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The best speculative fiction is rooted firmly in reality. Though set in faraway lands, planets or time, it speaks, nonetheless, directly to the issues and emotions of its audience. Smart writers know that, and this is why the continuing re-boot of the Star Trek franchise is so wildly successful. Set in an alternate timeline from the classic Trek, it seamlessly combines the novel with the comfortingly familiar in a provocative setting in which anything is possible, and the need for emotional connection, family if you will, is vital. Like the Vulcan IDIC, it is infinite diversity in infinite combinations, allowing for surprise as tropes regroup and characters react in accordance with what we’ve come to expect from them, but with refreshing twists.
STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS picks up where the last film left off, and with a typical situation. Exploring a new planet as the new commander of the starship Enterprise, Kirk (Chris Pine, right) has done several impulsive things, causing a direct conflict with the Prime Directive, and a life-and-death situation for a crew member. In this case Spock (Zachary Quinto), who, according to regulations, should not have found himself in the bowels of an active volcano to begin with, much less stranded there on a mission to save the planet and its Neolithic inhabitants. In a neat summary of the many themes that the film will consider, things turn out both badly and well, with Kirk coming into conflict with Star Fleet in the person of his mentor, Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood in Isaac Asimov sideburns), who regrets promoting him so quickly and with Spock, who cannot tell a lie.
They don’t have long to mend fences as a terrorist (Benedict Cumberbatch, left) begins his campaign of destruction without specifying a goal, and Kirk, of course, leads the expedition to bring him down. His first setback is Scotty (Simon Pegg) resigning rather than signing off on the mysterious, militaristic torpedoes with which Star Fleet’s commander (Peter Weller) wants the Enterprise stocked. The next is the terrorist himself, who has his own secrets buried deep beneath his lethal intelligence, coolly elegant demeanor, and maddeningly enigmatic personality.
At the heart of the story is the moral quandary of living in the real world, rather than one in which order and logic would suffice, and it is driven as much by philosophical considerations as by action. The question of the needs of the few outweighing the needs of the many, a question that leads to situation ethics vs following regulations, good intentions subverted by both secrets and lies, plus a dash of Nietzsche, provide a sophisticated element that tantalizes the synapses as much as the action provides a substantial adrenalin jolt. As for the Kubrick-ian flourishes, exploring beyond Jupiter, something that looks very like Hal’s eye, and a sequence that may cause the viewer to solemnly implore said Hal to open a pod-bay door, they are integrated with such wit that rather than being derivative, they are sheer pleasure.
Whipsmart writing and directing combine action and character flawlessly, each driving the other while indulging the Fanboy and Fangirl. The one clunky bit of exposition is smoothed over by swathing it in a reference that will make those fans swoon with delight, and the half-gulp that Checkov (Anton Yelchin) does when told to swap his command gold for a red shirt is a tribute to all the nameless red shirts who met their doom in the first five minutes of the television episodes. The characters have never been better or more well-rounded, going where they have never gone before in some cases, with lovers Spock and Uhura (Zoe Saldana, above) experiencing their first spat, and with Pegg (below) popping up as the irascible Jiminy Cricket of the piece, but being allowed to be more than just comic relief, though Pegg excels there. The actor is movingly effective as he explores more dramatic territory, and proving an ability to move an audience to tears as well as laughter.
STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS has a tender side. Quips and barbs and punch-drunk madness are the results of that tenderness in each of the characters, and the compassionate point of view taken by the filmmakers towards them and their struggle to do the right thing allows for empathy in the most unexpected places. It can be no coincidence that this the film in which tears are shed freely, but without being maudlin. It’s what sets this space opera apart from the cliché-ridden lesser lights that can’t see past the special effects.