Although the special effects are now somewhat dated, the “Star Trek” original series has always occupied a special place in my geeky heart. What the show may have lacked in budget, it more than made up for with great characters and good storytelling. Captain Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Dr. McCoy, Scotty and the rest of the original Enterprise crew have become some of science fiction’s most beloved characters. Though we never got to see the end of their five-year mission, they’ve never completely faded from pop culture.
However, back in early 2009, the “Star Trek” franchise as a whole wasn’t faring too well. The most recent film “Star Trek: Nemesis” wasn’t a huge hit, and the most recent TV show “Star Trek: Enterprise” was canceled in 2005 due to low ratings. The franchise was in need of a shot of adrenalin — and it received a major one, thanks to J.J. Abrams’ explosive and exciting 2009 reboot, titled simply “Star Trek.” The film brought back the characters from the original series and presented a fresh perspective without dishonoring the material that had come before it. And even though I’ve always been a die-hard “Star Wars” fan, that Trek reboot has become one of my favorite movies.
We’ve waited four years for the sequel, “Into Darkness,” which finally arrived in theaters this week. Like its predecessor, it’s both a cinematic adrenalin rush and a love letter to fans of the original series, dropping references to everything from Tribbles to Klingons.
As the film starts, it immediately lands the audience in the center of the action. Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and Co. have landed on a primitive planet called Nibiru and are trying to prevent a volcano from erupting and destroying the planet’s inhabitants. In order to save Spock (Zachary Quinto), Kirk violates Starfleet regulations about protecting primitive species from technology they aren’t ready for, and his actions lead to Starfleet stripping him of his command.
However, Starfleet is about to face bigger problems, in the form of a mysterious terrorist named John Harrison (played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who also plays Sherlock Holmes on the current BBC series). When Harrison blows up a Starfleet facility, Kirk is sent back into action to track him down and bring him to justice. The mission doesn’t go well, and someone is called to make the ultimate sacrifice to save the Enterprise and her crew.
The special effects in “Into Darkness” are even more impressive than the first time around, and the film makes good use of its IMAX format. Yet the real heart of this film is the characters. Without exception, the young actors cast to play the iconic characters fit their roles perfectly, paying homage to the original actors without being copycats. Spock and Kirk are friends now, rather than enemies, but they’re still frequently at odds. Pine and Quinto play well off each other, and this film gives them an opportunity to show off a deeper emotional range. Another standout for me was Cumberbatch, who makes the transition to big-budget blockbusters quite smoothly.
My goal was to try to write a review without any spoilers, but like “Iron Man 3,” it’s difficult to talk about the film without revealing the major plot twist. Prior to the film’s release, there was much speculation about who Cumberbatch was really playing. Was he really just John Harrison, or was he actually a famous villain from classic Trek lore, such as Gary Mitchell or even Khan, arguably the most iconic Trek villain?
*(To avoid spoilers, skip the next two paragraphs.)*
I will say that when Abrams finally reveals that Cumberbatch really is playing Khan, my first thought was one of curiosity: Will Abrams actually be able to pull this off? Fans have already started debating that question, but I think that yes, Abrams does. Initially, the very British Cumberbatch seems like an odd choice to play Khan; he has a very different persona from actor Ricardo Montalban, who originally played the character. However, I think if you’re going to reboot Khan, it’s better to try to take the character in a radically different direction. Abrams doesn’t just borrow from “The Wrath of Khan”; he uses the character in a whole new way. He both indulges and subverts our expectations. Cumberbatch brings an icy menace to the character, and his intelligent, calculating version of Khan is like a superhuman version of Sherlock Holmes gone horribly wrong. He manages to be dignified and ruthless. And, as I thought about it, rebooting Khan really isn’t even the most shocking thing Abrams has done with his Trek films, considering in the first movie he blew up the planet Vulcan and started a Spock/Uhura romance.
Introducing Khan also allows Abrams to revisit another classic Trek moment: the end of “The Wrath of Khan,” where Spock sacrifices himself to save the Enterprise crew. It’s a powerful scene in the original film, but Abrams gives us a new twist on it: this time, it’s Kirk on the other side of the glass. Both Kirk and Spock finally let themselves be vulnerable; the always brashly-confident Kirk admits he’s afraid, and the stoic Spock admits he can feel.
“Into Darkness” doesn’t knock Abrams’ 2009 Trek film off the No. 2 spot on my list of all-time favorite movies (the No. 1 spot is occupied by “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back,” of course). 😉 However, it’s a more than worthy sequel. It’s probably Abrams’ final Trek film, since he’s tackling the “Star Wars” universe next. I think my favorite franchise is in good hands.