As respectful as he is of tradition – and really, enough already with Leonard Nimoy’s Spock – it’s clear now with his second Star Trek film that director J.J. Abrams isn’t only resuscitating the franchise. He’s improved it.
What was a plodding parade of inert sci-fi pontificating, anchored by a largely awful cast, has become a real cinematic enterprise, one anchored by actors with genuine charisma and directed with an eye for the spectacular. You can have William Shatner’s James T. Kirk (who’s essentially been shilling for Priceline since 1966). I’ll take the agreeably cocky Chris Pine in a thrilling, high-speed space jump from one starship to another.
In 2009, Abrams gave us Star Trek, a slick prequel that stood as one of the better installments in the franchise (not that there was much competition). Star Trek Into Darkness is even better. Freed of baton-passing, energized by a formidable villain and even bolstered by a few ideas, Into Darkness may not be satisfyingly true – at least for purists – to the original Gene Roddenberry television series. But it’s true to good filmmaking, and that’s what matters.
The movie opens with Pine at the helm of the USS Enterprise, which has been charged with observing a primitive culture on a distant planet. The crew – including Vulcan science officer Spock (Zachary Quinto) and communications officer Uhura (Zoe Saldana) – learns that a volcano is about to erupt, which would wipe out life on the planet. Should the crew disobey protocol, which demands that they never interfere with other civilizations, or should they use their superior technology to save this culture? If they can prevent the volcano without ever being noticed by the locals, does that make a difference?
J.J. Abrams isn’t only resuscitating the franchise. He’s improved it.
A previous Star Trek film would have pontificated on these questions in endless dialogue scenes. (There’s a reason the deck of the USS Enterprise always had the feel of a lecture hall.) Into Darkness treats them as banter during a chase sequence that plays like some geek-dream mashup of Indiana Jones and Star Wars. The movie plants its ideas like seeds, then gets on with the action.
This works partly because Abrams has cast quick actors, especially Pine and Quinto as the leads. The yin-yang interplay of Kirk and Spock – the captain goes on instinct, while the Vulcan adheres to rule-abiding logic – has such crispness that the actors are able to evoke their characters’ philosophical differences largely via one-liners. One of the pleasures of Star Trek Into Darkness is watching the relationship between these two deepen.
This isn’t to say the other actors fall by the wayside. Indeed, each of them gets a showcase moment, from Karl Urban as the ship’s doctor, Bones, to Simon Pegg as Scotty to John Cho as Sulu, who gets his own shot at the captain’s chair. A recurring motif, from the start of the franchise, has been teamwork under pressure, and Abrams continues to emphasize that here.
As for the villain – renegade Federation officer John Harrison – British actor Benedict Cumberbatch takes on the part and gives a breakout performance. He’s hammy, but for good reason, especially if you’re familiar with Star Trek lore. More importantly, he brings an intimidating unpredictability – both physically and intellectually – that’s essential to maintaining the picture’s tension.
The Harrison character is also intriguing in the way he mirrors more familiar “evildoers.” A traitor who plans attacks on Federation targets, Harrison provokes a Federation response so merciless and fearful that it echoes the way the United States has responded to real-world threats. This other debate taking place within Star Trek Into Darkness – how to rightly pursue justice against alleged terrorists – surely existed early on in the screenplay by Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof, yet it carries added resonance following the Miranda-rights debates that surrounded accused Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
Wait – isn’t this supposed to be the dumbed-down version of Star Trek? I guess it could seem that way. Save for an unfortunate speech at the end, Into Darkness treads on such contemporary implications lightly, preferring to emphasize the performances, action sequences and even things like production design. In other words, it’s a movie – not a talky TV show on a bigger budget.