Star Trek Into Darkness opened in theaters Thursday to both plebian and patrician acclaim. By all accounts, the much-anticipated second installment to the rebooted saga lives up to the hype with double the excitement and double the fun, literally. The first film featured James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) bedding one luscious anthropomorphic alien. This has two.
Despite the success of the 2009 retread, many fans of the original franchise felt it fell short of their expectations, and Into Darkness is unlikely to dissuade them otherwise. By his own admission, J.J. Abrams is an ill-versed fan of the series's lore, and it shows. It's not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination, mind. Abrams's reputation for excellent direction is well-deserved, and Into Darkness is no exception. Pacing is well-executed. Dialogue is both intelligent and genuinely clever (barring one singularly excruciating moment? you’ll know the one). The writers find room to work in small but meaningful details, nodding at those familiar with the lore without alienating the uninitiated, while still stitching a creative story with amazing visual set pieces. All in all, it makes for a fine spectacle of a movie when judged on its own merits.
But spectacle was intended to be a product of storytelling where Star Trek was concerned, never the other way around. When Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek, he conceived it as a cultural vehicle, a story set in the future but rooted in themes and issues that define not just Americana, but humanity as a whole. Using strange planets and fantastic aliens as a backdrop, he examined closely-held notions about race relations, gender politics, ethics, cultural responsibility, and the role of science in social development, all while showing us a glorious glimpse of what the future could be if we as humans set aside superficial differences in pursuit of a common goal.
That is where Abrams falls short. He eschews the opportunity for self-examination in favor of a character-driven action film. Despite its title, Into Darkness has less to do with space than the people who traverse it. It is a study of what drives us in the face of despair: family, obsession, justice, sacrifice, and what happens when different people have different ideas of shared motivations. What results is a movie that carries the stamp of the Star Trek franchise, but departs into uncharted waters? or space, as it were. Whether that makes Into Darkness more or less compelling than its predecessors is an exercise best left to the audience.