There are many exchanges in Star Trek Into Darkness, J.J. Abrams’ exuberant sequel to his brilliant 2009 reboot of the franchise, that I find both thrilling and thoughtful, but there’s one that speaks to the very heart of the franchise. Following the death of his friend and mentor, Bruce Greenwood’s Admiral Pike, Captain James Tiberius Kirk, played by Chris Pine, is sent on a revenge mission to kill John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), the man behind at least two major terrorist attacks on Earth, including the one where Pike perished. Kirk is preparing the Enterprise for the mission, when Scotty (Simon Pegg) confronts him about their mission, which he sees as a military operation rather than one of peacekeeping or exploration. When Kirk refuses to abort, Scotty tenders his resignation and Kirk accepts.
It’s one of a handful of moments in the sequel where a disagreement between ironclad philosophy and undiluted emotions, and that is not only the quarrel that drives the franchise on the whole but also at the center of Abrams’ directorial decisions. Within Star Trek Into Darkness is a battle between imagination and fandom, between love for the franchise’s past and an ambition to invent it’s future under a new, unique vision, and that’s where one can see Abrams’ own personal stakes in crafting the movie. So, when a humongous gathering of Star Trek fanatics at a Las Vegas convention voted on which film, amongst the dozen or so entries, was the worst, it’s not entirely surprising that Into Darkness was at the very bottom, despite the fact that it is pound for pound a more exhilarating and entertaining movie than nearly every single volume that came before it.
The fact that the movie is indeed exciting seems to be one of the major issues, which sounds insane. When I found myself amongst a cadre of Trekkers and Trekkies for an annual weekend marathon of the entire film franchise a year or so after Into Darkness’ release, I encountered several people, including a man who had learned the Klingon language for reasons that escape me, who seemed to be hung up on the fact that Abrams’ films were action films. While researching the reception of the films amongst critics and fans, it became clear that this wasn’t exactly a unique opinion, and many people even included this reasoning when discussing why the four films made with the Next Generation cast were largely ignorable, save Jonathan Frakes’ First Contact. Where the original films were about making contact with other beings and the day-to-day drama upon the Enterprise and within Starfleet, the newer films were merely polished action films that didn’t express dedication for science, mythology, and exploration that the original six films did.
In other words, the general lack of action and not-so-great pacing in the original films is seen as the sign of a more serious-minded movie, a strain of reasoning so deeply spurious that I have tried, for many years, to simply ignore it. To say that Star Trek Into Darkness is just another competent action film – some would not even stipulate to the “competent” part – is to ignore a large portion of the history of action films, especially those underneath the banner of science fiction. And that’s also dismissing the fact that the film itself reflects the fear of Star Trek becoming all about violence in its narrative. When Kirk is tasked with finding Harrison, who is eventually outed as the Enterprise’s primary nemesis, Khan, in the franchise’s mythology, he is whipped up into a violent, righteous fury by one Admiral Marcus (Robocop himself Peter Weller), and the hawkish superior turns a star pupil into a forceful show of unthinking, dedicated warfare against the Klingons. All out war, violence upon violence, is what Marcus promises, and Kirk’s ultimate (and, yes, inevitable) defiance of this brutish political and militaristic mindset is ultimately in the name of the work that they love, the journeying that calls to them.
And yet, their defiance of this death-ridden course means that they must face Khan, and Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof’s script makes the stakes feel both convincing and substantial in their mortal stakes. The film has been referred to as a space opera and in the film’s second half, one can see that sumptuous sense of theatricality in Zachary Quinto’s Spock, Weller, Cumberbatch, and Zoe Saldana, in the role of Uhura, as well as Abrams’ unrelenting, effective pacing and the impactful editing from Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey, you can see why. Some might pass this off as bad writing and overacting, but that ignores its tremendous stylistic implications, as an extension of the series’ central tug-of-war between Spock’s cold logic and Kirk’s unbridled, emotional hunger. For all the film’s efficient scenes of exposition and masterful action sequences, there must be a similarly rousing response in the tone of the film’s closest relationships, whether Marcus and his daughter, Dr. Carol Marcus (Alice Eve), Spock and Kirk, or Kirk and Khan.
It’s not perfect. The early franchise callbacks inarguably take their toll but Abrams is more than capable of doing more than polishing off the old material. He weaves a few major signifiers, including John Harrison, Khan, and the appearance of Leonard Nimoy’s Spock, into not only a cohesive story but a consistently engaging one as well. I can see why people get upset about Eve’s appearance in a bra for what is exactly no reason, even if I’m just coming off a few years of Fast & Furious movies and more than a few Marvel movies that prominently feature actresses is similarly revealing dress, if not far more so. As far as the talk of whitewashing with the character of Khan, I honestly don’t see it. Benicio del Toro had the role for a hot minute, and probably would have made me weep, but he dropped out and Cumberbatch, who is great in the role, took up the cause. As far as rewriting the show’s mythology, I prefer it to just tracing over the same story, if we’re going to be forced to go through another origins tale, the story might as well be somewhat reconfigured to show some spark in imagination rather than duty or nostalgia.
More than anything else, Star Trek Into Darkness is a triumph of style, one of those easily overlooked reminders of how important a certain, consistent visual timbre can be to a big studio films. It’s in the same class as the brilliant Iron Man 3 in this, and it’s easy to feel the personal involvement, the reflection of a mindful artist, in both. This kind of mythology tinkering would go onto aid Abrams well in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which similarly borrows freely from mythology without being beholden to that same mythology. And it’s the fact that this film, like The Force Awakens, can at once be nostalgic and move beyond the similarities to create its own distinct and occasionally extraordinary tone.