Don’t let the more supercilious Trekkies fool you: the reason we still celebrate the original Star Trek series nearly fifty years after its inception has little to do with high-minded science-fiction, bold philosophical broadenings, or American optimism. All these elements are present but hardly unique to Gene Roddenberry’s vision. Rather, fans and producers are compelled to revisit the sixties show, even after three successful spinoffs (and Enterprise), because of its characters. Simply put, we love Kirk, Spock, Bones, Sulu, Uhura, Scotty, and Chekov so much that we’d rather see an entirely new cast incarnate the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise than to let its five-year mission come to a close.
Say what you will of his balls-to-the-walls approach to the franchise, J.J. Abrams has got our heroes right. Never once while watching Star Trek into Darkness did I stop to compare Karl Urban’s Bones McCoy with DeForest Kelley’s or Chris Pine’s James T. Kirk with William Shatner’s. By the same token, few actors have managed to capture the Vulcan demeanour as established by Leonard Nimoy, but Zachary Qinto strikes the perfect balance between reasoned severity and bemused fascination, conveying not a lifeless automaton but a man whose deep-seeded empathy is tampered only by his devotion to logic. These are the new faces of Star Trek, and, against all odds, they feel exactly the same as the old ones.
It helps that Abrams puts the characters front and center, giving each a chance to shine amidst all the madness. Scotty (Simon Pegg) plays a particularly large role in Star Trek into Darkness despite getting relieved from duty in the second act, and I like the nods to Sulu’s (John Cho) future as a starship captain. However, I continue to argue that Abrams’ greatest addition to the Star Trek mythos consists of hooking up Uhura (Zoe Saldana) with Spock in the previous film so that she can serve as communications officer not just for the ship but also in his burgeoning friendship with Kirk.
Yes, the boys are still resisting their legendary bromance. Like Star trek II: The Wrath of Khan and every sequel since, Star Trek into Darkness spends most of its runtime exploring their dynamic, the deep-seeded philosophical issues that make them so compatible, yet so prone to relentless bickering. Here the focus is on leadership: whereas Spock uses Starfleet regulation to attend to the needs of the many, Kirk views it as his duty to favour the long shot, doing everything he can to benefit all. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” he at one point confesses, “I only know what I can do.” Combined, their wisdom and tireless optimism comprise the core of Roddenberry’s ageless vision.
This proves crucial, as Star Trek into Darkness otherwise comes across as a product of its time: an action-packed space opera with heavy 9/11 overtones. I find we’ve had a few too many of those in recent years, but I appreciate the way Abrams uses the Star Trek backdrop, that of peaceful explorers, to emphasise the cultural and evolutionary price of fear mongering. John Harrison’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) terrorist strike in London feels jarring to say the least. When Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) orders the U.S.S. Enterprise to bomb the criminal’s hideout in Klingon space rather than retrieve him to stand trial, we sense not just the erosion of a made-up society but that of a fifty-year-old dream of human utopia.
Twist and turns abound, of course, and I like how the plot uses symmetry with established Star Trek lore to guide our expectations. It’s worth noting, though, that the climactic battle, while gorgeous and viscerally entertaining, doesn’t make a lick of sense. Remember those corny ship battles in the original series wherein the cast would bounce left and right to simulate impact? Abrams cranks the notion to eleven, defying everything we know about space, the Earth’s gravitational pull, and basic laws of physics. Having mentioned that, I dare you not to get carried by the emotion of it all.
The question becomes then whether this sort of high-octane melodrama belongs in the Star Trek franchise. I’d argue it’s fair play, given the original Kirk’s long history of knocking out alien beings by punching the air a foot away from their faces. More to the point, despite its title, Star Trek into Darkness delivers the same message of hope and enlightenment that the characters have embodied since Roddenberry dreamt them up back in 1966. Granted, Abrams takes a decidedly more contemporary tact with the story, but, with already seven theatrical features preceding it, what other chance did the movie have of going where no one has gone before?