So much hoopla has been made over king-of-nerds J.J. Abrams directing the next chapter of the Star Wars saga that his latest sequel Star Trek Into Darkness has played second fiddle to the wave of news circling that other sci-fi universe. For casual Trek fans, such as myself, Abrams will likely do for Star Wars what he has done for Captain Kirk and crew.
Abrams brought Trek out of the depths of cult obscurity and hammered down the door of nerdom to allow mainstream audiences access to an otherwise closed-off franchise. With the use of punk wit, a young cast of immense talent, rousing action sequences, and the gravitational pull of dead-on comedy, the Star Trek reboot was one of very few films to not bring further slander to the term ‘reboot.’ The more times I’ve viewed the 2009 entry, the more I enjoy it as all-around grade-A entertainment.
Thus Mr. Abrams’ sequel Into Darkness gets a little more serious and has slightly less fun toying around with the strict mechanics of series expectations. Slightly less. The Abrams magic is still intact and he manages to deliver a satisfying action-sequel that simply hasn’t the fresh air of the previous film especially when the story relies on previously-mined material.
For round two Captain Kirk (Chris Pine), having just been suspended from active duty, is driven to revenge after a terrorist named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) stages multiple attacks on the Federation that results in the untimely death of one of Kirk’s most endearing mentors. The appointed captain reenlists Spock (Zachary Quinto) as his first officer and sets out with his crew aboard the Enterprise on a Starfleet mission to target the fugitive Harrison in hiding on a Klingon planet. Relations are tense between the Federation and the Klingons, and Kirk has been ordered to target Harrison with highly powerful torpedoes whilst trying avoid the start of a planetary war.
Kirk must also grapple with his own thirst for blood and his rocky rapport with his crew members. The story further digs into Trek lore, Spock’s and Uhura’s (Zoe Saldana) unlikely romantic relationship, and springs about as many laughs as the previous entry. I honestly wasn’t quite as engulfed in this Trek, but only by a slim margin. The film is still visually brilliant and action-packed, but the more sinister tones have set in as is to be expected for a second installment.
Most noteworthy in this chapter is the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as the villain Harrison. He’s a brilliant, deep-voiced menace full of mystery and intrigue. The performance is the stuff of terrific acting and he’s certainly a much more memorable foe than Eric Bana as the bald Romulan from ’09 Trek. The rest of the cast is exceptionally good just as they were last time, but Cumberbatch is a standout and helps elevate this sequel above its few shortcomings in originality and suspense.
The themes at play revolve around the true meaning of leadership, friendship and heroism. It is here that the writers and Director Abrams pave the way for a strong emotional journey for the leading characters. Set against the backdrop of grand set pieces—Spock caught on a small bed of rock in the middle of an erupting volcano; Kirk suited up and soaring through space between two Federation spaceships; Harrison’s attack on the Federation tower—the emotional undercurrent allows the action to actually have some stake. But then occasionally, and all too abruptly, Abrams hooks back into familiar territory that the franchise has previously explored rather than leap over new hurdles.
As much as I think J.J. Abrams has delivered Star Trek out of darkness, I assume he will be moving on from the franchise to become engulfed in Star Wars. Even though I would still welcome him back to Trek, perhaps that will be for the best? Abrams has relied upon alternate takes of previous adventures for Trek thus far and I think it’s time for a new director to expropriate Abrams’ discovered fountain of youth for this franchise and hasten the current Enterprise crew to a new infinite frontier from a storytelling perspective. Please don’t misunderstand, however. Into Darkness is a rock-solid film and likely light years ahead of what’s to come this season. But with such a previously accomplished entry, Abrams has not managed to top himself, and I can’t exactly fault him for that since he already brought Star Trek into greatness.