feel the rush of endorkins (Star Trek Into Darkness review)

Star Trek Into Darkness green light Zachary Quinto Chris Pine

I’m “biast” (pro): love everything Star Trek; madly in love with Benedict Cumberbatch

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

There’s a thing that makes me very sad about Star Trek Into Darkness.

Clearly, it’s not the perfect geek storm of an opening gambit that evokes not only the old-school boldly-going adventures of the crew of the starship Enterprise but also — hilariously — Raiders of the Lost Ark. Yeah, in a Star Trek movie. Tee-hee!

Obviously, it’s not how Zachary Quinto (What’s Your Number?, Margin Call) somehow manages to make Spock more plausibly divided in his half-human, half-Vulcan skin than Leonard Nimoy ever did, with the judicious use of under-the-radar snark and a face that gets more expressive the stiller he becomes. Just as obviously, it’s not the sheer joy that Simon Pegg (Ice Age: Continental Drift, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) exudes in every nanosecond that he gets to be Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott. In a Star Trek movie. Somehow, he shares his dork-dream-come-true with all of us.

It’s patently not the pure nerdvana of Benedict Cumberbatch (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) — who instantly became a geek god with his brutally brilliant depiction of a modern Sherlock Holmes in the BBC’s Sherlock — as Into Darkness’s villain, the sheer nerdly delight of which has only been enhanced by the months of teasing about just which canonical baddie he might, or might not, be playing. This deliciously excruciating seduction continues throughout the film as Cumberbatch slices out his own iconic room in geek headspace while en route to the moment when all is revealed (and then beyond that moment, too). His performance here will be remembered, fondly and with awe, for a long time.

None of these things make me sad. On the contrary: they flood my brain with endorkins.

I’m also not at all sad that, once again, the team of screenwriters Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof (who also collaborated on Prometheus), and director J.J. Abrams (Super 8, the previous Star Trek), have ingeniously crafted a Star Trek movie that works equally well for neophytes and devotees. The needs of the many on both sides of that divide are catered to with care. The in-jokes are many and range from visual callbacks of mirroring moments in first-generation Trek movies to ironic and poignant nods to how the fates of characters in this parallel universe align with or differ from those of their other selves. But the movie doesn’t stop for these in-jokes: either you see them and laugh or snort or cry at them because you’re a honking huge Trekkie… or they’re completely invisible to you, and the story has lost not even the tiniest whit of impact because you haven’t seen them.

No, I has a sad because — apart from one outrageously gratuitous shot of Alice Eve (Men in Black III, The Raven) as Dr. Carol Marcus in her underwear, for which Abrams doesn’t bother to provide even the slightest contextual pretense — this is a Star Trek for our times. Very much for our times. Of course, it is because Into Darkness has so much relevance for the here-and-now that it breathes with a very tangible power, and it is because it is so rooted in the emotional and cultural and political motifs of this moment right now that it works so well for those who aren’t particularly interested in Star Trek as a thing unto itself.

It’s not Into Darkness that makes me sad, then, but our times. The 1960s Star Trek series sprang from an era of enormous social upheaval — a tendencious civil-rights movement, assassination as a political statement, the sexual revolution, a seemingly endless war in Vietnam — but it embodied the hope of the time as well, particularly the one represented by NASA and America’s space program. Today, we have plenty of trouble yet apparently little hope… and there’s little hope in Into Darkness, either. No spoilers, but the main track of the plot — the what’s-really-going-on stuff — could be said to represent what happens when hope and a spirit of adventure and optimism get sidetracked into selfish ambition. This is a story about terrorism as an act of egotistical will, of military opportunism, of false-flag provocations… of even those right in the middle of it all finding that their talents and their aspirations and their loyalties are being twisted for purposes they’d never have anything to do with, and yet are now caught inextricably up in.

There’s a conscious pulling back from the old-school Trek spirit of adventure, in fact, for that Raiders-esque opening, which occurs on a distant pre-contact planet the Enterprise was surveying, is immediately followed by the Enterprise’s recall to Earth and a dressing down of Captain Kirk (Chris Pine: Rise of the Guardians, This Means War) by Commander Pike (Bruce Greenwood: The Place Beyond the Pines, Flight). Kirk’s foray onto that planet ended up in a situation in which he broke the Prime Directive, Starfleet’s highest law and the one that’s supposed to protect primitive, pre-spaceflight civilizations from all knowledge of a larger galactic culture. But the William Shatner Kirk was always breaking the Prime Directive, and never got called on it. It seems like a sorta funny, sorta paradigm-shifting thing to happen now, to this Kirk in this rebooted parallel universe… but then it turns out to be a sci-fi example of what’s happening all around us today, where the higher up the food chain of power you are, and the more damage you do, the less likely you are to be held to account for it. Kirk’s crime turns out to be breathtaking tiny in the grand scheme of what happens here.

I enjoyed Into Darkness immensely, and I can’t wait to see it again — in IMAX next time, perhaps; I’ll certainly skip the 3D, which is as pointless as nearly every other example of the gimmick — but I’m not sure I could call this a summery popcorny sort of film. It’s too grim for that. There are too many echoes of 9/11, some overt and visual and very upsetting, and of the insanity of the world since then for it to be truly escapist fun. And if there’s hope to be found here, it’s only in the moral and ethical stands taken in the face of all the bitter goings-on, which leave some characters in unpleasant places they’d rather not be, and where we’d rather not see them, too.

Still, that’s but a tiny bit of hope.

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