Director J.J. Abrams is back in the captain’s chair, piloting the U.S.S. Enterprise through more explosions, more lens flare – in fact, more of just about everything that disenchanted Trekkies with STAR TREK (2009) – and this time all of it is enhanced with enough eye-popping 3D to make these angry fans switch their phasers from stun to kill; and yet, none of that prevents STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS from doing what no STAR TREK film has ever done before: achieve greatness for the second time in a row. Though purists may disagree, Abrams’ two STAR TREK features rank atop their predecessors, eclipsing all of the STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION films and all but the best of the classic TREK films.
What redeems all the bombs and bombast – the tipping of sacred cows – and the apparently heretical disregard for TREK orthodoxy? It’s a simple trick, really, but a profoundly insightful one: by staying true to the fundamental core of the familiar STAR TREK ethos and characters, screenwriters Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof can twist the details in new and interesting ways without ever violating the franchise’s prime directive: portraying an optimistic view of the future. Yes, that Utopian future will be threatened, and the story will focus less on speculative fiction than on the action-fueled drama of defending against a villainous threat, but that scenario will be used not just as an excuse for photon torpedoes and phaser blasts but also as framework for grandiose moments of pathos that bring the characters alive for a younger generation and remind old viewers why they fell in love with the crew of the Enterprise in the first place.
This time, the threat takes the form of Jonathan Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), who bombs a Starfleet data archive and later targets Starfleet headquarters itself, before skipping off to a planet in the Klingon system. Kirk (Chris Pine), who has been briefly demoted for ignoring the Prime Directive and prevaricating about it in his captain’s log, is re-instated as commander of the Enterprise and tasked with using a newly developed photon torpedo to take out Harrison and make a quick getaway before starting an interplanetary war with the Klingons.
There may be more to the story, however, as it turns out that the Starfleet Data Archive was actually a secret project to develop weapons for a war with the Klingons, which Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) believes is inevitable. Is Harrison simply a patsy? Is he part of a conspiracy to ignite the simmering Klingon-Starfleet conflict? Or does he have his own, secret agenda?
STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS attempts to be the MAGNUM FORCE (1973) of the TREK series, directly addressing – and in fact deliberately back-walking – the impression left by its predecessor. Whereas MAGNUM FORCE attempted to counter the critical accusation that DIRTY HARRY (1971) endorsed a fascist approach to policing, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS directly takes on the perceived militarization of the TREK universe, which reached its apotheosis in 2009’s STAR TREK, wherein seeking out new life and exploring strange worlds took a back seat to blowing up bad guys. Harrison’s attacks have lethal and very personal consequences for Kirk, who initially is happy to go on a vengeance-fueled mission involving targeted assassination from a safe distance.
As in the best STAR TREK, the scenario is a thinly veiled reflection of our current situation: think of drones and targeted assassinations in the Middle East, and you get the picture, at least initially; later developments turn the story into a warning about the dangers of blow-back. The joy here is that the script – and Pine – sell the device as character drama, allowing us to identify with the understandable feelings of grief and rage that could lead Kirk to moral compromise. In this regard, it is worth noting that STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS reaches back into the very earliest days of the original STAR TREK television series – back to that first half-season, produced by Gene Roddenberry, when Kirk was a driven man, given to heated, sometimes incorrect decisions (think of his effort to track down and kill the Gorn in ARENA without bothering to ascertain who was really the aggressor in a lethal territorial dispute).
Fortunately, as in the series, Spock (Zachary Quinto) and McCoy (Karl Urban) are on hand to help their captain reclaim his ethical center. As in the previous STAR TREK, the characters are milked for the dramatic juice that energizes what could have devolved into preachy moralizing. Yes, the familiar shtick is proudly displayed (Spock invokes logical and regulation; McCoy says “Dammit, Jim…”), but the screenwriters and the actors realize full well that these cliches are not just arbitrary punchlines to be inserted at random; rather, they are tags that help identify the underlying truth about the characters, which is then teased out when they are tested under life-or-death circumstances.
Exactly how that happens is fascinating, to coin a phrase. Just as the previous STAR TREK made rebooting the story part of its plot, acknowledging the previous history while simultaneously subverting it, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS deliberately echoes – or, more precisely, mirrors – the events of STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN. Familiar elements abound: a newly developed force capable of great destruction; the presence of Carol Marcus (Alice Eve); bodies secreted in photon torpedo tubes – so much so that, by the time Harrison reveals that he is actually Khan Noonien Singh, it is only what we expected.
The trick is that the expected set pieces are inverted, with characters taking on actions previously performed by others; we get a true alternate-universe version of the familiar events, taking what was old and making it new again, including a heart-rending variation on STAR TREK II’s most memorable plot development. (We won’t give it away here, but we will say you do get to here the memorable how of rage, “KHHHAAANNN!!!” – but not from the lips of James Kirk.) Here, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS flirts with post-modernism, using the audience’s assumed familiarity to add resonance to the events depicted, even though, strictly speaking, there is no direct plot continuity with the film being referenced.
Even more impressively, the new film not only enhances itself by looking back on its 1982 predecessor; it also performs a sort of retro-active miracle, enhancing our appreciation of WRATH OF KHAN, which has now become part of a mirror-image diptych, the two films mutually reinforcing each other with their similarities and differences.
Amidst all the action and angst, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS never forgets to be fun. The familiar character patter from the classic series is re-energized here; most of the jokes feel like authentic character moments, not old vaudeville routines hauled out of the mothballs. One exception is the sly, post-modern bit when Kirk transfers Checkov to engineering and tells him to put a red shirt on. Checkov’s worried expression is supposed to relate to concern over his new duties, but the audience reads it as fear of the fate known to befall so many red-shirted cadets in the old television episodes.
Technical credits are astounding; even the 3D conversion looks great, enhancing the dynamism on screen – especially in IMAX engagements. Fortunately, there is more than just visual flash here. Early on, there are actually some almost non-dialogue sequences, accompanied by a more delicate style of music scoring, that convey subplots and even a touch of exposition with admiral subtlety and economy, balancing the intentionally over-the-top excesses of the action sequences.
The more visceral scenes are sometimes overdone, and the plot is more convoluted than it needs to be, requiring a fairly thick slab of dialogue to explain Harrison’s actions, which dovetail perhaps a bit too conveniently with the desire of Admiral Marcus to find a casus belli with the Kklingons. STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS crams too much into one film, with the result that it frequently seems to be careening off into the wrong direction. Remarkably, the film almost always makes the necessary course correction before speeding down the wrong worm hole, and if viewers are more than occasionally left feeling that Abrams and company are trying too hard to recreate memorable beats from their first TREK outing, those misguided efforts usually redeem themselves. (For example, the rather non-energetic opening tease of Kirk escaping from a primitive alien tribe turns into an interesting dilemma – obey the Prime Directive or save Spock’s life – and culminates in sly joke at the expense of Trekkies: after a glimpse of the Enterprise, the tribe seems to adopt it as an object of worship, just as legions of fans on Earth have done for decades.)
As in the previous STAR TREK film, the cast turn the characters into something resembling people, not fifty-year-old cliches. Pine captures the strengths and weaknesses of Kirk; Quinto has Spock’s dual nature down cold, the external logic keeping the underlying emotion hidden yet always felt, just beneath the surface. Urban is uncanny in his ability to play McCoy as if the part always belonged to him.
Even the supporting characters (Zoe Saldana as Uhura, John Cho as Sulu, Anton Yelchin as Chekov), though still clearly subordinate, are given their moments to shine, establishing what makes them great crew members, worthy of being on the Enterprise. Simon Pegg seems a little older and a wee bit tired as Scotty, but he is still an engaging comic presence, and the character even shows a little moral backbone, resigning over a matter of principal at a time when Kirk is too blinded by rage to see that Scotty is right.
At its core, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS is a story of a brash young man who learns a much-needed lesson in humility. Thankfully, the screenwriters realize that personal growth, in and of itself, is not enough to justify the collateral damage that results in a film like this (would it really be fair for dozens if not hundreds of crew people to die so that Kirk can become a better person?), so something else is offered, a larger lesson about holding onto your ideals even when you are tested in extremis. It’s a lesson not only for Kirk but for all of us, and STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS makes the point as well as any classic STAR TREK episode ever did.
Where will the Enterprise voyage next? STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS ends with the promise the the familiar five-year journey about to commence, implying that future episodes will take place out in the galaxy, instead of focusing on the defense of Earth. Although the first two films in the revamped franchise have triumphed at extracting dramatic gravitas from dire situations, there are only so many times you can go for the big emotional character moments before those moments go stale. Perhaps there could be dividends from allowing the supporting characters to take up more of center stage, but hopefully the next TREK will boldly go to some strange new world, where spaceships and tricorders are not merely a backdrop for an action-adventure tale but part and parcel of some thoughtful speculative fiction.
STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS (Paramount Pictures: May 16, 2013). Directed by J.J. Abrams. Written by Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof. 132 minutes. PG-13. Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Benedict Cumberbatch, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Alice Eve, Leonard Nimoy.