I think the lead opening Matt Zoller Seitz’s review at rogerebert.com hints at the smartest way to enter the J.J. Abrams incarnation of Star Trek. He writes: “Less a classic Star Trek adventure than a Star Trek-flavored action flick, shot in the frenzied, handheld, cut-cut-cut style that’s become Hollywood’s norm.”
Abrams’ neo-franchise, now two films deep, should have any fan of the classic Gene Roddenberry series feeling (or, if you’re a Vulcan, thinking) conflicted. On the one hand, the signposts of the beloved cult favorite are all in place — T. Kirk’s swashbuckling arrogance, Spock’s unalloyed constitutional pragmatism, Bones’ overreaching astonishment, Scotty’s accent, Chekov’s accent, Uhura’s Klingon accent — and bolstered by top-notch Hollywood F/X wizardry. On the other hand, so many reference points are only surface deep, like the trappings of a state of the art theme park ride for superfans.
Star Trek: Into Darkness kicks off with a disorienting surge of 3-D action, joining a risky mission in progress, Kirk running through a field as the inhabitants of a primitive alien planet chuck spears at him (looking like nothing so much as the Mayans in Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto) while Spock sets off a device to freeze an impending volcano eruption that threatens the planet’s life. The effect of the cold open resembles nothing like Wagon Train, which Roddenberry cited as a primary influence on his creation, and something more on the order of Flash Gordon serials.
The Federation’s prime directive takes a beating from their botched mission, and Kirk gets handed a demotion that lasts a demoralizing 90 seconds, when former Starfleet officer turned terrorist John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) guns down a conclave of the highest-ranking members of the Federation, including Kirk’s mentor and ersatz father figure Christopher Pike.
Starfleet Admiral Alexander Marcus green lights retaliatory action, reinstating a newly vengeful Kirk as captain of the USS Enterprise and directing him to take his crew to Kronos, the Klingon planet to where Harrison has secretly beamed to take refuge. The biggest problem with the mission, as Spock notes, isn’t that their presence near Klingon territory will serve as the tipping point for intergalactic war to break out, but that detonating missiles at a man who has not been taken to stand trial for his actions runs counter to everything the Federation stands for. It’s not an exploratory mission; it’s a military operation.
This kind of ethical revisionism is what fuels the warp core at the center of Abrams’ Star Trek movies. It wasn’t nearly so obvious the first time around, but In Darkness is tactical enough in nature to close out with a tribute message to soldiers who fought after 9/11 and have it not seem like a huge non sequitur. (The sight of a rogue Starfleet super-ship hurtling toward the San Francisco skyline toward the film’s climax also seems calculated to trigger sense-memories of repressed trauma.) Since the Reagan era, Roddeberry’s Trek has always been the humanist, neo-liberal counterbalance to the combat-centric Star Wars universe. Both feature an array of extra-terrestrial figures, often working side-by-side in pursuit of peace. But Trek often attempted to live up to its own mantra “Live long and prosper.”
Abrams’ Star Trek films, for all the undeniably fun kinetic thrills and creamy lens flares they provide, are strictly “Live fast, die young,” and it’s becoming increasingly clear the Trek franchise is boldly going where basically every other action movie circa 2013 has already gone before. This is what it sounds like when Spocks cry.