Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) / Sci Fi-Action
MPAA rated: PG-13 for violence and some language
Running time: 132 min.
Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, Peter Weller, John Cho, Bruce Greenwood, Alice Eve, Anton Yelchin
Small roles & cameos: Deep Roy, Chris Hemsworth, Jennifer Morrison, Akiva Goldsman, Heather Langenkamp, Bill Hader (voice), Leonard Nimoy
Director: J.J. Abrams
Screenplay: Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof
Review published May 18, 2013
Star Trek Into Darkness is director J.J. Abrams's (Super 8, Mission Impossible III) follow-up to his commercially and critically acclaimed reboot of the iconic science fiction series, Star Trek, and should largely please fans of the more action-oriented approach. The film starts off with a big chase sequence on a remote planet and rarely lets up until the credits roll. While there are emotional moments to be sure, they are dwarfed by the sheer speed and spectacle of Abrams' determination to wow us in our seats.
The film begins, familiarly, with Captain James T. Kirk (Pine, This Means War) saving the bacon of one of his crewmen (Spock) while breaking the clear rules set forth by his superiors, a move that sees him lose command of the Enterprise. Back on Earth, a terrorist attack rocks London, while Admiral Alexander Marcus (Weller, Mighty Aphrodite) heads up the investigation that sees its perpetrator, a Starfleet officer named John Harrison (Cumberbatch, The Hobbit), become a thorn in the collective side of the space exploration operation that also has unspoken military interests. A further deadly strike by Harrison has Marcus restore Kirk back in command, with the Enterprise loaded with some massively high-powered torpedoes, as they must undergo a tricky mission to extract Harrison from dangerous Klingon territory.
The title might imply that this entry might be a 'darker' tone for the series, but it isn't really. It's certainly grittier when compared to the original Star Trek movie series, but we've seen darker adventures (Star Trek Nemesis comes to mind), and though the screenplay suggests that the crew on the Enterprise are facing their most formidable foe ever, there isn't that sense of weight and magnitude in what ends up being a mostly rip-roaring, crowd-pleasing adventure. That's not to slight the film, per se, as it is largely entertaining, but Abrams never gives us a chance to catch our breath before jumping into another scene of action, so we never fully sense the sheer gravity of the situation except from the distance of familiar action-movie rhythms.
The strength of the film continues to be the cast, and while many of them are inhabiting the personalities as cultivated by the actors of the original series, the chemistry here, while not fully developed, feels about right. We like these characters. On the downside, a brooding Cumberbatch, while a fine and formidable actor in most regards, is barely developed at all as the film's would-be villain; there is a big reveal in the film intended to resonate with Star Trek fans, but rather than gasp, audiences merely go with the flow of the rest of the flick, content to enjoy the ride, wherever screenwriters Orci, Kurtzman and Lindelof deem to take it. By contrast, the Admiral Marcus character, played with consummate skill by Peter Weller, seems much more nuanced in a smaller role.
Most of the screen time is given to Pine as Kirk and Quinto ("Heroes", "American Horror Story") as Spock, and their interplay between emotion and logic, and how the two often have friction. There are a couple of good dramatic moments between the two, but many more played for laughs. Zoe Saldana (Avatar, Vantage Point) gets pushed somewhat to the forefront in a few key scenes, while Urban (Dredd, Pathfinder) is utilized but doesn't factor in much. Pegg (MI 4, Narnia 3) has plenty do in in a mostly comic relief capacity, and Cho (Identity Thief, Total Recall) and Yelchin (Fright Night, Terminator Salvation) get tossed a few token moments of authority, but they are largely window dressing. There is one key introduction of a new crew member, a somewhat redundant science officer named Dr. Carol Marcus, daughter of the Admiral, though one wonders, despite initially seeming integral to the developments in the plot, if she's merely on board for additional eye candy and a potential love interest for Kirk. Only future developments will tell, though those who remember the guest character from the original movie series will have a notion or two of her significance.
The lack of development especially comes into play as the storyline borrows from the original Star Trek movies, including a riff or two taken from The Wrath of Khan that cribs dialogue, and one key scene. While it must have looked good on paper, the lack of emotional pull only points out the liability of this series going for all-out action-adventure pacing, as characters face mortal jeopardy often but we never quite get the sense that any of them are actually not going to be around for a third part to the series. We even see the Klingon race for the first time, and while the notion that the Klingons will be a force to be reckoned for Starfleet in the future, this is something more in evidence in talk than in deed on the screen.
Abrams' style is still steeped in tinkering with the mechanics of how to put together such things as montage and set pieces, and in generating momentum. His camera is always moving, zooming in, roving in and out of conversations. Detractors like to mock Abrams for is his persistent use of lens flare in most of his works, but I think that's just one of those things that critics like to focus in on that your average moviegoer won't care about, if they even notice at all. It's a formulaic work, but Abrams' formula is more complex than most, and he still offers enough fresh takes to draw out some unique things we're not accustomed to seeing in the 50-year-old franchise.
There are themes in the movie, but they are mostly dealt with in a superficial fashion. In this post-9/11 era, it's not a surprise that the main plot involves acts of terrorism, and there is some subtle commentary in this regard as to the rightness and wrongness in not only these acts, but those caused by those in charge that propagate such fierce and violent opposition against their colonialism. Abrams even dedicated the film to the vets fighting the war on terror. Underneath this, there is also a motif on whether people should help those who are less advanced in terms of their cultural advancement, or practice non-interference. This contrasts with the Harrison notion that those with superior advancements in genetics should be the ones calling the shots. It's not deep, but it does offer a moment or two to muse beyond the characters running around through corridors and the pyrotechnics of outer space battles.
While Star Trek Into Darkness is a fine piece of summer entertainment, and a breeze to watch and enjoy, for some Star Trek fans from the old school, there is still a nagging feeling that the Roddenberry creation we all know and love is missing a few vital components. As much as I enjoy Abrams as a director, while he definitely has a finger on the pulse of what makes your average moviegoer excited, it appears that he doesn't quite get what makes Star Trek fans regard the series with such fervor.
It's a fine line to tread in pleasing fans vs. those new to the futuristic universe, and Star Trek Into Darkness doesn't quite fit either suit comfortably enough to think it bests his original 2009 take. While one really should take this new alternate universe as its own entity, the rehashing of things we know from the 'prime universe' only begs comparisons, and that while homage is certainly welcome, inviting side-by-side comparisons of known sequences don't work in Abrams' favor. Healthy injections of testosterone and adrenaline may be in abundance, but this new breed still has a way to go to match up with the core intelligence and emotional essence of the best that the Star Trek universe has offered.
©2013 Vince Leo