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Few people in Hollywood are as ambitious and bold as J.J. Abrams. Having conquered television with a string of successful, succinctly-titled series (Felicity, Alias, Fringe, Lost), Abrams has transitioned to cinema with the same verve and paradigm-shifting approach he brought to the small screen. In 2009, he did what many assumed was impossible: he re-launched the 50-year-old Star Trek franchise with a film that was both satisfying to lifelong fanboys and general audiences who didn’t know Kirk from Picard. He followed it up with Super 8, a brilliant piece of Spielbergian nostalgia which he both wrote and directed. Now, he has returned to the bridge of the starship Enterprise for Star Trek Into Darkness which, though extremely entertaining and pure Abrams, is possibly his most incomplete work to date.

Taken purely as a studio franchise picture, Star Trek Into Darkness is quite good: plenty of action set pieces, a talented and eclectic cast and a distinct blend of CGI and practical set design. Unfortunately, we’ve come to expect so much more from Abrams who, for whatever reason, feels much more obligated this time around to make kitschy winks to the original television series and in-jokes that will leave many audience members scratching their heads. Star Trek had a smart and inventive script that elevated it from being simply a summer popcorn movie to a truly great cinematic achievement. Into Darkness, though, gets bogged down with an almost Tarantino-esque level of references and a central conflict that is too convoluted to fully embrace.

Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine) is a brave and hard-headed Starfleet commander who sees rules as suggestions and impulses as sufficient evidence for decision-making. After interfering with a primitive society on the planet Nibiru, Kirk has his ship, the Enterprise, taken away from him and is stripped of his captain status. Soon thereafter, Starfleet Command is attacked without warning by a man named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) who we soon learn has an extremely personal vendetta against Starfleet that borders on animalistic. When Harrison flees to what he believes is the safety of Kronos, Kirk requests permission to go after him despite the possibility starting an all-out war with the Klingons who inhabit the planet.

Star Trek Into Darkness works on so many levels, but disappoints on so many others. Abrams has an almost unmatched attention to detail which makes his films like a woven tapestry of authenticity and realism. From the set design to the costumes to the props, Abrams’ films are the cinematic equivalent of a pointillist work of art (see the museum scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). No other scene in Star Trek Into Darkness better epitomizes this trait than the opening sequence on Nibiru. From a distance, the race of beings who live on the planet appear very human-like. Up close, though, we see they have enormous black eyes and cover their bodies head-to-toe with some type of white body paint; but that isn’t enough for Abrams. The paint is not smooth and or applied evenly. It is cracked and peeling, a sign they have not yet learned the importance of shelter. Their eyes, too, are not just black, but reflective with an almost luminescent shine. Abrams has taken great care in creating this alien race.

This same scene, though, is completely superfluous to the rest of the film. Aside from serving as the reason for Kirk being demoted (only to be promoted again almost immediately), the film’s entire opening has no impact on the rest of the plot. One can only assume that writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof – all previous Abrams collaborators – were pressured by the studio to match the impressive opening sequences of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. Orci, Kurtzman and Lindelof have crafted a very engaging story, but seem too preoccupied with entertaining the fans to focus on fully developing their story. The main conflict becomes much more intricate than it needs to be and many plot developments seem to exist solely as an excuse for another action or fight scene.

While the film overall is good but not great, Cumberbatch is absolutely terrific as the enigmatic villain John Harrison. When he speaks, Cumberbatch hardly moves, allowing the intensity in his voice and cold gaze to communicate all he needs to. An action star is a new role for Cumberbatch, but he commands his fight scenes with the skill of someone who has been doing it for years. As with any really good villain, the image of Cumberbatch with stick with the audience long after the movie ends.

Star Trek Into Darkness is miles ahead of most Hollywood movies being made today, but from J.J. Abrams we have come to expect better. It is no doubt a very good time at the movies even if it doesn’t match the excitement of Abrams’ previous adventure aboard the starship Enterprise.

Grade: B-

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