As far as the groan-inducing studio label “reboot” goes, no one effectively put their money where their mouth is when J.J. Abrams took the word quite literally in 2009 and blew the dust off an exhausted franchise, transforming his Star Trek into a breathless feat of bold pop revisionism. That film’s sense of adventure, in terms of its story, set pieces, and disruption of years of mythology, is similarly carried over into Abrams’s sequel, which finds Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), and the rest of the Enterprise crew facing a daunting foe in Benedict Cumberbatch’s icily subdued Khan. Star Trek Into Darkness not only alludes to the dark reaches of the universe the crew travels to and the questionable morals that bind Kirk, Spock, and Khan, but to the black void of death that heavily weighs over the film, a territory that not even our technologically advanced future progeny can chart. Abrams seemingly goes out of his way to give the film this added emotional heft at times, creating an unnatural humanism that seems lost in the mass-produced blockbuster, especially in this summer where city destruction has become rampant. If the first film depicted the origin of a certain kind of family, then its follow-up concerns itself with the very real possibility of that family’s dissolution.
“Is there anything you wouldn’t do for your family,” Khan challenges Kirk at one point. Abrams takes that line to heart, broadening the threat of familial discord to include a gorgeous and quiet scene of a mother and father coping with the expected death of their sick child. The sequence clearly delineates the ramifications of how just one death not only affects a person’s mental choices clouded by emotion, but also how that loss edicts a personal moral quandary within them. Abrams deftly drives this motif into increasingly complex terrain; Khan’s mantra refers to a sacrificial act to achieve a “greater good,” yet the interpretations of these acts are split into many forms. Naturally there’s heroism, however, in the case of the father who desperately wants to save his child, it takes the form of terrorism, the exchange of killing himself as well as other innocent lives so his daughter can live being the only endpoint in his dilemma.
These interpretations also elucidate the Kirk/Khan parallels, Khan being a version of Kirk if Kirk’s recklessness hadn’t become acquainted with Spock’s grounded logic. The overuse of the cunning terrorist villain in the post-Dark Knight cinematic world dilutes this dynamic to some extent, but even still, Abrams’s fully developed thematic backbone outweighs the stale antagonistic trait that’s come into fashion. There’s a brief insert of Kirk watching with horror as one of his crew falls to their death—someone insignificant to the film, but significant to Kirk. Abrams’s attention to this nuance, in addition to the realized progression of the Kirk/Spock relationship, that gives the film’s final sacrifice a satisfying melodramatic catharsis, even if it freely riffs on the one classic Star Trek entry that arguably Trekkies and nonfans alike find solidarity in, 1982’s The Wrath of Khan. Yet whereas that film committed to the dramatic gravity of its sacrifice, Abrams unfortunately doesn’t go as far. In the frustratingly abrupt final moments, a discovery threatens to essentially render the film’s show-stopping scene as nothing more than a shallow plot point, practically positing death as something like a trivial obstacle when the film already proved otherwise.
Yet while Star Trek Into Darkness’s title alone portends imminent doom, Abrams’s sensibilities are practically played for outright comedy, enlivened when most of the cast are gifted comedians in their own right. From the humorously self-aware cold open, Abrams doesn’t burden the film with attempts to reach a realism hierarchy that betrays its sense of outlandish adventure, instead characterizing it with oddball alien designs and goofy charm. When Kirk gets a chewing-out from mentor Pike (Bruce Greenwood), this self-conscious scene feels as if Abrams heard the same thing from a Star Trek purist at ComicCon. With the depiction of an increasingly militarized nation eager to flex its influence through combat, Abrams even courts political satire, with the ironic and inspired casting of RoboCop Peter Weller as the mastermind behind these plans. While Abrams’s visuals are at times very cluttered and messy, in thematic and storytelling terms he strikes a delicate balance, with the weight of complex ruminations matched equally with its melodrama and comedy. That the film isn’t tethered to self-serious philosophizing speaks volumes, its purely bracing serials-like action scenes emboldened by a refreshing optimism. In fact, it’s this optimism that shows the passion in which the film was made: With its emphasis on its ensemble, the exploration of space by Abrams surrogates Kirk and Spock and their crew, along with the depths in which history can be revised by Abrams and his team, a bright future certainly can’t be tackled alone.
Into darkness? Paramount’s transfer travels into anything but. While scenes on the Enterprise bridge do tend to be graded a bit too lightly (along with those much-discussed lens flares, which eventually become distracting here), it’s nevertheless a crisp presentation. The white contours of the ship are bright, the reds of the planet that marks the opening scene all pop with clarity, and the greens of Kronos are delicately balanced with the muddy browns. The clear transfer renders the film’s effects superbly, and makes you appreciate the production that went into them. The surround sound is just as immersive, with complex sound mixing and editing heightened throughout. The action set pieces sound requisitely exciting, with every unique sound never becoming cluttered within its busy soundtrack. While the "louder" scenes are done well, the quieter scenes with mostly dialogue are graded too low. Michael Giacchino’s alternately exhilarating and pensive score is given proper treatment, and sounds uniformly excellent in the TrueHD mix.
Some vitriol has been thrown Paramount’s way over their handling of the film’s extras. While a commentary was recorded, it’s not included on this disc, instead given exclusively to iTunes customers. A shame, really, that to gather all the unique extras (Target has been another recipient of specially produced features) one must essentially buy the film several times over. What’s here on the Blu-ray is a handful of behind-the-scenes featurettes, all featuring interesting footage of the production. However, the cast and crew interviewed all bring up fascinating details about making the film, though the featurettes never really delve further into their initial idea. It’s particularly nice to see the elaborate sets in reality, especially an abandoned warehouse that was converted to the runway Kirk and Khan land in to meet Simon Pegg’s Scotty, as well as the various sketches and drawings of the film’s design. Also included are DVD and Ultraviolet copies of the film.
Not just the infinite depths of space, but the black void of death is the darkness du jour in J.J. Abrams’s bracingly revisionist melodramedy, the journey heightened by a crisp and exhilarating transfer.