After now seeing Star Trek Into Darkness twice (once in 2D and once in 3D) I am finally ready to give my opinion on JJ Abrams second entry for the franchise. Below is my review with a completely spoiler-free summary (really no plot details or even character names). The rest of the review contains some spoilers, but nothing not revealed in any trailer, commercial or clip.
REVIEW: STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS
Any fan who embraced JJ Abrams 2009 Star Trek reboot is almost sure to be thrilled with Star Trek Into Darkness. Everything that first movie offered is back, but now bigger and bolder. Into Darkness is a well-crafted action-packed thrill ride set in the alternate Trek universe which began in the first movie. It is true that this entry was designed to be both a stand-alone summer popcorn movie and to welcome those unfamiliar with Trek, yet it is also a surprisingly fan-friendly film which both flows from and deals with the issues posed by the 2009 feature.
On the other hand, if you were one of those fans who couldn’t get behind the 2009 film, then it is likely this one will also leave you cold. Some of the complaints Abrams’ Star Trek generated have been addressed, yet Into Darkness still plays a bit fast and loose with Trek canon and continues the style of upping the action at the expense of exposition and some character development. While this film is not perfect, and there are things many fans (including ones who loved the 2009 movie) are not going to like, taken as a whole it is still a very entertaining Star Trek adventure.
The new story is allegorical and deals with some of the issues of the day, which of course is a Star Trek tradition dating back to the beginning of the franchise in the 1960s. The film does indeed have darker themes, however it still rings true to the hope and optimism of Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future – and there are still plenty of laughs along the way. Even though Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy has certainly influenced this (and the 2009) Trek film, the Abrams team also understand that Star Trek could never be that bleak.
Everyone involved from Abrams, to his cast, to the digital artists at ILM, to the costumers and set designers and beyond have upped their game for Into Darkness. This is not a film resting on its laurels, instead it is working overtime to make sure the first time wasn’t a fluke. New entrants Alice Eve and Peter Weller delivers solid performances, but Benedict Cumberbatch is in a class of his own. The British actor makes you truly believe that his villain is the one person in the universe who could defeat Kirk and Spock.
Bottom line: Once again JJ Abrams and team have delivered a fun, thoughtful, entertaining action movie that is also a worthy entrant in the Star Trek film franchise.
Minor Spoilers Beyond This Point
(nothing that hasn’t been seen in the trailers or clips)
For all the talk of JJ Abrams secrecy, the story of Star Trek Into Darkness is essentially as advertised. John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) is indeed an agent from within Starfleet who begins an all-out campaign of destruction against that organization. He leads Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise on a manhunt to capture him and prevent him from provoking all out war with the Klingon Empire. Yes there are some twists and turns along the way, but the big surprise is that none of the big surprises are really that surprising.
For me the real surprise here is the arc of the characters. With a four-year gap between movies, the writing team of Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof could have moved the story of this crew along to a point well into the five-year mission – something like the Star Trek pilot ("Where No Man Has Gone Before") – with a supremely confident Kirk and his crew settled into their destinies. However, the writers chose to continue building on the crew of their USS Enterprise, especially Kirk. Into Darkness finds the young captain still dealing with his overly-cocky attitude coming into conflict with Starfleet’s very short leash. This all seems to be the writers’ way of confronting the issue of Kirk’s rapid promotion in the 2009 movie head on.
And Chris Pine really delivers on this arc. I have joked about how he was able to pull off going from "jerk to Kirk" in the 2009 movie but this time he takes it to a whole new emotional level. This plays out especially well with Bruce Greenwood who returns as Admiral Christopher Pike. Their surrogate father/son relationship is one of the key emotional cores of Into Darkness. This hero’s journey goes into overdrive when Kirk’s bravado is put on trial in confrontations with John Harrison. Pine’s acting can barely keep up in comparison to Cumberbatch who delivers one of the best (and some may argue best) performances in franchise history.
The character of Spock gets explored as well, and again it is tied closely to the 2009 Star Trek movie. In this case Spock is dealing with the destruction of Vulcan (and death of his mother). Zachary Quinto and Zoe Saldana both deliver strong performances showing how this loss has changed him – and thrown a Lirpa into his relationship with Uhura.
The rest of the cast also seem to to be more confident in owning their takes on these iconic roles. Karl Urban is again perfect at McCoy, including very satisfying interplay with Pine and Quinto. Plus this time Bones gets to do some real doctoring. And even though Simon Pegg continues to carry a lot of the comic-relief load, in this movie his Scotty gets to go on his own side adventure. However, I did feel that the way they got Mr. Scott off the ship (which was needed for key plot points) didn’t ring true for his character. John Cho’s Sulu and Anton Yelchin’s Chekov are both given their own little hero moments but they end up getting the short end of the character development stick in Into Darkness.
The character that gets the rawest deal is the USS Enterprise. The ship has always been a member of the family who always comes through in the end, but in Into Darkness she takes a beating and doesn’t really dish it back. You get the sense that Abrams prefers to see his captain as a man of action running around and punching people instead of sitting in the chair and giving orders. While there are space battle scenes, for fans who relish good ol’ NCC-1701 ship-on-ship action, Into Darkness will leave you wanting. The consolation is we do get a nice bit of fun with new little Klingon ships.
The other surprise for Into Darkness is how deep the film goes into the lore of Star Trek. While the everyday summer movie fan sitting next to you may be enjoying the action and adventure there are times you will be watching a whole different movie with a layer of Trek references both subtle and profound. Laced throughout the movie are little mentions, iconic images, visual cues, homages and character moments that hearken to classic Trek, the 2009 movie and even some callbacks to the prequel comic book and new Star Trek video game.
Some of these moments are my favorite parts of Star Trek Into Darkness. I am especially impressed with how the writers, Abrams and the actors have really nailed the interplay between Kirk, Spock and McCoy, including at least one great ‘troika’ scene. And while the film is full of delightful little Trek-isms, the story is (as promised) not a remake – although some of the themes come close to at least two previous Trek films (more on that in future spoilery discussions after the movie opens to the public). And there is one sequence where subtlety goes out the window and the film goes in your face with an almost beat-by-beat (and even word-for-word) recreation of a scene from one of the TOS era movies. It may have been envisioned as a nice homage but the way it turned out it feels like an unnecessary copy that may even upset some fans.
The plot–with a strong allegorical tie-in to modern day terrorism–is steeped in Star Trek lore and the complex politics both within the Federation and between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. The intricate storylines (mostly) hold together but could be overly-complicated for non-Trek fans (and possibly some Trekkies too).
One of the big improvements over the 2009 film is the villain. In 2009’s Star Trek, there really wasn’t much to Eric Bana’s Nero, and the best bits (his imprisonment on the Klingon homeworld) were cut out. For this time it truly is the character of John Harrison that takes Star Trek "Into Darkness." Only an actor of Benedict Cumberbatch’s caliber could have pulled off the combination of physical and psychological intimidation presented by Harrison. Cumberbatch has a good amount of screen time but he is so powerful he makes you only want more and even when he is not on screen the plot continues to weave around him. It is always very clear what Harrison is doing, but at times it may not be clear why he is doing what he is doing. A second viewing helps pick up all the pieces of his complicated back-story.
There is also the other edge of the sword that is the Trek layer of Into Darkness. For example some ‘Treknologies’ have severe limitations at one moment and then later in the film the same system will have almost magical properties – all done to move the plot forward. While the regular folk won’t pick up on this, Trek fans will find themselves saying, "but that isn’t how [insert Treknology] works." This could seem nitpicky, but it can take you out of the moment or change the way you see the stakes at hand in any given scene.
I could go on with the nitpicking and it would be easy for me to write up a top 10 list of things that I would change about Into Darkness (and I probably will after the movie comes out and spoilers can be discussed freely). But none of those things really take away from the totality of this thoroughly entertaining film. With the relentless pace, you are on to the next thing so fast you soon forget any quibbles.
One thing that few would argue with is that Into Darkness looks magnificent. There are new exotic locales, including a visit to the bad part of the Klingon home world. Costumer Michael Kaplan has outdone himself with a wide array of wardrobe for the movie, including a number of different outfits for our heroes – although I’m still not sold on those big hats for the new dress uniforms. And ILM continues their history of excellence with even more effects shots than we saw in the 2009 movie. Yes it is true that once again we have a black super-ship, but within the context of the movie the out-of-place design details make more sense.
I first became a fan of Star Trek because it was a great escape into a hopeful future full of fun and adventure. For me, Star Trek has always been about the characters more than anything and I find when watching this film that I care about these characters for who they are and not because they are versions of heroes from my past.
Back in 2009 my review concluded with a note that while I loved JJ Abrams Star Trek (again with various issues here and there), I still counted Wrath of Khan as the best of the franchise. The Abrams team weren’t able to knock Star Trek II off the top of my list with Into Darkness, but I still feel that have it in them to make that ultimate Star Trek movie. In the mean time Star Trek Into Darkness is a deeply satisfying escape into a hopeful future full of fun and adventure.
- Giacchino’s score is at least as good as the 2009 movie, building on Kirk and Spock’s themes while giving us new ones for Harrison and others, but at times it is a bit repetitive.
- Alice Eve doesn’t really have enough to do in the film to get a good sense of her, but maybe she is being set up for more in the next one
- I preferred the 2D version over the 3D version, but am still looking forward to seeing it in IMAX 3D (I usually don’t see the point of regular 3D, if you want the spectacle go all the way to IMAX)
- The new warp effect is pretty cool in 3D (and probably whey they changed it)
- I actually enjoyed the film more with my second viewing – with some niggling issues seemingly less important (ironically for the 2009 movie I found little things bothered me more with multiple viewings)
- The interior of the USS Vengeance appears to be the result of an unholy union between the USS Enterprise and an Imperial Star Destroyer
- Ben Burtt continues to design great sounds but he may have played around too much with some of the USS Enterprise sounds that were already working well in the 2009 movie
- Abrams has toned down the lens flares and the shaky-cam, possibly due to more experience (this is only his fourth film) or perhaps concerns over how those things will play in 3D
- Anyone who was worried that McCoy is getting less play (because he doesn’t show up on some posters but Uhura does) has nothing to worry about
- There are now 3 official Starfleet uniforms, Dress/Earth-based grey, colorful classic-like tunics for onboard ship and flight suits for when you are on shuttles – suggesting that this crew spend a lot of their time getting dressed and undressed (this explains the ‘turn away!’ scene of Kirk eying Alice Eve’s space undies)
- I want a model of the new little Klingon ship (hopefully some licensee announces they are going to make a realistic looking vehicle toy of it)
- The Budweiser plant was again used for elements of engineering (aka ‘Budgineering’) but this time the set dressing and angles used worked better and avoided the anachronisms of the 2009 movie
- A new location was also used for elements of the engineering section which looked even more appropriately high-tech
More reviewing of Into Darkness to come
There is much more to discuss with Star Trek Into Darkness. In the weeks to come TrekMovie will take closer looks at different aspects of the film, including discussing the plot in detail after the film has opened in most of the world. We will also be keeping track of other reviews around the world and possibly bring in some guest views on Into Darkness.
Discussing Into Darkness – Please don’t spoil the movie
Please keep the comments below within the scope of spoilers discussed here. Not everyone has gone out of their way to find spoilers elsewhere on the web, so discussing them and linking to them only ruins it for your fellow TrekMovie community members.
There will be plenty of time in the coming weeks to go over every little detail, but discussion of that nature will have to wait until the film is open publicly.