In 2009 J.J. Abrams did the seemingly impossible and resuscitated the Star Trek franchise, bringing it back from the brink of irrelevancy, turning a decidedly DTV series of movies in to something very cinematic. Abrams’ Star Trek was little short of a revelation, with his interpretation a creative spin on the well-worn adventures of Captain James Tiberius Kirk, Spock the Vulcan and the rest of the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Erring closer to the space opera spirit of that other ‘Star’ franchise, George Lucas’ Star Wars Saga, Abrams, alongside writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman reinvented Star Trek for a new generation.
Four years have passed since Abrams’ maiden voyage, with the neatly subversive universe set up in that film posing a tantalising prospect for future instalments. The resulting movie is something of a mixed bag, but an intriguing one nonetheless.
As is seemingly an unwritten rule of Hollywood in the 21st Century, Abrams ramps up the dark for the appropriately titled Star Trek Into Darkness. War looms in Abrams vision of what is traditionally something of a science fiction utopia, while a terrorist is on the loose, wreaking havoc around the galaxy. It is this intergalactic terrorist whom much of the first act of Star Trek Into Darkness revolves around, with Abrams weaving the plight of Benedict Cumberbatch’s John Harrison in to the mythos already established in the previous film. Harrison is a compelling figure, and a worthy adversary for the film’s protagonists, although he’s somewhat lost in the fray once the full scope of the plot unravels. For the first hour of the film though a dynamic treaty is presented, which sees Hollywood filmmaking clash with contemporary issues.
In a similar way to the manner in which Gene Roddenberry’s original television show reflected the current events of the time, and acted as an indirect commentary on things such as the civil rights movement, so too does Abrams’ film look to the war on terror, the hunt for Bin Laden, and the power of the militaristic. As the first blockbuster of the Obama administration Abrams Star Trek channeled notions of hope and expectation, and Star Trek Into Darkness follows suit; we’re now ready to look back on, and examine our own responsibilities. Are the needs of the few worth sacrificing for those of the many? Does any one man have the right to play God? Such questions are recurring staples of the Star Trek tradition, and are reintroduced in to the series here once again. It might be argued that the thoughtful is present in-lieu of the lighter tone of the first Abrams Star Trek, but a solid balance between set piece and observational remains, and a self-reflectiveness on this very point makes it’s way in to the plot of the film itself.
The question of what a 21st Century Star Trek is, and the place it holds within popular culture is addressed directly; is the Star Trek series any longer the exploratory meditation on the human spirit that Roddenberry strove for his television serial to be, or is it just another typical blockbuster film franchise? Numerous characters refer to how their actions (that we have seen play out on screen) directly contradict the anti-militaristic intentions of the Federation, and while the film itself is a fractured, confused affair when it comes to understanding itself, ultimately a resolution of sorts is reached.
It’s these moderately weighty ideas that place Abrams Star Trek Into Darkness in a curious place, and draws comparisons to other recent big-questions-in-blockbuster-clothing types such as Prometheus and Oblivion, the former of which was scripted by Abrams’ regular cohort (and co-penman on Star Trek Into Darkness) Damon Lindelof. A tremendous sense of world-building sits front and center, with Abrams’ Earth of the 23rd Century a futurist vision to envy. Impressive cinematography and a memorable score envelop said vision, while solid performances play out on the well constructed canvas. The chemistry of the core group of protagonists that was so heavily lauded in the first film remains effective, with Chris Pine’s Kirk, Zachary Quinto’s Spock and Karl Urban’s Bones McCoy the equal of their first generation counterparts, while the solid supporting cast back them up ably. Concerns of mimicry be damned. Abrams does have a tendency to overemphasise a scenario though, occasionally veering very closely to the melodramatic, while pacing is an issue. The film’s greatest problem comes with it’s keenness to lower itself to the level of fan-service. One moment in particularly threatens to derail the whole thing, and leaves one daydreaming of an Abrams brave enough to avoid such cheap stunts. His vision is exciting and fresh enough to stand on it’s own, and deserves to be given the opportunity to do so.