"Who are you?" pleads a doomed man as Benedict Cumberbatch looms into his first close-up in Star Trek Into Darkness. The answer is Khan. And that's not a spoiler — it's a selling point. A less secretive director would trumpet that his $185 million movie stars Star Trek's greatest villain, but J.J. Abrams has so suppressed this fact that I suspect if you rearrange the letters in Khan Noonien Singh, you'll find the location of the Lost island.
Abrams' mystery-box marketing gave a boost to weaker, cheaper films like Cloverfield and Super 8, but if Star Trek Into Darkness bombs, the trick is on him. Cumberbatch, a tweedy Brit with an M.A. in classical acting and a face like a monstrous Timothy Dalton, has beefed up to become a convincing killer. He's brutal and bold, and the film around him isn't bad either.
In the opening minutes, Khan terrorizes London, then makes like Osama and flees to the mountains of an enemy planet, causing Starfleet Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller — welcome back, RoboCop!) to make like Dubya and order his assassination, sans trial. Picture Zero Dark Thirty with bright pullovers and laser guns and you'll have Darkness, whose heavy-handed political parallels just might feel smart in a summer of Vin Diesel crashing cars.
Instead of Jessica Chastain's overrated ice queen, vengeance here will be served by the blubbering James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), who so bleeds his humanity across the Enterprise's deck that it's a wonder Chekhov (Anton Yelchin) doesn't slip. Again, the central conflict is between the captain's swaggering impetuousness and the cold-blooded logic of First Mate Spock (Zachary Quinto).
Even more than in the first film, Quinto's Spock is emotionally disjointed — even dangerous. In his first scene, Spock sacrifices himself to preserve Starfleet's Prime Directive. Kirk breaks the rules to save Spock's life, and Spock is furious, which is to say he pens a memo of complaint. Demoted, Kirk struggles to reconcile his feelings for his friend. "He'd let you die," cautions Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban), while Spock's girlfriend, Uhura (Zoe Saldana), is so enraged by his death wish that she threatens to "tear the bangs off his head."
After setting up its War on Terror allusions, Star Trek Into Darkness becomes Paradise Lost in Space: It's a battle for the good captain's soul. Dispatched to Khan's hideout, Kirk is torn between Spock's wisdom and Admiral Marcus's war-mongering. Will he let his crew quit or die in his quest for justice? Can Khan destroy him simply by smashing his moral code?
In Darkness' darkest scene, our hero beats a prisoner who has already surrendered. It's shocking stuff, but Abrams's screenwriters don't trust the popcorn audience to get the psychological implications. Instead, they externalize Kirk's turmoil by making him spend every second scene suffering unsolicited advice about what to do. That even his subordinates treat him like a passive sap neuters the character, despite an early romp where he beds twin hotties with tails. His only real love is for the Enterprise, that hermaphroditic ship shaped like three phalluses and a flattened boob.
To validate his 2009 reboot, Abrams worked in a space-time splice so Leonard Nimoy could cameo as old Spock, or "Spock Prime," as though he specializes in overnight shipping. Ironically, in 1982, Nimoy (who had already penned the bristling memoir I Am Not Spock) was so desperate to abandon starship that he agreed to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan only when promised his character would die. Spock croaked, but Nimoy's Vulcan heart was so warmed by the fan agony that the actor returned to direct Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and, post-resurrection, has clung to the franchise, even titling his follow-up memoir I Am Spock. Today, while William Shatner is sealed in his pop-culture terrarium chanting lounge covers of “Space Oddity,” Nimoy returns again so that old Spock can advise young Spock on how to defeat Khan decades before the original Khan defeats the original Spock, causing such a doubled-back crimp in the chronology that in our universe, Wrath of Khan now may no longer exist. Thus freed, Abrams lifts Khan's climax, thievery that will enrage the devout as it suggests the Star Trek saga is merely a game of Mad Libs into which he plugs characters and catastrophes.
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Hey, why not? Trek diehards have long since proven they're impossible to satisfy. Abrams' glossy relaunch is tailored to fans who don't care for canon but know enough to grin when McCoy pokes a Tribble. Darkness is a cheery combo of classic catchphrases and young Hollywood heat, like blonde babe Alice Eve as a weapons expert who can only examine torpedoes in her underwear.
Having crumpled up the franchise for kicks — not that I'm complaining — Abrams won't have the chore of smoothing out the Enterprise's future. Pine, who may yet prove to be a leading man in the model of Harrison Ford, will be pressed to return in sequels, as will Saldana, Quinto and Simon Pegg's Scotty. (If the openly gay Quinto hasn't had the same big-screen success as his co-stars, I hope it's because he sincerely prefers the theater.) But their intergalactic overlord will be in another universe entirely. Hey, Luke — who was your father again?
STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS | Directed by
J.J. Abrams | Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof | Paramount Pictures | Citywide