Review: Abrams pushes archetypes and cranks up the impact for ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’

If you consider “Star Trek Into Darkness” to be part thirteen of a larger franchise, you may walk away frustrated and tied in knots if the reactions I saw after a screening were any indication. Conversely, if this is part two of a new franchise in your mind, chances are you’re going to have a great time with the continuation of what JJ Abrams and his collaborators began in 2009’s “Star Trek.” I find myself somewhere in the middle of those two camps, ultimately coming down on the side of the film as a pretty relentless piece of summer entertainment, anchored by what I consider one of the most exciting movie star performances in recent memory. I think they make some missteps in trying to service every “Trek” fan equally, but not insurmountably.

I feel badly for the hardcore “Star Trek” fans who don’t like this new version, because I know what it’s been like for them in the years where there were no new “Trek” movies in the works, and I know what it’s been like for them loving something that was always considered somewhat left of center, always in danger of going away forever. While “Trek” has managed to survive for nearly 50 years at this point, there have definitely been lean times where Paramount didn’t see much upside in continuing to throw money at something that just couldn’t cross over to be a full-fledged mainstream sensation. And now that it’s finally become part of the Nerd World Order in this new age of the Geek, the most devoted of the “Trek” fans seem irritated by the whole thing.

They’ve had their moments of glory before this, of course. “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” was a minor miracle, a huge rebound from the debacle that was “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.” Lean and fun and wildly affectionate, “WOK” became the thing that they chased from that point on. It was interesting seeing how widely loved the series was when “The Voyage Home” was released, just as I was impressed seeing how completely everyone turned on “The Final Frontier” just a few years later. Even the biggest of the “Next Generation” movies still felt like they were nerd events, not mainstream events, and when Paramount first started talking about a reboot, it seemed like a business decision with very little creative upside available.

I would argue that the 2009 film proved that supposition wrong, and in fairly spectacular fashion. What Abrams did, and what he does in everything he makes to some degree, is he reclaimed the basic archetypical dynamic that defines “Star Trek,” and he used it in a way that resonated loudly with audiences. He went right to the heart of what has made that Kirk/Spock/McCoy triangle so appealing since the first series originally aired. By taking all of them back to zero and then gradually drawing them together as a crew, he’s really examining where these bonds came from and what made them more than just a collection of people who are all very good at their individual jobs. What makes a crew something larger, something more powerful? If it is being tested together and responding to those tests, then these movies are indeed a look at how the Enterprise became the same ship that we saw engaged in their famous five-year mission. And while I am not someone who particularly enjoys the current trend of over-explanatory prequels, in this case, the material supports it, and it serves to not only illuminate the original series, but react to it in a way that feels playful.

“Star Trek Into Darkness” begins with Kirk chafing at the role that he’s expected to play, and Chris Pine once again owns the character of Kirk completely from the opening scene to the finish. It is downright miraculous that he ended up with the role, because what he does with it is not something I can imagine any of the other likely candidates for the part even trying to do. Pine is an original, and he plays this combination of arrogance and anger and comedy in such a way that it’s all sort of jumbled up together. He’s not doing Shatner at all. He’s playing Kirk. And the Kirk he’s playing isn’t Shatner yet. You can see how he’s going to get there, and he takes some more steps along that path in this film, but he’s not quite “The Captain” yet. The film is all about struggling to earn that identity, and part of the test that faces Kirk this time is managing all of the personalities that make up a crew. This is a team that has to trust each other innately at all times, but that also has to know that when their captain makes a choice, it’s a choice that was made at least in part because of how it will impact them. They have to believe in their captain. And at points in this film, it makes sense that no one would believe in this captain at all.

One of the things that made “Star Trek” work in 2009 was the relationship that developed between Pike (Bruce Greenwood) and Kirk, and this film wisely leans on that same connection a few times. Greenwood’s grounded wisdom playing off of the coiled frustrations that drive Pine in the film are a great dynamic, yielding gold every time they play a scene together. Likewise, Pine and Zachary Quinto, who plays Spock, have found a great rhythm for the way they play their exchanges. Spock’s precision against Kirk’s playful imperfect humanity is a big part of the appeal of “Trek” in general, and Abrams spend a fair amount of time and energy getting it right this time. If the first film was about getting everyone into one place to become part of a team, then this film is about what happens once you’re a crew and you have to actually start acting like one. This test will either forge them into a team that shares a bond for life, or it will break the Enterprise beyond repair, on both a human and a mechanical level. In the film’s best moments, it offers up a dramatic debate about whether Starfleet is meant to be a military organization or a scientific one. In some ways, it feels like the people responsible for making the movies are wrestling with that same notion.

The thing about “Trek” that is trickiest is that most blockbusters deal in good guy/bad guy narratives. It’s easy. It translates. Every culture understands that. Every audience understands that. Here’s a good guy. Here’s a bad guy. Bad guy does bad stuff. Good guy gets upset. Good guy hunts bad guy down. Bang bang. Good guy wins the day. “Star Trek” told stories that weren’t built on that paradigm, and some of those are some of the most memorable of the series. The mission they were on allowed them to simply interact with various cultures, poking their way from world to world, observing, exploring. Faced with the unknown, the Enterprise struggles towards understanding. You don’t need an obvious binary bad guy to have something be interesting, but they’ve made that choice and they’ve aimed for trying to do the best possible version of it.

It’s just one of many possible templates, but it’s a tempting one for a storyteller, and when people look at the way Christopher Nolan took that basic structure and played such a smart variation on it in “The Dark Knight,” that’s why you get echoes of that in “Skyfall” and “The Avengers” and any number of other upcoming films. You see it done right, it’s very appealing, and people unconsciously sort of chase that same thing through a number of other movies. There’s certainly potential for it to really pay off. To do that right, though, you’ve got to have a great villain, a truly worthy adversary. Nolan knew what value there was in The Joker, and he got everything out of the character that he could. In “Skyfall,” Mendes used a completely unknown quantity, a new character, but made that part of what was intriguing. For this film, Abrams tried a solution that’s a little bit of both approaches. When we meet Benedict Cumberbatch as John Harrison, he is an unknown, a complete mystery man. Does that mystery hide a larger secret, an identity we might recognize? That’s what the entire pre-release strategy has focused on, and I think it’s ultimately to the film’s detriment. If he is indeed playing an iconic villain, then the whole point of that is to prime the audience. Don’t you want to see James Bond show down with Blofeld? Don’t we want Superman to battle Lex Luthor? If you’re doing the Big Villain versus the Big Hero, and you never tell your audience you’re doing it, then why do it at all?

The mystery is ultimately not about Cumberbatch’s character, but is instead about whoever is pulling the strings behind the scenes. In one of those occasional occurrences where Hollywood releases several things that deal with the same ideas and that even share common story elements, both “Iron Man 3” and “Star Trek Into Darkness” deal with terrorist bombings that kill innocent people, and both feature scenes that might upset some viewers right now. Both also deal with the idea that the bombings we see serve an agenda that is not immediately clear, that violence can be a sort of theater. How they explore those ideas is very different, but it is an odd parallel between the films. There is much of “Trek” that plays grim, but Abrams also fully explores the humor and the humanity in the connections of the various crewmembers. John Cho and Anton Yelchin probably have the most thankless roles this time, but they have a few moments each. Simon Pegg does very good work as Scotty, and he’s part of a few of the film’s biggest set pieces. Karl Urban is sidelined to a frustrating degree this time, and I would love to see him front and center for whatever’s next in the series. Zoe Saldana has some quality that makes her the center of whatever scene she’s in, and she is the open beating heart of the new Enterprise crew, all empathy and understanding. She’s still relegated to a supporting role, though, and does what she can with it.

This is very much about Kirk, Spock, and “John Harrison,” and Cumberbatch more than delivers on his first major Hollywood moment. He makes his character a convincingly physical threat, a shark of sorts. He plays beautifully off of both Pine and Quinto, and for the most part, the way the film handles his storyline pays off. The film’s most controversial moment is also the most overt homage to an earlier movie, and while I think it all makes perfect sense thematically, it’s so quick, so blunt, and so mechanical that it lands with a bit of a thud. I have a feeling there will be some people who focus exclusively on that moment, and they won’t be able to enjoy anything about the rest of the film. I like the rest of the film and feel like the one moment doesn’t take away from everything else that works.

Besides… as this film ends, the Enterprise is finally the ship that we remember, and that five-year mission has finally been offered up. What lies ahead for “Star Trek” is unwritten and exciting, and this cast is primed to do amazing things if the material is there. I want more of these movies. I want more of these characters. “Star Trek Into Darkness” is a sober, aggressively-entertaining exploration of some of the richest characters in all of pop science-fiction, and it should cement this as one of the most potentially thrilling series running.

“Star Trek Into Darkness” opens May 17, 2013.