You don’t have to be a Trekker to have a grand time at “Star Trek Into Darkness.” In fact, it’s probably better that you not be. Real, card-carrying Trekkers aren’t likely to be in love with all the liberties the prodigious J.J. Abrams takes in his newest prequel tale of life aboard the Starship Enterprise as it boldly goes places you and I would rather watch than go ourselves.
I’m deeply sorry if there are Trekkers out there who might want to string Abrams up for what he did to Gene Roddenberry’s earnest, precocious Hollywood progressivism (Roddenberry put “diversity” onscreen long before anyone knew what it was), but I think what Abrams did is rather brilliant.
It was the first time around too and is even more so in his follow-up, when he’s giving us his take on one of the best original “Star Trek” movies – “The Wrath of Khan.”
We’ve got a new Khan to replace Ricardo Montalban, former fancier of fine “Corinthian leather” in Chrysler commercials and possessor of the most formidable pecs of any senior citizen prowling the Fantasy Island of American moviedom.
The new Khan is Benedict Cumberbatch, whose sharply chiseled face and piercing wide-set eyes have made him a good new Sherlock Holmes (for the Brits and PBS) but are probably never going to lead to anyone casting him as a pediatrician or a kindly old math teacher. (His face, in its severity, reminded me a little of Robinson Jeffers, great American poet who was, I swear, once dismissed from a jury in California because his face was too cruel. If they’d read his poetry, they wouldn’t have changed their minds.)
Cumberbatch makes Khan a pretty good villain – a kind of space-prowling Superman who can practically take out a whole company of armed, attacking Klingons all by himself. He can crush heads with his bare hands too – as well as take a barrage of punches by James T. Kirk straight to his bladelike cheekbones, without even a flinch.
This Khan is not a guy you’d want carrying a grievance around – not even in outer space, where, presumably, those with bad personalities and nasty agendas have a lot of space to be off by themselves.
When you find out what his grievance is in this movie, you have to admit he’s got a point. Anyone suspecting that the script was written under the influence of administrative justifications of forays into Iraq and Afghanistan is right on the money, I think.
Bad guys come in all shapes, flavors and uniforms in this movie. And some of those uniforms are supposedly friendly.
So things are so messed up this time that James T. Kirk and Khan spend a lot of this movie fighting Klingons together and trying to get back at a guy who may be even worse than Khan.
All of which is lovely, but I must admit that what I love about these revisionist Abrams “Star Trek” fantasies is what he did to James T. Kirk, whose self-loving actorisms in his extraterrestrial football practice jersey were first brought to us by Priceline’s very own William Shatner, who, in old age, has settled into his own absurdity quite wonderfully.
Back when he was the original James Tiberius Kirk, though, he and Leonard Nimoy were sometime serious actors unmistakably condescending to the lines given to them both by the writer/producer they both obviously liked and endorsed but didn’t necessarily think was the equal of, say, the original Chekhov (the writing one).
Abrams’ re-creation of James T. Kirk is delicious – the best thing by far about these big new Abrams “Star Treks.” (Though, I must admit, all the big action, CGI and elaborate production design are quite good too in modern blockbuster style.)
Abrams’ idea of Kirk before he sat in the command chair with all the pompous confidence in his toupee that a human being could have is that before he got there he was a standard American wild boy, given to all manner of maverick reckless behavior.
The Kirk we see here is still liable to wake up in the middle of two beautiful women in the same bed. And when he gets bad news on the job, he’s quite at home sitting alone at a bar somewhere and quaffing rich, nut-brown fluids.
He’s a bit of a willful cocksure jerk but underneath all that wild boy affect is a guy with deep humanity and all the heroism you could ever want for any dire situation that presents itself.
And the situation that presents itself at the end is as dire as they come.
If he doesn’t risk his life, his “family” – the entire crew of the USS Enterprise – will be goners.
That’s when you know how badly the world needs its Jim Kirks. And that’s when you know how much the Spocks, Sulus, Boneses and Uhuras will put up with. (And that’s even when, as an older man, Kirk is the embodiment of all the toupeed Super Pomp a former Shakespearean actor can muster). And why they put up with it as well.
Abrams’ Jim Kirk is a better creation, I think, than Roddenberry’s. (Apologies to all Trekkers, sincerely).
And too I kind of love the idea that Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) in Abrams’ revisionist Young Star Trek are having a thing. It’s especially droll this time when Uhura’s courageous, self-sacrificing humanity has to deal with Spock’s penchant for letting computer logic turn him into one giant toggle switch (ready to take peremptory action without – you know – talking it over.)
Everyone else in Abrams’ Trek is, as always, a colorful spear carrier. Anton Yelchin is a fine young actor but not exactly the young Chekov of anyone’s dreams. Simon Pegg plays Scotty like a movie actor with a fair amount of fancy credits James Doohan never had.
New besides Cumberbatch are the estimable Peter Weller as a starfleet admiral Dick Cheney might have liked and Alice Eve as his loyal daughter, whom Cheney’s loyal daughter Mary might have liked.
There’s a plot here that’s reasonably involving without ever being entirely serious. And there’s an awfully large amount of action thunder and even physical brutality. (This isn’t really for the little ones. A lot of “S” words float by too, in moments of extreme military consternation. It’s a star “fleet” remember?)
We need, I think, to stop taking for granted just how entertaining so many of these summer blockbusters are. They’re fun in a way movies had trouble being a few movie eras ago.
But then when I watched Spock and Khan punching and gouging each other’s faces atop fast moving car-like vehicles zipping through the air of a 23rd century city, it all seemed like our version of something Ken Maynard or Hoot Gibson or Hopalong Cassidy might be doing atop a buck board or a stagecoach led by a bunch of out of control horses.
“Star Trek Into Darkness” is just a big, brilliantly designed, smart aleck Saturday matinee from a fellow – J.J. Abrams – who has inherited in his generation the mantle that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg once wore.
It’s stunning how much movie technology has changed.
It’s even more stunning how little we in the audience have.
Star Trek Into Darkness
Three and a half stars (Out of four)
Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Pinto, Zoe Saldana, Benedict Cumberbatch, Alice Eve and Peter Weller in director J.J. Abrams’ newest installment of the “prequel” tales of the Starship Enterprise. 132 minutes. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and some rough language.