Into the Past, Into the Future
When J.J. Abrams relaunched the Star Trek franchise in 2009, the film made quite a splash at the box office and became an instant blockbuster phenomenon. Its primary draw was the way it brings together new school visual effects with an old school compassion for character, at the same time preserving the charming archaism of the original series’ sci-fi iconography and fashioning the members of Starfleet with a hip spunk well-suited to a modern audience. Both fanboys and newcomers were thrilled, even exhilarated. This was the full throttle blast that had been missing from the summer season, a Mach 50 vehicle burning through fuel that’s part nostalgia, part cutting edge contemporaneity, and one hundred percent cinema.
Star Trek Into Darkness is all its predecessor was and, though slightly more disheveled and heavy handed, hardly less engaging as space opera of the highest caliber. Fans of the first will get their $10.00 worth (or $15.00, if they decide to go for the IMAX treatment which, for this film, might not be such a bad idea). There are interstellar firefights, menacing aliens, jaunty crew dynamics, romantic tension, and planets in peril, conjured up in spectacular fashion around a story that begins rather similarly to that of last year’s Skyfall: a rogue member of Starfleet, played by Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch, has targeted the rest of the federation with acts of terrorism motivated by an unknown agenda. His violence is ruthless, his tactics calculated. After extensive damage, a mission is soon underway to eliminate the threat, who has escaped to an enemy planet.
The plot thickens considerably and pleasingly, so certain details must be spared. What remains obvious is that this mission must be and is helmed by Captain Kirk, played once again by Chris Pine. And good thing too, because Pine’s Kirk is pure charisma – he’s one of the most engaging movie heroes in recent memory. With impish blue eyes that convey both boldness and lunacy, Kirk is a boy-man with sass and charm aplenty, but his greatest asset is his reckless passion that, though immensely appealing, has the ability of endangering those around him. This “flaw” humanizes an otherwise perfect movie character, making him perfect in another sense. Kirk becomes an invigorating populist figure in the tradition of Indiana Jones and John McClane, characters we empathize with rather than idealize but who are nonetheless magnetizing on the screen.
Kirk’s classic partner and counterpart is of course Spock, every bit as careful and dispassionate as Kirk is not. The clash between these two personalities made for great drama in the first Star Trek and here, we get further insight into Spock’s psyche. In this film, Spock takes important steps towards reconciling his dual nature – the detachedly logical Vulcan side of him and the volatilely emotional human side. His distance from humanity makes Spock a fascinating meta-human of sorts, and in one scene, he delivers a moving speech that compels us to contemplate the paradoxical nature of emotion, both our greatest weakness and our greatest strength.
The rest of the cast play their roles effectively and even delightfully at times (note in particular a thirty second moment of glory for John Cho’s Sulu as well as the return of the very Scottish, very entertaining Scotty, played by Simon Pegg), but most of them seem to exist more out of obligation than necessity. They each receive their due time in the spotlight, but the majority end up disappointingly tangential to the central storyline. The one exception is Cumberbatch who, as the adversary that will here remain unnamed, exudes a cerebral cool that blends the lofty intellect of his own Inspector Holmes with the killer instincts of the Terminator. His predatory intensity delivers the kind of chilly exhilaration one experiences when in the presence of a high quality movie villain.
But in light of what the film fundamentally embodies – the full-blooded spirit of adventure as explored through the sci-fi genre – such flaws are easily forgotten. Into Darkness rockets straight from the launch pad with a mile-a-minute opening sequence and barely slows down. Its breathless momentum overrides most of the script’s weaker details, whether it be iffy logic (although every Star Trek film and television season to date has employed this effect generously, it’s still odd that while enemy ships are blowing gaping holes through the hull of the Enterprise, all the main cabin experiences are spasms of bad turbulence) or the occasional bouts of stilted dialogue. Exciting things are always happening, both within and without the ship, and the soundtrack soars, carrying the film into the upper echelons of pop escapism.
The result, though not a masterpiece, is something almost as valuable when considering a blockbuster franchise. It’s consistent – consistently well-made, consistently lucrative, and consistently engaging. Two films in and we’ve already fallen in love with this new imagining of Star Trek and the way it both reinvents and revives the classic sci-fi staple. The characters, who have already earned their places in the pop culture canon, gain renewed vigor with a top-of-the-line cast that ably fills its predecessors’ shoes, resized to fit this new generation of moviemaking. The visual effects are faster and cleaner than ever, but they have a retro sensibility that is utterly refreshing. Ultimately, it’s this seamless convergence of old and new that guides and drives the Star Trek films, through space and hopefully many sequels to come. Warp speed ahead.