It’s not easy to reboot a valuable popcorn-movie franchise, but it’s even harder to sustain it. J.J. Abrams did an extraordinary job of dusting off the aroma of mothballs from the Enterprise with his rethinking of “Star Trek” four years ago—it was one of the best studio blockbusters in recent memory, a prequel that took audiences back to the youth of the characters made famous in Gene Roddenberry’s sixties TV series who then survived to a rather advanced age in the features that followed. But the question lingered: could he do it again?
The answer, happily, is yes. “Star Trek Into Darkness” is nearly as exciting and engaging as its predecessor, and just as supremely well crafted. It toys with the familiar traits of its characters without simply spoofing them, and draws a connection with their “past” (that is, future) lives in a way that will satisfy fans rather than antagonizing them—or mystifying those not all that acquainted with the old show’s mythology. And though some of the attempts at adding emotional resonance don’t work terribly well (a romantic angle is surprisingly flat, descending into clunky rom-com territory), in terms of the embryonic Kirk-Spock relationship it scores, even if the device the writers employ to send it to the next level is one of the hoariest in the sci-fi movie canon.
“Into Darkness” starts off with a bang, in a high-energy prologue set on a volcanic world in which Kirk’s (Chris Pine) recklessness is reestablished as he breaks Starfleet rules to save a crewman. Demoted for his attitude—for which he holds Spock (Zachary Quinto) responsible—he’s assigned to serve as the second-in-command to his mentor and surrogate father Pike (Bruce Greenwood) until disaster strikes. Starfleet officer John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) has gone rogue and, using what appear to be superpowers, arranges a suicide attack on one of the Federation’s secret facilities in London. When the highest-echelon Starfleet commanders meet to address the crisis, they too come under assault, and in the aftermath Kirk is once again in command of the Enterprise and entrusted by bellicose chief Starfleet honcho Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) to proceed into Klingon territory and terminate Harrison, who’s fled there, with extreme prejudice, using some highly advanced missiles to do so. Of course since the Federation and the Klingon Empire are on the verge of war, it’s a mission that requires caution, something in short supply in Kirk.
They locate Harrison, but the man turns out to be not quite as expected—no spoilers here, though the Trekker universe is already well aware of his real identity. But in any event, though he’s hardly a heroic figure, he’s not the ultimate villain: a plot turn brings an even more dastardly foe into view, someone connected with that attractive new science officer (Alice Eve) assigned to the Enterprise, much to Spock’s chagrin. And lurking in the background are those ferocious Klingons, who play at least an indirect role in the entire business. Before long the Enterprise is in grave jeopardy, hurtling to apparent doom while all abroad scurry around trying to save her. We know she’ll survive, of course, but achieving that requires an act of self-sacrifice so intense that it can bring a tear even to a Vulcan’s eye.
What’s enjoyable in all this is the ability of Abrams and his collaborators to capture the essence of the previous “Trek” incarnations while adding new twists to them. And more than in the first outing, the secondary characters—Zoe Saldana’s Uhura, Karl Urban’s Bones, John Cho’s Sulu, Anton Yelchin’s Chekov—are all given their moments to shine, and all the performers seize on the opportunity. It’s especially gratifying to find Simon Pegg’s Scotty, who was pretty much relegated to the sidelines in the previous installment, given such a central role this time around, and Pegg plays it to the hilt. Though less prominent, Eve is an attractive addition to the bunch, and both Greenwood and Weller offer stellar support, though the Weller could have brought more shading to Marcus.
In any event, the major focus remains on Kirk and Spock, and Pine and Quinto are succeeding in making the iconic parts their own, with the former capturing the captain’s youthful bravado nicely and the Quinto managing to show the struggle between the two sides of Spock without turning it into caricature. (And he has to do it in direct comparison to the original, since Leonard Nimoy’s FutureSpock returns for a brief reappearance, during which he says he can’t divulge much information and then proceeds to do so anyway.) As usual, Kirk is given a lot of derring-do to perform, and Pine goes through the required motions with commendable zest (though there are a few too many fistfights in the mix). But near the close Spock has a physical face-off that goes on a mite too long as well. More satisfying is the clever maneuver he pulls off to help save the day toward the close—a twist entirely reminiscent of the sort of thing the old series specialized in but no less satisfying for that.
Of course any action movie depends in large measure on the quality of its villain, and “In Darkness” benefits enormously from the presence of Cumberbatch, who gives Harrison an icy hauteur, and a sense of pure physical prowess, that are perfectly on-point. Without revealing too much, it’s fair to say that more than Pine and Quinto, he’s involved in re-inventing an old friend (or foe), and even fan traditionalists who will parse every line of dialogue for fidelity to Roddenberry’s vision should feel content with his version. More generally the issues raised by that original vision—what makes us human, how we can fight evil without resorting to the tactics of evil ourselves—reappear here as well, though without the preachiness that’s afflicted some previous Trek incarnations.
It goes almost without saying that as an Abrams production, “Into Darkness” is a technical marvel, with a production design (Scott Chambliss) and art direction (Ramsey Avery) that seem effortlessly right and effects that are state-of-the-art, the 3D used with commendable finesse rather than in-your-face pizzazz. Dan Mindel’s cinematography is aces, and though one might quibble over the protracted character of a few sequences, the editing by Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey is generally crisp. Michael Giacchino contributes a brassy, boisterous score that nonetheless rarely seems excessive, and during the credits has the guts to reprise Alexander Courage’s original television theme (and even the narration, with its infamous split infinitive).
All told, this is a franchise that’s winning its captain’s stripes in terms of quality as well as quantity of boxoffice dollars, euros and yen. It will be a challenge for anyone who takes over the directorial reins of future installments from Abrams (who, of course, is moving on to “Star Wars”) to maintain the level he’s achieved with his two films. But at least he’ll still be involved on the producing side, intent on seeing to it that standards don’t slip. Let’s hope he’s up to such a complicated juggling act.