Like director J.J. Abrams’ 2009 “Star Trek” film, “Star Trek Into Darkness” gets all the Trek-isms correct. Everyone is still spot-on as alternate-universe versions of the iconic characters, Scottie and Chekov have thick accents, there are winks about red shirts, Bones says a variation on “Dammit, Jim, I’m a doctor …” and so forth.
But while all of that was fun and kind of impressive the first time around, now the concept translates into a shallow blockbuster hulk of a movie. SPOILERS FOLLOW. Abrams’ go-to writing team of Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof riff heavily on “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” featuring alternate-universe super-human Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) as the main villain and a cameo by Leonard Nimoy’s Spock telling our Spock essentially: “Yeah, he’s a pretty bad dude. Good luck with that.”
The major twist is that — as a way to illustrate their friendship — Spock and Kirk flip-flop their roles from the original-universe showdown with Khan. Now it’s Kirk trapped in a decontamination room and Spock yelling the villain’s name. A feature-length film is a long way to go just to reaffirm that Spock and Kirk are buddies.
Early on, it looks like “Into Darkness” might have more depth, as a higher-up in the Federation (Peter Weller) is hungry for war with the Klingons and willing to set up the Enterprise crew as the fall guys. The Feds assure Kirk that Khan is on an otherwise uninhabited continent and therefore he’ll be the only casualty. Scottie is the only one to call BS on this national warmongering, telling Kirk he’ll have no part in the plan to fire invisible photon torpedoes (read: drone bombs?) into the Klingon home planet just to kill Khan.
Some of Scottie’s warning must sink in with Kirk, as he opts to apprehend — rather than blow up — Khan. Ironically — and oh so conveniently — Khan is apparently planning on Kirk capturing him, because it’s all part of a grander plan. And this scheme is pretty much the same thing the original-universe Khan was up to, and it becomes clear that “Into Darkness’ ” thematic ambitions aren’t as lofty as they initially seemed.
As for the spectacle, the 3D got wonky in the final 20 minutes in the theater I saw the film at, but generally I guess there’s some good stuff here, including Spock in the midst of a volcano and Kirk shooting between spaceships like a bullet.
Weller is solid as the Fed warmonger, although Cumberbatch lacks the fire of Ricardo Montalban. Instead, he’s content to use a booming voice and steel jaw; this Khan could be an Engineer in the next “Prometheus” film if Lindelof wants to recruit him. It’s nice to see Alice Eve expand the female cast beyond just Uhura. We get glimpses of aliens — other than Spock, who is merely half-alien — working on the Enterprise, but they are such short glimpses they are almost distracting.
Unlike the original Khan saga (spread between the original TV series and the second motion picture), which was lauded for taking “Star Trek” into new territory by giving Kirk a major rival, “Into Darkness” is nothing more than a competent blockbuster that checks off the requisite “Star Trek” boxes. I suspect I’m not the only viewer who would prefer that the insider references give way to fresh, daring ideas, something “Trek” was known for in its heyday.
Maybe this alternate-universe “Trek” saga will have the opposite pattern from the original saga, and “Into Darkness” marks the start of an even-numbered-film curse.