'Into Darkness' shows the 'Star Trek' franchise coming into its own
Star Trek Into Darkness Paramount Pictures
Director: J.J. Abrams
Screenplay: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zoë Saldana, Simon Pegg, Karl
Urban, Bruce Greenwood, Peter Weller, John Cho and Alice Eve
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 12 minutes
Opened May 16, 2013
(out of four)
For all its attempts to honor preexisting mythology, J.J. Abrams' modern take on Star Trek has
proven more than capable of standing on its own feet. Abrams has gone out of his way to
continually bow to the original series and its previous big-screen iterations, but both 2009's Star
Trek and this sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, work best as an ongoing creation of a new
mythological tradition, better viewed as a recreation than a continuation.
Incorporating the time-travel subplot into the 2009 reboot was a nice way for Abrams to
transition from one era to the next (and perhaps a necessary compromise), but at this point the
alternate-universe angle is mere background noise. The new films have forged their own identity
(almost in spite of the constant references to the past, but more on that later) and should be taken
on their own terms.
One of the keys to the new saga's success - and its emotional anchor point - is the Kirk/Spock
relationship, which made for a volatile combination when the two were first thrown together in
Star Trek, and which continues to deepen and transform in Into Darkness. The dynamics are
much what they've always been between these two characters - Kirk's
impulsiveness/recklessness and emotional fortitude vs. Spock's adherence to logic and
disciplined thinking - but they've been enriched by the films' reinterpretation of Spock as a man
conflicted between his Vulcan and human impulses.
Zachary Quinto rises to the occasion once again (from a performance standpoint, he has
dominated both movies) in what is, in my mind, the starring role, despite Chris Pine's top billing.
That Spock's role as the emotional cornerstone (his ability to have, or willingness to show,
emotions is a key point of contention) is much more rewarding than Kirk's (who largely drives
the narrative) is almost inevitable, given that the narrative is pretty flimsy.
After breaking protocol on a research mission during the film's opening sequence, Kirk is
relieved of his captaincy and his ship, only to get both of them back about five minutes later -
and only then by dumb luck. When he and his crew are then tasked with taking out rogue
Starfleet agent John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), he decides to bring him in for
questioning instead - and if he hadn't, the plot of the movie wouldn't exist. That there is a plot at
all, and that Harrison is allowed to continue to be a part of it, is seemingly all a result of Kirk's
decision to (once again) go against orders.
Cumberbatch is (needless to say, for anyone who's seen
Sherlock) stellar as the villainous manipulator, providing a commanding physical presence
without even uttering a word and alternately weaponizing both his wits and brawn, depending on
which best suits his objective. He may be the adversary, and the crew may very well know it, but
that doesn't mean he can't make himself useful, or find ways to use them.
Exactly how John Harrison fits into the larger scheme, and how it involves the Enterprise crew,
Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) and his daughter Carol (Alice Eve), is explained just enough that
we think it's making sense in the moment, but not enough to hold up to any real scrutiny. In
short, much of the narrative details are lazy, muddled or even nonsensical, but Abrams brushes
past them with such effortless grace that it almost doesn't matter.
The film's lineage - both cinematic and political - is much clearer, from the opening
theft/escape scene lifted directly from Raiders of the Lost Ark, to the aerial attack scene lifted
directly from The Godfather Part III, to the London-set terrorist attack sequence lifted directly
from 9/11. Overt parallels to the post-9/11 political/military climate abound; in fact, the
commentary comes across clearer than the actual plot.
Then again, Abrams' penchant for references gets in the way at times, too - Leonard Nimoy's
brief cameo is a gratuitous reminder of the dual timelines and an unnecessary, sloppy wet kiss to
Trek die-hards. In conjunction with a barrage of other winks and nods, the film at times borders
on kitsch (which in so many other ways it actively avoids).
Where Into Darkness ultimately succeeds is where every J.J. Abrams movie succeeds - action
and character. I can think of few other working directors who can pull off this same kind of
classical Hollywood entertainment - the breezy atmosphere, the enjoyable, attractive cast of
characters, the colorful villain, the dazzling action. I've been trying to think of an apt historical
comparison for him, but I can't quite put my finger on it. There's something definitively
Hawksian about his movies, but he's certainly no Howard Hawks. Maybe a bit of DeMille, a bit
of Richard Donner, a bit of George Lucas …
Especially in this age of tentpole dominance and studio control, it's nice to have someone like
Abrams who can deliver an old-fashioned entertainment, all while retaining a strong degree of
authorial control. For all the complaints against him - that his films are intellectually thin (yep),
that he overuses the lens flare (yep), that he's basically just aping Spielberg (yep) - the fact
remains he's very good at what he does, even if he only ever gives you exactly what you expect.
And as for his Star Trek movies? I hesitate to say it, but I think both his 2009 effort and Into
Darkness are superior to most, if not all, previous efforts. Allow me to point out that I usually
don't find myself in this position - quite the opposite, in fact. I'm a bit of a purist myself, and
I'm a fan of (at least some) previous Trek incarnations, and I'm more than exhausted with the
current franchise climate, and I generally tend to favor idea-centric science fiction over pure
space opera. Yet his interpretation of this universe, for all that it has simplified and streamlined,
is cinematically richer than what has come before it - and far, far better acted. The recurring
complaint that his movies don't "feel" enough like Star Trek is a ridiculous one. They have no
obligation to feel like anything else, any more than Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy should
have had the obligation to "feel" like the 1960s TV series. I submit that it's a good thing Abrams
wasn't originally a Trek devotee; this way, rather than attempt to appeal primarily to aficionados,
he's been able to follow his own impulses and not only create something better, but greatly
expand its appeal in the process. You might even say he's catered to the needs of the many, as
opposed to the needs of the few.