Ah, Star Trek! What an odd franchise! It is a show about space nerds who travel throughout the universe discussing science and ethics, yet it is as classically American as football and Westerns. It is a cultural sensation that has remained popular for over five decades, yet still garners a cult fan base so unique and strange that movies are made about them. Heck, it was like that since the beginning. What kind of captain spends one moment studying soil samples with his science officer, then the next moment fighting aliens with his bare fists? James “totally Tiberius” Kirk, that’s who, and I think Star Trek’s dichotomous state of eternally being both ‘cool’ and ‘uncool’ is what makes it continually interesting. I think J.J. Abrams thinks so too, for his second installment is an homage to Star Trek’s nerdy past while embracing its hip and sexy future. This makes Star Trek Into Darkness an enjoyable film for Trekkies of all kinds, albeit a somewhat recycled one.
The story unfolds with the familiar faces of the Enterprise crew saving a less advanced world, only to have Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) punished for violating the Prime Directive and endangering the crew. You are quickly reminded of one of the strong reasons these movies are so enjoyable: the cast. Pine and Quinto have as much bromantic chemistry as Shatner and Nimoy did in the old days, and they are supported by a great cast of young actors who each are able to simultaneously fulfill their classic roles and breathe new life into them. You laugh when Chief Engineer Scotty (Simon Pegg) runs around manically with his little alien assistant, you’re aroused by a far sexier and stronger Uhura (Zoe Saldana. Sorry Nichelle Nichols, I will always love you!!!) as she dominates alien warriors with her boyfriend Spock, and you wonder if Karl Urban, who plays the lovable grump Dr. ‘Bones’ McCoy, could somehow be DeForest Kelley’s long lost son, because he sure sounds like he is. You do wish that the movie could spend more time with the crew, as Kirk and Spock dominate most of the movie, but it is also fair to say that Star Trek movies rarely dealt with the story arcs of Chekov or Sulu. It’s always been about Kirk, sometimes Spock, but mostly Kirk. New additions also make a good impression. Benedict Cumberpatch is extremely chilling as the Enterprise’s primary foe and Peter Weller proves that he doesn’t need to be a half-robot in order to get your attention in a movie. Alice Eve was, well, she was solid, but her character was not given much of a chance to shine. More on that later.
Soon, the action in the movie starts heating up as a terrorist (Benedict Cumberpatch) blows up a Federation Archive and attacks Starfleet’s top commanders. The story is for the most part engaging, and doesn’t lose itself to convoluted action or sci-fi mumbo-jumbo. Abrams does a great job of keeping the story moving and focused, which can be difficult with big-budget, big-FX movies like these, and he even leaves enough room for some character development. What? The main character of an action movie grows and learns valuable lessons about life? Preposterous!
There are a couple of itchy points, and I will try to explain them without spoiling your movie meat. Basically, you learn halfway through the movie that we are following a previous and popular storyline from Star Trek’s past, re-interpreted in Abrams’ alternate universe. Abrams does this very cleverly: not only does he acknowledge that all this once came before, but he even uses the storyline’s familiarity to create interesting metaphors about choices and identity. That being said, Trekkies and those with interest in the franchise will probably experience an unwinding of dramatic tension as you realize, “Hey, didn’t I see this before? They’re going to win, aren’t they? Just like they did the last time I saw this.” It also sours the mood because this is a storyline that has already been copied within the franchise, making the original series’ promise to “explore brave new worlds” seem hollow when we just visit the same plots again and again.
Another bad spot is Alice Eve’s role in the film. She is sexy and pretty and all that is good, but it really feels like she’s just put in there so we’re not freaked out when she appears in the next movie. Other than being related to someone important and giving the Enterprise knowledge that any other character could have given them, she has no real importance or dramatic weight. Honestly, the longest scene with her is one where she gets undressed, and you get the impression that it is more about what she’s doing (or undoing) than about what she’s saying.
Once the mysteries of the terrorist attacks are revealed, that’s when the Enterprise flies into interstellar action and epic battles of digital animation. One of my favorite aspects of the new Star Trek movies is its unique style: an odd blend of 60’s futurism and gritty science fiction. In that area, this film delivers more than its predecessor. You have dark ruined landscapes glowing with phaser blasts, starships that stretch ominously into warp while leaving pretty energy trails in their wake, control panels that look like they were built by Apple but whistle and whoop like a noisy submarine. Sometimes you wonder about the practicality of the retro-styles (are women really going to have to wear skimpy skirts in a military setting, especially ones that involve long missions into deep space with a bunch of frustrated MIT grads?) but it is an overall colorful style that makes space travel look as fashionable as Tim Gunn.
By the end, we see enemies defeated, friendships renewed, and a starship crashing through a bunch of skyscrapers that probably explains the strange thanks to 9/11 veterans at the end of the movie. You leave the theater feeling entertained and satisfied, but with that nagging feeling of “been there, done that”. Especially in a new cinematic world where fans are now concerned more with film series rather than individual movies, you worry if this new Star Trek series will just be updated copies of the classic films. Will we be forced to watch the Enterprise travel back to the 2000’s to save the whales or join Spock’s half-brother to search for a non-denominational Supreme Creator? I certainly hope not, for the sake of my tired eyes.
But take comfort that this movie still has what makes Star Trek great: a mix of what we love about the past and what we dream for the future. It’s nice to see a world filled with technological and scientific wonders, but where its inhabitants still hold dear to old human ideals such as honor, courage, and friendship. It shows us an advanced society that does not evolve beyond humanity, but evolves to embrace it. When the movie ends with the words that began it all, when Kirk declares that “we boldly go where no man has gone before”, it reminds us that the future isn’t the end, but just another beginning.