star_trek_into_darkness_ver6For the majority of my life, most of what I’ve known about Star Trek I didn’t actually learn from watching Star Trek. I learned it via pop cultural osmosis. My first Trek film, The Voyage Home, was also my last Trek film until an insistent friend took me to see First Contact, lo those many centuries ago. I liked both films well enough, but not enough to dive any deeper into that particular universe. For all its obvious intelligence and imagination I never connected to it emotionally. Up until JJ Abrams’ 2009 reinvention of the franchise I’d have told you that my favorite Trek film was Galaxy Quest [1]. I tell you all this for context – this is who I am in approaching Star Trek as a moviegoer.

Abrams’ first film has its problems – the pointless introduction of Kirk as a (badly bewigged?) child, complete with a WTF Beastie Boys soundtrack, a fairly unmemorable villain, some admittedly questionable leaps in logic – but it’s also a smart, sharp, phaser blast of a film; a wildly fun watch. A lot of that is due to the performances, which range from good to flat-out great. Chris Pine is scary-good as Kirk, channeling Shatner by way of Nathan Fillion and Harrison Ford, Zachary Quinto is a nuanced and entertaining Spock, Karl Urban threatens to steal the film several times as McCoy, Zoe Saldana essays a fierce and grounded performance as Uhura, and John Cho, Simon Pegg, and Anton Yelchin anchor the remainder of the core crew with appealing charisma. It’s those performances – and the sleekly purring, openly emotive confidence of Abrams’ direction – that distinguish the film from the vast majority of the Blockbuster film pack.

That film was a real encouragement to seek out more of the “classic Trek,” specifically Wrath of Khan and some well-regarded episodes of the original series. In doing so I found the characters newly interesting, the stories more involving somehow, and that never would have happened if Abrams hadn’t gotten me invested in those characters first. And had I not watched them I wouldn’t have known to appreciate the ways that Star Trek plays with its own past throughout Into Darkness.

Like the first film, Star Trek Into Darkness isn’t without problems but if anything it’s an even better ride at first blush. I walked out of it with a big damn smile on my face, fairly buzzing with adrenaline. Abrams and his team take everything that made the first film so enjoyable and transport it over to the sequel, while adding in some welcome Trek-ian social commentary on militarism and a terrific antagonist played with evident relish by Benedict Cumberbatch. The returning cast all acquit themselves well, again delivering good-to-great performances and bouncing off one another with an energy that’s infectious and engaging. Abrams works them hard throughout, and by the end of the film this particular iteration of the Enterprise crew feels as though it has earned its five-year mission to boldly go where no man has gone before. Above all, the film is just plain fun, with a playful, unabashedly emotional script that toys with audience expectation and familiarity to create new moments from old ones while forging ahead in its own direction. It’s got energy, wit and enthusiasm to spare, and for this particular viewer it was terrific entertainment.

star_trek_into_darkness_ver4Sure, the film’s got flaws. For one, it relies on a Spock Ex Machina moment that, welcome Leonard Nimoy appearance aside, feels both unnecessary and somewhat detrimental to the larger story being told in service of what feels like unnecessary narrative expedience. For another, there’s a portion of the film that should feel awfully familiar to anyone who saw The Avengers, which is to say everyone. The MacGuffin being chased at the end of the film opens some very big questions/consequences that the film doesn’t bother addressing, but that doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t be addressed going forward. While some fans will see these things as a bridge too far, I found myself more than capable of rolling with them – there was too much fun to be had for my enjoyment to have been derailed over any of it. Maybe that won’t be the case for you. When it comes to “plot holes,” after all, one man’s pinprick is another man’s sinkhole [2].

Some of the criticisms already being leveled at the film and at Abrams’ efforts generally make no real sense at all in my humble opinion: A.O. Scott’s otherwise fairly forgiving review of the film states that it sacrifices “the large-spirited humanism” of Star Trek has no discernable anchor in reality. This is a big-hearted, humanist film firmly rooted in what I understand to be Gene Roddenberry’s rejection of militarism and his embrace of a more excellent ideal – that of exploration, assistance and uplift. Chud alumni Devin Faraci has been on the warpath about Star Trek Into Darkness lately, disowning Abrams’ Trek efforts as films “for people who think space is faggy.” That’s a truly bizarre scorched earth statement deeply unfair to both the films’ creators and their fans; Abrams’ Trek is for lots of folks of varying shapes and sizes and stripes, many of whom are intelligent people capable of recognizing and acknowledging flaws while also embracing the exhilaration, invention and emotion offered up here. A whole lot of them are going to walk out of this movie thinking that space is totally freakin’ awesome. I single out Faraci’s opinion, not to castigate him or call him out, but to briefly address what I think is deeply unfortunate about film criticism at times – the tendency to view films and fans in sharply divisive, binary terms: “sucks” vs. “rocks”; “smart” vs. “dumb”; “bros” vs. “geeks.” I don’t subscribe to any of this, and I think it’s perfectly possible for Star Trek Into Darkness both to contain flaws/plot holes and to be a stirring, enjoyable experience in its own right.

The subjective quality of their output aside Abrams is, in some very real ways, a kind of modern Young Spielberg. Not star_trek_into_darkness_ver19since Spielberg’s 80′s heyday has a single creator dipped his fingers in so many pies, combining a love for genre with a canny feel for audience manipulation, an emphasis on emotion over reason, and a sentimental streak a mile wide. Like 80’s Spielberg, some critics are prone to attacking him for these qualities; for the tendency of the projects he involves himself with to value emotion and character over logic, memorable moments over perfect wholes. In a sense, Abrams has pulled a Spielberg on Star Trek, which might help explain why his reboot seems to have alienated some longtime fans. Abrams papers over plot holes with emotion, character and energy in a manner that’s distinctly Spielberg-ian, and while that might be a turn off for some, his approach made it easy for this viewer to accept whatever gaps of logic exist by boosting right past them with confidence, verve and impressive showmanship.

I can’t tell those of you who are longtime Star Trek fans that you’ll love this film – your expectations for it and for the property in general may be (and probably are) way, way different than mine. What I can tell you is that I think this is a giddily energetic, large-hearted film that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to a friend looking for a good time out at the movies. It’s pulpy, adrenalized fun delivered with affection and enthusiasm. J.J. Abrams has morphed into a gifted orchestrator of Big Rousing Entertainments, and Star Trek Into Darkness announces loudly that he’s here to stay. Lucky us, I say.

MMorse is a comforting fiction. You can follow and antagonize him on Twitter at @M_Morse

[1] It might still be. Galaxy Quest is a wonderful film, bursting with heart and wry, knowing humor, as I’m sure you already know. If you don’t, I encourage you to check it out.

[2] I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a neophyte when it comes to all things Trek, but from what I’ve seen a good number of Trek’s films/shows contain exactly the sort of plot holes that some have complained about in Into Darkness. It would be wonderful, if not realistic, to hear fans argue and debate respectfully over such holes, as opposed to using them as a bludgeon to totally dismiss the film and/or those who enjoy it.

Rating:
★★★★☆

Out of a Possible 5 Stars