Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) dispels the widely held assumption that sci-fi extravaganzas are, on the whole, aimed purely at the teenage / geek market. Here, it can be comfortably claimed, is the thinking man’s blockbuster, a film that doesn’t forgo intellect in favour of spectacle. That’s not to say that the latest instalment in the long-running futuristic franchise doesn’t deliver high octane and big screen thrills, but it does so in a manner that stimulates the mind as well as the eye.
Faced with a threat from within their own organisation the crew of the Starship Enterprise, led by Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and First Officer Spock (Zachary Quinto), must stop an enemy whose sole aim is death and destruction on a cosmic scale.
It is hard to transfer something that has built an iconic status through the medium of television, successfully to the big screen. Fans of the original show often resent the way their beloved characters are changed and manipulated (frequently through necessity) for the different format. Newcomers to the mythos, which can include cast and production crew as well as viewers, on the other hand, don’t always capture or understand the essence or that illusive, unspoken, secret ingredient, which made the show so special. Countless television programmes (often with an ‘otherworldly’ element to them) have tried the transition with varying degrees of success. Producer Jerry Weintraub’s usual golden touch failed to bring John Steed and his sparring partner Mrs Peel alive in The Avengers (1998), whilst a certain trio of crime busting beauties fared little better in Charlie’s Angels (2000) and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003).
With this in mind one imagines that it would be a brave (or foolhardy) man who would attempt to transpose a programme of the calibre of Star Trek, to the big screen. After the original hit series it was inevitable that some studio would take up the challenge, which Paramount Pictures did with Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and several successive sequels. After its last expedition however in Star Trek: Nemesis (2002) under the leadership of Patrick Stewart in the guise of Captain Jean-Luc Picard, it seemed the Starship Enterprise may have been put in permanent dry dock. So it was a surprise when director J.J. Abrams announced he was reviving the series by taking it back to the beginning with Kirk and his team in Star Trek (2009). The massive success of that film was bound to spawn a follow-up, though it has been light-years in film terms for it to arrive. So now that it has, was it worth the wait?
The answer is yes, as in Star Trek Into Darkness Abrams has returned to mix old and new with constant deferential nods to the series starring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, whilst reinterpreting it for a whole new generation of fans. A vibrant young cast is headed by Pine revisiting the role of Kirk, whilst Quinto, Simon Pegg, Karl Urban and Zoe Sladana return as his crew, whose role as Kirk’s ‘surrogate family’ is enforced by a narrative that highlights the humanity of even the most unexpected members of the group. Here the characters, including newcomer Alice Eve as feisty auxiliary Science Officer Carol Marcus, show their fallibility as they curse, fall in love and spend their downtime getting drunk in clubs much like any off duty soldier would. Even the villain of the piece, John Harrison (brought to life by a characteristically oily Benedict Cumberbatch) has a warped sense of right behind his actions that, whilst not making them forgivable, does give a degree of understanding to his twisted reasoning.
This juxtaposition between the past and future can also be seen in the new world in which the story unfolds, with such iconic landmarks as London’s St Paul’s Cathedral and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge overshadowed by gleaming skyscrapers. Cities of tomorrow are often places that make you despair for what’s to come with their post-apocalyptic grimness and crime-ridden streets. Here however we have a utopia of glass and steel (given depth and scope by 3D) which has embraced and respected the legacy of the past by incorporating it seamlessly with the future, much like the filmmakers have done with the show itself.
The secret of survival is to honour the past whilst looking forward and adapting for what lies ahead, a lesson that those behind Star Trek Into Darkness appear to have taken on board. Whether the Starship Enterprise will continue to ‘boldly go where no man has gone before’ under the command of Abrams remains to be seen, now that he has been put in charge of the rival Star Wars saga. However, going by the evidence on display here, fans of Kirk and his crew can expect to be following their exploits for some time to come.
Star Trek Into Darkness is released in the UK on May 9, 2013, and in the USA on May 17, 2013.
Cleaver Patterson is film critic and writer based in London.
Read our review editor Jacob Mertens’ take on the film here.