There's a speech in the old dramatic war horse 12 Angry Men about reasonable doubt that an accused teenager has committed murder. "Now is this kid smart or is he dumb? To say that he is guilty you have to toss his intelligence like a pancake. There is doubt, doubt, doubt." That about sums up the feelings many fans have about the current state of the Star Trek franchise or, as fans have taken to calling it, "AbramsTrek." That'd be J.J. Abrams, the director and producer of 2009's Star Trek and its sequel Star Trek Into Darkness.
Abrams and his screenwriting team of Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof have a gift for 21st century spectacle and a deficit of subtlety. That, one must concede, is a winning combination for a big-budget actioner like Star Trek Into Darkness, and the picture's entertainment virtues don't end there: as proven by the previous film, the iconic characters—handled with heart and humor—are in the good hands of a fine ensemble, and Abrams' tone of science-fiction sensation and sentiment has already proven successful. Still, there are tradeoffs in the hurtling pace, bombastic action, and general breathless busyness of these pictures, which seek—like a good rollercoaster—to whip the customer out of conscious thought and into a heart-pounding visceral and emotional experience (now in 3D!). The approach allows and, at times, seems to demand a picture to turn on the dumb, and indeed, a number of the plot particulars of Star Trek Into Darkness don't stand up well to scrutiny or verge on silliness.
On the other hand, the picture's ethical convolutions—as acted out by the arrogant but strategically skilled James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), the determinedly logical Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto), and a wild card from without (Benedict Cumberbatch's terrorist John Harrison)—feed into at least superficial sociopolitical allegory. Sidestepping spoilers, I can tell you that Star Trek Into Darkness finds Kirk embarking, headlong, on a mission of vengeance that eventually forces him to reconsider his moral position. Is he comfortable with the dubious orders of Starfleet Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller), who "condemns a man to die without a trial" as part of a "military operation"?
Kirk's trusty engineer Scotty (Simon Pegg) presses, "I thought we were explorers." There's promise (yes, again) of the "five-year mission" made famous by the original 1960s TV series, but first the crew will have to deal with the problem of Harrison, who follows up his violent crimes by hiding "somewhere he believes we are unwilling to go": physically, the mountainous terrain of Klingon homeworld Kronos but, metaphysically, to a down-and-dirty moral low ground. (Cumberbatch, it should be said, proves splendid as always, if disappointingly underutilized.)
Shadow-government shenanigans complicate Harrison's motivations and, along with the remote missile attack heading his way, evoke American interventionist policies (the polar opposite of Starfleet's "Prime Directive" of non-intervention, the bone of contention in the film's opening sequence), specific modern-warfare tactics like drone strikes, and the larger issues of the freedoms we'll forfeit and the moral stances we'll collectively compromise in the name of fighting a "War on Terror." Abrams' film coyly flirts with the same subject matter as Zero Dark Thirty but dares to critique "shoot first, ask questions never" policy and slap Hollywood's wrist for so often celebrating violent revenge. I love Star Trek Into Darkness for that moral, even as ironically mitigated by nonstop phaser fights, pummelings, and explosions.
I'm less enamored of what Star Trek Into Darkness shares with its immediate summer-blockbuster predecessor Iron Man 3: a lazy or even nonsensical approach to writing the story out of corners, as well as the implication that an arrogant hero could stand to learn a hard lesson, followed by a resolution that gives little weight to personal consequences (aside from a brief "one year later" memorial coda, the script skips over opportunities to acknowledge Kirk's mortal fallibility). Sometimes even Kirk has to pay in blood for his choices (cf. Shatner in Treks II and III), and a film called Star Trek Into Darkness should highlight that point rather than dance around it.
As 2009's Star Trek playfully engaged with the franchise's history, this second Abrams picture works out meta-riffs on the original crew's second feature film, 1982's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, including the introduction of an unrecognizable, shamelessly underwritten Dr. Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) and the motif of "the needs of the many" outweighing "the needs of the few"—or the one. While ostensibly clever, the Star Trek II references cause the biggest headaches for this sequel, which would have been better off boldly going where fewer movies have gone before (the opening scene alludes to Raiders of the Lost Ark, and a later spacediving sequence reminds of ones in both the last picture and—egads!—Star Trek: Nemesis). So is the kid smart or is he dumb? Yes, and he's fun to hang around with for a couple of hours.