Star Trek is an American cultural phenomenon. Created by television producer Gene Roddenberry in the mid-1960s, the franchise has spawned no less than six TV series and a dozen films. It even hired a linguist to invent Klingon, a language spoken not only by the fictional warrior race on set but also by hardcore fans at science fiction conventions. The enterprise commands a cult following of devotees called Trekkies, who know every trivial fact about the show, the characters and the actors who play them.
Star Trek owes much of its success to the winning combination of adventures and moral lessons. It tackles issues like racism, feminism, human rights and war. Above all, the show teaches young viewers to be open-minded and accepting of each other's differences. Aired between 1966 and 1969, the Original Series was one of the first American TV shows to feature a multi-racial cast.
Like Star Trek, director J. J. Abrams is an American cultural phenomenon. He is the Steven Spielberg and George Lucas of the 21st Century. In 2006, he successfully revived the Mission Impossible franchise after John Woo ran it to the ground. His first Star Trek movie in 2009 and sci-fi/thriller Super 8, a tribute to Spielberg’s ET, have cemented his status as the leading science fiction go-to guy. Abrams is now entrusted with three of Hollywood’s most coveted franchises: Mission Impossible, Star Trek and Star Wars. Star Wars: Episode VII is set to be released in summer 2015.
In Star Trek Into Darkness, the dream cast from the universally praised first installment returns, with Chris Pine as Captain Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Spock, Simon Pegg as Scotty and Zoe Saldana as Spock’s multi-lingual love interest. Quinto, whose claim to fame was his super-villain character Sylar in the hit TV show Heroes, is the glue that holds the entire movie together. In Into Darkness, the super-villain role Khan falls on Benedict Cumberbatch, a British actor largely unknown to the American audience. Perhaps because creating a good villain is so difficult, director Abrams borrows a page from The Avengers. Like Loki (the chief antagonist in The Avengers), Khan spends much of his screen time trapped in a glass cage on a spaceship playing mind games with the good guys. Like Loki, Khan too sports a British accent and a slicked back hairdo.
The opening sequence is arguably the best part of the movie. It starts with an Indiana Jones-esque foot chase through an eye-popping cornfield, as Captain Kirk and Lieutenant McKoy are pursued by native tribesmen on the planet Nibiru. The scene makes the 3-D format worthwhile, with spears and arrows flying past the audience with great realism. The spectacular set piece is what Star Trek is all about: exploring strange new worlds and seeking out new civilisations. I wish the rest of the movie would be more like that.
Far from going where no man has gone before, Abrams sticks to the same tricks that made the first installment a box-office juggernaut. Like its 2009 predecessor, Into Darkness is action-packed and the script is laden with literary and self-references. But there is not one surprise or wow factor in the second film for fan boys to cheer about as they walk out of the theatre. Instead, the non-stop peril facing the Star Fleet seems laboured and manufactured. Crises seem to happen on cue: an engine malfunction dovetails nicely with the discovery of malice; a new disaster unfolds as the previous one is averted by sheer luck. Just as I have feared, the movie ends with a drawn out hand-to-hand combat between the good guy and the villain, a tiresome finale that reminds me of the torturous remake of Total Recall last year.
The homosexual subtext between the cocksure Captain Kirk and the stoic Spock is unmistakable. The Odd Couple-ish bromance in the first installment has blossomed into full-blown man love. It surpasses even the ambiguous friendships between Thelma and Louise, Sherlock and Watson, and Sam and Frodo. There are moments in the film when the audience seriously think that the two men will suddenly lock lips. Instead, they touch hands on opposite sides of a glass pane like two star-crossed lovers. And why not? I'd like to think that most of us today are more open-minded and accepting than audiences in the 1960s.