Is there a filmmaker in Hollywood less aware of the sociopolitical subtext of his work than J.J. Abrams? Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013) is the serial franchiser’s latest, and like almost everything else Abrams has done it’s entertaining, fun, stupid, sexist, engaging, and exasperating. I watched it with a combination of amusement and irritation.
Following a mission in which his loose cannon nature gets the best of him, Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is demoted and placed under the command of his mentor, Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) — just in time to attend an emergency session of Starfleet command. A bombing in London is the subject of the meeting, but it’s only the first stage in an terrorist assault on Starfleet. Kirk, because he’s Kirk, is put back in command of the Enterprise and sent on a risky mission to track down John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), the traitorous agent suspected of the attacks. There’s one problem: Harrison is holed up on a Klingon world, and a Federation incursion into their territory may have interstellar repercussions.
Star Trek: Into Darkness continues to riff off the old series in amusing, if at times cloyingly recursive, ways. On a broad level, the plot escalates well enough, from one crisis to the next at a nice, brisk clip. The characterizations are generally well handled, with Spock (Zachary Quinto) and especially McCoy (Karl Urban) providing the most entertaining verbal impressions of their model characters.
But the closer you look, the more flaws reveal themselves. The script organizes its acts well, but propels events past plot holes so huge you could pilot the Enterprise through them. And, even more egregiously so than the first film, this one puts spectacle above realism, going all Big Dumb Hollywood with impressive but jarring visual effects and overwrought fight scenes. Stupid science, absurd human endurance, unconvincing military decision-making, and nonexistent physics challenge the suspension of disbelief at every turn.
More problematic are the cultural and gender politics — Abrams’ perennial Achilles’ heel. Uhuru (Zoe Saldana) is again saddled with a thankless, girlfriendy role. The new woman on board, Dr. Carol Wallace (Alice Eve), is a thinly conceived combination of eye candy and ineffective subplot intrigue. They contribute to the mission just barely, in comparison to the heroic, active men — whose competence increases based on the degree of white Americaness they possess. Indeed, the most difficult-to-grasp plot point for me was Pike’s faith in Kirk, who is supposed to be some kind of rogue, out-of-the-box thinker, but mainly comes off like an entitled jerk with an alien fetish. (And speaking of unexamined subtext…is it just me, or do Abrams and Company hang Jack Shepherd-y daddy issues on Captain Kirk?)
The final analysis: it’s a gleaming, fast-paced diversion, like a midlife crisis convertible with a suspect engine under its shiny, pristine shell.