Star Trek into Darkness -- The graveyard of failed television show movie adaptations is littered with more corpses than a George A. Romero zombie movie. The commercial appeal of such an enterprise is obvious, featuring a familiar dramatic premise with a built-in audience. The curiosity factor alone is guaranteed to attract enough potential viewers drawn to the movie theater like rubberneckers interested in seeing just how bad that accident by the side of the road really is.
When the television series in question is "Star Trek," however, conventional rules do not apply. The groundbreaking science fiction concept courtesy of visionary Gene Roddenberry has proven to possess one of the largest cult followings in television and movie history, with myriad successful television series and feature films spawned in its wake.
For that reason, it takes a certain level of chutzpah to attempt a revamp of the entire franchise. Fortunately J.J. Abrams proved up to the task in 2009, creating a remarkably satisfying "Star Trek" update that proved as reverent of the series’ history as it was determined to push it even father into the future.
Now, having shed those massive expectations, the new sequel "Star Trek into Darkness" is free to merely play like yet another highly enjoyable episode in Gene Roddenberry’s continuing saga.
This is obvious from the film’s opening. "Star Trek into Darkness" immediately blasts off into an action sequence where Capt. Kirk (Chris Pine) is seen fleeing a foreign race of primitive creatures through a distinctly exotic and otherworldly environment. The whole sequence is immediately reminiscent of the television series’ mission to investigate "strange new worlds" that allowed the series’ writers to unleash their imaginations in surprising and inventive ways on a weekly basis. It also recalls the days when William Shatner would engage in hand-to-hand combat with some alien creature, allowing him to ham it up with extended line readings while Leonard Nimoy arched his eyebrows in disbelief.
The movie’s greatest nod to "Star Trek" history, however, can be found in the film’s plot, revolving around a character familiar to anyone having seen 1982’s "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan." Resurrected once again in "Star Trek into Darkness" by screenwriters Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Khan is played here with feral intelligence by Benedict Cumberbatch with a menacing British accent that plays like a more cerebral version of a blockbuster’s typical archenemy. Without giving away too much of the plot, suffice it to say Khan proves as calculating and dangerous as anyone with a long "Star Trek" memory can attest.
The reappearance of Khan certainly isn’t the movie’s only reference to its own history either. There’s also the presence of a Tribble on board the Enterprise, Dr. McCoy’s (Karl Urban) familiar "Damn it, I’m only a doctor!" statement, as well as a character named "Captain Pike" (Bruce Greenwood) in a nod to the original series’ pilot episode. Fortunately these references are not merely non-sequitur references dropped in to appease die-hard fans, but integrated into the movie’s streamlined screenplay, playing crucial roles in this installment’s frequently thrilling episode.
The screenwriters also manage to bring just as much that it is new to the table as well. Whether it’s the romantic bickering between Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Lt. Uhura (Zoe Saldana), or the constant threats of dismissal for any of the familiar multi-cultural team from the Enterprise’s hallowed vessel, the film’s inventive screenplay consistently proves capable of wringing fresh dramatic potential from familiar sources. Meanwhile the action-packed story here possesses enough pulpy ingredients to suggest the creators obviously aren’t taking things too seriously either.
There is also an undeniable pleasure in watching Roddenberry’s original concept beefed up with blockbuster size production budgets for the 21st century. Futuristic versions of London and San Francisco are boldly imagined here, inspiring the sense of awe that reconfirms the series’ visionary qualities. One particular scene has the U.S.S. Enterprise plummeting helplessly through the Earth’s atmosphere and disappearing through a bank of clouds that is undeniably quite spectacular to witness on the big screen.
Admittedly, it is to this level of spectacle that the success of "Star Trek Into Darkness" mostly aspires. The story doesn’t delve into anything particularly deep here beyond its straightforward morality tale. Considering Leonard Nimoy appears here in a cameo as Spock describing his character’s struggles with Khan as "with great cost," it is a bit disappointing to watch the movie consistently rely on physical fistfights rather than the cerebral strategies that fueled Roddenberry’s imagination.
However, this is merely indicative of the re-imagined action-packed blockbuster version of "Star Trek" that is determined to deliver maximum bang for your buck. Director J.J. Abrams and his collaborators may be following familiar patterns in an attempt to appeal to the widest possible audience here, but the result makes "Star Trek into Darkness" entertaining enough for any die-hard Trekkie or newcomer alike.
Nathan Hurlbut is a free-lance filmmaker and a regular columnist for the Arts & Entertainment section.