So now we well and truly understand what a reboot means. Star Trek: Into Darkness further pushes the envelope that director J.J. Abrams established four years ago, at least in terms of sheer white-knuckle suspense. Having established the fact that he could really kill any of these characters off and make it work, Abrams insists on testing that hypothesis with each and every set piece he can get his hands on. Teleport Spock (Zachary Quinto) into a volcano? Send Kirk (Chris Pine) careening through a field of space debris? Take down at least one named figure with extreme prejudice? Yeah, he goes there. And thanks to the parameters set forth by the 2009 film, he makes us sweat it out every time. He blew up Vulcan after all! Why not kill off, say, Chekov (Anton Yelchin) or Uhura (Zoe Saldana) or even Kirk himself? It’s a potent tool, one we haven’t seen in the Trek franchise in quite some time. Above all, Into Darkness confirms how well the trick continues to work, and how much it can improve the action and suspense on display.
This definitely is a Trek for our times, with dark corners in the bright Federation that bode ill for the crew of the starship Enterprise. Someone cut a deal with a madman, trading freedom for security and gaining neither. The fulcrum is a fugitive named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), who sets his sights on Starfleet and causes a great number of buildings to blow up. Kirk spearheads a manhunt that leads him into some dangerous places closer to home than he could ever imagine.
“Home” actually carries the bulk of the action here. Save for a brief foray into enemy territory (and may I say that the slightly redesigned Klingons are exceedingly cool) the action largely takes place in our solar system, emphasizing how vulnerable the supposedly indomitable Federation can be. That extends beyond the realm of mere safety into the doubts and insecurities still plaguing our fine young captain. What he finds out here not only threatens the Federation, but the principles on which it was built… principles that he himself feels compelled to dismiss when he sees fit.
In developing that dilemma, Abrams hopes to match Star Trek with contemporary nightmares, a feat he largely pulls off without diminishing the series’ essential hope and optimism. His villain makes a terrific fulcrum, all inferred threats and hidden agendas as he ruthlessly strikes at the true fundaments of Kirk and the gang. Destroying him may mean losing their souls in the process, and Abrams plays that tune for all it’s worth: anchoring the popcorn fun with the kind of serious meditation that exemplifies Trek at its best. The cast gives him all the help he needs, with some stalwart new additions admirably keeping up their end. (God I’ve missed Peter Weller.)
The superficial stuff works quite well too, though it borrows a little too heavily from the Trek of the past. At times, the film’s major beats feel like curtain calls more than anything developed on its own. (I can’t say more than that without blowing secrets… and anyone who gives away spoilers on this thing deserves to be chewed apart by Tyberian bats.) Even so – and despite the shaky cam close-ups and excessive lens flares that Abrams delights in – the film soars as pure entertainment. The newfound energy from 2009 hasn’t diminished a bit, and Abrams dispenses with undue plot exposition as expediently as possible. Into Darkness actually plays a lot like an episode from the original series… though obviously on a grander scale and with a budget to match.
Perhaps most importantly, it confirms that this venerable franchise is in good hands, and that we can look forward to many more adventures from this newer, reinvigorated Trek. The day may come when they stumble as their predecessors did. That day is not today. You’re on notice, Summer 2013: the bar has officially been set.