One of the keys to J. J. Abrams' highly successful reinvention of Gene Roddenberry's beloved sci-fi franchise is his awareness of Star Trek's status in pop culture. Simultaneously invoking classic adventure serials and a utopian streak of belief in mankind's potential, space opera and drama of ideas, Flash Gordon and Forbidden Planet in one neat package, Mr. Roddenberry's creation was an unusual marriage of high and low popular culture. Handed the franchise in the mid-2000s with a view to updating it, Mr. Abrams achieved the apparently impossible feat of creating an origin story in line with the series' canon but about to head in startlingly different directions. Along with screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, Mr. Abrams "reset" the franchise timeline to the "year zero" of the "original" crew of the starship Enterprise, as James Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) graduate from Starfleet Academy, but developed it as an alternate timeframe resulting from events in the "canonical" timeline.
The ingeniousness of the solution was enhanced by a wider frame of metatextual references, both to the original series and to the status of Mr. Abrams and his team as the new guardians of the franchise. 2009's Star Trek was a tale of sons struggling to affirm themselves in relation to their father figures, just as Mr. Abrams was affirming himself in relation to Mr. Roddenberry's universe. Into Darkness is the inevitable sequel - after all, the Star Trek galaxy has always been a continuously open-ended engine of stories - and sees the "coming of age" of Kirk and Spock as Starfleet officers. Their need to find their own, individual place within the complex universe of rules and regulations that surround them is the same as that of Mr. Abrams's crew (entirely ported from the 2009 film) to settle in their own take on the universe, simultaneously canonical and heretical.
Star Trek remains focused on the combination of adventurous space opera and thoughtful small-scale human drama, and this time the crew finds itself dealing with a rogue Starfleet officer (Benedict Cumberbatch), wanted for launching a terrorist attack on a London installation. But John Robinson turns out to be both pawn and player in a larger, secret game, also involving a Starfleet higher-up (Peter Weller) and his desire to keep in check the ominous Klingon empire, and needless to say, he isn't who we think he is. There's a hint of warmongering involved, one that may remind the viewer of the neo-conservative drums of pre-emptive interventionist war (Star Trek was always a cracked mirror of its times). But the clearest references, without giving too much away, are to 1982's The Wrath of Khan, the series' second big-screen outing, placing Into Darkness in exactly the same position as the 2009 film: as a Trek adventure aiming both at connoisseurs and neophytes, confirming Mr. Abrams' unique way with allowing the viewer to feel instantly comfortable within a universe he may not be familiar with.
True, there is a sense that the director is merely setting up the franchise to move forward without his direct involvement, as well as the occasional feeling that Mr. Abrams is merely going through the paces. Zoë Saldana's Uhura, one of the strongest characters in the 2009 reboot, is sadly given less screen time, whereas Simon Pegg's Scottish engineer Scotty is more of a comic relief than before, and Mr. Cumberbatch's villain, despite the actor's stentorian, steely-eyed anger, is a bit too stock to convince entirely. But Into Darkness remains a top-notch adventure by any standard, simultaneously exhilarating and smart; it's just that expectations after the masterful Star Trek were so high that, really, anything short of another masterpiece would be disappointing.
Cast: John Cho, Benedict Cumberbatch, Alice Eve, Bruce Greenwood, Simon Pegg, Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoë Saldana, Karl Urban, Peter Weller, Anton Yelchin, Leonard Nimoy
Director: J. J. Abrams
Screenplay: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, from the characters created by Gene Roddenberry
Cinematography: Dan Mindel (colour, widescreen)
Music: Michael Giacchino
Designer: Scott Chambliss
Costumes: Michael Kaplan
Editors: Mary Jo Markey, Maryann Brandon
Visual effects: Roger Guyett
Producers: Mr. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Mr. Lindelof, Mr. Kurtzman, Mr. Orci (Paramount Pictures, Skydance Productions, Bad Robot Productions)
USA, 2013, 132 minutes
Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 4, Lisbon, May 31st 2013
Nominated for the 2013 Academy Award for Visual Effects