There’s no denying that Star Trek’s director, JJ Abrahms, is a blockbuster craftsman. Even in a universe with instantaneous teleportation and interplanetary cruise missiles, the driving action comes down to high dives and fist fights. Thankfully for this outing, Abrahms has doubled down on his actors’ adroit impressions of the original Star Trek cast. Pine and Quinto anchor an amusing cast of opinionated but good-natured crew mates who are each given a sizable contribution to a plot that is more faithful to the original stories than 2009’s Star Trek timeline reset. Into Darkness is a rickety roller coaster elevated by greater charisma and a classic approach.
The original Star Trek TV show was all about a crew of experts solving mysteries on poorly made sets. Despite copious body paint and Styrofoam, the science fiction premises and the implications of bizarre situations were ably explored by the earnest repartee among the crew. The nautical fantasy of space is tied to isolation, solving dilemmas with a small group and limited resources. 2009’s big screen reboot spent so much time getting all of its pieces onto the board that only lip service was paid to the idea of captain, ship, and crew. Star Trek: Into Darkness, unconstrained from origins, returns to its sailing roots. Chris Pine’s James T. Kirk is back in the captain’s chair, this time on the hunt for a dangerous terrorist. Setting out into enemy space, the crew of the starship Enterprise must wrestle with moral quandaries and physical danger. While the plot contains obvious contemporary parallels such as enemy combatant rights and war hawk diplomacy, it’s also presented in a more classical format as a linear mystery that only slowly unravels itself. Eschewing cheap twists, the plot is well constructed and prefers to turn on coincidences and quick thinking rather than Gotcha! escapes (see Skyfall) and improbable turncoats. Warp drive failures, some not so subtle nods to the old series, and a newly syntonic crew enjoyably replicate the Star Trek vibe.
Onto the chasses of the old Enterprise are bolted Abrahms contemporary touches. Returning from the first movie is the heavily stylized saturation of basic colors. The uniforms pop, and set pieces like the opening blood red forest filled with white-skinned natives commands the eye with hue alone. Visually, everything is designed to make sense upon first impression. The more powerful ships are larger and industrial. New tech (such as a coin trick that may surprise you) is given a shiny veneer and impressive CGI announces its affects. Benedict Cumberbatch steals the show as an angular ferocious predator. Cumberbatch is visually coded as well, between his swift yet poise filled combat style and his opinions of the Enterprise’s crew; glared and furrowed into being.
Into Darkness’ strength is in committing to this kind of stylized storytelling. Even though the banter is better this time, this is a visual movie, forsaking the realism that grittiness brings. Save for a couple shots of collateral damage (such as one well done shot where crew members are silently lost to a hull breach) much of Into Darkness is a battle of haircuts. However, this is an excellent showcase of old TV show stories updated with modern movie making techniques. Abrahms and cast are have created a very pretty rendition of the old war horse, and while it may not completely capture the greatness that the Star Trek franchise has reached in its time, Into Darkness certainly captures the spirit.