Journey Into Space: Reawakening the Giant in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek: Into Darkness

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Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine, right) and his First Officer Spock (Zachary Quinto, left) meet their archenemy Khan Noonian Singh (Benedict Cumberbatch, center).
Captain Kirk (Chris Pine, right) and his First Officer Spock (Zachary Quinto, left) meet their archenemy Khan Noonian Singh (Benedict Cumberbatch, center).

In 2009, the Star Trek reboot by J.J. Abrams clearly divided the devout ‘trekkies.’ The picture shed a different light on several beloved characters from the original television and movie series – including a new version of Spock who actually showed some emotions and an older ego of the same Vulcan contributing to the creation of an alternate universe. Some loved the new angle; others despised it. The film became a smashing box-office success regardless, so there was never much of debate about the sequel. Star Trek: Into Darkness comes with major expectations, especially by those fans who found the first reboot movie too big a deviation from Gene Roddenberry’s creation.

A year after saving the world on their previous mission, Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and the rest of the crew from the USS Enterprise study a planet named Nibiru. When his First Officer Spock (Zachary Quinto) is nearly killed as he tries to save the indigenous population from annihilation by a volcanic eruption, the man at the helm exposes the spaceship to the primitive inhabitants. Upon the Enterprise’s return to Earth, Kirk is demoted to the rank of Commander for violating Starfleet’s Prime Directive and serves below his mentor, Admiral Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), while Spock is transferred to another spaceship.

Not much later, John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), a renegade Starfleet officer, first bombs a Starfleet installation in London and then kills Pike at a meeting before fleeing to the Klingon homeworld of Kronos. Kirk is reinstated as captain of the Enterprise and receives the order to kill the rogue officer with 72 prototype Photon torpedoes. On their way, the ship is damaged, and the man in command leads a team of Spock, Lieutenant Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana), and himself but they are ambushed by Klingon enemies. Harrison saves the three, then gives himself up and reveals himself as Khan, a 300-year old superhuman criminal once condemned to cryosleep. Can Kirk and company really trust the Übermensch, though?

If J.J. Abrams did anything to please the real ‘trekkies’ in the 2009 Star Trek movie, it was including classic characters other than the regular crew from the original characters. Christopher Pike is one example, despite the fact that he barely lasts beyond the .. minute mark of Into Darkness. The tribbles and erstwhile Spock actor Leonard Nimoy (and Star Trek director) also found their way into the reboot, and they return for cameos in this one. Bringing Kirk’s archenemy Khan Noonian Singh (his full name) back for more, however, is in a way a stroke of genius. He has always been the favorite villain of most ‘trekkies’ (other than maybe the Borg), and for a reason.

The Wrath Of Khan, the second movie in the theatrical series with the original crew, is a more interesting film than its predecessor, The Motion Picture. For starters, it’s more action-packed but it also has the much better bad guy in Ricardo Montalban. To a degree, he carries the movie, and the aftereffects of the Enterprise’s encounter with him go a long way. They are still noticeable even in The Voyage Home, the fourth installment of the series. In fact, the whole third film, The Search For Spock, is entirely devoted to raising the First Officer from the dead in Lazarus fashion.

Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch is a different sort of Khan than Montalban, naturally. He is much younger, to begin with. Then again, so is the whole Enterprise crew. In terms of outer appearance, his villain is more in line with the Montalban’s version that first appeared in the “Space Seed” episode of the TV series some fifteen years before the Wrath Of Khan movie. His motivations in Into Darkness, however, are a little different as well. First of all, the old superhuman baddie never attacks Earth. Kirk and his crew find him on a desolate planet in outer space. J.J. Abrams unleashes Khan’s wrath directly onto the Starfleet headquarters in London and San Francisco. Montalban would probably be proud; he never made it that far.

In a way, Into Darkness is the first feature in which J.J. Abrams really gets it all together. He first burst onto the scene as a writer and producer of Lost, a more modern, serious, and action-packed version of Gilligan’s Island meets Lord Of The Flies. The Hollywood movies in the director’s career that have since followed have their moments – most notably the brilliant, almost Spielbergian train sequence in Super 8 – but also their letdowns. Mission: Impossible III, in particular, suffers from a pedestrian to outlandish plot with too much of a romance element for its own good.

Star Trek, on the other hand, is despised by purists because it does away the time and space continuum of the universe that Gene Roddenberry and company have so painstakingly created over decades. J.J. Abrams, however, comes a long way by correcting the mistakes from his initial endeavor into the world of Kirk and Spock. The audiovisuals have never been the problem, but the action sequences and special effects of Into Darkness appear in concord with the plot, the acting, the direction, and everything else in the movie. Besides Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Bruce Greenwood, and Zoe Saldana, we also get Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, and Anton Yelchin back from Star Trek – which in itself creates some sort of continuity – while Benedict Cumberbatch and Alice Eve make welcome additions to the cast.

More recently, J.J. Abrams has become something like Hollywood’s new sci-fi darling. Two major studios have entrusted him with their prized decades-old franchises. It wasn’t too long ago that Disney obtained all the rights to the Lucasfilm body of work and handpicked Abrams to revive Star Wars with some new material. Aficionados may rejoice that he wants to use models instead of CGI for Episode VII again, while the ‘trekkies’ might find consolation in the fact that he’s finally gotten Star Trek back on track with his second enterprise into that foray. (Although some of the die-hards, unsurprisingly, seem to despise it.) The heated rivalry between the fanboys of the two sagas aside – if the upcoming Star Wars movies will be anything close to Into Darkness, everybody will be truly satisfied because this one’s a winner.

With powerful action sequences, nice sets, some great humor, and even some between-the-lines references to the real world of today J.J. Abrams has invigorated what had previously been a struggling, almost moribund franchise and made it ‘boldly go where no man has gone before’ again. It’s probably not what Gene Roddenberry had in mind for Star Trek, but the man has been gone for a while now, and for everyone but the stick-in-the-muds, it was painfully obvious that his creation desperately needed some new impulses. In Into Darkness, J.J. Abrams successfully manages to bridge the old and the new, thus inventing a Star Trek for both (casual) fans and blockbuster lovers.