Every now and then, the various creators entrusted with the “Star Trek” legacy hit on some new element that leaves a lasting imprint. Introducing the hive-minded Borg, say, to give the Klingons some competition in the all-time galactic scourge department. Or raising the mission stakes so that it’s not just nameless ensigns who can perish, but even a character like Spock.
Director J.J. Abrams’s contribution is something more basic, but also far greater. With 2009’s feature reboot, “Star Trek,” he proved that the series could be recast, have its decades of sprawling continuity set aside, and still feel just as distinctive and stimulating as it had in its finest hours. (Not to mention even more profitable: Abrams’s $140 million production pulled in $258 million domestically. That made it a high point on a par with the lower-budgeted “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,” which grossed $110 million back in 1986.) At a time when one of sci-fi’s most iconic franchises had been stalled for years, Abrams, Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk, Zachary Quinto’s Spock, and the rest of their crew found a way to make “Trek” relevant again.
“Without question, our first movie involved a lot of heavy lifting in introducing a new cast, tone, and timeline,” says Abrams, speaking by phone from a publicity event in London, a featured setting in his $185 million sequel, “Star Trek Into Darkness,” opening at IMAX venues on Wednesday and in other formats on Thursday. “The fun of this one is that now we were able to pick and choose what, if anything, we wanted to pull out from existing lore.”
What’s perhaps most intriguing about “Into Darkness,” though, is that Abrams isn’t necessarily following the trail he strived to blaze last time. Despite shrewdly positioning themselves to boldly go where no “Trek” adventure had gone before, and pursue whatever new plot line popped into their imaginations, Abrams and his writers opted instead to delve back into continuity. They developed a story echoing “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (1982), in which William Shatner’s Kirk is pushed to extremes by Ricardo Montalban’s Khan, a genetically engineered nemesis with a grudge dating to the 1967 TV episode “Space Seed.” (Trekkies can quote you every line of Leonard Nimoy’s big-screen death scene as Spock: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” etc., etc.)
In the new film, Pine’s Kirk is similarly tested by seemingly superhuman John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch of the BBC’s “Sherlock”), a Starfleet officer who turns against the Federation (Benedict Arnold?) and begins launching catastrophic terrorist strikes. Although Kirk’s chronic recklessness has recently earned him a demotion, he’s reinstated as captain to track the fleeing Harrison into Klingon space and get justice — or revenge.
You can see where the story and its roots satisfy the popcorn-entertainment requisites of Abrams, who established himself as a brand name with TV’s “Alias” and “Lost,” and made his feature debut on “Mission: Impossible III” (2006). More recently, he was tapped to relaunch “Star Wars” in 2015. “I was never a big ‘Star Trek’ fan,” Abrams, 46, says with signature effusiveness, recapping news he broke to Trekkies last time around. “I liked the movies — they were more accessible to me than the TV show — but none of it would have made my desert-island discs collection. It was always a little talky for me. I knew that if it had had more visceral energy and muscularity, I would have bought into the intellectual side more.” So what better territory to re-explore than “Wrath of Khan,” an installment notable, by vintage “Trek” standards, for ratcheting up the visual intensity and delivering what felt like a stand-alone spectacle? (In many ways, the film was the prototypical Hollywood reboot, so completely independent from 1979’s ponderous “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” that it could have dropped the “II” from its title.)
Still, there’s action, and then there’s Abrams-style action. So you say you dug Kirk’s stratospheric skydiving with Sulu (John Cho) in the last movie? “Into Darkness” gives you an encore — in space. The Enterprise ventures into a couple of environments that really do feel, visually, like new frontiers for the series. And the sequel’s hard open drops Kirk and Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) into headhunter peril so affectionately modeled after “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” you’d swear Abrams was angling for a crack at a second George Lucas franchise.
But even in the amped-up Trekscape, character ultimately rules. And this is where Abrams’s vision continues to diverge from previously established canon. “Into Darkness” puts a primary focus on Kirk and Spock’s eternal friendship, of course. (Wonder whether “Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry would have dropped “bromance” into his original story bible, if only the term had been coined a few decades earlier?) At the same time, though, the sequel gets back to the relationship between Spock and Uhura (Zoe Saldana), one of the big surprises from ’09, and offers some interesting new turns for them.
You wonder if it was a given that the couple would grab spotlight time again, or if there were perhaps other new character dynamics that the filmmakers considered for the Enterprise crew. “There are other stories that we’ve played with,” Abrams says. “But when you have a movie that’s two hours long, and a group of over half a dozen critical characters demanding attention, it’s hard to find time for all the nuances you want. There was [an idea] implying the sexuality of one of the characters, a back story for another character that was pretty intense, a really funny story we wanted to do with yet another. Hopefully, if there are future films, those other stories will get their moment.”
During a visit with the Globe last fall for another genre entry, “Dredd,” Urban considered the prospects from a cast perspective. Clearly something of a fanboy himself, he had given classic “Trek” a fresh power viewing with his son a couple of years before even auditioning for his McCoy riff. So when asked if he could see these incarnations of Kirk, Spock, and Bones progressing to a point where they might, oh, camp out together (as in “Star Trek V”), he gets it. “Really the possibilities are limitless,” Urban says. “Certainly the characters always drew me to the original series as much as the science fiction. Watching these characters who didn’t always see eye to eye have to overcome their personal differences in order to defeat a common adversary — that was always the heart and soul of ‘Star Trek.’ And I think that’s something that J.J. absolutely nails.”
It’s difficult to gauge whether the Klingons represent another case of “Trek” mainstays on the shortlist for a close-up. The warriors’ brief “Into Darkness” appearance feels like it could be a prelude to bigger developments — but then, maybe it’s just an Easter egg. (The movie certainly has its share.) “We did something cool with the Klingons that ended up being cut from our first film, and we all really wanted to bring them back,” Abrams says. “It wasn’t something done with a trilogy in mind. But we’ve had discussions about what might come next, for sure.”
The indicators are that Abrams’s involvement with subsequent chapters will be as a producer, given his directing commitment on “Star Wars: Episode VII.” (The next “Trek” is reportedly being eyed for 2016; there’s been some speculative chattering — rationally, as it happens — about what a solid replacement “Cloverfield” director and Abrams associate Drew Goddard might make.) The “Trek” cast and others in Abrams’s circle have described “Star Wars” as his dream gig, but naturally, his own take is the one you itch to hear. What place does one franchise occupy relative to the other in his right brain, and his heart? Can he bring balance to these two pop-cultural forces?
“I would say that ‘Star Trek,’ which I came to love much later in life, is very much about us, and where we are in the future,” Abrams says. “Quite a bit of ‘Into Darkness’ takes place on Earth — we see London and San Francisco 300 years from now. Between that and these very specific, unique characters Gene Roddenberry created, it feels like a very human and grounded thing, despite it being about traveling into the void of space.
“ ‘Star Wars,’ for me, was always a wonderful, mind-blowing, other kind of thing entirely — a portal into a completely different universe,” he continues. Laughing, he adds, “It’s almost like saying to someone, ‘You’re making two movies set on Earth — aren’t you afraid they’re going to be too similar? They’ve both got bipeds and cars and . . . ” I think they’re fundamentally very different. But they both have an incredible sense of adventure.”
Tom Russo can be reached at email@example.com.