It turns out I hadn’t. Abrams’ take on Gene Roddenberry’s philosophical sci-fi opus was just that good. As a franchise, Star Trek had more or less been left for dead for quite some time. The past couple of films had been both bad movies and box office flops. But, in the franchise-hungry modern movie business, properties rife with name recognition can’t stay dead for long. A reboot was inevitable. The idea here was a sort of Star Trek Begins, hiring new actors to play younger versions of the iconic characters and tell the story of how they all came to be onboard the Enterprise. It was a smashing success, both critically and commercially. Abrams had revived a moribund intellectual property.
Part of the fun of that first voyage was experiencing how the new actors took to their roles while also seeing how the script was able to get the band together. The supporting players (Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, and Zoe Saldana) all work. But, the real heavy lifting would be done by Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto. Pine was a relative unknown before being asked to fill Shatner’s shoes, and he brings true movie star charisma to the role of James Kirk. Old school Trekkies will be horrified by me suggesting this, but Pine is a far better actor than the hammy Shatner. Quinto was a more well know commodity, having played the villainous Sylar on Heroes. Again, he fits into the role like a comfortable shoe. The new cast had a really easy chemistry, and my only gripe with the first film was it didn’t really have a classic villain. This is an error the sequel will rectify, but more on that in a moment.
Since the 2009 Star Trek was, by far, the most profitable film in the series, it was a no-brainer that Paramount would bring Abrams back for the follow-up. So, now we have a sequel with the fairly lousy title Star Trek Into Darkness. But, don’t let the awkward title fool you. While this new film doesn’t have the surprising charm that comes with being the first time, it’s a very satisfying chapter two.
I’ve been fascinated with the new film’s marketing campaign and how prevalent new cast member Benedict Cumberbatch has been. He’s a great actor and really fantastic on Sherlock, but how many Americans know who he is? They’re about to find out, as this is a star-making piece of work by him. I’m a big believer that England produces the best English-language actors. In the States, a person who has never even been in a school play can get acting work if they have the right look , the right connections, and no dignity or artistic ambition. English actors have to really train. There isn’t the sense of an A List or a B List or that working on TV is somehow inferior to working in feature films. And, there’s no doubt that Shakespeare’s legacy means to be an actor in England you must be able to do the Bard’s work. Cumberbatch plays John Harrison, a rogue Star Fleet officer who masterminds a series of terrorist attacks which result in Kirk and company racing to catch him as Harrison hides out in Klingon Country. Cumberbatch is simply fantastic here, owning every moment he’s on screen. Pine and Quinto can clearly punch at Cumberbatch’s weight, which is a real testament to how well this series has been built.
I’m not a huge Trekkie, but one of the great pleasures of the first film is how it tweaked Star Trek, sometimes in radical ways. The first movie had a lot of fun with the overall Star Trek mythos, but the sequel is far more specific. Into Darkness offers some pretty brilliant riffing on Wrath of Khan, the original film's first sequel. I suggest you avoid spoilers like the plague. (It’s really incredible how the always super secretive Abrams was able to keep some of the film's secrets off the internet.) There are many key Wrath of Khan moments that get turned completely on their heads. One such moment (along with a major character reveal) caused the crowd I saw this with burst into spontaneous applause. To be fair, the crowd I saw this with applauded the Bad Robot logo at the film’s opening.
As was the case with the first movie, all the characters get a moment to shine. I really liked how much more Simon Pegg got to do as Scottie this time around, and I loved how his stuff was organically structured into the plot. Pegg gives great comic relief, but he does it as a very specific character. He’s not just obnoxiously flailing for laughs Rebel Wilson-style.
Finally, I love how emotionally generous Abrams is as a filmmaker. People forget he cut his teeth as the creator of Felicity on television. Abrams knows that all the whiz-bang $200 million can buy doesn’t mean anything if the audience doesn’t care about these characters, and that’s his greatest triumph. I was technically impressed with the Chicago set piece Micael Bay staged in Transformers 3, but I didn’t care at all about any of it. I can’t even tell most of the robots apart. Like its predecessor, Into Darkness doesn’t shy away from having a couple of emotionally generous, lump-in-the-throat moments. This is a big, summer, sci-fi tentpole that isn’t afraid to show you its heart. There are some brains in here, as well, as the main plot parallels a lot of US foreign policy in a post-9/11 world. I’m pretty sure there’s a character we’re supposed to interpret as a Dick Cheney stand-in. A lot of hardcore Trekkies don’t like Abrams downplaying the original series’ intellectual appeals, but there’s most definitely a subtext here. It just gets discussed during action scenes set inside erupting volcanoes.
Jon Stewart had Abrams on The Daily Show earlier this week, and Abrams spoke about how he was a big Star Wars fan and never really got into Star Trek. After making two Trek films, I can’t wait to see what he does with Star Wars.
Four out of five Vulcan mind melds