J.J Abrams’ 2009 “Star Trek” was a near-perfect reboot, reviving a dead franchise by paying tribute to the past while injecting some added spectacle, with some new twists for a new generation. It was one of the most memorable movies of that summer. “Star Trek Into Darkness” is a near-perfect sequel, and will likely end up as one of the most memorable movies of this summer. It feels like a natural follow-up to the themes and the characters of the first one, while still being a standalone adventure as most great “Star Trek” films are. The action is exhilarating, but it’s all grounded with characters we care about and a compelling plot that never asks us to turn our brains off. Though it sometimes relies a bit too much on what came before, if there was ever a reason to get excited for Abrams’ “Star Wars Episode VII,” this is it.
Taking place not long after the evens of the first film, “Into Darkness” opens as the crew of the USS Enterprise is sent on a mission to the planet Nibiru, where an active volcano is threatening the lives of the entire alien population. During the course of the mission, Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) violates the Prime Directive when the ship is exposed to the planet’s primitive civilization. As a result, Starfleet Command demotes Kirk to the position of first officer. Meanwhile, Starfleet attempts to track down a menacing terrorist named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) after he perpetrates a deadly bombing in London.
The 2009 “Star Trek” was in some ways a departure from what came before, adding much more action into this franchise than had existed in prior installments. At the same time, though, it had the perfect balance of paying tribute to these classic characters and storylines while giving them a new spin, though some hardcore Trekkies have objected to the spectacle of the Abrams series. The alternate dimension storyline was nothing short of brilliant. By setting this franchise in a different universe than the others, Abrams and his writers allow themselves to play around with the Star Trek mythology, doing their own thing and going in their own direction while not messing with the pre-established cannon.
Although “Into Darkness” lacks the freshness and the discovery of the first one, it’s a perfect follow up to that movie in just about every way. The action is exhilarating, improved even from its predecessor. The opening sequence on Nibiru is one hell of a way to start a movie, establishing a crazy fast pace full of spectacle and mind blowing IMAX 3D imagery. Coupled with the soundtrack by the brilliant Michael Giacchino, in these sequences, Abrams is consistently able to capture that feeling of childlike wonder we get when watching a classic Spielberg film. Abrams also knows when to retrain himself, and to never go overboard with the spectacle. Unlike the “Star Wars” prequels, stuffed with an overload of computer-generated effects which give us a headache, “Star Trek Into Darkness” finds the perfect balance.
At the same time, Abrams never lets this spectacle overshadow characters. What makes or breaks a blockbuster like this is the dynamic between the team, and whether or not we care about them. Otherwise, it’s just a technical showcase with nothing to remember when we leave the theater. Abrams, along with screenwriters Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof, absolutely nail the camaraderie of the USS Enterprise. The relationships feel fleshed out from the 2009 film, as if a logical amount of time has passed and we can actually see this team having grown since then.
For a lot of viewers, our first introduction to J.J Abrams was as the executive producer of ABC’s “Lost.” During the first season of that show, Abrams had a hand in catching our interest and setting up all these bizarre, intriguing mysteries in a pretty genius way. Though the “Star Trek” movies aren’t mysteries, and are rather straightforward, Abrams still brings in an element familiar from “Lost:” the idea that we never quite know what to expect at any given moment. At no point during “Into Darkness” did I feel like I could accurately predict where the film was going, and when so many of even the very best blockbusters are pretty much telegraphed in the trailers, that’s something to really appreciate.
I mentioned earlier that the fact that this takes place in an alternate dimension gives Abrams freedom to explore new territory. Unfortunately, at times “Into Darkness” relies a bit too much on what came before, not embracing the fact that they have the opportunity to tell literally any story they want to. Though it would arguably be risky to have a Star Trek movie without familiar characters and aliens like the Klingons, I would prefer to see this franchise going in a totally new direction, giving us brand new alien species and planets. For the most part, Abrams’ stories do feel fresh, but they’re all rooted in Star Trek lore, and one scene in particular towards the end is a direct mirror of one of the most classic Star Trek scenes of all time. This feels totally unnecessary, and I hope that in future installments, Abrams and his team become less afraid of doing their own thing, rather than retreading the same storylines and beats we’ve seen before.
But even if some individual moments are familiar, “Star Trek Into Darkness” is a slick, entertaining summer blockbuster with a solid script and memorable characters. J.J Abrams is all about the “mystery box:” the idea of filmmaking as a means of making the audience ask questions, both about the actual plot, and about how on Earth the director was able to pull this off. Abrams succeeds on both accounts, making a film tha dazzles and makes us look up at the screen in awe. Though his movies are nowhere near as meaty and Oscar worthy as those of Paul Thomas Anderson or Quentin Tarantino, for example, J.J Abrams is perhaps the defining blockbuster director of this generation, and coming out of “Star Trek Into Darkness,” I couldn’t help but think of him as the next Spielberg.