This is going to be a largely spoiler-free review. I’m not averse to spoilers myself, but there’s a difference between what I personally am comfortable with and what I’m comfortable doing to others. So what I’m shooting for here is a review of Star Trek: Into Darkness with no specific plot spoilers, but in discussing broader concepts I might give away ideas that could lead readers to guess at events in the movie. So I’ll proceed cautiously, but if you’ve managed to stay completely away from any plot points up to now, save reading this until you see the movie. I’ll also ask that, if you have seen the movie and want to comment below, you note any spoilers at the outset. I read all my comments and will attempt to keep them clear of plot details, but sometimes things slip through.
OK, now to get into the movie itself. Abrams, Orci, Kurtzman, and Lindelof seem to push the same button among fans that Steven Moffat does with Doctor Who. Specifically, they’ve taken an established property and focused on what they find most interesting, and as a consequence wave aside parts of that world some fans hold most dear. The Star Trek universe they’re playing in is not the one Gene Roddenberry developed nearly fifty years ago. They have a different world to comment on, and come from a different point of origin for the characters. When this team stepped in to relaunch the film series, they dropped an enormous bomb right in the center of the old universe, and in the process knocked the entire series out of it’s previous alignment.
Now Kirk has grown up without his father, Spock has lost his home planet and mother, and the largely peaceful Federation finds itself in a more dangerous universe than it imagined. The repercussions of that reset are still resonating in Into Darkness. Kirk and his team are still seeking new worlds, but in this new, more frightening time, there are some who fear the Federation can’t afford a purely exploratory stance. They were blindsided by the appearance of the Romulans, and they aren’t interested in being caught flat-footed again.
Against this backdrop Abrams and his team seek to complete the reboot they began in the previous film. Their mission here is twofold: first, they need to deal with the shift triggered by resetting the Star Trek timeline, and second they need to decide if they’re ready to move forward from those events. Now that they have a clean slate, do they redraw what was done before in their own style, or do they try something new?
The last movie, as good as it was, largely hinged on a cheat. A really clever one, but a cheat nonetheless. They got to mostly ignore forty years of continuity, taking the characters we knew, keeping their core traits, but giving a little spin to them in the process. Chris Pine’s Kirk is as cocksure as Shatner’s, but perhaps a tad more brash. And Zachary Quinto’s Spock, having lost so much last time out, is much closer to his passionate, human side. The personal tragedies that befell them both have made them more emotional characters, and the macro-impact of the events those personal losses came from have some at the Federation also basing their decisions on emotion, specifically fear. The scientific mission of the Federation is in danger of being subverted, and a lot of Into Darkness comes down to the question of whether they can proceed by their peaceful code, or whether the new reality forces them to abandon their principles in favor of a more aggressive posture.
In that way this movie, which is just as fast and entertaining as the previous installment, has a lot thematically in common with Skyfall from last year. Both feature iconic characters at a fork in their respective roads. Star Trek was always ultimately about exploration. Now we’re watching them decide if they’ll continue peacefully, or take pre-emptive actions to defend themselves against the possibility of future threats. Is there mission one of exploration, or should it be a mission of self-preservation, regardless of cost? The film makers are at their own fork, between continuing to show echoes of the original version, or delving into this rebooted world to cast aside stories developed to comment on the society of it’s time in favor of new characters reflective of our time. In a way they try and have it both ways, and actually make it work. Certainly there are loose threads here and there, but they’re so minimal in comparison to the fantastic overall product I don’t really see any value in picking at them.
I enjoyed this outing because it had what I saw as an effective balance between the old and new. Touchstones of the original series continued to pop up, but within a world that is wholly of our current time. The dialogue of the crew members, always a hallmark of the classic version, has been sped up to the cadence of modern movie delivery, yet still has the right character driven tone about it. And Benedict Cumberbatch is every bit as fierce and dangerous a foe as we all hoped he would be. Just as the Bond creators recognized in Skyfall, you get the sense Abrams and company know they can never truly move forward until they reconcile with the past, touching a few more iconic totems of the original before they can step completely away and boldly go where the previous series hasn’t gone before. I felt they accomplished their goal here, and in fine style, and I’m excited to see where the Enterprise goes next.