Star Trek Into Darkness, J.J. Abrams’ second foray into the alternate timeline caused when Eric Bana stepped on James T. Kirk’s dad (and then, the planet Vulcan), starts at an in medias res sprint typical of James Bond films (and Homer). The Enterprise and her crew’s effort to subtly violate the Prime Directive by stopping a super-volcano from super-destroying the natives is disrupted by Captain Kirk’s (Chris Pine) decision to overtly violate it by saving his bowl-cut-coiffed first officer, Spock (Zachary Quinto). Besides revealing an impressive talent on the part of the alien tribe’s leader to draw perfectly formed pictograms of briefly seen starships in the dirt, this escapade has predictable consequences for bad boy Kirk and rule-abiding, tattle-telling Spock. For at least five minutes of screen time, Kirk is deprived of command. His dressing down and subsequent bar-moping are interrupted when a mysterious, villainous figure (played with the expected intensity by Benedict Cumberbatch) starts blowing up things. From this point on, there won’t be many breaks in the action, so pity the pending discomfort of the small-bladdered purchaser of that 44 oz. Mr. Pibb next to you.
Yet, for all its speeding from one action piece to the next, Star Trek Into Darkness itself manages to not feel all that rushed—it just moves quickly, which is appropriate for a world with transporter tech, warp drive and planet-bridging communications.
For Trekkies, Abrams’ film is part two of an extended, mostly pleasurable exercise in alternate reality resonance—it’s like film fan fiction, minus the slash-fic component. What if Vulcan were destroyed? What if Uhura and Spock were a thing? This fascination with the “What if…?” variations of a beloved universe—by both fans and writers—has been a dependable story-telling lure for as long as there have been beloved fictional universes to vary. (The upcoming “Days of Future Past” storyline in the X-Men franchise will go the “dystopic future” route.) Once again, Abrams also does a superb job interweaving fan-pleasing elements throughout Star Trek Into Darkness (though the tribble usage was troubling).
For the casual acquaintance of the Star Trek universe—and after 40-plus years, who can truly be called a stranger?—the rippling differences between the original time line and the new one don’t really matter as long as the stories are compelling and the action gripping. And therein lies the true brilliance of the initial decision to take the Star Trek reboot down the alternate universe path. Forget the butterfly effect—the destruction of an entire planet basically gives Abrams and his writers complete freedom to adjust the timing and tone of any events or character developments in the original universe. More importantly, it allows them to cherry pick the best characters and storylines from the four decades of storytelling and present it all in whatever way they deem most effective. For a movie franchise that only needs to produce a new chapter every three-to-four years, that means they’re covered for the 30 years or so. (It’s also why I guarantee Mirror Universe Spock will make an appearance in the next film or two—because who can resist an alternate timeline of an alternate timeline?!)
A capable director with no shortage of time-tested story elements from which to choose, that pretty much just leaves Abrams the challenge of casting—no, wait, he already knocked that out of the park with the 2009 film.
In their respective roles as McCoy, Scotty, Sulu and Chekov, actors Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho and Anton Yelchin are basically doing a form of acting karaoke. That’s not meant as a dig—they inhabit their iconic characters with skill and verve—it’s just an inescapable part of the job description for this particular decades-spanning, fan-adored franchise. (No need to hang Pity Party garlands for Pegg and the gang—unlike their predecessors, they get to pocket huge paychecks while maintaining careers outside of the franchise.) Pine, Quinto and Zoe Saldana (as Uhura) avoid this generalization, though each for different reasons.
Of the three, the Nimoy-stamped logic machine that is Spock would seem the most obviously constrained, but Quinto, aided by Abrams’ screenwriting trio of Orci, Kurtzman and Lindelof, deserves credit for capturing what must be acknowledged as the one, ineffable truth of dealing with Young Spock: damn, he’s annoying. Kirk’s arguments with Spock seem less like a debate between Intuition and Logic than between you and That Super Smart Kid Who Treats Every Discussion Like a Winner-Takes-All Debate. (And who hasn’t wanted to punch that kid, especially when he’s right?)
As Uhura, Saldana has much more freedom. As groundbreaking as the character itself might have been, the Lt. Uhura of TOS was basically a glorified receptionist (who once kissed the white captain!). In Abrams’ universe, Uhura is untethered from the switchboard and a key player. In many ways, she has supplanted McCoy as the third leg of the original power trio. Whether or not this potential for growth is explored over the life of the rebooted franchise remains to be seen, but at least the potential is there.
If the role of Uhura offers freedom due to her lack of development, then it follows that the role of James T. Kirk would be the opposite—as constricted by Shatner as Spock is by Nimoy. Yet this is not the case. Beyond the general Kirkian traits (the brawlin’, cocky, ladies’ man who goes with the gut), Pine’s rebooted Kirk feels as open to interpretation and growth as Uhura. (It’s almost as if the potential of the character far outstripped the ability of Shatner, even at his least hammy, to define it.)
With direction, story and casting so well managed, it might seem like Star Trek Into Darkness is both blockbuster and classic, but though it’s pretty guaranteed to be the former, it’s tough to ascribe to it the latter. Too often, Abrams relies on awkward dialogue that doubles as director subtitles for character arcs and plot developments. (A second insertion/reminder of what will be the deus ex machina for one of those developments is particularly ill-executed.) And, though laden with enough plot points to serve as a potent meditation on the dangers of losing one’s way in the name of countering the threat posed by an Other, Star Trek Into Darkness doesn’t so much wrestle with such issues as give them a swat on the butt in passing. Granted, that’s not necessarily inconsistent with Roddenberry’s universe, where humanity’s better angels rule in the end (alternate timeline or no). For all the photon torpedos, warp drives and matter transmitters, that optimism regarding human nature may be the most fantastical element of all.
Writers: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof (screenplay); Gene Roddenberry (television series)
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Benedict Cumberbatch, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Peter Weller, Alice Eve
Release Date: May 16, 2013