piece unintentionally raises questions about the nature of entertainment, they’re at least interesting.
It’s been a few years since Kirk (Christopher Pine) became captain of the USS Enterprise, and his boundless arrogance still defines him. On a routine mission gone awry, Kirk violates The Prime Directive when he saves Spock (Zachary Quinto) from a dangerous volcano. The top brass at Starfleet knock Kirk back down to first officer, but that doesn’t last long since John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) stages an attack on Kirk and his superiors. Harrison is genetically engineered to be a battle-ready superhuman, so he’s quite the match for the Enterprise. Driven by his need for vengeance, Kirk tracks Harrison to a Klingon planet, where he discovers that Harrison’s motivations are more complex and subversive than anticipated.
Abrams’ first Star Trek was a pleasant surprise because of his deliberate, inexorable pacing. There was scarce time to breathe because Kirk, Spock, and others were continually facing obstacles (in a brilliant but underrated scene, Abrams seamlessly transitions from broad physical comedy to an attack on Vulcan). He still has the same command of pacing in Into Darkness, but it’s mired by the stubborn need to revere the franchise. Abrams forces his movie to stand in the shadow of its predecessors, and this undermines his creativity. It’s difficult to develop suspense or tension when the big surprises are deliberately unoriginal.
The good news about this long-form homage is how fun the characters are to analyze. Again, the Kirk/Spock chemistry is front and center, and Abrams finds interesting ways to pick apart their different approaches to problem solving. During the inevitable climactic space battle, Kirk and Spock flip their motivations, and somehow the reversal still stays true to their nature. Other members of the crew find new ways to revisit old clichés: when Bones (Karl Urban) colorfully describes the impossibility of the mission, Kirk gets a laugh with, “Cool it with the metaphors.” Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Spock are facing relationship troubles, and with Kirk’s reluctant mediation, they reconcile through unlikely humor and tenderness. All these moments work because the franchise does all the heavy lifting: Abrams merely riffs on the foundation set by Gene Roddenberry, and it’s frustrating because at least Star Trek offsets the endless references with a gleefully silly time-travel premise.
The quality of the action ties to the quality of the performances. Every situation and set-piece is inherently ridiculous, so Star Trek Into Darkness works when the actors overcome the trappings of an expensive blockbuster for something more intimate, more human. Cumberbatch is the most successful because his character is unexpectedly complex: he’s ruthless and smart, and the best scenes in the movie are when he and Kirk try to feel the other out. By the time Harrison goes off the rails, it is easy to see his fury in every kick and punch. Urban also threatens to steal the show from the other Enterprise: in his own way, Bones is more logical and reserved than Spock, and Urban hides Bones’ fear through a playful sneer. Pine and Quinto are given the most difficult task, yet they continue to personalize their iconic roles, whether it’s through a moment of fear or rage.
The big question surrounding Star Trek Into Darkness is whether it wants to be brainy science fiction or an action-packed space opera. Abrams addresses this question in the script: there is an ongoing conflict over whether Starfleet should focus on space exploration or strategic military goals. This conflict is Abrams’ way of addressing longtime Trekkies. In fact, if you’re looking close enough, the final minutes nearly break the fourth wall. It’s as if Abrams is telling them, “I remember the Enterprise’s mission. You can trust your captain.” I already trusted him after Star Trek, so it’s redundant when a sequel offers similar assurances. After all this devotion to a beloved world, it’s time to bring on the strange new ones.