In all of its incarnations, from The Original Series to The Next Generation and everything else that came after, Star Trek has made countless fans with its optimistic vision of a future full of wonders and technological marvels. Warp drives make interstellar exploration possible. Advanced medicine grants humanity veritable mastery of life and death. Human beings disassemble and reassemble in the location of the sender’s choosing. Miracles are commonplace.
There is another side to all of this advancement, one with possibilities hinted at in the margins of any great Star Trek episode. The tools that make the adventures of James T.Kirk a possibility in the 23rd century can be used as means to other, more nefarious ends. It all depends on who stands at the controls. So what happens when paranoia trumps principle in a galaxy where principle is the dividing line between utopia and apocalypse?
In J.J. Abrams’ vision of Star Trek, Black holes are created with the push of a button. Blue collar Romulan jerks get ahold of a time machine and arrive from the future to bring the Federation to its knees. An entire world, Vulcan, is erased along with most of its people. In the classic Trek films (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) and the best of The Next Generation movies (First Contact) we see the protagonists prevent an adversary from misusing technology. In both of Abrams’ efforts, the cat claws its way well out of the bag before Kirk, Spock (Zachary Quinto) Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and crew can do anything about it.
Star Trek Into Darkness opens with Kirk letting the cat out of the bag in the most gripping, emotional, visually arresting and ultimately hilarious sequence in recent science fiction. When forced to make a choice between saving a dear friend and breaking The Prime Directive, Kirk makes the Kirk decision, putting his own career in jeopardy. He is demoted, then promoted back to Captain in a turn of events that would seem too convenient if not for the demise of a Federation superior (not Tyler Perry, in case you were wondering or hoping).
Going in, I wasn’t expecting as memorable an opening as in the previous Trek. Despite my reservations, Abrams delivered, to my most pleasant surprise. What follows is a roller coaster ride that will thrill enthusiasts of the “new” Star Trek and offend detractors in equal measure. To give you the spoiler free version, I will just say that a very bad and extremely capable man (Benedict Cumberbatch) plays a number of very influential people in the Federation in order to carry out terrorist acts against Earth. His motive, is, as in any Trek movie, revenge.
The details are fairy convoluted, as they will inevitably get when Damon Lindelhof (Lost, Prometheus) is in the writer’s room. Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman are also credited as screenwriters, though I suspect Lindelhof is guilty of placing frozen, genetically engineered human beings inside of torpedoes. Yes, you read that right. The most egregious plot hole in the movie serves as an opportunity for Spock and McCoy (Karl Urban) to exploit a painfully obvious weakness in the bad guy’s plan. The antagonist passes up many opportunities to kill Kirk and the rest of the crew and discloses huge amounts of information to the good guys for no reason other than hubris — just like any other stock super villain.
Despite an overambitious storyline, Into Darkness nails all of its characters, giving Gene Rodenberry’s original vision the homage where it’s due. For the first two thirds of the film, it’s Kirk’s movie. The last third is Spock’s (like the entirety of the previous film), and our other favorite crew members have their own struggles that fill the gaps nicely along the way. Spock has to deal with relationship issues. Scotty takes a stand for his principles and pays the price. Chekhov has new responsibilities, Sulu finds himself assuming the duties of a Captain, and McCoy finds himself attracted to new crew member (Alice Eve).
Eve seems forgettable, as all of her scenes seem rushed, even when she inevitably removes her clothing in Kirk’s presence. It is a reflection on the editing and writing, not her capacity as an actress. I don’t expect her to transcend her current status as “the blond one” in future Trek films. Her most important scenes involve her high-ranking, morally compromised Admiral of a father (Peter Weller–yes, THAT Peter Weller).
The events of the climax will leave fans divided, and to discuss it in detail would give away too much. Even though it doesn’t feel like it in the first act, Into Darkness is an homage to the classic Trek films with the Original cast. Strangely, it is suggested that the exploits of an older, more experienced crew from The Original Series are still to come in the rebooted franchise. An outspoken Scotty tries to remind Kirk that the purpose of the Enterprise is exploration, and I hope we will see more of that in future installments. It isn’t “to boldly go where no cop has gone before.”
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