“Star Trek Into Darkness” is not a film that will be hailed for breaking any new cinematic ground. Even to this critic, who regretfully hasn’t seen 1982’s “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” which the movie apparently borrows heavily from, the story came across as little more than a chain of sci-fi blockbuster clichés. But what “Star Trek Into Darkness” lacks in narrative originality, it makes up for in personality. If you’re able to glean satisfactory thrills from director J.J. Abrams’ unique visual style and a handful of juicily theatrical performances by the villain and the key crew-members of the USS Enterprise, the film is perfectly worth washing down with an overpriced popcorn and Coke combo.
I’m sure I’ll receive a few e-mails from “Star Trek” diehards pointing out what unique story elements I’m overlooking. The way that writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof fold pieces of the original films into this one, perhaps. OK, but they did the exact same thing in 2009’s “Star Trek,” the first film featuring this cast, including bringing back the previous Spock, Leonard Nimoy. Or maybe Trekkies will champion the way that the writers touch upon the current real-world political debate over the U.S. government drone-attacking citizens without a trial when the Enterprise crew question whether it’s their place to assassinate a terrorist. I found this dimension mildly interesting in its timeliness, but other summer blockbusters, from the “Dark Knight” series to this month’s “Iron Man 3,” have couched contemporary political issues in their otherwise fantastical material, so it hardly qualifies as a new idea.
However, as with the film’s numerous logical loopholes—don’t ask me (or anyone else) to explain the mechanics of the photon torpedoes or the physics behind when someone can or can’t be “beamed”—I couldn’t care less about its lack of narrative ambition, because the entertaining secondary components kept me consumed.
Say what you want about J.J. Abrams’ penchant for lens flares—there are plenty of them here—but there’s no denying that his aesthetic is one of the most recognizable in Hollywood, which breathes life into a film of the current era, when it’s often hard to tell one director’s work from the next. In addition to Abrams’ hallmarks—the flares, the constantly mobile camera, the off-kilter angles—what’s particularly striking about his “Star Trek” films is the way he seamlessly blends visual refinement with the campy source material. From the primitive creatures on the planet where the film opens to the gussied-up-but-still-set-like interior of the Enterprise, there’s no doubt that “Into Darkness” is another “Star Trek” picture, but to Abrams and cinematographer Dan Mindel’s credit, it also feels sleek and grand enough to stand alongside today’s blockbuster crop. More so than any of the expensive special effects, the sheer virtuosity with which the filmmakers shoot the scenes makes the movie feel like a respectable work, despite its abundance of sci-fi cheese.
The cast is the other asset that makes “Star Trek Into Darkness” suitably engaging. Now that the introductions are out of the way, Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto have time to play around with the age-old Kirk-Spock dynamic, as the rule-bound Spock slowly learns to accept Kirk’s more instinct-driven methodology to captaining the Enterprise. There’s some (not-so-romantic) tension between Spock and Uhura, who Zoë Saldana once again imbues with a pleasing mixture of capable independence and sex-appeal. Scotty (Simon Pegg) resigns early on, so Anton Yelchin’s gleefully accented, frantic typer Chekov is left to engineer. And Benedict Cumberbatch is downright magnetic as the scheming villain whose identity critics have decided is inappropriate to reveal (though, by this point, are there really any spoiler-concerned Trekkies who haven’t seen the film?). I probably would’ve enjoyed Cumberbatch’s portrayal even further had I been more familiar with the character’s iconography. Thankfully, not one of these performances value subtlety; “Star Trek Into Darkness” is acted as an appropriately Shakespearean affair, a space opera. Oh, and Alice Eve also shows up to undress down to lingerie, which is a plus.
If you’re looking for a film to add to your life, rather than one to kill two hours of it, “Star Trek Into Darkness” is not for you, and you knew that already. For those of us who believe there’s value in the old-fashioned summer movie—that annual ritual that we enjoy as we’re blasted by the theater’s refreshing air-conditioning—it’s a sufficiently well-crafted, spirited ride. At this time of year, I’m not in any position to demand more.