Star Trek Into Darkness is an excellent piece of entertainment that manages to find that elusive sweet spot between old-school Trek and breathtaking blockbuster summer fare. Even more so than the first reboot movie from 2009, director J.J. Abrams has found a way to make Trek exciting and interesting for a new generation of audiences while staying true to the core concepts of Gene Roddenberry’s vision.
Of course this is not your grandmother’s Star Trek anymore, but then again, why should it be? As a slam-bang, action-filled conduit for the younger generation to perhaps get into Trek’s long and esteemed history, it fulfills its mission and more.
The 2009 film was more or less an origin story wrapped around a clever alternate timeline plot. Since the deranged Captain Nero traveled back in time and changed the course of history, audiences were treated to an alternate background into Kirk, Spock, Bones and the crew of The Enterprise.
This brilliant approach allowed the filmmakers to create their own Trek mythology while staying true to the canon of the series. Every reboot sort of creates an alternate timeline in the story’s mythology anyway. You don’t actually believe Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy exists in the same universe as Batman & Robin, do you?
The freedom that came from this approach gave the writers and Abrams free reign to take some bold steps in creating their own Trek universe. In this alternate timeline, Vulcan is destroyed and Kirk and Spock start off as enemies. Also, having been raised without a father, Kirk has even more of a rebellious attitude.
This second chapter in the reboot also takes a lot of bold steps while surprisingly staying true to the original series. In fact, with Star Trek Into Darkness, we are treated to one of the most creative and exhilarating remake of recent years. A remake, I might add, where the producers tried their damnedest hiding as one.
In fact, I can’t even tell you which original series episode and Trek movie it basically retools for a new audience without some major spoilers. Although, I’m pretty sure Trekkies have figured it out by now.
As with the 2009 edition, the kinetic action, Star Wars-level disregard to physics, much more heightened drama and even the lens flares return for a second helping. But since the origin story and the introductions are behind us, Into Darkness feels much more like old Star Trek than the inaugural effort.
It begins with a Bond-style teaser, the is Enterprise in hiding while helping a primitive planet survive a volcanic eruption. This is not just another brainless teaser that doesn’t even attempt to tie itself thematically to the rest of the story. Many of the conflicts that surround the main plot are smartly introduced in disguise of a simple, action-packed opening.
From there, we meet John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), a mysterious terrorist whose violent actions motivates Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) to find him on a desolate planet and blow him up to kingdom come with 72 nuclear rockets powerful enough to destroy an entire planet. However, as John’s real identity and the true nature of the rockets are revealed, Kirk and Spock (Zachary Quinto) realize they’re in far deeper than they thought.
The film’s IMDB page already revealed John Harrison’s secret identity, which in turn will disclose which storyline from the old Trek canon Into Darkness remakes. So if you don’t want to find out, steer clear of IMDB.
As far as Harrison’s original representation is concerned, performed by an actor who was hammy yet had great presence, Cumberbatch’s take is less of a power hungry mad man but an infinitely smarter and stronger predator, cunning and calculating, waiting patiently for the perfect moment to strike. He creates one of the most memorable villains in Trek history. Considering perhaps the most memorable is the first incarnation of the same character, that’s quite an accomplishment.
One minor complaint about the character refers to his race. In the original series episode where he was first introduced, he clearly had brown skin, which makes sense since his race was clearly identified. Even though the same actor for the movie sequel of the TV episode played him, his skin was lighter. Perhaps the filmmakers of the time, realizing they were in the 1980s and not the 60s, thought painting him in brown face again might not have been a great idea this time around. But in either case, at least a person of color portrayed the character.
Now we have Benedict Cumberbatch, who’s one of the whitest people on the planet, yet the character’s background, as well as his ethnic name remains the same. This is a detail that would probably go over the heads of most of the audience, but I expect Trekkies to be a bit pissed.
The second act of the movie takes place inside Enterprise and feels a lot like the old Trek while still looking fresh and exciting. The balancing act performed by the cast and crew to appease the two vastly different audiences at the same time is commendable. Abrams does the smart thing here by opening most scenes with philosophical conflict that drives the characters like traditional Trek did and then bringing on the goodies for the general audience in the form of some of the most exhilarating set pieces I’ve seen in a long time. A sequence showing Kirk and Harrison making an impossible jump from one ship to another is worth the admission price alone.
A lot of the scenes that mirror the original film are done with respect and creativity. I was surprised to find an almost shot-by-shot recreation of a very emotional moment from the original with the parts switched. Star Trek into darkness is the best film of the summer so far, and might even end up as one of the best films of the year.