‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ review: Beam me up, J.J.
The incessant rebooting of long beloved franchises is a Hollywood epidemic most cinephiles have bemoaned for the better part of the new millennium. Few sectors of pop culture are more fanatical than the cavalry of devoted Trekkies, whose allegiance with the Star Trek canon and its galactic mythology has a reputation almost as notable as the series itself. It could be considered both a blessing and a curse that our newest voyage with the starship Enterprise marks a second successful installment in J.J. Abrams’ revitalized interpretation of Gene Roddenberry’s classic space saga. Star Trek Into Darkness is unabashed, popcorn-munching fun nestled within a sleek, eye-popping framework both respectful to the historical significance of its predecessors and innovative enough to – wait for it – boldly go where no previous Star Trek has gone before. Traditionalists will likely seethe at the debatable desecration the film makes of classic Trek tropes, but those of open minds will embrace the fresh perspective and sincere effort to preserve Roddenberry’s intentions while forging ahead with welcome new ideas.
The blockbuster response and critical acclaim for 2009’s Star Trek solidified it as a modern origin story for stalwart disciples and clean-slate neophytes alike. Clever plot maneuvers wisely tweaked the space-time continuum to assure an alternate universe for Abrams’ vision that wouldn’t perpetuate glaring anachronisms or continuity errors against Roddenberry lore. With Trek having already established the series’ updated aesthetic and tone, Into Darkness capitalizes on the ability to take further risk with the source material by plunging warp speed into sacred narrative territory. The delicate balance of referential nuance and creative liberty needed to establish credibility and pique curiosity is elusive at best, but Darkness scribes and frequent Abrams collaborators Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof present a tolerably convoluted plot with winking dialogue and room for emotional depth and allegory. Even the tenaciously logical Spock gets to shed an actual tear or two.
The film opens with an Indiana Jones-style action prologue, as Capt. James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Dr. “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban) run for their lives in an unknown world where the only thing more restless than the natives is the gurgling volcano towering over the landscape. The crew’s assignment is to thwart the devastating eruption and save the planet’s indigenous species, all without violating Starfleet’s nagging prime directive that insists all officers stay incognito. First Officer Spock (Zachary Quinto) is armed with the necessary tools to deactivate the volcano, but gets stranded inside and prepares to be swept away in a scorching sea of lava in order to complete the mission. Kirk unleashes his signature machismo to beam Spock back on board the Enterprise and save his life, but can only do so in direct conflict with Federation code to keep the natural population sheltered from any Starfleet presence and assistance. The maverick move might have spared both Spock and the awestruck aliens, but higher-ups at headquarters aren’t impressed and Spock is bewildered over Kirk’s impulsive decision to breach protocol for the sake of a friend and colleague’s safety.
The ensuing struggle between ethical obligation and emotional instinct is what feeds the underlying themes of Into Darkness, and the compelling relationship between Kirk and Spock elicits tangible insight into their respective motivations and behavior that support the plot as it unfolds. The returning ensemble cast has proven itself a winning team of actors and rightful heirs to classic roles, but Pine and Quinto present two contrasting psyches crucial to the core of both Darkness and the future it’s building. When an act of domestic terrorism devastates Starfleet headquarters and pits the crew against a villain of monumental implications for the story and the series, Darkness is really given a chance to show its strength as a stand-alone effort while cementing its place among the larger Trek oeuvre.
Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch as rogue Starfleet officer and assumed traitor John Harrison makes a fascinating foil for the Enterprise gang, as his sinister glare and suspiciously resilient physique reveals a peek into a complex history of human advancement and betrayal dating all the way back to our present time. Even fair-weather fans already know Harrison isn’t who he initially says he is, but the revelation of his true identity allows for an imperative expansion of Abrams’ version of Trek that also coincides with preexisting story elements largely considered written law. It’s a daunting task to maintain alliance with some of the most concrete tenets of the series while establishing plenty of your own signature flair, but Abrams has pulled it off. Again.
Although he’s become something of a polarizing figure in today’s fastidious geekverse, Abrams’ success bringing philosophical sci-fi to the mainstream is undeniable. LOST can be arguably credited with jump-starting the rabid recap analysis and blogger commentary that’s become a staple in the media zeitgeist. Its influence has permeated through multiple genres and into shows far beyond the more esoteric tastes of the Comic-Con crowd. Abrams’ additional experience cultivating series with more traditionally broad appeal also helps supplement a crowd-pleasing element to his projects that ultimately make him an ideal choice to introduce a fresh-faced Star Trek to the Facebook generation without sacrificing the legacy that’s kept the series relevant for nearly 50 years.
Despite murky metaphorical reference to the exploitative warmongering that followed 9/11, Star Trek Into Darkness mostly keeps its symbolism focused on the still-fictional future and the wisdom awaiting us in a distant unknown. The sophisticated and wholly believable production design is at its best when depicting the advanced metropolises of 23rd-century San Francisco and London, but watching the Enterprise navigate the infinite expanse of outer space itself never fails to impress. The film’s visual spectacle, rife with frenetic editing and copious lens flares, is a shameless rush of pure entertainment and nicely buoys the otherwise serious subject matter. Kirk and Spock both acquire complementary lessons about the importance of vulnerability in the human condition, and the personal journey each character takes (into the proverbial “darkness,” natch) is met with equal parts substance and well-timed levity. At first glance, this Trek might sound like it casts a bleak shadow on a revered cultural staple, but with the help of its able and affable cast, nimble pacing and engrossing spectacle, Abrams’ Darkness actually shines one of the brightest lights you’ll likely see at the box office all summer.
Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures