In 2009, J.J. Abrams jumpstarted a dulling Star Trek franchise by instilling youthful energy and adrenaline into a familiar cast of characters. The universe was the “same” but the feel was different. It was shinier and faster paced, and took advantage of modern computer technology to produce visual effects in a way that the original Star Trek series may have dreamed of but never could harness. But the most powerful weapon 2009’s Star Trek wielded was a solid origin story that balanced the needs of the salivating Trekkies with the cinematic desires of general audiences. It was fresh and fun, familiar yet new. With Star Trek Into Darkness, the formula remains unchanged. At its heart lies a refurbished story that is uniquely enjoyable, complete with a sly tip of the hat to its franchise predecessors. But there are a few J.J. Abrams specialties and stellar performances that make this generally risk-averse Star Trek film the most entertaining one to date. (I suspect I may pay for that proclamation.)
We rejoin the crew of the USS Enterprise on a mission, not long after the events of the 2009 film. We’re thrown into a playful action sequence quite reminiscent of the type of content that would normally make up a classic Star Trek television episode, including a wonderfully subtle sense of camp. As in the previous film, the opening sequence lays the thematic groundwork for the remainder of the film; Kirk (Chris Pine) experiencing the growing pains of becoming a Captain, Spock (Zachary Quinto) learning to embrace and understand being a child of two worlds, and the non-surprising themes of life, death, and family. Star Trek Into Darkness pays considerable respect to the revered franchise and its central characters, occasionally at the cost of originality. This series continues to re-imagine the Star Trek universe but not re-invent it. As the famous line goes, “to boldly go where no one has gone before,” yet Star Trek Into Darkness doesn’t boldly go near anything too new (arguably). The plot quickly devolves into something more mainstream than scientific exploration, supernatural marvels, and discovering the unknown. The plot gears more toward the heart-racing spectacles and emotional roundabouts the film series has long latched onto…possibly to exhibit stronger mass audience appeal. To brave the immeasurable wrath of two distinct fandoms, I would say that the plot of Into Darkness even (at moments) reflects that of Iron Man 3. But despite having seen much of the general plot outline before, the film doesn’t let that stand in its way. As my friend pointed out as we left the theater, ‘it doesn’t matter because it’s so good!’
One noticeable characteristic of Into Darkness and a distinct strength of J.J. Abrams’ directorial skills is the ability to handle multifaceted action sequences. He employed this skill in Mission:Impossible 3, the first Star Trek (remember the opening sequence in which two ships are firing at each other, a character is heroically sacrificing his life, and a baby is being born!…all simultaneously!) and employs it again here. All the characters get involved, whether they’re in one, two, three or more locations. No one (including the audience) stands around waiting for the protagonist(s) to dispatch a handful of henchmen. The stakes in Star Trek are inevitably higher because each group of characters must triumph over their distinct obstacle WHILE depending upon the outcome of a second or third group of characters in action. This is quite a thrilling way to approach an action/adventure film and credit must be given to the tight editing and well-paced script. We never feel lost and we always know what each character needs to succeed, or survive. Into Darkness does a good job of keeping the audience involved and invested. Even in the midst of prolonged fist fights, which are regularly guilty of pausing story progress, there is nearly always a race against time. This series has been a noteworthy example of action being a tool to move the plot forward. A resounding score by returning composer Michael Giacchino helps a lot, too.
And when the movie “slows”, it’s not for lack of dramatic energy. The quieter moments between characters are captivating, each line carefully crafted by veteran Trek writers Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof. The actors seem comfortably at home with the script, even when it takes their character out of their element. The stand out performance belongs to the rising star and popular British thespian, Benedict Cumberbatch. As the mysterious John Harrison, a highly skilled genetically-enhanced man hell-bent on revenge for past afflictions, Cumberbatch is phenomenal. Most widely known for his work as the modern day Sherlock Holmes in the BBC hit series, Sherlock, Cumberbatch excels at delivering ominous lines, complete with a dreadfully low British accent and haunting conviction.
Abrams also handles the humor with incredible precision, keeping it very much in the realm of the familiar Star Trek tone. Bones (played with one-note gusto by Karl Urban) grumbles and chastises each decision of his superiors with the type of metaphorical allusions that only the classic character of Bones can. Kirk and Spock riff off each other with sharp wise-cracking speed. Their comic timing is crucial in enabling the jokes to exemplify their deeper understanding of one another. The same can be said for the chumminess in which Kirk conducts business with Scotty (Simon Pegg), Sulu (John Cho) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana). Into Darkness remains faithful to the sense of informality between the crew members, even at perilous times, that has become a staple tone of the franchise.
By the time the end credits rolled, I was ready for more. This series already has a nasty habit of teasing you with what’s possible in the next installment. Such teasing isn’t accomplished through stingers after the credits like Marvel Studios employs. Instead, it’s accomplished through the amount of newfound enthusiasm injected into this series as a whole, primarily as a result of J.J. Abrams’ involvement. As Simon Pegg mentioned in our round-table interview regarding Abrams: “He puts all his energy into it (filmmaking). He’s a wonderful collaborator and he’s in it for the right reasons.” If Abrams ends up handling Star Wars the same way he’s handled Star Trek, I think we’re in for quite a treat. But until then, more Trek please.
(For the full interview with Simon Pegg and John Cho, click here)
Star Trek Into Darkness opens in Bay Area theaters today.