Star Trek Into Darkness helps bring the franchise back into the light

Star Trek

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

We are living in the New Hollywood of pop culture.

Just as Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick grew up on a diet of Welles, Kazan and Hitchcock, the new generation of filmmakers – Abrams, Whedon, Nolan – were weaned on TV, sci-fi, fantasy and comic books: Star Wars was their Rashomon. As a result of this, we’ve been the beneficiaries of a spate of fairly tremendous updates/adaptations.

Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde, which served as the cinematic touchstone for the whole ’70s movement, has been supplanted by Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, another movie sui generis. Every major franchise film since, from Skyfall to The Avengers, owes a debt to it. Star Trek Into Darkness is the first of the new breed to truly emerge from its shadow.

The hype surrounding the film’s release has been phenomenal. Following the enjoyable but mixed bag that was the 2009 reboot, expectations have been incredibly high for Into Darkness, the new series’ Wrath of Khan. However, with a whole new timeline come new challenges for the crew of the Enterprise as well as some familiar elements.

Into Darkness opens with a dangerous away mission on the Class M planet of Nibiru. A simple case of observing the natives becomes a last-minute gambit to prevent the eruption of a volcano that threatens all life on the planet. As Kirk and Bones provide a low-tech distraction, Spock descends into the caldera with a cold fusion bomb.

Needless to say, the mission does not go according to plan. It ends with Kirk violating the Prime Directive and returning to Earth in disgrace. His relationship with Spock is strained and his position as Captain of the Enterprise put in jeopardy. Then the mysterious John Harrison brings his wrath down upon Starfleet and everything changes.

Into Darkness is one of those rarest of beasts: a big-budget blockbuster with a huge and devoted fandom, but one in which the character arcs take precedence. Kirk, willing to alter the destiny of an entire species, has to learn humility; Spock, willing to coolly sacrifice himself for the needs of the many, needs to learn humanity.

Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto do great work as the cocky Starship Captain and his supremely logical First Officer, both of whom must come to terms with their own limitations. Kirk must become Spock and Spock Kirk in order to defeat John Harrison, who is many ways, the perfect fusion of both with his scientific mind and warrior’s passions. He. Is. Better.

The speculation surrounding Benedict Cumberbatch’s Harrison has reached fever pitch in recent weeks with huge bodies of evidence being assembled in favor of and in contradiction to him playing the rebooted Khan Noonien Singh. I won’t spoil it for you one way or another; Cumberbatch’s performance is nevertheless tremendous.

The measure by which all modern-day villains are now compared is, of course, Heath Ledger’s Joker. Harrison’s understated menace bears little resemblance to the theatrics of that self-professed agent of chaos, but the gravitas Cumberbatch displays in the role may be the closest an actor’s yet come to recapturing Ledger’s critical mass of charisma.

He may be a terrorist, but Harrison is not an entirely unsympathetic character: the atrocities he has committed, though unjustifiable, is fully understandable. Revenge is a major theme in Into Darkness, but while Kirk and Co. fall, however reluctantly on the side of justice, Harrison is out for blood and makes for a formidable opponent.

The rest of the cast are well served to different extents by the Orci/Kurtzman/Lindelof script. Karl Urban’s gruff, disapproving Bones and Simon Pegg’s exasperated Scotty both play crucial roles, but John Cho’s Sulu and Anton Yelchin’s Chekov are very much relegated to support. Our favorite speech-impaired ensign even dons a red shirt at one point with understandable alarm.

Into Darkness never takes the easy route, however. Kirk’s relationship with Alice Eve’s not-quite-love-interest Carol Marcus, whom fans of the Original Series will know well, never becomes rote, though nor is it developed to full satisfaction. In line with a recent Patton Oswalt joke, she and Zoe Saldana’s Uhura are ultimately given the least to do.

What is most satisfying about Into Darkness is how it transcends the fandom, how it manages to balance the iconic and iconoclastic. As Spock might say, it expresses multiple attitudes simultaneously. It’s a fast-paced Disneyland ride of a movie, but it’s full of heart and, upon occasion, capable of generating real pathos.

There’s no time travel shenanigans, ala the first film, or knowing deconstruction, such as Shane Black displayed in his take on The Mandarin in Iron Man 3, but Star Trek Into Darkness has an emotional complexity that both of those films lack. Tribble-related cameo aside, it feels like Star Trek has really matured as a franchise.

Diehard Trekkies may break out their bat’leths at that previous statement, but Star Trek Into Darkness seemed, to me, to be the full Star Trek experience, more so, perhaps, than any other single piece of media relating to the franchise. It also seems to reflect a new trend in pop culture, one where thematic depth trumps the need for cool; Zack Snyder’s upcoming Man of Steel, for instance, seems to be promising us a more morally ambiguous Zod.

Despite its title, Star Trek Into Darkness is a perfect blend of light and dark, of hope and despair. It manages to be both comfortably predictable and genuinely revelatory. Long-time fans of the series should love what the film does with a classic formula, it’s subtle subversion of preconceptions, while, as a casual cinema-goer, it’s my favorite movie of the year thus far.

Having been lucky enough to witness its space battles in eye-popping IMAX, I believe – and I’m sure I’m not alone in this – that Into Darkness is everything the Star Wars prequels should have been. Though I haven’t previously been the hugest fan of J.J. Abrams as a director, these have convinced me that the Star Wars sequels are in safe hands.

These classic shows and films have been part of the pattern and background of our lives for, in some cases, almost fifty years, and the relationships at the heart of them, in the case of the Star Trek franchise, far from growing stale or boring, show signs of becoming deeper and richer than ever. The current trend may not be sustainable, but we can enjoy the bubble while it lasts.

Let the mission begin.

Author: robertmwallis

Graduate of Royal Holloway and the London Film School. Founder of Of All The Film Sites; formerly Of All The Film Blogs. Formerly Film & TV Editor of The Metropolist and Official Sidekick at A Place to Hang Your Cape. Co-host of The Movie RobCast podcast (formerly Electric Shadows) and member of the Online Film Critics Society.

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