Rebooting a beloved franchise can be both cumbersome and liberating as a creative enterprise. Yes, one must deal with hordes of ravenous fans who relish in character assassination-via-message board if you deliver a movie/comic/TV series that somehow desecrates what they loved about the original work. But on the flip side of that, you could choose to ignore the rabble and rework the property into something new, that tips its hat to the precursor while running on its own creative thrust that brings it back to life. Look at the Christopher Nolan “Batman” trilogy or the “Battlestar Galactica” re-think on TV to see how this works.
J.J. Abrams’ first “Star Trek” was a blast into a new frontier, synthesizing his own witty, character-driven and convoluted bent on science-fiction with what worked best about Gene Roddenberry’s original idea into a sleek, exciting and tremendously well-crafted rebirth. Purists missed the original show/movie series’ focus on philosophical inquiry and slow-building take on the sci-fi legend, but Trek 2.0 took photon torpedoes to the bad acting, painfully-stiff dialogue and ham-fisted symbolism and kept the good stuff: the realistic view of the future and the comradery of these characters. The movie was far from perfect, but Abrams gave Star Trek a new action-oriented perspective and renewed relevance that didn’t disrespect where it came from.
“Star Trek Into Darkness” however, succeeds in many areas where the first movie stumbled, but there is an enormous albatross of exclusionary nostalgia that drags the movie down toward the end, that in a way violates the ideal this reboot, that it would appeal to non-Trekkies and would focus on being a movie and not sinking into the fanboy abyss, originally stood for. But there is enough in “Into Darkness” that works exceedingly well.
As the film opens with the Enterprise crew fleeing natives on an uncivilized planet that’s about to be destroyed by a volcano; the mere presence of Capt. Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto) and the rest of the crew is a clear violation of that “Prime Directive” thing that says Starfleet can’t interfere with rural planets, a problem that creates a rift between Kirk, who loses the Enterprise as a result, and Spock over the merits of following protocol: what happens when the necessary thing to do doesn’t happen to be the right thing to do?
This is a theme that permeates the script by Abrams’ screenwriting entourage of Alex Kurtzmann, Roberto Orci and Damon Lindelof, and only intensifies when a mysterious scientist calling himself John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) attacks a Federation archive in London and later opens fire on a room full of officers. Kirk is reinstated to go to Kronos, the home planet of the Kryptons where Harrison may be hiding, with experimental new photon torpedoes commissioned by the nefarious Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller, you may know him as Robocop). The plot gets ridiculously complicated from there, but for the majority of “Into Darkness” the focus is on the conflict between the Enterprise crew and Harrison, who is extremely pissed off at Starfleet for some reason. But when the focus is kept on the Enterprise crew on the chase, “Into Darkness” really thrives. This ensemble, including translator Uhura (Zoe Saldana), the pilot Sulu (John Cho), and the engineers Chekov (Anton Yelchin, having fun with the Russian accent) the constantly frazzled medical officer Bones (Karl Urban) and especially Scotty (Simon Pegg is a blast as always) are given a bit more to do and the chemistry between these actors is totally natural; their comradery pefectly complements the witty approach this new series takes to the lore, which is great because the old “Trek” was so damn self-serious and ponderous.
The relationship between Kirk and Spock (Pine’s brashness and the fantastic Quinto’s emotionless logic bounce off each other perfectly) is taken to greater heights because they finally have a compelling (at first) villain to deal with in Harrison. Cumberbatch, so indelible on the amazing BBC series “Sherlock,” is excellent, using his pale features and lanky physique to add to secretive menace that defines his character. When the Enterprise is chasing him, allowing Abrams to stir up a whirlwind of action, with the roving camera work, seamless special effects that don’t drown out the dynamics between these characters or the charming wit of this approach, “Into Darkness” works like gangbusters.
But as the final act closes in, and Harrison’s real identity and motivations are revealed, the film’s energy, tone and thematic resonance go into a tailspin faster than the Enterprise does. The problems comes with Harrison, who is revealed to be…someone else. But the problem is that this information is only fan service; unless you are a Star Trek fan going in, this plot twist will be completely meaningless. It’s so frustrating that Abrams, a creative storyteller who’s unique perspective breathed new life not just into this franchise but into “Mission: Impossible” as well, would revert back to stories already told; it’s like a songwriter who runs out of new material for the back half of his album so he just threw some covers in at the last minute. “Into Darkness” becomes a giant exercise in nostalgia, and as a result the final scenes with Kirk and Spock, the final emotional crescendo to their individual arcs as well as the movie’s themes on sacrifice and whether the ends justify the means, rings sort of hollow. The last movie saw the destruction of Vulcan, Spock’s home world. This was an incredibly ballsy move, and it showed Abrams and his cohorts weren’t afraid to throw lore out of the window and change the constructs of these characters and this universe. But “Into Darkness” doesn’t just pull its punches at the end, it steps out of the ring, goes home, locks the door and puts in old “Star Trek” DVD’s.
All that is unfortunate; because when “Into Darkness” walks its own path, and Abrams stages set pieces that are reminiscent of Indiana Jones in their good humor and coherent development of suspense, it’s a thrilling piece of popular entertainment that is powered by heart and soul, not financial security. When it tries to restage old triumphs, it falters, especially in a non-ending that both cheats its way out of a profound emotional development and piles on hackneyed allusions to 9/11. J.J. Abrams said his focus was on making great movies first, bowing down to mythology second. But in the final stretch of “Star Trek Into Darkness,” it’s not just Captain Kirk who has violated his Prime Directive.