The only serious standout element in JJ AbramsStar Trek Into Darkness, the only thing that makes you sit up and go “whoa, wait…this is good,” is the lead villain performance by Benedict Cumberbatch. The poor guy has a somewhat oddly shaped face and weird demon-cat eyes so he’ll never play the good guy, but he’s a serious world-class actor with a kind of young Richard Burton quality and an energy field that just grabs hold and lifts all boats.

Cumberbatch is playing an impassioned, duplicitous intellectual-terrorist-with-feelings named John Harrison (there’s more, actually, but this all that I can divulge), and of course he has to end up vanquished, but he’s so volcanically vital and charismatic that I wish he wasn’t stuck having to fulfill the fate of a baddy-waddy. I wish the rule book could have been thrown out in his case.

On top of which Cumberbatch’s hair has been cut with such elegance and is moussed so exquisitely that it falls in perfect curly tangles all over his forehead, and in a way that triggered admiration if not envy. I don’t know why this aspect got to me. I only know that about halfway into the film I began muttering to myself, “Wow, he’s a werewolf Werewolf of London, this guy.”

I was okay with Star Trek Into Darkness for the most part. I was feeling reasonably engaged but not enthralled and certainly not moved. I just kept wishing there was some way to believe more in what I was seeing. My mind kept rejecting the scale and the pitch of it, you see. The largeness and the intensity of the action and the outlandish physics, that cranked-to-the-max, pushed-to-the-last-second cliffhangerness of it all, became a problem. Nobody wants to believe in smart, crafty, well-engineered excitement than I. But if you tromp too hard on the pedal and make the situations seem too improbable and fantastical then it half-deflates.

This factor doesn’t kill Star Trek Into Darkness, but it certainly mitigates its effect.

Abrams is a highly skilled director — he always gives you the feeling that a smart and confident captain is manning the controls. And I respect those who are into this kind of hyper action aesthetic. They’re not idiots. I just don’t find this aesthetic the least bit convincing. It is therefore not involving, much less arresting.

I can’t roll with two guys being chased by white-faced natives and then jumping off a steep cliff and falling a distance that’s at least as high as the Golden Gate bridge before splashing into the ocean. Tony Scott killed himself by jumping off a bridge this high in Long Beach, but the Star Trek guys can leap from any height and it’s all cool. They can jump off moving space ships and drop into infinity and it’s still cool because another ship will come along at the last instant and they can reach out with one arm and hang on. You can’t stand for minutes on end on top of a large boulder that’s immersed in a sea of bubbling volcanic lava and not suffer and probably die from the heat…but you can if you’re a Star Trek guy. Anybody can do anything, man.

We grew up with video games and we believe in cool shit for cool shit’s sake!

Peter Jackson does the same kind of thing. Crank up the danger levels, push it to the max, make it seem as if doom is totally inevitable…and then save everyone and everything with some improbable last-ditch maneuver at the very last second.

This is what I was going through as I sat through the 7:30 pm show last night at Berlin’s Sony plex. My complaints don’t matter, of course. I’m a bit of a crabhead when it comes to this franchise. So much so that I even felt a tiny bit dissatisfied by Nicholas Meyer‘s two efforts — Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (’82) and Star Trek IV: The Undiscovered Country — and these are considered to be the best of the Shatner-Nimoy cycle. I never got the show — not really. I’ve always hated those fucking mustard and crimson-colored Adidas tunics that some of the Enterprise crew has to wear.

I could have probably enjoyed Abrams film a bit more (i.e., found greater levels of tolerance) if the running time had been closer to 105 or 110 minutes instead of 130-something. But at the same time I have to give Abrams credit for delivering a hell of a third act. It keeps going and going, becoming more and more stupendous. None of it is remotely believable, of course, but that’s what high-throttle CG action cinema is about these days. Anything can happen, throw physics out the window, throw software at any script problem, nobody cares, make sure Kirk punches someone every 20 minutes, sell the popcorn, the worldwide grosses will be tremendous, etc.

I generally agree with Todd McCarthy‘s statement that Star Trek Into Darkness “has been engineered rather than directed, calibrated to deliver sensation on cue and stocked with just enough new character twists to keep fans rapt. At its core an intergalactic manhunt tale about a traitor to the cause, the production gives the impression of a massive machine cranked up for two hours of full output; it efficiently delivers what it’s built to do, but without style or personality.”

Except it does have style and persoality when Cumberbatch is on-screen. So there’s that at least.