In the summer of 2009, J.J. Abrams boldly did what no director had done before: he made Star Trek cool to mainstream audiences. Four years later, he's back with Star Trek Into Darkness, a sequel which improves on his original while advancing the relationships of the Starship Enterprise crew. With killer action, a terrific villain, amazing setpieces, and stunningly good visual effects, Into Darkness provides a spectacle only Abrams could deliver; luckily for us, all of that translates into a pretty damn good summer blockbuster.
Star Trek Into Darkness
Director: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zoe Saldana
(This review will spoil major and - why not - minor elements of the film.)
The story begins soon after the reboot ends, with Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) being chased across an alien planet as a diversion while Spock (Zachary Quinto) tries to stop a volcano from erupting and destroying the planet. The whole point of the diversion is so the indigenous people don't see Spock's rescue attempt; coming in contact with them would be a direct breach of the Prime Directive, Starfleet's major rule that states there can be no interference with internal development of alien civilizations. But this is Captain Kirk we're talking about, so during a thrilling volcano rescue clearly designed to be the same kind of hook-opener as Abrams' reboot (which introduced American audiences to Chris Hemsworth, playing Kirk's father), he breaks the Prime Directive to save Spock's life. As the sequence ends, we briefly see the indigenous people drawing a picture of the Enterprise in the sand and worshiping it, but the problem is that we don't see them for the rest of the movie. The opening works, but it's as if the scene was designed as its own short film; the consequences of breaking the Prime Directive are only noticeable when Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood) lectures Kirk for making a bad decision.
The movie is filled with moments like this, and I can see how they could tarnish the experience for those unwilling to strap in and go on the ride Into Darkness offers. (Remember, the '09 Trek suffered from the same issue, but - like this one - its dynamic pacing propels us through the story so quickly that we barely have time to notice.) Back on Earth, we're introduced to Benedict Cumberbatch's villain character, John Harrison, a member of Starfleet whose true identity as (seriously, spoiler alert) Khan is foreshadowed by the record scratch that accompanies his on-screen introduction.
A 300 year old super-soldier awoken by a war-mongering member of Starfleet (Peter Weller), Khan is intended to be Kirk's superior in nearly every way. The imagery of his terrorist attack in London is particularly relevant in the wake of the recent Boston bombings, and one of the film's largest setpieces - in which his starship obliterates half of a city by crashing directly into it - purposely evokes the events of 9/11 (the film is dedicated to post-9/11 veterans). I'm still working out my thoughts on the choice to make Khan a terrorist: on one hand, seeing the damage he causes instantly elicits a personal reaction from the audience because of everyone's own experiences seeing terrorist acts on TV (or, God forbid, dealing with them in person), but on the other hand, something about using that as a centerpiece for entertainment feels wrong. Each viewer will have to reconcile with this in his or her own way.
Allegory aside, Cumberbatch's performance is one of the highlights of the movie. This is a showcase for his talents and he delivers star-making work, similar to the way Chris Pine's performance as Kirk in the '09 reboot shot him to the top of the shortlist for every major project in Hollywood. Khan is a leering, sneering, physically capable villain who benefits greatly from this particular actor playing him; theoretically, he's supposed to be incredibly intelligent, but even though he never really does anything to prove this in the movie, Cumberbatch's gravitas and persona make the character seem much smarter than he actually is. Still, he's an impressive force for Kirk and Co. to face off against, and he sets in motion what will likely be some Trek fans' largest problem with the film.
While Star Trek was an ensemble piece about bringing the crew of the Enterprise together for the first time, it also focused primarily on Mr. Spock. His home planet is destroyed, his mother is killed in front of him, and the inclusion of Leonard Nimoy as an older version of the same character provided an explanation of a new timeline that has been created for this franchise moving forward. Into Darkness turns the spotlight from Spock to Kirk, tracing his maturation from a cocky soldier to a true leader and patriarch of the Enterprise family. As the film comes to a close, Kirk sacrifices himself to save his friends in a scene which reverses his actions with Spock's in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Many will surely see this as a bit of fan service or perhaps an unnecessary callback, but because the moment works thematically regardless of our knowledge of the previous movies, I didn't have any issue with it.
The visual effects in this film are tremendous. Setpieces like Kirk and Khan blasting through space between starships are breathlessly riveting, and the performances from the cast are so good it's hard not to be swept away in the fast-paced thrill of it all. Simon Pegg gets a lot more to do here as Montgomery "Scotty" Scott, and though they get closer here, Abrams and writers Alex Kurtzman, Bob Orci, and Damon Lindelof still haven't managed to lock down the perfect dynamic between Kirk, Spock, and Bones that really made this franchise come alive in the TV series and earlier films. Zoe Saldana's Uhura has some solid moments this time, too, and she continues to contribute in significant ways outside of simply being a love interest. Peter Weller and Alice Eve, newbies to the series, do fine work, and Bruce Greenwood is great reprising his role as Admiral Pike from the reboot.
With a new episode of Star Wars on his plate, this might be the last Star Trek that J.J. Abrams directs. Even with a few minor squabbles, Into Darkness is a high-octane action film and a towering visual marvel that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible. And with an ending that sets up the Enterprise's five-year mission, chances are we won't have long to wait before we see this crew suit up again. Let's just hope Paramount finds someone with as much gusto as Abrams to tell these stories - otherwise we might actually have time to think about how they don't always make a ton of sense. Until next time...