Quick quiz: which movie currently in theaters does worst by a beloved national classic, "modernizing" it in ways that violate everything people cherished about the original? If you picked Star Trek Into Darkness, let's have a beer one of these days. At least The Great Gatsby's director, Baz Luhrman, puts his purple heart on his zircon-studded sleeve with a romantic pizzazz F. Scott Fitzgerald might approve of. From my lonesome perch, the cement-mixer racket from Gene Rodenberry's corner of the Great American Cemetery is a lot more deafening.
Just so you won't misunderstand, a Trekkie I'm not. My indefensible affection for botched WW2 spectaculars apart—really, Is Paris Burning? does have its moments, folks, and I guess you had to be there as a susceptible tyke in 1966—I've never been an anything-ie, really. But I admire hell out of Rodenberry, who created the Shatner-Nimoy Star Trek almost half a century ago, for his humanism and humor. No other series as vividly evokes the liberal optimism of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, so soon derailed in real life by the Vietnam quagmire: pan-galactic cooperation, government as an instrument of benevolence, bigotries and other hatreds overcome by ingenuity and sweet reason.
True, that was a long time ago—and the franchise, now longer in the tooth than any pop-cult staple this side of the Bond series, has gone through many a metamorphosis since then. Its core values have stayed remarkably resilient, though, or did until Lost creator J.J. Abrams got busy rejuvenating the original series for the post-millenial silver screen. Huge, loud, and about as reflective as a food fight, the second installment of the Abramsized Star Trek trashes Rodenberry's moral and ethical vision so carelessly that I'm surprised genuine Trekkies aren't pissed off. As for me, I might as well have bought a ticket to a remake of Is Paris Burning? that ends with the City of Light charring like a hog in a barbecue pit. No big deal, but my brain could live without it.
In 2009's Star Trek, which launched his reboot, Abrams did give himself creative leeway—and placated the fanboys—by concocting a lot of mumbo-jumbo establishing that this was an "alternate" Trekkieverse. That allowed us the pleasure of seeing an entertaining new cast (Chris Pine as James T. Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Spock, and so on) impersonate their iconic forebears—meaning the original actors as well as their roles—without obliging the script to kowtow to every last bit of back-story trivia of the sort Trekkies dote on. But in Into Darkness, the fun has worn thin—and the new ensemble's performances have gotten worse, or anyhow less to the point. What's left is one more humongazoid, cluttered summer blockbuster whose gobbledygook plot just spackles over the interludes between kaboom-happy CGI set pieces.
Paying lip service to Rodenberry-style preachiness, the storyline does feature analogues for present-day controversies: drones, targeted assassinations without due process, even a vaguely Cheneyesque jingo who wants to provoke a war he believes is inevitable in any case. But none of the parallels resonate, because Abrams—who's recently confessed, to his peril, that he couldn't stand the original Star Trek, finding it too, ahem, "philosophical"—plainly has no investment in what he considers boilerplate. By contrast, the digs at our post-9/11 mindset in Iron Man 3 are both more mischievous and more pointed, right down to the government-licensed version of Tony Stark's rig being redubbed "Iron Patriot."
Anyway, how are we supposed to take our heroes' qualms seriously when the whole film exults in destruction and mayhem? Dozens of anonymous Enterprise crewmen die horrible deaths in space, a futuristic San Francisco takes a massive hit —and nobody on-screen, the good guys included, finds time to express a moment's regret over either. If the first of these sequences made the trundles emanating from Rodenberry's grave mighty audible to my ears, by the second I was too demoralized to care. I've come to dread the final 20 minutes or so even of summer blockbusters I otherwise enjoy, like the aforementioned Iron Man 3; I know that whatever tickled or intrigued me won't survive the inevitable "Can you top this?" demolition derby. But it's more depressing when the characters involved are the beneficiaries of half a century's worth of well-deserved audience affection.
Luckily, I guess, Abrams ends up trashing that affection as well. Part of the alternate-Trekkieverse conceit is that Chris Pine's Kirk is more unruly and reckless than Shatner's was, which is fine up to a point. But in Into Darkness, Pine (who's horribly directed) has gotten so bughouse that nobody in their right mind would trust him to run a popsicle stand, let alone a starship—and that's before the scene of him beating up an unarmed captive who's just surrendered to him. As for Spock, all that the script can find for him to do at the climax is engage in an endless punch-out, not exactly what we love him for. Even the gifted Benedict Cumberbatch, cast as this installment's villain—whose mere name reviewers aren't supposed to divulge, since it qualifies for Trekkies as a spoiler in itself—visibly gives up midway through on having a character to play. He's just your standard-issue, cold-eyed brainiac with a nefarious agenda, denied the barbaric grandeur of the actor who originated the role way back when.
Yet all this is very much in Hollywood's current, scorched-earth style of refurbishing talismanic properties for today's audience. As in Oz The Great and Powerful or Robert Downey Jr. playing Sherlock Holmes, the famous brand name takes care of the sales job. Any concern with preserving the original's integrity or, a few in-jokes aside, honoring fans' fondness for the characters—even in the sense of exploiting that fondness for sentimental effect, because nostalgia trips aren't surefire ticket-sellers— comes in a distant second to ensuring there's plenty of razzle-dazzle before the inevitable wow finish, which invariably has to be some sort of duel with lots of big things crashing into each other and a surfeit of piling on.
After following that formula slavishly for over two hours, Star Trek Into Darkness adds insult to injury by intimating that we've now reached the point where "These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise " began 47 years ago. When the series' fabled theme music blares on the soundtrack, it sounds every bit as appropriate as "All You Need Is Love" playing in an abattoir.