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Summer movie review: Star Trek Into Darkness

J.J. Abrams once famously stated that he wasn’t really a fan of Star Trek before being given the reins to direct the 2009 reboot. And while this may have miffed the Star Trek faithful, convinced that Star Trek (2009) would suffer for not having a director with a rich understanding and appreciation of the franchise, the results silenced the louder critics. Star Trek (2009) was a great film precisely BECAUSE J.J Abrams wasn’t a Trekkie. Without having the emotional investment in the source material, Abrams was perfectly willing and able to blow up decades old character archetypes, and rebuild the whole Star Trek universe from the ground up in a way that was fresh and exciting; and in a way that would have been all but impossible if put in the hands of someone who was too stubborn in their love for the material to risk changing a single thing. But with Star Trek Into Darkness, that same ignorance which was such a strength the first time around is a painfully glaring weakness. Having seemingly exhausted all the good ideas for Star Trek, Abrams settled for simply regurgitating retreads of old Star Trek motifs, and manipulating them in the most blatant ways possible. Without spoiling too much, Into Darkness borrows its emotional cues heavily from one practical previous Star Trek movie, robbing the film of its impact. Consider yourself warned.

Into Darkness follows the younger and sexier Enterprise crew as they go on a hunt for a dangerous fugitive in the far reaches of space J.J Abrams pulls no punches when it comes to his trademark pace, and the action rarely lets up. It certainly looks pretty enough to be a summer blockbuster, and some of the land and space-scapes are jaw-droppingly amazing. The downside to all this breakneck, fast-paced action is that plot and character development take a solid back seat. The cast do the best they can with what sparse material they have, but they feel more like hollow caricatures of Star Trek characters, with none of the depth and conflict Abrams explored in their last outing.  Kirk (Chris Pine) is the emotional, brash leader. Spock (Zachary Quintos) is the logical one, whose cool reasoning masks his care for his crew. Uhura (Zoe Saldana) is dating Spock. Bones (Karl Urban) is a doctor. Scotty (Simon Pegg) is barely in it, but when he is you can be assured he’s very Scottish. Chekov (Anton Yelchin) has a funny accent. And Sulu (John Cho) sits down and pushes buttons.

What made Star Trek (2009) so good for Trekkies and non-Trekkies alike was getting to watch a team of misfits grow and struggle tighter to become a family.  Into Darkness fails to capitalize on that development and opts for being just a sci-fi rollercoaster ride, complete with explosions. And that’s a perfectly fine thing. But the foundation had been laid to deliver so much more than Star Trek with lens flare.

Conversely, there are some stand-out characters. Benedict Cumberbatch delivers an absolute dynamite performance as the villainous (NAME REMOVED TO AVOID SPOILERS). But the few shining moments of character drama can’t take away from the fact that this movie feels like a much more half-hearted attempt than the last Star Trek, and much of its best character-driven movements are shopped-in from old Star Trek canon.  Abrams knows how to make things look nice, and on its own Into Darkness is a perfectly adequate summer popcorn movie. But the misused potential to be so more can’t make it any more obvious that he can’t wait to start directing Star Wars.

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