It’s been nearly 50 years since “Star Trek” first appeared on TV screens, so it’s a little astonishing to think that it may only be hitting its high watermark now. But seriously, this may be the best “Trek” yet. “Star Trek Into Darkness” starts off at warp speed out of space dock and never lets up.
J.J. Abrams, who successfully rebooted the increasingly tired-looking “Star Trek” franchise in 2009 by telling an origin story with young actors in the original roles. With an inventive script by Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman, the new movie used a time travel twist to change the series’ established history and allow the new filmmakers to go in virtually any direction they wanted without unnecessarily alienating their core Trekkie audience.
Abrams is back, and yes, so are the lens flares. Fortunately, Orci & Kurtzman, joined by fellow Abrams camp alum Damon Lindelof, wrote the sequel. And somehow, they’ve actually raised their own bar. “Star Trek Into Darkness” gives us action, humor, property damage, Klingons, Tribbles and some social relevance series creator Gene Roddenberry would have certainly approved of.
Ostensibly, this is a revenge story, (minor spoiler alert) as Kirk turns into a vigilante 23rd century Mountie, determined to take out the man responsible for the death of his mentor, Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood). “Star Trek Into Darkness” actually gives us more of what Trekkies like to point to as the great virtue of the original series: dealing with pressing social issues camouflaged by a rousing adventure story. Terrorism, and society’s reaction to it, are dealt with unflinchingly here, with scenes that deliberately evoke 9/11.
Perhaps we might notice that the Star Fleet uniforms on Earth seem a bit more intimidatingly military than previous ones (the crew of the Enterprise still wear the traditional colored jerseys), and even look a bit facistic. They also at times evoke the mammothly unpopular new uniforms which debuted in “Star Trek The Motion Picture” and were for never seen again for perfectly understandable reasons.
More than some previous iterations, “Star Trek Into Darkness” deals with the ramifications of Star Fleet’s mission being exploration as opposed to a traditional military model, and how it’s going to deal with the perceived, rising threat of the Klingon Empire, and a new terrorist threat at home. Peter Weller plays Admiral Marcus, a hawkish commander who gives the all-too eager Captain Kirk a shoot-to-kill order. Not everyone agrees with the mission parameters, and Trekkies know that “Star Trek’s” moral compass always points due Spock.
(Minor spoiler alert.) A certain member of the original cast does appear in a cameo as a certain character of the Vulcan persuasion who remembers a past which has now no longer happened. It’s a fascinating device which we can only hope will be repeated.
The J.J. Abrams reboot cast is excellent across the board in making these characters, pop culture icons at this point, their own, while never losing sight of their defining characteristics. Missing this time is Chris Pine’s Shatneresque swagger, but that’s the point this time around. we’re beginning to realize that Kirk may be too young and immature to command a starship, and Pine sells the self-doubt convincingly. He has charisma and star quality to spare, and actors this good-looking always have trouble convincing people they’re for real, but behind the Paul Newman blue eyes and mega-watt smile there is an actor.
Zoe Saldana, as Lt. Uhura, and Anton Yelchin, as Ensign Chekov, get a bit more to do this time around, while Lt. Sulu (John Cho) and Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) perhaps get to do a bit less. Simon Pegg, clearly becoming an Abrams favorite, reprising Scottie, steals the show in a couple of key scenes. Alice Eve, playing Dr. Carol Marcus (a name Trekkies will know) uses her native English accent for once, and director Abrams isn’t shy about finding an excuse to show her off in black underwear. Ultimately though, “Star Trek” lives and breathes in the relationship between Kirk and Spock (Zachary Quinto), who will attract far more audience sympathy this time around. “Into Darkness” which doesn’t hesitate to tug on heartstrings, takes the sometimes complex Kirk/Spock relationship in some new directions, and is frequently unexpectedly moving.
The most significant newcomer to the cast is the excellent “Sherlock’s” Benedict Cumberbatch, and no, we’re not going to be so villainous as to end the Khan-troversy that’s dogged this movie since it started shooting here. Go see it cold. You’ll be happier. Be content to know that what they do they do well. Cumberbatch emerges here as a very dominant screen presence you can’t take your eyes off of.
Abrams keeps the mammoth production moving at a fast pace with a high energy level, and this sequel actually outpaces its predecessor. The special effects are more ambitious than the original’s, and they’re also better-executed. “Star Trek Into Darkness” has been post-converted to 3D, and should be seen that way. Not only does the technique give a genuine sense of depth, and not infrequently altitude, Abrams does indulge in some old-fashioned fun, throwing everything from spears and arrows to starship wreckage at the camera.
Amidst a great deal of media fanfare, Abrams’ next project is “Star Wars: Episode VII.” That franchise can certainly use all the help it can get at this point. Trekkies will simply have to hope that Abrams finds his way back to do another installment of “Star Trek” afterwards. Summer tentpoles simply don’t come better than this.