J.J. Abrams’s 2009 reboot of Star Trek is, for me, the ideal blockbuster. It develops characters who are charming and utterly worthy of the audience’s attention and sympathy and allows them to drive the action sequences, which are, while not particularly innovative, at least not mind-numbingly tedious and carry actual weight. Just look at that heartbreakingly brilliant opening scene as evidence that the filmmakers’ understood the rich power of emotion, even in a movie stuffed with CGI, and the importance of making an audience feel before they can be expected to care. Eschewing the notion that escapist entertainment must be brainless and without substance, the film satisfies the heart, mind and pulse, appealing to both diehard Trekkies and franchise virgins like me, to those who simply want to relax and those looking for real quality in their popcorn movies. A sense of fun, lovable characters, excitement and an honest emotional core? What more could you possibly want? Abrams’s sequel strives to find that same delicate balance, but while Star Trek into Darkness is an enjoyable enough flick as it stands, it falls short of the expectations set by the original.
In a way, the return of Captain Jim Kirk, Spock and crew falls prey to Hollywood’s “bigger is better” mentality, though it suffers from this less so than something like, say, Iron Man 2 or any number of other blockbuster sequels. With the protagonists’ origin story taken care of, Abrams tackles a more expansive, ambitious plot that focuses less on his characters’ personal growth and relationships and more on external conflicts. This isn’t to say that they completely ditched the character-centric emotionality that highlighted the original, but rather, that the quieter, more dramatic moments scattered throughout have less breathing room and feel more like segue ways from one action set piece to the next, making the proceedings seem rushed and overly hectic. Covering themes of violence and revenge, loyalty and sacrifice, leadership and responsibility, not to mention the usual intuition/logic dichotomy inherent to Kirk’s and Spock’s relationship and an overt but relatively basic 9/11 allegory, the film bursts at the seams with a variety of ideas but doesn’t take or have the time to explore them as thoroughly as it could have. A couple of twists that I won’t describe here and shifting further complicate matters, and certain characters’ motives aren’t always clear, making it seem like some events happen just because the movie needs them to, rather than being causally linked to each other. Perhaps a repeat viewing would clarify some issues, but the convoluted, bloated narrative stands in stark contrast to the stripped-down simplicity of the previous movie.