Star Trek Into Darkness begins with an action set piece, dropping the audience right in the middle of chaos. Reminiscent of a James Bond or an Indiana Jones pre-credit sequence, Spock is trying to diffuse an erupting volcano while Captain Kirk and Doctor McCoy run from an angry mob. Director J.J. Abrams and writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof beg you not to ask any questions about what in the hell is going on, just go with it. Why are these natives chasing Kirk and Bones? Because Kirk stole something of theirs. What did he steal? Who knows, probably some significant religious scrolls. How is Spock going to stop this volcano from erupting? He has a super ice-cube of course! Details are not the important part of this scene, what is important is the presence of action. It lets the viewers know right up front what kind of movie they are in for. Abrams and company present us with a bargain, “We will give you two hours of action, just please don’t ask any questions.”
Joining Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), and Bones (Karl Urban) are the rest of the cast from the 2009 reboot from the same creative team: Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Sulu (John Cho), Chekov (Anton Yelchin), Scotty (Simon Pegg), and Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood). Pike has demoted Kirk for violating Starfleet’s protocols, taken the Enterprise back, and split up the dream team Like a wise school principal, Pike knows that Kirk and Spock can cook up an awful lot of trouble when they are together. The audience knows that someone or something will intervene and bring our heroes together, and that someone is Kahn (Benedict Cumberbatch), an engineered super-humanoid from the past who has come to seek vengeance on the people who created him, then imprisoned him and his crew in cryostasis. Kahn is super intelligent, super strong, and super vindictive. Kahn pushes the right buttons and turns the right cranks to incur the wrath of the ever impulsive, often reckless Captain Kirk, and our story is in full motion.
In 1966, Gene Roddenberry modeled his Captain Kirk after John Kennedy, envisioning a young and fearless leader who seeks out new life forms and new civilizations. Immortalized by William Shatner, Kirk was a womanizer, a bit of a hotheaded, but overall, intelligent and in control. The Captain Kirk that showed up in the 2009 reboot had more in common with Tyler Durden than the former president. In this movie, Kirk acts like a rowdy drunk just looking for a fight. Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) exploits that character flaw and taking First Strike Capabilities to a whole new level, orders Kirk and the Enterprise to covertly bomb the hell out of the planet Kahn is hiding on. Spock manages to bring reason and morality to the issue, and Kahn is captured and placed on the Enterprise to be brought back to Earth to stand trial.
Things are not as they seem, and it turns out that behind one bad guy, lies another one, even worse. Kahn is not just the bloodthirsty maniac out for revenge, but a pawn in a very complicated war scenario that was apparently set in motion years ago. Anyone who is convinced that the American Government staged the destruction of the World Trade Center towers to provide an excuse to go war with both Al-Qaeda and Iraq should see this movie for no other reason than to see how ridiculously complicated that conspiracy theory is. It doesn’t work in this movie, and I doubt if it would work in any scenario.
There are a lot of helpings for the fan-boys, and with the exception of Leonard Nemoy and a Tribble, it manages to add to the momentum rather than detract or derail. The acting is quite good and the special effects are impressive. There are problems with the script from a structural stand-point, but what truly holds Into Darkness back is the same problem that the other franchises (Batman, Spider-Man, The Avengers and related movies) that populate our screens face. These movies are far too concerned with serving the franchise and not with doing something new, something different, something dangerous. These franchises all lack balls. They are self-serving movies that exist to get everything in place for the next one, doing the very best to throw the audience a curve without upsetting the apple cart. Characters are killed off and then brought back, actions are rarely held accountable, a line of dialog brushes off various incongruities, and nothing truly comes out from left field to knock our blocks off. There are secrets and spoilers here, but none of them are really that ballsy. This is a movie that gives the audience exactly what it wants, but does it give the audience what they need? When was the last time the creators of a franchise asked themselves that question? “Buy the ticket, take the ride.” Just don’t ask too many questions along the way.