There’s much to savor in J.J. Abrams’ exhilarating, inventive and lively Star Trek Into Darkness (2013). I’ve heard criticism that the movie has little to do with the series that inspired it and that’s it’s an action picture that just happens to feature the names and the costumes of the famous Star Trek characters. I can’t speak to that as I am no ones idea of a Trek-expert but what I do know is that, regardless of the names of the characters or what they are wearing, they’ve found themselves in a good movie. The movie might only be loosely inspired by the classic TV show but its director is certainly inspired by Steven Spielberg. Abrams has so long been trying to make a Spielberg picture (his Super 8  was a direct homage) perhaps it’s fitting that he largely succeeds within the framework of this franchise. Here’s a movie that is the best kind of fun, that Spielberg kind of fun, that’s creative, exciting and worth watching again.
The movie opens in a sequence that has Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine) running for his life from an angry and primitive tribe, brandishing unsophisticated but none-the-less sharp weapons. He’s on a planet that has just begun to foster civilized life but he might as well be at the opening of an Indiana Jones movie. The sequence involves the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise attempting to stop the eruption of a volcano that will wipe out this fledgling civilization without that civilization getting a look at all of Kirk’s and his crew’s impressive, too-advanced technology. They get it half-right which is wrong enough to get Kirk demoted from Captain and earn him the ingratitude of Spock (Zachary Quinto), the half-Vulcan commanding officer whose life was saved by Kirk at the expense of an objective of their mission. Don’t come to me for the finer points concerning the difference between Vulcans and humans but in the context of the screenplay here the defining trait of a Vulcan is to provide comic relief by juxtaposing their cold and analytical behavior against extreme circumstances.
Those circumstances are provided by Khan (Benedict Cumberpatch), a genetically altered human who was the benefactor of a government project but then was exiled for being too dangerous and is now back for revenge on the peace-loving world. His modified genes allow him to be smarter and stronger than everyone around him, he can heal faster and, perhaps most importantly, he can overact better. Everything that Khan says comes with exaggerated import and pronounced lip movement. The phrase “I will walk over your cold corpses” is said twice with some variation on “You think you are safe?” four times, all said by Cumberpatch in a way that suggests he should send a bill to the art department for all the reconstructive dental work he’ll need after he’s done with the scenery. The movie brings back Leonard Nimoy as a link between the current movie and the classic original (albeit for a scene of extreme silliness) and it’s a shame they couldn’t get William Shatner too so that he could go head-to-head with Cumberpatch for the ham crown of the universe. The wonderful thing is that the theatrics are perfect in context. Khan is menacing and devilish, absolutely over-the-top but also a synthesis of Kirk’s careless bravado and Spock’s anesthetized logic. The movie is constant in its reminders that Spock and Kirk are dynamic duo of the cosmos (Spock is part of a romantic couple with Uhura [Zoe Saldana], but it’s clear that his most meaningful relationship is with Kirk [which makes a bit of a waste of Saldana, by the way, who isn’t given much else to do]) so it presents us with a hybrid of both of their worst traits to underline how their best traits compliment each other.
The script by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof then weaves a fun mystery in which the Enterprise must work with Khan before it can work against him, keeping the audience on its toes about allegiances and who can trust who. Peppered in is an extraordinary amount of humor (and a skewering of some of the original movies iconic moments) given the breakneck pace of the action, humor that leavens the tension a little without undercutting it completely. This is mainly provided by Scotty (Simon Pegg) the irreverent engineer but the other side characters like Sulu (John Cho) and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and certainly Bones (Karl Urban), the long-suffering ship doctor, are all allowed their moments. Less well-defined is a new character played by Alice Eve whose purpose seems to be to throw us off the scent on a number of early red herrings and to look good in her underwear during a pointless moment which, in the movie’s marketing, has sadly come to define her contribution to the film.
The script has a wonderful inventive quality in regards to all the science, swearing an oath to drama and story, if not to sound sense. The wonderful thing about the future is that a screenwriter can exist in a place in which anything is possible but he or she gets to make up the rules. There are a few instances in which the screenwriters have fun limiting the extent of the technology to wring out the most tension. “Officer, can’t you beam the bad guy up to the ship so we can apprehend him easily?” “No sir, because of [made-up science reason] but I can beam you down to him so you can interestingly fight him.” They also attempt to stop the volcano at the opening with cold fusion which doesn’t really make a lot of sense (cold fusion is just relative to the millions of degrees that most nuclear reactions generate “room-temperature fusion” would be more accurate) and there are any number of plot devices that don’t hold water under a strict scrutiny but serve their purpose of moving the story along, a story which is fairly thin and relies on quite a bit of suspension of disbelief and logic (Spock would probably not approve) but remains fun in spite of that. I also enjoy that here in 2013 we have any number of hands free communication devices but in the 23rd Century the highest forms of the species are talking to each other on what appear to be a flip-phone I had in high school.
All these, though, are elements in a recipe that Abrams has for making an interesting experience. Too often in the CGI-era do science fiction movies of this ilk become boring cartoons in which dreams can be transposed verbatim onto a screen but have no heft or realness. There is in this movie, as it is in Spielberg’s best effects extravaganzas, including Minority Report (2002), which Into Darkness resembles in tone, a grit that is lacking in others. People are always running, we get a sense of the size of the ship, a ship that seems to be really there. The sets are real, the stunts are realistic and while jerks like me can make fun of the communication devices, they give the characters something interesting to do with their hands. It’s easy to get invested in a movie like Star Trek Into Darkness because the action gives the impression of having consequences, where something like Iron Man 3 (2013), while just as impressive from a effects standpoint, disengages because its too artificial. Take Into Darkness’ best sequence (of which there are many to choose from), in which Kirk and Khan must be shot like torpedoes from one ship to another through an asteroid field. It’s wonderfully set-up from a script level (before they start we learn of the five or six things that could go wrong and once they are underway another two are three things pop up just to make it interesting) and brilliantly executed by Abrams and his team who give us a breathless moment of drama that has the exhilaration of watching something unfold live in front of you. The summer season is lucky to have one big-budget movie like this come around. To fill its quota in May is a wonderful thing.