“You just made my day,” director J.J. Abrams says, exhaling with relief. He’s just been told that a particular action sequence in his new movie Star Trek Into Darkness quickened the pulse of a seen-it-all movie critic, and for a moment, Abrams can stop explaining all the laborious homework and meticulous details that go into making a film with a rabid (and vocal) fan base and simply talk about the picture as a giant summer movie, shot with IMAX cameras and post-converted to 3D.
“The key for us was always to make a movie that was, above all else, a thrill ride and funny and entertaining,” Abrams says. “We had already done the heavy lifting [in 2009’s Star Trek] and established our take on the characters and our own timeline that acknowledges and honors everything that had come before, but at the same time splits off and heads out on its own direction. We could pick and choose what we wanted from the original series and leave other things alone. And it was intentionally designed as a stand-alone movie. There’s no need to have seen the first movie or the original series. They are not essential reading. But if you are a fan of the series, you’ll be rewarded too.”
Although Into Darkness tinkers with Trek canon in ingenious (some will say blasphemous) ways, the movie’s primary objective is to put on a great show, with a series of increasingly grander action setpieces that are furiously exciting.
“What J.J. does so well is to maintain a sense of fun throughout the entire story,” says Simon Pegg, who plays the engineer Scotty. “It’s important that a big entertainment like this remembers what it is and doesn’t get pretensions of high art. Not that the movie isn’t artful: It is. But there has been a tendency recently in movies to get overly serious with what is essentially kids’ stuff. Some filmmakers are trying to make comic books and superheroes and fantasy a little more somber, but I think sometimes that’s a slight misstep, because it loses the core of what makes [the genre] special. J.J. never loses touch with his inner child: He is so in touch with the experience of being thrilled and happy and excited in every way.”
Star Trek Into Darkness, which opens in IMAX theaters on Wednesday and everywhere else on Thursday, follows the crew of the USS Enterprise as they reluctantly embark on a military mission to apprehend a terrorist, John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), who plants a bomb that kills hundreds of people in London, then hides out on a Klingon planet where Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and his crew are bound by law not to trespass.
With all those pesky origin storylines and character introductions taken care of in the first film (which grossed $385 million worldwide), you might assume writing the sequel would be easier — an opportunity for the creators to play and indulge crazy ideas. But Roberto Orci, who co-wrote the screenplay with Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof, says the experience was quite the opposite.
“With the first movie, we benefited from low expectations,” Orci says. “How are you going to recast Kirk and Spock? No one thought it could be done. Now with the second movie, all that stuff is gone and we can do anything we want. That was actually horrifying and terrifying, because the audience demands to be surprised again, but this time their expectations are much higher.”
Ever since filming began, rumors have run rampant on the Internet. Is the bad guy in the film really the iconic villain Khan (originally played by Ricardo Montalban) in disguise? Is the shot from the Japanese trailer of two hands touching through a pane of glass an homage to the ending of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and if so, who do the hands belong to? Is there really a Tribble in the movie?
Writer Larry Nemecek, a Star Trek authority who maintains the popular treklandblog.com, says even he was caught off-guard by some of the twists in Into Darkness.
“The story starts out as a routine mission, but there are some major milestones for many of the characters,” he says. “I was really struck by how many homages they paid to the original show. They managed to walk the line and satisfy both the core fans and the casual viewers. During the last third of the movie, I was sitting there thinking ‘I can’t believe they’re going there.’ And they really went there!”
What makes Into Darkness feel like a true Star Trek movie — even more than the previous film — is that the story is replete with allegories and metaphors that speak to modern times, honoring the intent Gene Roddenberry had when he created the TV show in the 1960s.
“When you think about science fiction in general, the vast majority of future scenarios are very bleak,” says professor Anthony Rotolo, who teaches a class called “Star Trek and the Information Age” at Syracuse University. “People are always struggling against some kind of tyrannical empire. Roddenberry was the first to offer a vision of humanity that was hopeful. Earth had overcome all the elements of war and we were exploring the universe again — a kind of race-to-the-moon feeling. He had a humanist vision of the future, being self-aware and educating yourself and carrying that to the way you deal with other people. That’s why his phasers had a stun setting. Wouldn’t we rather make weapons that would knock [our enemies] out so we could talk to them later? Now you that idea represented today by Tasers.”
Abrams made a point to honor Roddenberry’s legacy with Into Darkness, making sure that the futuristic story unfolding onscreen bore some connection to contemporary audiences.
“Star Trek is not a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” he says. “It’s us in the future, and that future will come sooner than you think. It’s imperative that the movie not be preachy or be a polemic. But it should also deal with resonant, relevant issues we are grappling with today. While this movie was not made with a precious import, we were very conscious to deal with elements that we could relate to and make us feel. If the audience doesn’t feel connected to the themes and events and the villain of the story, you end up with a theoretical, observational experience, where people watch the movie but don’t live the movie. They are not inside it.
“So we let the characters have philosophical debates about certain moral quandaries without getting preachy. What happens when authority is wrong? What happens when following the rules means doing the immoral thing? What happens when you suspect you’re going to be attacked, so you become the attacker? How far are you willing to go to protect your family? None of that takes away from the excitement of the movie. On the contrary, it gives it a real pulse and soul. The key to the movie is if you don’t care about these characters — if they don’t make you laugh and you can’t relate to them — then all the action sequences, of which there are many, won’t matter at all.”
“This is the legacy of Star Trek,” screenwriter Orci says. “Captain Kirk was a sort of stand-in for John F. Kennedy. Civil rights were represented by Lt. Uhura. The Cold War was represented by having a Russian crew member, Chekov. You had the first interracial kiss. Star Trek has this tradition of reflecting the time that it’s in. That’s a tall order, man. We felt that after the first movie, which was an origin story, we had the responsibility to make Star Trek into what it’s always been — a reflection of what’s happening right now. And what’s happening right now? War. Terrorism. Our need for vengeance and retribution. Does that violate our values? We’re just bringing these themes up as questions. We’re not making any answers. But Star Trek would be a failure if it wasn’t reflecting the world we already know."
Georgetown University professor Linda Wetzel, who teaches a course called “Philosophy & Star Trek,” says those types of moral quandaries were always at the heart of Roddenberry’s creation.
“Star Trek is very conceptual; it’s not a space western,” Wetzel says. Maybe it started out that way, but it became very speculative. That’s what philosophy is all about — exploring possibilities. Take time travel. Star Trek has lots of time travel episodes. Some are perfectly coherent and they thought the ramifications of the idea through. Others, they just had a lot of fun with and logical consistency went by the way. There are also free will issues. When Captain Picard was taken over by the Borg [in the more recent TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation], he did terrible things. But when he stopped being Borg, everyone forgave him, because he wasn’t responsible. He had no free will. What does it take for someone to be morally responsible? The question is whether you are doing what you want to do, or you are being made to do it by someone else. There are many Star Trek episodes that tackle these kinds of questions.”
Star Trek Into Darkness, too, ventures into story corners that forces the characters to make split-second decisions that, in hindsight, may seem questionable. Against the odds, the movie delivers on every conceivable front — the latest example of Abrams rising to the challenge of a high-pressure project and exceeding expectations.
Abrams, who has accepted the daunting task of directing the next Star Wars movie (due in 2015), says he tends to do his best work when all eyes are trained on him.
“The opportunity to direct Mission Impossible III was such an incredible dream come true,” he says. “Tom Cruise offered me that job when no one else ever would. As much pressure as there was, making that movie with him was so much fun. Star Trek was a different challenge because of its history and its huge fan base. But I was in such good company with my writers and my cast that the potential and creativity overrode any pressure.
“Now moving into Star Wars, I’m working with people like [producer] Kathleen Kennedy and [screenwriters] Larry Kasdan and Michael Arndt and Simon Kinberg. They provide me with incredible comfort and support, knowing that we’re all embarking on this very cool, creative thing. Sure, there’s going to be pressure. But there has been pressure in every TV show and film I’ve been involved in. One way to look at it is pressure; another way is to look at it is excitement.”