Like his Spielberg-homage Super 8 (2011), J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek Into Darkness ultimately proves a lesser imitation of its source material. This time the source material is narrowed down from the entire canon of Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek series to its most iconic cinematic entry, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), as well as the original episode ‘Space Seed,’ (1967) which introduced Captain James T. Kirk’s most famous nemesis. One would assume that the point of a new Star Trek timeline would be to go new places with well-loved, established characters, but this sequel refutes that point by pallidly replaying the grand pop opera of The Wrath of Khan. Worse still, the film resurrects Kirk’s (Chris Pine) character arc from Abrams’ first, and better, Star Trek (2009), making him re-earn the symbolic and literal position of Captain once again in a move that distracts from the rest of his crew. As a result, the film comes off as half-baked in every way except for its technical efficacy as a big-budget sci-fi action thriller, feeling like a remake of a reboot, and the remake of a sequel from the canon its rebooting. Abrams and company delight in the convolution of this deliberate canonical hall of mirrors, but in a shallow, fan-serving way that suffers even more for the shoehorned 9/11 allegory rammed into the rest of the plot with all the subtlety of a Dreadnought-class starship.
The most unfortunate thing about STID is that the cast is uniformly excellent, and thoroughly wasted on the superficially self-conscious, poorly thought out, exposition-loaded screenplay (by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and ubiquitous and semi-notorious Lost and Prometheus co-scribe Damon Lindelof). Star Trek, both in television and on the big-screen, has never been the most consistent of franchises, and at its worse in various iterations it’s been bogged down by some terrible writing. But it’s also always had the advantage of profoundly excellent peaks, culturally influential ambition, and a long and storied history with its universe and characters. This new timeline has had only one film, and one that wasn’t too character-heavy to begin with (though it explored Kirk and Spock’s friendship more thoroughly). Because of this, the emotional peaks of this film feel unearned, dependent on a history between these characters that’s been established in a series of films and TV shows separate from Abrams’ own take on this universe. A pity, since Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto’s performances give these moments a resonance that’s undeserving of the film itself. Both sell the friendship between Kirk and Spock without banking on the decades-long portrayals of the same by William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy (who makes a pointless appearance as Spock Prime).
The rest of the crew are also vividly fleshed out despite tragically under-written roles that barely qualify them as supporting characters, with Zoe Saldana’s Uhura especially sidelined after a key role in the last film. Simon Pegg and Karl Urban, especially, feel even more comfortable in the roles of Scotty and Bones this time around. Genetically-engineered superhuman Khan (not a spoiler at this point, surely) is admirably played by the mellifluously ominous Benedict Cumberbatch, who falls on the right side of theatrical ham to evoke a superhuman megalomaniac. But Cumberbatch’s efforts can’t rescue this Khan from the fact that he’s a complete cypher, even less of a villain than boilerplate rogue warlord Nero (Eric Bana) from the previous movie. New Khan is essentially a Cliff Notes shadow of the previous one, literally explaining the character’s back-story from the original series and The Wrath of Khan like a walking Wikipedia entry.
Abrams and company’s Khan barely exists without the original canon, and his already tenuous existence in the film is made all the more ridiculous by the fact that he’s white as whole milk despite being Indian and having a Sikh name. The original Khan was played by Ricardo Montalban, who was Mexican, but at least they got his skin colour right, in itself a victory during the ‘60s, when brownface would have done just fine. The dubious whitewashing of the character in STID hurts the film’s credibility by making its already flimsy version of Khan seem all the more fake. Furthermore, Abrams et al handle the character with unseemly haste, apparently shoving him into the movie only to re-tool the iconic moments of The Wrath of Khan. They gloss over some of the most fascinating aspects of the original Khan Noonien Singh, including the fact he’s an exiled dictator who ruled much of Asia during a world-wide war against his genetically-engineered kind. Instead of exploring the tricky notion of a brown, fascist ubermensch rejected by the world, Abrams reduces his Khan to a pale (pun intended) imitation of the original. With no real personality other than that dictated by a past that exists in a different fictional timeline. An intriguing notion in itself, but with lacking results in the film. It’s a waste of both the character and Cumberbatch, who has the talent to be a great villain.
Ultimately, it remains to be seen where Abrams’ Star Trek will go now that it’s gotten its Khan-tribute out of the way, but I hope it’s somewhere other than simply playing with the original movies in remakes that aren’t remakes. STID has some fine action sequences (a colourful, swooping opening on an alien world; a space chase that sees huge starships hurtling in and out of warp speed like fighter jets), and some flat ones (a crunchy but unimaginative brawl in a boring visualization of Kronos, the Klingon world; a dull climactic foot chase through future London), and the cast almost pulls the whole endeavour into the realm of a worthy sequel. But its failings only hurt even more because of the always-rewarding efforts of all the actors and crew involved.
Abrams has proven he can start things well; Super 8 had a very good first half, Lost a strong beginning, Star Trek a worthy first movie. But more often than not, his projects end up flailing or submerged by a lack of focused vision, the lack of an imaginative throughline that delivers on the promise of ambitious ideas. One only hopes he can take the new crew of the Enterprise to genuinely new and wondrous adventures in future films, while also doing the same for the beloved characters of Star Wars, that other immensely popular space-operatic universe that has somewhat absurdly fallen into his hands.