Star Trek Into Darkness

Year: 2013
Production Co: Bad Robot/Skydance Productions
Studio: Paramount
Director: JJ Abrams
Producer: JJ Abrams/Bryan Burk
Writer: Alex Kurtzman/Roberto Orci/Damon Lindelof
Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Benedict Cumberbatch, Karl Urban, Bruce Greenwood, Peter Weller, Alice Eve, Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin, John Cho

The question of what made 2009's Star Trek reboot so good is also the question of what makes JJ Abrams such a good filmmaker.

We live in cynical times where moviegoers are all over the backstories and mythologies that go into films. You simply can't surprise an audience any more with a Vulcan science officer or a villain that might or might not be the most iconic bad guy from the original series (Benedict Cumberbatch gives it away around the 60 minute mark). We all know everything there is to know about the Enterprise crew – many of us more than Abrams himself, self-confessed as never having been a Trek fan.

Exactly what elements he brings to the screen that make Star Trek Into Darkness so good are hard to pin down, which is what makes him such a good director. He has no innate style or mandate other than entertainment so he lets his actors, effects crews and set builders take centre stage.

But here's what makes Abrams today's only truly worthy successor to Lucas, Spielberg and their contemporaries of the 70s who transformed the movies. In an age that's so knowing of all the tropes, he makes us gasp in wide-eyed wonder at a movie screen. When superhero movies by the dozen are dark tales of psychological anguish with allusions to terrorism, ethnic cleansing and human trafficking, Abrams makes movie fun again.

Even though Star Trek Into Darkness has shadows of social commentary about terrorism (and even Bin Laden if you want to look that deeply into it), it's still a romp. No matter how skillfully Abrams and his writers Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman make you believe one of the beloved characters can't possibly escape some horrible fate, you know they're going to be snatched from the jaws of doom with milliseconds to spare.

Like so much of Hollywood nowadays, it's B movie fodder with A list casting, budgeting and direction, and if the pure size and scope don't carry you away, Abrams' seamless blending of character, action and spectacle will.

Now with a fully-fledged and more experienced crew, the Enterprise finds itself in a typical tight spot. Spock (Zachary Quinto) is standing inside a volcano trying to plant a device that will save the local indigenous species from extinction, but the volcano is erupting, and the Enterprise has no way to save him in time without revealing itself and breaking the prime directive not to interfere in the development of unenlightened life forms.

Kirk (Chris Pine), ever the hothead and following his gut instinct, does so to save Spock and incurs the wrath of Pike (Bruce Greenwood) back home, who strips him of his command and reassigns them both.

But before the Enterprise crew can be split up, a meeting of senior Starfleet officers at the gigantic San Francisco headquarters is shot up by madman John Harrison (a growling, heavy-lidded Benedict Cumberbatch).

Kirk asks Starfleet head honcho Marcus (Peter Weller) permission to take the Enterprise and original crew to go after Harrison, who's holed up on Klingon homeworld Kronos. In a time of very uneasy relations with the Klingon empire, it's a risk surely only Kirk's bravado can pull off, but when they snatch Harrison (or more accurately, when he mystifyingly gives himself up despite his obvious combat superiority) he proceeds to get inside Kirk's head on the voyage home.

Revealing his true, fanboy-friendly identity, Harrison tells Kirk about how Admiral Marcus engineered Harrison's campaign of terror and not only tricked Kirk into carrying dangerous new weapons but sent him after Harrison purely to provoke the Klingons into retaliating and spark all out war.

When Marcus' ship shows up and the grizzled Admiral demands Kirk hand Harrison over, it's a good old fashioned moral conundrum as Kirk has to gamble the ship and his crew on figuring out who the real bad guy is.

The character dynamics prop up the story between stellar-sized action sequences, but Abrams is more concerned with a good show than deep drama. Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Spock's tiff over the latter's willingness to die to fulfill the prime directive is played more for comedy, and Kirk's rebel playboy persona was never the most original of cinematic figures (although the scenes he shares with Greenwood as Admiral Pike have a real gravity).

Where Abrams really excels is his sense of scope. He doesn't only know how to fill a movie screen like so few directors today, he brings scenes to life in spatial dimensions you really believe. Whether it's a giant ship in the vastness of space or 23th century San Francisco and London, Star Trek Into Darkness gives the settings the room they need to really exist to a degree the TV shows and even the previous films never quite managed.

Last of all are the callbacks to the mythology that Abrams knew he couldn't leave out no matter how little a Star Trek fan he is. If it isn't the reveal of John Harrison's true name it's McCoy (Karl Urban) growling 'Damnit man I'm a doctor, not a...'

Unlike most films where the epithet 'more of the same' is a criticism, for Star Trek Into Darkness it's exactly what the franchise needed, and exactly what Abrams delivered.

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