Readers: if you happen to possess an affection for American cinema as an art form…what are you doing even reading this review in the first place?
You know it's gonna be dire. You remember the first J.J. Abrams Star Trek vehidebacle (term © Fraught Experiments LLC), and you learned to expect more of the same from the sequel's ubiquitous promotional material. You know it's just another schlockbuster (term © somebody else, probably), one which at best—at BEST—possesses a tiny glimmer of ambition and heart.
I say this because, Into Darkness is arguably about something—intentionally or not. This is notable when we remember that the Trek franchise pre-J.J. had always tried to be about something. Specifically, Into Darkness is about the morality of targeted killings.
In this case, the terrorist attacks are carried out by "John Harrison" (Benedict Cumberbatch)—who's actually Khan but it really doesn't matter—and Kirk-Pine is ordered to use the Super Fancy Torpedoes to drone-strike Khanberbatch while he's hiding out on Kronos (used here as a stand-in for foreign soil, e.g. Pakistan). Promisingly, the script initially gives Spock and Kirk good opportunities to argue the appropriateness of this mission, and Kirk ends up defying orders and capturing Khanberbatch. In the clusterfuck finale, however, he escapes, leading to Kirk's death—which induces his enraged Vulcan XO to go all Spock and Awe on Khan during their climactic hovertruck fight.
It is this scene that exposes the emptiness of the drone-war parable Into Darkness attempts, because the only thing that prevents Spock from murdering Khanberbatch with his bare hands is the convenient fact that Khan's blood will bring Kirk back to life. It might've helped to have a little scene following this one in which Spock laments his moral failure, but instead Kirk gives a vague movie-ending speech and we're done. Heaven forfend that we might have to actually face consequences for things. That might entail thinking for an instant about the moral conundrum we are supposedly addressing.
Speaking of amorality, Into Darkness not only fails to consider the ramifications of presenting fictional mass carnage, but presents it for no narrative reason whatsoever. I literally laughed aloud at the artlessness of the Vengeance crash scene: one moment Spock is all emotey over Kirk's death, the next Khan is bellowing and his ship is plowing through skyscrapers. (Remarkably, this isn't the only instance of whiplash-inducingly jarring editing, but it's definitely the most ludicrous.) Khan and Spock's climactic fight could have transpired in any number of other ways, but no: this is the sort of movie where entire city blocks are levelled, so let's make damn sure we level them. Who needs reasons?
But none of those failings are especially unique to the J.J. Treks. What really twists the knife is J.J.'s continued insistence upon exploiting past Trek under the pretense of homage. Witness Into Darkness's complete misunderstanding of what Section 31 is—it's supposed to be CIA black ops, not the Lockheed Skunkworks—or its mention of K'normians (K'normians!) for the sole purpose of trying to convince Trekkies that it cares about them.
Yet Roddenberry would've had profound contempt for these movies, especially Into Darkness. Some Trekkies might disagree, so let me elaborate. The primary evidence provided by those who argue that Deep Space Nine is inferior to, say, Voyager is the fact that DS9 repeatedly (though by no means continually) challenged some of Trek's utopian underpinnings. An attempted Starfleet coup d'etat, a highly-placed security officer defecting to an enemy terrorist organization, a rogue intelligence agency…plots like these made up less than 10% of the total running time of DS9, yet are seen by the most rabid Trekkies as a betrayal of the sacrosanct principles of Gene Roddenberry. As you can infer from my tone, I disagree.
Which is why it's ironic that I level the very same accusation at Into Darkness and its conspiracy narrative. The difference is one of intent and timing. DS9's purpose in peeking under the rock of the Federation was to make it more real—to counter the feeling of beige stasis that TNG imbued Trek with in the public consciousness. In doing so, DS9 demonstrated (through contrast with its often dark storylines) the real value and power of Roddenberry's ideals; it showed us the costs and conflicts that are inevitable for any society, even a generally utopian one, and thus underscored the magnitude and value of that ambitious goal. Moreover, DS9 followed not just TNG but TOS and its movies, so Trek (as it was before J.J.) had already been well established enough that it wasn't going to hurt anything to tweak the formula a little.
Into Darkness uses DS9-like tropes for ostensibly similar reasons but cannot make anything from them because there was never much of anything there to peek under. J.J. Trek 1: The Rebootening didn't bother to worldbuild much at all (quite the opposite, if you're a Vulcan); in one scene, Pike even referred to the Federation as an "armada," which I don't know how to begin to respond to. But fine, worldbuilding is secondary to the first film's objective, which is to function as a space-action delivery vehicle and justify sequels through ticket sales alone.
However, you need to have actually done some worldbuilding before you can hope to subvert it. And 2 Trek 2 Darkness, as is to be expected, invests almost no time establishing how Starfleet works before loosing Khanberbatch on 'em.
Speaking of which, the story was probably the most laughable aspect of Into Darkness. Admiral Marcus's scheme is so inept on its face, so replete with opportunities for catastrophic failure, that it's a wonder there's still a Starfleet at all if they've got men of this caliber in charge. The whole torpedo MacGuffin smacks of a story "patch," connective tissue enabling the writers to first establish what really matters—the action setpieces—and then move our heroes through each setpiece in order. The result feels like the twisting track of the Candyland game board, where all that matters is Gumdrop Mountains or Molasses Swamp. All other squares, and the game tokens themselves, are meaningless and interchangeable.
Into Darkness improves upon its predecessor only inasmuch as its narrative is less jumbled and its two main characters are given ample time to develop whatever trace of on-screen chemistry they are capable of. But as before, occasional slick visuals and moments of amusing dialogue are undercut by ugly design choices (whose idea was it to make the Vengeance look like a More-Super-Than-Yours Star Destroyer from the Star Wars EU?) and shallow characterization.
Tellingly, the last movie I saw that pissed me off this much was Michael Bay's Transformers. It's not that I care one whit about that franchise—nerd rage apoplexy played no role in it. (By the way, Uhura: care to explain that navigational bearing of over 400 degrees? Are we going in circles? Is that the plan? Gah, never mind.) Transformers, like both J.J. Treks and especially Into Darkness, is symptomatic of a Hollywood machine programmed to forever vomit bland grey sludge from its hopper. These are not films, and they're barely entertainment—it would be more accurate to call them "storylike audiovisual product." And that wouldn't bother me so much if these movies didn't embody Western culture internationally and hadn't cost countless kajillions of dollars to make.
They say the blockbuster model is dying. I say a dying empire won't permit the failure of its panem et circenses. I think it's more likely that, as with airlines, big stupid Hollywood productions will eventually be propped up by the federal government to compensate for a populace whose discretionary income—and desire to spend it on extortionate movie tickets—continues to decline, and who barely notices such bailouts anyway. So in a way, maybe these sorts of movies—full of sound and fury, signifying nothing—are perfect for their times.
If that's so, then I really worry about how J.J. Trek 3 will turn out in 2016. Maybe we'll all get lucky and humanity will have transcended its corporeal essence by then, and we'll all wander the universe as pure energy, unfettered by material needs or desires, and most importantly, mercifully free of the J.J. Trek franchise.
Star Score: 1.5 out of 5