Star Trek Into Darkness (United States, 2013)

May 15, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Star Trek Into Darkness Poster

Spoiler Alert: This review contains spoilers. Not earthshattering plot revelations, but hints that might dampen the virgin's pristine viewing experience. Proceed with caution if this sort of thing concerns you.

In moving to the future, J.J. Abrams has pillaged the past. One could make an argument that Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan has cast a long shadow over the entire Star Trek movie franchise. Attempts to recreate the suspense of the second Trek feature were evident in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, and Star Trek (X): Nemesis. Villains like Christopher Lloyd's Kruge, Christopher Plummer's Chang, Malcolm McDowell's Soran, and Tom Hardy's Shinzon were inevitably compared to Ricardo Montalban's iconic superman. For J.J. Abrams, whose genesis of an alternate Star Trek universe/timeline in his 2009 feature allows him great freedom to move forward without obliterating "canon," the decision to make another attempt at replicating the alchemy of the first Star Trek sequel might be considered "safe." But little about where Star Trek Into Darkness plunges is without risk.

Long running franchises like Star Trek survive because they embrace change while maintaining connections to what came before. The James Bond series has featured six starring actors and, while the continuity is a nightmare, there are a lot of little hooks that tie the films together. Doctor Who changes its lead every four or five years but never forgets its past. In rebooting Star Trek, Abrams found a way to tie his universe to the pre-existing one where five TV series and ten movies transpired. Leonard Nimoy's presence forms the bridge. The octogenarian actor, making an appearance in his eighth Star Trek movie, serves much the same purpose here as in 2009's adventure. (Ironic that the man who once tried desperately to divorce himself from his Trek alter-ego has become the one to play it the most often.) His cameo isn't mandatory; it's a Valentine to those long-term loyalists who have been with the series for nearly 50 years. In fact, with admitted uber-fan Bob Orci on the screenwriting team, the movie is loaded with little "Easter eggs" for Trekkies/Trekkers.

Star Trek Into Darkness doesn't feel like a "Star Trek film" - at least if one defines that term based on the '80s productions. It's much more action/adventure oriented. The space battles unfold with lightning quickness rather than as suspenseful, gradual events. There's some nice character interaction but the new actors haven't been together long enough to replicate the easy camaraderie evidenced among the core group of Shatner/Nimoy/Kelley. Nevertheless, Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, and Karl Urban are good enough that we never feel like we're watching imposters. Pine's Kirk has the swagger, looks, and heroism to match Shatner's. Quinto finds the balance between logic and emotion that Nimoy mastered. And Urban's McCoy offers a near-perfect echo of Kelley's sardonic wit and countrified humanism - a true homage.

The film picks up a short time after the conclusion of the 2009 entry. Kirk (Chris Pine) and his crew are trying to save a primitive society from an erupting volcano. In the process, Spock (Zachary Quinto) becomes trapped and Kirk must violate The Federation's "Prime Directive" to save him. This results in the Enterprise being given back to Admiral Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) and Kirk being demoted to First Officer. However, as this is happening, a rogue Starfleet officer, Commander John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), has declared war on his employers. He detonates a bomb in London then stages a sneak attack on Starfleet Headquarters in San Francisco. Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller), Pike's superior, gives Kirk back his ship with new orders: track down Harrison, who has gone into hiding on the Klingon home planet, and bring him to justice.

Star Trek Into Darkness does some admittedly unique things with Harrison's character. At first, he appears to be little more than a standard-order terrorist with an extreme grudge but, as the story unfolds, we learn that at least there's a reason underlying his actions. Cumberbatch does an excellent job portraying Harrison as more than a one-dimensional bad guy. There's a lot of depth to the portrayal - arguably more than the character deserves.

This is a fast-paced production (as befits a would-be summer blockbuster); it doesn't take many breaks for exposition. Nevertheless, it seems to have fewer obvious plot holes than the 2009 Star Trek and is at least equally engaging. The film takes an opportunity to do what the old Star Trek often did and use a futuristic scenario to comment on contemporary issues - in this case, terrorism and the policy of manufacturing a war to eliminate a perceived threat. If there's an obvious flaw, it's that the ending is an anticlimax; proceedings conclude with a whimper. After an epic journey featuring distant worlds, space battles, and surprise revelations, it all comes down to a fist fight. The movie also cheats by playing on the viewer's emotions (although Star Trek has been guilty of that from time-to-time - I'm thinking specifically of "Amok Time").

One of the most controversial aspects of Star Trek Into Darkness is likely to be the extended segment lifted almost intact (albeit with a role reversal) from one of the earlier Star Trek films. Some will see this as theft, but I prefer to view it as I'm sure it's intended: an homage and another opportunity to find familiarity in a newly reshaped universe. This stuff worked for me - especially the very loud utterance of a famous line - but some may not feel the same way.

In addition to Cumberbatch, there are two other newcomers in significant roles: Alice Eve and Peter Weller as the daughter-and-father team of Dr. Carol Marcus and her dad. Eve's role is limited but Star Trek fans know that in the other timeline she was Kirk's lover and the mother of his son. Whether that history will be repeated in this universe remains to be seen. Weller plays the upper echelon Starfleet admiral in much the same way that upper echelon Starfleet admirals have been portrayed since the TV series aired in the 1960s - which is to say, as more of an obstacle than a help.

The special effects are first rate - not always the case with Star Trek movies, although Abrams has been given a budget the likes of which directors Nicholas Meyer, Leonard Nimoy, and William Shatner would have salivated over. The 3-D is, thankfully, not an abomination. Compensations have been made for many of the usual problems with the format. On the other hand, it adds little, making the surcharge an unnecessary expense. Michael Giacchino's score is reminiscent of the work he did on the 2009 film. He waits until the end to use the Alexander Courage theme but, when he employs it, he does so with relish. From time-to-time, he also echoes (without directly copying) some of the music that Jerry Goldsmith contributed over the years.

J.J. Abrams wanted Star Trek Into Darkness to be the revived franchise's The Dark Knight. In establishing this lofty goal, he forced himself to take some bold steps, yet for all the suspense, action, and special effects razzle-dazzle, the movie doesn't ascend to the highest pinnacle of big budget entertainment. It's an immensely satisfying summer blockbuster but it's not a genre-defining masterpiece. It's hard to imagine many die-hard Star Trek fans putting Star Trek Into Darkness ahead of The Wrath of Khan on their personal "best of" lists. Nevertheless, this is sufficiently rousing and entertaining that it should please a majority of movie-goers whether they're confessed Trek fans or not. In the wake of Star Trek Into Darkness, the familiar characters look ready to continue to live long and prosper.

Star Trek Into Darkness (United States, 2013)

Run Time: 2:12
U.S. Release Date: 2013-05-15
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1