It’s said that the best way to reintroduce a story from the past is to do so in a way that makes it relevant to the public and the issues that they are presently facing. Though people might disagree on the exact specifics of what made Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek so topical, one of the most notable things it attempted was to build a picture of the future as a time of unity, broadcasted to a world which was anything but. Fast forward to the new series of Star Trek films by director J. J Abrams and we notice a distinct change from this to a world where humanity seems in perpetual danger from something outside itself.
As a sequel to the 2009 reboot, Star Trek Into Darkness (never forget the verb) at first appears to merely be going through the same, albeit entertaining motions. Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is still sleeping with whatever species has a female member, while remaining a determined leader who will flaunt Star Fleet’s rules and regulations if his crews’ safety is at sake. His ideological opposite, Spock (Zachary Quinto), is of course butting heads with him while he also struggles with his feelings for intergalactic language officer Uhura (Zoe Saldana). And Doctor “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban) is of course still bemoaning the fact that he is woefully under qualified for doing anything other then his medical duties at anyone who will listen.
All this changes however with the emergence of a mysterious ex-starfleet officer named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), who attacks Starfleet command in a dangerous display of cunning and ruthlessness that affects Kirk personally and snaps him out of his previous devil-may-care mindset. Acting on orders from commander Alexander Marcus (Peter Weller), Kirk and his crew depart on a mission to bring Harrison to justice, not knowing the true forces at work behind the mission.
While Star Trek has dealt with the concept of the “Other” before, never has it been so apparent as in Kirk’s mission to capture, or kill Harrison. It’s easy to draw parallels with the hunt for the perpetrators of the world trade center attacks because both bring up a question of what justice really means when faced with a mission that boils down to being a legal assassin. Not only this, but command explicitly authorizes Kirk to use a new kind of weapon to do the job, one which the ship’s faithful engineer, Scotty (Simon Pegg), is loath to even have on the ship due to its destructive potential.
Since Harrison has retreated to an uninhabited area, Kirk is reassured that there will be no collateral damage, but he still struggles with the morality of killing him instead of returning him to Earth to stand trial. When we have technology to solve our problems with merely a button press, what does our responsibility become for that button? If we can kill a suspected terrorist with a remote drone strike with low chance of casualties, how do we decide when it’s justified?
This rather dark turn into uncharted territory drives both the story and the characters as what appears to be the correct and moral path flips without warning, particularly when John Harrison is so convincing when it comes to playing both the vengeance-driven ubermensch, and the wronged outsider who still believes in honor. One of the greatest moments of this occurs when a new crew member discovers a deeper reason for why the Enterprise has been tasked with carrying the new weapons.
Luckily, all of the movie’s actors are game for such weighty subject matter. Chris Pine continues to play his playboy hotshot like a cross between Van Wilder and Han Solo, an interstellar frat boy whose greatest challenge is guiding his crew when he can’t always be sure they’ll be able to escape unscathed. Playing off Zachary Quinto gives him a chance to show a desire for connection that is closer to camaraderie then his interactions with any of the other crew, while also showing how Spock is the one character who can really pierce his macho armor.
As Spock, Zachary Quinto continues to evolve his relationship with his human half, partially out of his affection for lieutenant Uhura, and partially out of a desire to understand the sometimes illogical behavior of the humans he accompanies. It’s still a treat to watch him display everything from curiosity to confusion with only his eyebrows and Beatles bowl-cut, and when desperation breaks out across those features it feels well earned.
Uhura’s love for Spock is only the tip of her character however, and Zoe Saldana shows just as much determination as Pine when it comes to both fighting the physical battles, and the mental battles of ideological warfare. She is never boring, never underused, and can always be counted to bring a certain gravity to her scenes, even when they are something as ridiculous as a couples’ fight in the middle of a chase scene.
The rest of the crew form a strong backbone of determination and bravery, beginning with Helmsman Sulu’s (John Cho) stare down of a dangerous criminal with nothing but his dangerously calm voice. Bones is still the lone voice of reason that Kirk listens to, and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) continues to amuse with a Russian accent that sounds like he has a kid Dracula up his nose. Joining is Carol Wallace (Alice Eve) who gets not only to casually show her well-toned stomach, but also demonstrate nerves of steel and a hyper-fast mind when it comes to disarming planet-obliterating bombs.
Playing an anti-villain is no new thing to Benedict Cumberbatch as his much talked of turn on the BBC’s Sherlock as a so-called “High functioning sociopath” will attest to, and he embraces this side as the enigmatic “John Harrison”. Possessing a moon-white face more like any alien then the actual aliens featured, Benedict mesmerizes both Kirk and the audience with a tactile grace and eerie calm that make his more-than-human nature apparent in every scene he’s in. He is “The Other,” cold and remote, and yet we want to feel for him because we can still see that outline of humanity that deceives our eyes.
It’s through these eyes that the viewers are drawn into the murky politics and real danger of Kirk’s mission. There are fantastic scenes of space combat, and thrilling rescues aplenty, but once the true stakes of it are known, the film heads for its dire descent and isn’t afraid to put it’s characters in potentially life-ending situations. It’s a shame that the final moments are handled so flimsily then, preferring to wrap up loose ends and return to status quo with a feeling of empty optimism rather then the dark unknown that the title promises.
Perhaps it’s fitting though, since, like the dark ages which were a harrowing period of history where the unknown seemed all around us, this new Star Trek enters it’s own Darkness, only to emerge not unscathed, but more aware of ourselves and the importance of not losing to the darkness that threatens from within our own hearts. This above all else is a message our modern audience needs right now in our uncertain trek to the future, where our only solace is that we do not travel alone, but journey together on the infinite mission of The Starship Earth.
(Slight spoiler below)