Review: Abrams pushes archetypes further and cranks up the impact for 'Star Trek Into Darkness'
If you consider "Star Trek Into Darkness" to be part thirteen of a larger franchise, you may walk away frustrated and tied in knots if the reactions I saw after a screening were any indication. Conversely, if this is part two of a new franchise in your mind, chances are you're going to have a great time with the continuation of what JJ Abrams and his collaborators began in 2009's "Star Trek." I find myself somewhere in the middle of those two camps, ultimately coming down on the side of the film as a pretty relentless piece of summer entertainment, anchored by what I consider one of the most exciting movie star performances in recent memory. I think they make some missteps in trying to service every "Trek" fan equally, but not insurmountably.
I feel badly for the hardcore "Star Trek" fans who don't like this new version, because I know what it's been like for them in the years where there were no new "Trek" movies in the works, and I know what it's been like for them loving something that was always considered somewhat left of center, always in danger of going away forever. While "Trek" has managed to survive for nearly 50 years at this point, there have definitely been lean times where Paramount didn't see much upside in continuing to throw money at something that just couldn't cross over to be a full-fledged mainstream sensation. And now that it's finally become part of the Nerd World Order in this new age of the Geek, the most devoted of the "Trek" fans seem irritated by the whole thing.
They've had their moments of glory before this, of course. "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" was a minor miracle, a huge rebound from the debacle that was "Star Trek: The Motion Picture." Lean and fun and wildly affectionate, "WOK" became the thing that they chased from that point on. It was interesting seeing how widely loved the series was when "The Voyage Home" was released, just as I was impressed seeing how completely everyone turned on "The Final Frontier" just a few years later. Even the biggest of the "Next Generation" movies still felt like they were nerd events, not mainstream events, and when Paramount first started talking about a reboot, it seemed like a business decision with very little creative upside available.
I would argue that the 2009 film proved that supposition wrong, and in fairly spectacular fashion. What Abrams did, and what he does in everything he makes to some degree, is he reclaimed the basic archetypical dynamic that defines "Star Trek," and he used it in a way that resonated loudly with audiences. He went right to the heart of what has made that Kirk/Spock/McCoy triangle so appealing since the first series originally aired. By taking all of them back to zero and then gradually drawing them together as a crew, he's really examining where these bonds came from and what made them more than just a collection of people who are all very good at their individual jobs. What makes a crew something larger, something more powerful? If it is being tested together and responding to those tests, then these movies are indeed a look at how the Enterprise became the same ship that we saw engaged in their famous five-year mission. And while I am not someone who particularly enjoys the current trend of over-explanatory prequels, in this case, the material supports it, and it serves to not only illuminate the original series, but react to it in a way that feels playful.
"Star Trek Into Darkness" begins with Kirk chafing at the role that he's expected to play, and Chris Pine once again owns the character of Kirk completely from the opening scene to the finish. It is downright miraculous that he ended up with the role, because what he does with it is not something I can imagine any of the other likely candidates for the part even trying to do. Pine is an original, and he plays this combination of arrogance and anger and comedy in such a way that it's all sort of jumbled up together. He's not doing Shatner at all. He's playing Kirk. And the Kirk he's playing isn't Shatner yet. You can see how he's going to get there, and he takes some more steps along that path in this film, but he's not quite "The Captain" yet. The film is all about struggling to earn that identity, and part of the test that faces Kirk this time is managing all of the personalities that make up a crew. This is a team that has to trust each other innately at all times, but that also has to know that when their captain makes a choice, it's a choice that was made at least in part because of how it will impact them. They have to believe in their captain. And at points in this film, it makes sense that no one would believe in this captain at all.
One of the things that made "Star Trek" work in 2009 was the relationship that developed between Pike (Bruce Greenwood) and Kirk, and this film wisely leans on that same connection a few times. Greenwood's grounded wisdom playing off of the coiled frustrations that drive Pine in the film are a great dynamic, yielding gold every time they play a scene together. Likewise, Pine and Zachary Quinto, who plays Spock, have found a great rhythm for the way they play their exchanges. Spock's precision against Kirk's playful imperfect humanity is a big part of the appeal of "Trek" in general, and Abrams spend a fair amount of time and energy getting it right this time. If the first film was about getting everyone into one place to become part of a team, then this film is about what happens once you're a crew and you have to actually start acting like one. This test will either forge them into a team that shares a bond for life, or it will break the Enterprise beyond repair, on both a human and a mechanical level. In the film's best moments, it offers up a dramatic debate about whether Starfleet is meant to be a military organization or a scientific one. In some ways, it feels like the people responsible for making the movies are wrestling with that same notion.