A few more spoiler-y thoughts on “Star Trek Into Darkness”

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I’ve loved the comments I’ve gotten so far on my original “Star Trek Into Darkness” review from last week, even though they differ widely from those who absolutely loved the film to those who were crushingly disappointed. To be clear, I’m somewhere in the middle — I enjoyed most of it as a purely fun ride, but ultimately felt somewhat let down by the missed opportunities. And, for the record, I say so as someone who is both a lifelong Trekkie and huge fan of J.J. Abrams’ first “Star Trek” film.

My biggest problem with the film is the ending, which obviously I couldn’t get into in my original review. So I wanted to take a little time now under the “Spoiler Alert!” banner to talk about that.

I can pinpoint the exact moment that “Into Darkness” lost me:

“KHAAAAAAN!”

Up until then, like I said, it was a fun ride. The film is Abrams’ chance to riff on the best “Trek” movie of all time, “The Wrath of Khan.” Benedict Cumberbatch makes a fine, imperious villain (although his level of villainy seems to vary widely depending on the needs of a given scene), and the film has great visual effects sequences, like the Enterprise in free fall, the characters inside clinging onto walls as the ship rotates helplessly.

I also thought the Kirk-Spock friendship was nicely developed, to the point where I thought recreating the iconic engine room death scene from “Khan,” the roles reversed, actually worked. It was one of those sweet-spot moments that Abrams shoots for — something that will work for general non-Trekkie audiences while giving a nod to the diehard fans.

And then, “KHAAAAAN!” Having Spock yell that completely disrupts the death scene, drawing lots of knowing chuckles in the audience I was with. More importantly, it’s just the worst sort of pandering to “Star Trek” fans, as if Abrams had a checklist of “Wrath of Khan” elements that he was briskly checking off. “Oh, they’ll want to see that!”

Well, no, not if it disrupts the emotional arc of the movie for what’s basically a cheap callback joke. For me, I think the “Star Trek” reboots work when they riff on the overall dynamics of the series and the relationships between the characters. But to recreate a specific line from a specific movie in that series — especially at such a dramatic high point — feels cheap.

And after that, the film descends into what I call the usual “chase-fight-dangle” — a big starship crash and an interminable fight on top of a shuttle, because that’s how these big action movies end, right? It’s another form of pandering, just now to the broad general audiences who expect that sort of thing.

I’ve tried to assiduously avoid comparisons to how “Wrath of Khan” did it because, I agree, “Into Darkness” should be allowed to stand or fall on its own merits. You can’t make a 1982 film in 2013 and expect it to work. But on its own merits, and despite being a lot of fun at times, “Into Darkness” doesn’t live up to the 2009 “Star Trek” reboot.

“Star Trek Into Darkness”: A rather cynical Enterprise

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“Star Trek Into Darkness” opens Thursday at Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema and Sundance. PG-13, 2:08, 2 and a half star out of four.

I hate to be that guy. It’s no fun to be the humorless fanboy who can’t just enjoy the latest installment in a franchise, but has to hold it up against everything that has gone before. But, as a lifelong “Star Trek” fan, of the sort that used to hold his little audiocassette recorder up to the console TV as a kid to record “Amok Time” and “The Trouble With Tribbles,” it’s hard not to.

So, while “Star Trek Into Darkness” is a fun ride that captures a lot of what made the original series so enjoyable, I couldn’t help feeling let down. Not because J.J. Abrams and his writers have ignored what “Star Trek” fans want. It’s that they’ve pandered to it to such a degree that it feels less like fan appreciation and more like base-covering pragmatism. Add to that the usual summer-movie pandering to audiences who want lots of big explosions and people dangling from ledges (seriously, that engine room has to violate every 23rd-century OSHA requirement in the book), and you’ve got a film that’s surprisingly timid.

Disappointing, because Abrams’ 2009 “Star Trek” reboot was such a triumph. I was extremely skeptical going in  of the idea of reviving Kirk, Spock and company with a new young cast, but Abrams and his writers captured the human element that made the series work, the banter between Kirk, Spock and McCoy, the sense of optimism and humanism that pervaded Gene Roddenberry’s visit. Add in a rather elegant way of using time travel — a recurring theme in the series — to justify the reboot, and it felt like “Star Trek” was well and truly rejuvenated, ready to boldly go forward.

And then we have “Into Darkness.” An ex-Starfleet officer named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) has gone rogue, engineering a bombing in London and an attack on Starfleet headquarters. He hides out in a deserted part of the Klingon homeworld, and Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) sends a revenge-seeking Kirk (Chris Pine) and his crew on a mission to assassinate him. The crew, especially the moralistic Spock (Zachary Quinto), has deep misgivings about the mission, but the hot-blooded Kirk wants atonement for a personal loss. The film is obviously aiming at a kind of post-9/11 allegory, not because it has anything to say about the War on Terror, but because “Star Trek” always does allegory, right? Again, it feels like pandering to a fan base that Abrams doesn’t quite get.

Where the plot goes from there shouldn’t be spoiled (although I want to write about “Into Darkness” again in a week or two), except to say that the plot basically revisits one of the classic episodes of the series. Winking at old fans is fine — I’m a sucker for a Gorn reference or a Tribble cameo as much as the next Trekkie — but “Into Darkness” basically becomes a retelling of that story, down to the point that screenwriters Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and “Lost” co-creator Damon Lindelof rehash familiar scenes and lines of dialogue almost verbatim. There’s nothing new here, and what’s old isn’t done nearly as well as it was the first time around.

Which is not to say that, moment to moment, “Into Darknes” isn’t a fun summer movie to watch. There are some great action sequences, such as Kirk as a human torpedo getting shot from one starship to another, navigating a debris field in between. And there’s a masterful visual effects sequences with the Enterprise in free-fall, the characters falling and running onto corridor walls and ceilings as the ship tumbles helplessly into orbit. (It’s quite an upgrade from the old TV series, where they’d just shake the camera and the actors would lurch back and forth in unison.)

And the character work is great — I felt a huge wave of satisfaction, 40 minutes in, when the entire crew finally settled for the first time at their usual posts on the Enterprise bridge. Pine makes a fine, swaggering Captain Kirk, although at some point he’s got to lose that reckless-hothead image and start acting like a Captain. And Quinto makes an ideal foil, able to both play straight man to Kirk’s quips and top them, drily. They act more as friends here than in the first movie, and that’s an appropriate and necessary step forward.

The screenplay also gives all the supporting characters a scene or two to shine; Scotty (Simon Pegg) gets to skulk around an enemy ship, while McCoy (Karl Urban) grouses entertainingly and Sulu (John Cho) gets to sit in the captain’s chair a little. Cumberbatch is marvelous as the imperious, mysterious Harrison, although the film hedges on the real depths of his villainy to suit the machinations of the plot. (Abrams had the same problem with his last film, “Super 8,” in which the alien would turn from misunderstood “E.T.”-like vagabond to ruthless killing machine and back again, depending on whatever the particular scene needed.)

After finding the right emotional ending, though, you can almost feel Abrams panic, and “Into Darkness” adds on yet another climax, with more big explosions and more chase-fight-dangle. I can’t imagine the next “Star Wars,” which is near and dear to Abrams’ heart, will be like this. He seems to be saving himself, cautiously maintaining the “Trek” franchise until he can pass it off to a director with a little more skin in the game.

Like I said, “Into Darkness” isn’t bad, but it’s a missed opportunity to be more than the summer blockbuster of the week, spiced with winking asides at the “Star Trek” faithful. At the end of the film, we get the promise that the Enterprise will finally, finally embark on its five-year mission. I hope they find something new out there.