Star Trek is a series that has always lovingly embraced its own history, which is the thing that has kept it going for nearly half a century. This is unique in science fiction films because unlike most series in this genre, Star Trek at least has a history – or at least one worth remembering. In the case of the new movie “Star Trek Into Darkness,” this is both a blessing and a curse. Here is a prequel that plays around with our knowledge of characters and events that we know will occur later. At times the movie brushes lightly against these references, and other times hammers them home with a railroad spike.It is up to you to decide whether you think that director J.J. Abrams has used these references as an homage or a crutch, but what can’t be denied that that he has made a rousing adventure, one that is steeped in Star Trek lore, but still tells a good story on its own. That’s because of his loving respect for the characters. Kirk, Spock, Bones, Uhura, Sulu, Scotty and Chekov are people that we know like family. The joy of the prequels is watching them develop into their relationships.
The plot of “Star Trek Into Darkness” involves a madman seemingly bent on cutting off the head of The Federation. He is John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch speaking thorough an effectively creepy baratone), a terrorist who has committed violent acts in both England and The United States. A Federation Ambassador Alexander Marcus (Peter Weller) gives Kirk (Chris Pine) a free-hand to go after Harrison and eliminate him – not capture. What comes of this plot is much more than the trailer reveals and much more than can be revealed here. One of the joys of this story is watching it unfold piece by piece. For once, this is not an action film whose ending can be telegraphed from the first scene. More on the plot cannot be said, suffice to say that it becomes a dangerous situation that tests Kirk’s ability to command. Yes, he can reprogram a simulator, but how does he react when his enemy destroys half of his ship?
The unpredictability of this screenplay comes for what Abrams has done to the Star Trek history. By repositioning the series’ timeline, as he did in 2009’s “Star Trek,” he created a screenwriting masterstroke, altering the timeline while still respecting the history. Despite the fact that this is a prequel, we don’t have complete foreknowledge of how things are going to play out. That creates a new dynamic in the characters. In the previous film, we saw how Jim Kirk got into the captain’s chair. This time he is put to the test and has to prove that he belongs there. Spock (Zachary Quinto), via the altered timeline, is shown as a being of repressed emotional state, but one that has been severely tested. His homeworld has been destroyed and his people nearly wiped out. He’s a holocaust survivor and that pushes his repressed emotions to their absolute limit.
It should not be inferred that this is a subtle, thought-provoking movie. “Star Trek Into Darkness” is, for the most part, a clang-and-bang special effects picture that develops a crises about every 20 seconds, as if the filmmakers are afraid that too many quiet moments would send the audience to the box office to get their money back. The references to Star Trek lore range from Tribbles, to Harry Mudd, to a reference to a previous Star Trek movie that has you rolling your eyes. Yet, you’re never bored by this material. It looks, great, it moves great, it has a good story to tell. It loves its history for better and worse. What comes of this story is that the learning curve of the characters, which has been developing for two movies now, is settled in. We’re ready for a new adventure, hopefully one that leaves the tired formula of the madman behind and gets the crew on its feet to take the series back to its original purpose, to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations. Boldly go.