The most brilliant marketing move in J. J. Abrams's wildly popular 2009 reboot of the Star Trek franchise might have been skipping any attempts at continuity that might hamstring the ability to alternately reference and revise Federation history—whatever was most convenient in any particular scene. More impressively, it did it while managing to not alienate its fan base. Trekkies are famously so rabid, so steeped in the minutiae of each Star Trek franchise, that they were once mocked by William Shatner in a Saturday Night Live skit in which he told rabid conventioneers to "get a life."

The 2009 reboot's plot twist let Leonard Nimoy make a cameo, and it set up the new series' parameters: Spock and the audience retain all memory of past movies, but Federation history, as recorded in those films, is no longer unalterable. Things can now happen differently than they did before. It was like an Etch A Sketch got wiped clean.

This erasure seemed like a high price to pay just to give Abrams and company a bit more narrative freedom. The destruction of Vulcan aside, the first movie also didn't seem as troubled by the theological implications of changing history as was, say, the last season of Abrams's television series Felicity.

Benedict Cumberbatch in Star Trek Into Darkness
Image: Paramount Pictures

Benedict Cumberbatch in Star Trek Into Darkness

But the public wants what the public wants. And it wants old and new Spock in the same movie, and looks to J. J. Abrams to "make it so."

The greatest remaining continuity link between the previous films and the new ones is the inclusion of plenty of Easter eggs to make the initiated feel—in this order—smart ("lose the red shirts") and nostalgic ("the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few"). Beyond that, these are "things go boom" movies for today's viewers. The new generation of watchers isn't really troubled when we tinker with culturally sacred artifacts, because it is more or less disengaged from them.

If they do hold any media experiences dear, the affection is much, much more proximate—quick, what's your favorite movie or television show from the 1990s?—than inherited. Consider that six of the ten highest rated films of all time on IMDB were made in the last twenty years. In today's Hollywood, all things must be made new or be consigned to some obscure folder at Hulu Plus for historians and eccentric, long-tail consumers.

Kvetching aside, is the movie any good? Marginally. Besides some surprisingly fuzzy 3D effects and Abrams's stubborn infatuation with lens flares, it's entertaining enough, as a summer popcorn movie.

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But it's also surprisingly generic. Did we really need all that work in the first movie to make any plot development possible when the spine of the film was going to be a series of video-game ready action sequences that would fit just as easily into most any movie franchise?

We open with a scene of Indiana Jones—I mean Kirk—running away from some primitive aliens. There were several (I think I counted at least four) scenes where someone had a verbal or digital countdown. Want to know what the Star Trek franchise has become? Before the count gets to zero you must (push this button/pull this lever/climb this ladder/inject this serum) or (someone you love/everyone on this ship/millions of extras) are going to die. Of course, summer movies are basically delivery vehicles for spectacle. All of these chases, explosions, crashes, and fights are expertly crafted and sufficiently thrilling.

A prequel or reboot can also succeed by showing us some new back story for the characters we know and love. And for an exciting first hour, it looked like Star Trek Into Darkness was going to go down that road. More tantalizing still, the first hour seems primed to explore the moral development of Kirk. It verges on the edge of understanding that Shatner's version of the character, while courageous and reckless, was a deeply principled leader and not the scofflaw, rule-breaker, rebel that Chris Pine is forced to play. "You think the rules don't apply to you," Pike says to young Kirk, and says that "rules are for other people." Again and again the rule-breaking theme is hammered home, advanced in a plot thread about Spock reporting Kirk for breaking the "prime directive." Kirk refers to his friend's "compulsion to follow the rules," dismissing the idea with a simple "I can't do that."

We get it: rules are for regular people, not leaders or those who aspire to greatness. Yet down what ill-conceived paths could such a personal or political philosophy take us?

When the film makes its second act transformation into a military-political allegory, it is Scotty, not Kirk, who objects: "This is clearly a military mission; I thought we were explorers." It's a familiar story—the leader who recklessly ignores first rules, then moral reservations, and finally the warnings of his most trusted companions. In more serious drama, it is supposed to create a context in which the hero can learn at great cost the dangers of hubris and vengeance. But Into Darkness fumbles on even that level: Kirk's eventual change of heart happens because of strategic suspicion, not moral reservations.

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At the heart of Star Trek is the friendship between Kirk and Spock. Spock's latter's mastery of baser human emotions is a model for Kirk to aspire to, while Kirk reminds Spock of the preciousness of humanity that inoculates Spock against the tyranny of pure logic. (After all, we have a word for those who feel no emotions at all: sociopaths.)

But Star Trek Into Darkness is stacked too heavily on Kirk's side. It demands that Spock must be not just occasionally emotional, but openly expressive in order to be likable—without demanding that Kirk learn to rule his emotions. This Captain Kirk is two parts petulant child, one part indestructible daredevil, always brave but never wise, always stubborn but only erratically principled. He is not so much the hero as he is the villains' antagonist.

The Family Corner

Star Trek Into Darkness is rated PG-13, and the MPAA lists the primary reason for that designation as action violence, including some "intense" sequences. " One such scene depicts a flying ship being used to try to destroy a building and thus could be psychologically traumatic for some viewers. There is plenty of point-and-shoot violence and some hand to hand fighting, including three instances of men beating female characters. Kirk wakes up in bed with two women (one of whom has a tail). Profanity is sprinkled throughout, with the villain alternately referred to as a "son of a bitch" and a "bastard." Scotty says, "Holy sh…" but the end of his sentence is cut off. At least one other character uses the full word, however. One character pleads with another to do something "for the love of God." Spock denies the existence of miracles, saying "there are no such things."

Star Trek Into Darkness
Our Rating
2 Stars - Fair
Average Rating
(56 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (For intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence)
Directed By
J.J. Abrams
Run Time
2 hours 12 minutes
Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana
Theatre Release
May 16, 2013 by Paramount Pictures
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