'Darkness' a worthy addition to 'Trek' canon
Viewers are likely to be sharply divided after seeing J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek Into Darkness, his second entry in the venerable science-fiction series. Is it shamelessly derivative or an inspired homage? Is it a visionary reinvention or a piece of narrative sleight-of-hand masquerading as a tribute? Trekkies and casual fans alike will have to come to their own conclusions but if nothing else, Abrams reminds us that big budget summer films are capable of being thrilling, humorous and poignant entertainments not just empty special effects-driven commercials. Without question, I had more fun sitting through this movie than any in recent memory, primarily because of the enthusiasm all involved bring to the project as well as the finely honed script by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof which never forgets that keeping the humanity of the characters front and center is the key to making a successful Star Trek film.
Things get off to a rousing start as Kirk (Chris Pine) and Bones (Karl Urban) are seen fleeing a primitive tribe on a burgeoning planet while Spock (Zachary Quinto) is doing his level best to prevent a volcano from erupting by placing a special device directly in its core. All of this runs counter to Federation protocol as they were sent to observe this culture, not alter its destiny by saving it from catastrophe. Kirk’s willingness to ignore established procedure gets him into hot water as he’s relieved of his command. However, he soon gets a chance at redemption as the Federation is hit by a terrorist attack conducted by John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), a mysterious figure who cripples Star Fleet by killing most of its senior officers before fleeing to a planet populated by Klingons. Though it may ignite a war between Earthlings and this militant alien race, Commander Marcus (Peter Weller) reinstates Kirk and orders him take the Enterprise and its crew to this unstable territory in order to kill Harrison.
All of this occurs within the first 40 minutes of the film and to reveal any more of the plot would be doing the movie a grave disservice. It’s obvious that Abrams and his writers have been steeped in Trek lore as allusions to key events and characters in its canon pop up throughout, each treated with the reverence that fans demand. Equally important to the faithful and the success of these productions is that each character be given a moment in the spotlight so their idiosyncrasies can be on full display and dramatic sparks may be generated between their often clashing points of view. The film does not disappoint in this regard and benefits from the perfect cast Abrams put in place for the first entry. Urban is perfectly crusty and just a bit too manic as Bones, Simon Pegg not only gets some of the movie’s biggest laughs as the overly-cautious engineer Scotty but also one of the more quietly effective dramatic moments. John Cho brings an edge to Sulu, especially when he’s forced to take command of the Enterprise, Anton Yelchin continues to mangle the English language with great aplomb as Chekov, while Zoe Saldana shows that Uhura is not just a piece of eye-candy but a vital member of the crew, particularly during a tense stand-off with the Klingons.
However the real magic is generated by Pine and Quinto as Kirk and Spock. Really, the Star Trek franchise, both in the television format and big screen treatments, has been defined by their relationship. The former driven by impulse and emotion, the latter ruled by logic and reason, every social issue the franchise has tackled has been examined through these opposing points of view. This remains the case here as capital punishment, the breaching of borders and the nature of sacrifice are all put under the microscope as viewed through these two characters. The chemistry between Pine and Quinto is obvious as they snap lines of dialogue off at one another with a sharp sense of timing as each performer accords the other respect with neither upstaging the other. The most inspired element of the film is that Kirk and Spock are forced by circumstance to walk in the other’s shoes during the movie’s extended but inspired climax. It succeeds in putting a new shading on their friendship and the characters themselves, creating a sense of anticipation as to how this will develop in further sequels.
To be sure, Abrams provides plenty of action and spectacle and at times it’s quite incredible. In addition to the opening sequence, a foot chase through the streets of San Francisco is thrilling as is a showstopping scene that finds Kirk and Harrison attempting to fall from one spacecraft to another while dodging large chunks of space debris. But in the end, it’s the characters we remember and the moments in which they’re forced to question their very nature for a greater good. Each performer invests these scenes with a remarkable degree of conviction that brings a rarely seen sense of gravity to genre exercises such as this. Here’s hoping that the franchise, in this incarnation, lives long and prospers.