J.J. Abrams' progression to director of the seventh Star Wars movie feels natural enough at this point so as to seem pre-ordained. Sandwiched around Super 8, his Star Trek films stand as his final warm-ups for the other pre-eminent space sci-fi franchise in the film universe, and it seems clear with the release of Star Trek Into Darkness that it's all been building to Star Wars Episode VII, even if Episode VII wasn't a reality when Abrams reimagined Kirk, Spock and the rest of the original crew of the USS Enterprise.
I say all this because, well, isn't that what Abrams has injected in to Gene Rodenberry's creation -- the smash-and-grab, action sensibilities that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg brought, for better or worse, to Star Wars and Indiana Jones? The answer, to me, is a resounding yes. Star Trek is more "fun" than it has ever been, but it's also dumber. The traditional appeal of Star Trek has been its willingness to ponder life's big questions -- what does it mean to be human? what are the consequences of interfering with the natural development of different cultures? -- whereas Star Wars gets by on pseudo-Eastern mumbo jumbo and a whole lot of one-liners and action sequences.
In Into Darkness, Abrams tries to have it both ways. Spock's dual Vulcan-human identity and the 21st-century inspired examination of the push-pull between the Federation's purported ideals and its desire for general safety and security, brought up by the mysterious villain John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), are there as themes that should feel familiar to Trekkies.
But ultimately, they feel more muted than usual. Those more intellectual sensibilities are drowned out by the wisecracks of Chris Pine's Kirk and personal melodrama between Kirk and Spock (Zachary Quinto), Spock and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Kirk and Scotty (Simon Pegg). They are shouted down by scenes taken straight Raiders of the Lost Ark and covered up with a thin Trekkie veneer (the opening sequence, and the second to last when Harrison is tucked away in what might as well be a Federation warehouse). It means entire characters -- most notably Karl Urban's McCoy, but also John Cho's Sulu and Anton Yelchin's Chekov -- are punted so they can serve as walking, talking comedic props.
There's nothing ostensibly wrong with lightening up Star Trek -- I'm not a strict constitutionalist here -- but Abrams has departed, quite starkly, from anything that's ever been done in this realm before. It probably plays better with the masses, but it doesn't really work for me. I know what Star Trek can be at its best, and its best is quite a bit better than the extremely polished, but somewhat soulless Into Darkness.