Arts and Culture

'Star Trek Into Darkness'

Under director JJ Abrams, the Starship Enterprise is more of a Led Zeppelin.

By Steve Burgess 17 May 2013 |

Steve Burgess writes about culture twice a month for The Tyee.

I know a certain alternative online magazine whose readers could probably use a little escapism this week. Director JJ Abrams aims to help you out with his second trip on the Starship Enterprise: Star Trek Into Darkness. It certainly helped me get my mind off recent events. By the time I left the theatre I was depressed for a totally different reason.

Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto are back as the new model Kirk and Spock with Zoe Saldana as Uhuru, Simon Pegg as Scotty and Karl Urban as Bones. This edition's super-baddie is Benedict Cumberbatch. Oh, how I wish that were the villain's name, but even science fiction can't stretch that far. No, Cumberbatch (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Hobbit, and the recent mini-series Parade's End, among other credits) plays a man known as John Harrison -- at least at first. His real name, revealed about halfway through the movie, would be a spoiler. It is supposed to draw a gasp or a cheer from the audience, but got neither at the Wednesday night screening I attended. More on that later.

After some introductory hijinx on the planet Colour Scheme (done up in lovely red and yellow) and a shoot-em-up scene borrowed from, of all places, Godfather III, Star Trek Into Darkness eventually sees Kirk and friends tasked with a mission from Admiral Marcus (good old Peter "Buckaroo Banzai Robocop" Weller) to pursue the nasty John Harrison to a Klingon planet and terminate him with extreme prejudice. Mr. Harrison proves uncooperative and soon the crew of the Enterprise is wondering where their loyalties lie. At this point Abrams' movie is developing some promise -- the screenwriting team is introducing themes about creeping militarism and even the ethical questions raised by drone strikes.

Alas, Star Trek Into Darkness proves far too superficial to make much of all that. Typical is a plot line featuring Admiral Marcus' daughter Carol (Alice Eve). It's supposed to be poignant. But how could it be when the movie never even bothers to put the two of them in a room together? Glib plotting and frantic action rule here. There's a "Scotty Saves the Day" sequence that would not look out of place in a Flash Gordon serial, and another moment that involves kicking the huge, highly calibrated Enterprise drive system like a malfunctioning toaster. The film also displays an annoying streak of sexism. On the way to a dangerous planetary mission, Uhuru decides to start a relationship squabble with Spock. Oh, those women Starfleet officers! And Kirk, that rascal, welcomes a new female officer on board with a leer that suggests we've all been beamed into the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. On the Enterprise, the future is looking pretty retro.

Quibble 'bout the Tribble

But for me, the Abrams' Star Trek reboot has a larger problem, one that blows up all over Into Darkness like a big pink bubble. Abrams decided to restart the series with the original cast of characters. The creators of Star Trek: The Next Generation started all over with a new crew in a different time, fitted into the original premise. The wisdom of that move becomes clear when watching this version. Abrams is constantly throwing in classic references -- there is, I swear, a Tribble in this movie -- and the performances of both Pine and Quinto appear to be homages to their respective predecessors William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. The result sometimes feels like a long Saturday Night Live skit, or perhaps a Zeppelin tribute band playing Stairway to Heaven just well enough to remind you that, except for that one time at the junior prom, that song always sucked.

When John Harrison reveals his true identity, it becomes clear that Abrams has decided to revive one of the most beloved instalments in Star Trek history. The result is a sort of an in-joke for series fans -- one that, as I mentioned, seemed lost on the preview crowd. Or maybe, like me, they were just too busy cringing. It's awkward.

To be fair, Abrams never had the option of blowing the series up, like the re-inventors of Battlestar Galactica. That '80s series had lived on in memory only as a beloved cheese-fest and thus was ready for the complete 2004 makeover that transformed it into one of the best sci-fi TV series ever made. Star Trek fans would probably not have tolerated that. But the approach Abrams has chosen with Star Trek Into Darkness represents just about the worst of his limited options.

Hence the depression as the lights came up. I am now officially dreading the arrival of Abrams' Star Wars reboot. Based on Star Trek Into Darkness, there will probably be a sub-plot where Lord Vader gets hooked on decongestants, plus a light sabre battle between Yoda and Darth Syntax. "Destroy you I will," says Yoda. "Won't be the first time," says Syntax. Then Han Solo shows up with his new Titleist Warp Driver and says "I just made the Kessel run in under par six..."

Perhaps my lack of faith disturbs you. But I beg you, JJ -- stay away from the Darkness side. Help us, Abrams-wan. You're our only hope.  [Tyee]

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