A Bold Return

Star Trek Into DarknessStar Trek Into Darkness (2013)

Directed by: J.J. Abrams

Written by: Roberto Orci, Alex
Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof

Cinematography by: Dan Mindel

Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, John Cho,  Zoe Saldana,  Benedict Cumberbatch

Rating: B

I am not a Trekkie; far from it. I am however pop culturally knowledgeable about certain things Star Trek. So where as I haven’t entirely seen The Original Series (1966), The Next Generation (1987), or the multitude of other TV universes, I have seen The Motion Picture (1979) and The Wrath of Khan (1982), and I at least know enough to pinpoint previous cast members, the actors that portrayed them, and their significance towards the franchise as a whole. Does being a Trekkie necessarily enhance one’s appreciation (or disdain) for J.J. Abrams’ reboot? I really can’t say. I will say, that not being an avid fan of the franchise has only added to my enjoyment of his vision for it. Having said that, while its 2009 predecessor surprised me, its sequel did not, at least not in the same way, even though ironically, it managed to seem awfully familiar.

Star Trek Into Darkness works best when its completely doing its own thing. In fact, I’d say it damn near excels when it has a firm grasp on the story it wants to tell rather than relying too heavily on its past.

Part of the first film’s appeal was the instant chemistry between the cast, who were given the enormous task of trying to not just play iconic characters, but to take them back to their unexplored roots. They continue to push the material to even greater heights, and much of the film’s success rest squarely on their shoulders, as our investment in the story is only as strong as their interactions with one another. Since we last saw the Enterprise crew, Kirk (Chris Pine) is eagerly/arrogantly awaiting to take command of a classic five-year mission until he breaks the Prime Directive by saving Spock (Zachary Quinto), and is demoted. The usual suspects of Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Scotty (Simon Pegg), McCoy (Karl Urban), Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and Sulu (John Cho) are all back, but they’re joined this time around by John Harrison/Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), a terrorist hell bent on destroying any semblance of peace the Federation intends to keep.

If you’ve seen the first film, you already know that the cast aboard the Enterprise gels extremely well. They’ve only further cemented themselves in their roles this time around, and it is Cumberbatch that remains the real revelation. I first noticed him in Sherlock, and small roles here and there in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and War Horse. This is his shining moment. This is the performance in which the world finally stops and takes notice if they haven’t already. The fact that his role in this film is already an iconic one within the franchise, and thereby reinvented here, is far from a cause of concern. True to this reboot’s form, Cumberbatch is Khan. He’s cunning, he’s ruthless, and he’s absolutely devoted to his cause and his crew. No, he’s not the Khan of the The Original Series, or even its extension via The Wrath of Khan, but he doesn’t have to be. This version of Khan is precisely what I meant when I said the film excels when following its own agenda. He’s a full realized character in this universe–one part terrorist, and one part freedom fighter–carrying the burden of peace through war, and portraying that anguish on screen effortlessly.

Fans and non-fans of the franchise need to understand that these films will always be tethered to everything that came before, whether it wants to be or not. It made that decision early on in the first film when it decided to include all that came before even when introducing an alternate timeline. What this film is not beholden to however, is where it decides to take that alternate timeline. Would I have liked a more traditional, original series version Khan Noonien Singh (especially as a fellow Singh myself)? Maybe, but what we get here is not a knock on Ricardo Montalbán’s take, much like Pine’s or Quinto’s aren’t disrespectful towards Shatner and Nimoy (respectively). They’re true this particular vision, and that’s all that ultimately matters; that regardless of when this version takes place, these characters will forever remain consistent. If you’re familiar with the source material, they indubitably enhance those past performances, and if you’re not, they bring something entirely new altogether. Having said that, when the film does eventually borrow (and I’m using that term with the slightest hint of spite) from existing canon, I immediately found myself pulling away.

Star Trek, as a franchise envisioned by its creator Gene Rodenberry, was perhaps always meant to evoke a sense of déjà vu; a sense of having taken the real world into account when presenting its own story. Star Trek Into Darkness continues to preserve that tradition, perfectly encapsulating a fitting allegory to such things as the war on terror, terrorism in general, due process, and/or the ramped up nature of our continuing military-industrialized complex in an effort to create peace. Yet, even with such prevalent themes running parallel, the film remains fun, exciting, and fresh. Much of that energy is due in large part to director J.J. Abrams, a self-proclaimed non-Trekkie, who may not always get the underlying lore of what made the original series work so well, but knows and trusts that his writers (Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof) do, and presents their vision flawlessly; so flawlessly in fact, that I can’t wait to see what he does with a franchise that actually thrives on being a literal space opera, without getting too bogged down with philosophy or allegories (I’m talking of course about Star Wars). Abrams has managed to retain as much as he possibly can of the old, while building the franchise anew, creating a mainstream sci-fi action film–full of awe-inspiring special effects with an equal level of heart (and lens flare) behind them–that is sure to please everyone, and return Star Trek to its once prominent place in the world of science fiction.

You think your world is safe? It is an illusion, a comforting lie told to protect you. Enjoy these final moments of peace, for I have returned to have my vengeance.