Star Trek into Darkness is a showcase for director J.J. Abrams at his most J.J. Abrams-y. Do you identify Abrams by his fondness for lens flares? You will not be disappointed. Lens Flare spends enough time on screen here to be eligible for Best Actor consideration. Do you expect Spielberg homages? The film opens with a scene of natives chasing Captain James T. Kirk after he’s stolen an artifact, but here’s the real act of larceny: almost every shot hails back to Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. And on a related note: does Abrams make you think of skillful past-mining for rich seams of nostalgia? Here is a brief list, from the top of the top of my head, of familiar Star Trek elements that you will find seamlessly and plausibly woven into the story: Vulcan nerve pinch, Vulcan mind meld, phasers set on stun, “Dammit, Jim, I’m a doctor not a ,” “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” the Prime Directive, Tribbles. (And that’s not even including any spoilers.) And finally, if Abrams makes you think of mostly coherent action sequences, clean execution on both the level of story and character, and a feeling of old-fashioned Hollywood entertainment — well, all that is here, too.
As in the recent Iron Man 3, the bad guy here starts out with an act of domestic terrorism. (And, weirdly, as in the recent Iron Man 3, the bad guy’s collaborators are motivated by a desire to heal a sick child. Abrams treats us to a gruesome shot to illustrate the tension between private and public goods: in the foreground, a photo of the happy, healthy tot; in the background and through the window, a massive urban explosion.) John Harrison, played with controlled ferocity by Benedict Cumberbatch, is a Starfleet agent apparently gone rogue. But — one more time! — as in Iron Man 3, things are not as simple as they appear on the surface, and the terrorism, however horrific, is merely a stepping stone in a much larger game.
Star Trek into Darkness
Happily, this is where Summer 2013’s second blockbuster diverges from its first. In Iron Man 3, the world must be saved so that hero Tony Stark can improve as a person. In Star Trek into Darkness, hero James Kirk needs to improve as a person so that the world can be saved. He opens the film as a hot-headed golden boy. He wants to do right, but he’s flying by the seat of his pants and counting on things to break his way. Unsurprisingly, his arrogance costs him control of the starship Enterprise, thanks in part to a report from his own first officer, Spock. “You don’t respect the chair,” says mentor-father figure Captain Pike. “You’re not ready for it.”
Needless to say, Kirk gets a second chance at the Enterprise’s chair. But where he once regarded Spock’s strict moral reasoning as a stumbling block, he is now forced to reckon with it as a guiding force, even when it runs counter to his instincts. Especially when it runs counter to his instincts. It’s a complicated world, and watching Kirk & Co. learn to deal with those complications is a positive pleasure.