Every generation, it has long been said, inherits the incarnation of Star Trek it most deserves (actually, I don't think that's true; I'm pretty sure I'm making this up).
The original TV series, immaculately conceived in a campy manger nearly 50 years ago, arrived dripping with American optimism and ham-fisted Cold War and racial allegory. And then fans watched their beloved icons burn out like the rest of the 1960s before bursting back onto the silver screen in the dark, harsh Reagan years.
Those characters were tired, jaded and fatter, just like every other post-Vietnam culture warrior. They battled an old villain, fought for the soul of an old friend, saved the flipping whales, and faced their fear of a changing, demilitarizing world. Then they too were replaced.
Which is a long way of ponderously getting to the movie I'm supposed to be talking about, J.J. Abrams' Star Trek Into Darkness. Abrams, just as he did when he rebooted Star Trek in 2009—in the process, making the franchise's first honest-to-Roddenberry mainstream hit—has brought us precisely the Star Trek movie we deserve. And, purely as a bonus, it's among the best entries the franchise has ever produced—maybe even better than Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the vaunted 1982 movie it is clearly designed to parallel (and not always for the best).
The film delivers on the title's implied promise of Darkness, but thankfully without the grim, severe wash of the Dark Knight franchise, where bleakness infects everything we see. Earth in Trek's 23rd century—and here, we see more of it than ever before—is a wondrous place of gleaming glass towers done up in Apple Store white.
Darkness here lurks mostly inside the hearts and minds of Starfleet officers grappling with the same moral ambiguities afflicting our own post-terror 21st century. The plot is set in motion by the brazen atrocities of an inside agent known—at least when we're introduced to him—as John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). Then comes the hunt, by James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), to bring Harrison to justice.
That search, and its resulting complications and conspiracies, drop several potent questions: What corners should we cut to protect ourselves? What horrors should we awaken? Are we no better than the monsters we attempt to prosecute?
It's a risky shift for a franchise built around a sense of wonder and the veneration of the human spirit. It could have been crippling. Or just boring. But for all the gloom at its heart, Star Trek Into Darkness is a harmony joyride. And it's brilliantly funny—funnier than the franchise's actual stab at comedy, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof nail pitch-perfect renderings of well-known characters, and then a group of actors who are proving increasingly comfortable in those roles make them their own.
Pine's Kirk, unleashed in bedrooms and bars and everywhere else he goes, is the tempestuous, rakish flirt everyone only thought William Shatner was. Karl Urban's McCoy finally, gloriously lets fly with a full complement of curmudgeonly one-liners. And Simon Pegg, as a frantic, flapping Scotty, may be the very best thing about this entire movie (he wrote, while pouring out a glass of Seagram's for Jimmy Doohan).
That isn't to say this movie is perfect. Far from it. In some ways, despite all its winks and nods and Easter eggs, it was unfortunate Abrams decided this second movie had to revolve around the same villain as the original. Forget an alternate universe with unlimited possibilities!
That said, Cumberbatch is a revelation, both sympathetic and vicious—his steely blue eyes doing more in seconds than Ricardo Montalban's cleavage managed in an entire movie. That's wonderful, but sustaining the ribbon between new and old becomes tedious by the end of the movie. Familiar scenes are twisted, though maybe pointlessly? There's a tribble? And there's a long-distance space call to poor Leonard Nimoy, who, wearily, essentially just tells our new crew what happened in Wrath of Khan. The result is a climax—weirdly telegraphed in the film's trailers—that's "ACTION-PACKED," but a bit distracting and disjointed.
But even all that is a quibble. And maybe that's the point. As a Trekkie, I'm tainted by what I already know—for good or for ill. You might not be. You'll like it because it's a pretty good movie. I like it because it's a really good Star Trek movie. SW
Star Trek Into Darkness
Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Anton Yelchin