When JJ Abrams relaunched the Star Trek universe he did so by making it so far removed from the television shows and ten film franchise that it was barely recognizable. Abrams decided to take the basic framework of the show and movies, mine them for the recognizable aspects of the franchise and original characters, and then turn it into something wholly different. So far it’s yielded mixed results, as he hasn’t quite hit the high water marks of the series (and either the action or sci-fi genres) but has managed to craft a pair of good, perfectly acceptable action films. Into Darkness follows Star Trek in being a good film that doesn’t quite have that final gear to become a masterpiece.
We follow up the original film at some point in the future as Kirk (Chris Pine) is fully in command of the Enterprise. They’re on an expedition to save a planet with a primitive civilization when Spock (Zachary Quinto) finds himself in a predicament. In order to save this planet he would have to sacrifice himself in the process to prevent the Enterprise from violating the Prime Directive. Kirk opts to save his friend, of course, and in doing so sets up a tremendous action sequence as well as set up the big character arc he’ll be facing in the film: meshing his “devil may care” attitude with the responsibilities of being a starship captain.
It becomes the film’s overreaching story arc as Kirk faces his toughest adversary yet: John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). He’s a badass special agent type from Starfleet’s super secret special operations division, hell bound to wage a one man war on the Federation. After Harrison engages in some terrorist activities, including killing Kirk’s Mentor Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood), Kirk and the Enterprise are tasked with one mission: run him to ground. But that’ll be easier said than done, of course, as there’s more than meets the eye than a simple mission to capture Harrison.
Abrams has essentially taken the general premise behind Wrath of Khan this time around and reworked it for his vision of the Star Trek universe. That includes bringing into the fold Khan Nonnan Singh, revealed as being the true identity of John Harrison, and giving an early altercation between a less seasoned Kirk & Spock than they would find in the previous franchise. It’s a bold choice to make for Abrams, to bring in the best villain of the entire universe of Trek, and it mainly works because Cumberbatch is an interesting villain as well as Abrams take on the Spock/Kirk relationship.
Cumberbatch was an interesting choice for the franchise, especially with Ricardo Montelban already with a brilliant performance in both the second film of the original franchise and the television episode which originated his character, and chooses to play it differently. He’s much more cerebral in his approach; it’s much less about the physicality of the character and much more about the overwhelming sense of awe around him. Khan may not be comically dressed or over-sized in this universe but he’s all the same in deadliness because there’s a smoldering in Cumberbatch. He knows he’s the baddest man in the universe and so does everyone around him; there’s an aura of menace to him that Montelban never had.
It doesn’t hurt that he has Chris Pine to play off of. Khan and Kirk would define the franchise early on, as Khan would mark the best villain, but it’s Pine’s performance that’s fairly surprising. He doesn’t ape a younger Shatner, like many would, and instead plays him as a leader needing that seasoning to become a great one. It’s awfully similar to how Nathan Fillion played Malcolm Reynolds in Firefly and Serenity: we’re waiting for him to become this man of legend as opposed to seeing him as it. Kirk is flawed, deeply, but we’re seeing him learn from his mistakes and begin to correct them. Shatner’s Kirk was experienced when given the helm, of course, and Pine’s Kirk got it at a significantly younger age. It’s a different experience level going in and as such they have to played differently; Pine does so brilliantly as the cocky leader who doesn’t know the things he doesn’t know he’s supposed to know and such.
The other interesting factor Abrams explores, that never was developed strongly in the original franchise, is the Spock/Kirk friendship. Abrams imagines them as rivals as opposed to contemporaries, bonded by experience and an unstated mutual admiration. They’re more of a traditional action duo as younger men, of course, and it works for the film that Abrams has designed Spock and Kirk this way. Kirk needs Spock to keep him in line, to remind him that there are rules and regulations. Spock needs Kirk to remind him about thinking outside the box, not thinking rigidly all the time. It’s what makes the film’s final act that much stronger; Abrams views their friendship as something that needs a foundation of mutual respect and needed a way to get there. The first two films are like the opening act of a buddy cop film; it’s to establish the rock by which the rest of the franchise will be rooted on.
Unfortunately the film doesn’t have that next gear to go from good to brilliant. Abrams wants this to be his The Dark Knight and he doesn’t quite have that final gear. This is strong genre work but not a pinnacle of it.
Director: J.J Abrams
Writers: Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof, based on Star Trek created by Gene Roddenberry
Notable Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Benedict Cumberbatch, Simon Pegg, Zoe Saldana, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Alice Eve, Bruce Greenwood, Peter Weller, Leonard Nimoy