Star Trek: Into Darkness review

On Saturday, 18 May 2013, Janice and I went with houseguest Byron V.O. to the Apple Cinema/Entertainment Cinemas Fresh Pond in Cambridge, Mass., There, we met Beruk A., Bruce K., Rich C.G., Rich’s friend Darryl, and Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. for Star Trek: Into Darkness. We all enjoyed the sequel to the reboot of the long-running space opera franchise.

Into Darkness wallpaper
J.J. Abrams’ latest space opera prequel/sequel

Story: The movie opens with the starship Enterprise saving the inhabitants of the planet Nibiru from a volcano that’s about to erupt. This violates Starfleet’s Prime Directive, which requires noninterference with societies that have yet to develop Warp (faster-than-light) capability.

Adm. Christopher Pike tells Capt. James T. Kirk that he’s relieved of duty, but terrorist attacks on Earth call the intrepid crew of the Enterprise back into action (the trailers have mostly focused on these, in an echo of 9/11 and even the recent Boston Marathon bombings). Kirk, his first officer Mr. Spock, Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, and friends must overcome physical and personal challenges to save the United Federation of Planets from an internal threat.

Director J.J. Abrams and company created a parallel universe in 2009’s Star Trek to be more accessible to a generation of moviegoers not familiar with the 1960s television show and its numerous spinoffs. However, viewers who are “Trekkies” or “Trekkers” and know the rich history of Gene Roddenberry’s fictional universe will recognize many elements of Into Darkness, including Klingons, Tribbles, and references to characters such as Harry Mudd and Christine Chapel.

I had worried, based on early reviews, that Abrams and Paramount had “gone back to the well” once too often by rehashing familiar plot points, but the acting, pacing, and twists mostly made up for this, and the ending of the movie — don’t worry, I’ll avoid “spoilers” here, but be aware that the links in this review lead to some — leaves the fictional future wide open for more adventures.

Acting: I have fond memories of watching reruns of the original Star Trek TV series back in college, and the actors who first took on those roles have become pop culture icons. Still, I think that the returning cast of the new version has been well-chosen, from Chris Pine as the cocky but good-natured Kirk, Zach Quinto as the (mostly) logical Vulcan Spock, and Karl Urban as the irascible Dr. McCoy. They continue to be worthy successors to William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and the late De Forrest Kelley, respectively.

Just as in the original series and the first half-dozen Trek films, the supporting cast is smart and fun. Zoe Saldana is back as strong-willed communications officer (and Spock’s girlfriend) Lt. Nyota Uhura, comedian Simon Pegg is a hoot as engineer Lt.Cmdr. Montgomery “Scotty” Scott, and Anton Yelchin is Russian wunderkind Ensign Pavel Chekov.

Helmsman Lt. Hikaru Sulu, as played by John Cho, doesn’t quite ooze charisma the way George Takei does, but he does get a key scene in the captain’s chair. Bruce Greenwood is back as Adm. Pike, lending gravitas and fatherly guidance to impetuous Kirk and repressed Spock.

The latest additions to this iteration of Star Trek are just as good. The comely Alice Eve plays science officer Carol Wallace, and RoboCop and Buckaroo Banzai‘s Peter Weller is Adm. Alexander Marcus, who tasks the Enterprise with taking on mysterious torpedoes. There’s also a cameo that actually helps the story along.

As expected, Benedict Cumberbatch (the lead of the BBC/PBS Sherlock and Smaug and the Necromancer in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit adaptations) is formidable as John Harrison, the terrorist scientist of this movie. He’s both strong and clever as a foil to both Kirk and Spock and is a better villain than Romulan miner Nero in its predecessor flick.

Script: The dialogue is fast, witty, and filled with catchphrases from the ’60s series. I suspect that casual viewers or those who aren’t science fiction fans won’t find the banter as entertaining as we did, but this is a sequel that doesn’t talk down to its viewers. There is some dodgy physics, such as a “cold fusion” bomb, odd rates of acceleration and descent, and sound in space, but Trek is part of a long tradition of science in service to character-based stories rather than a lesson in realism.

While I’d prefer that a Star Trek film occasionally focus on exploration and diplomacy rather than military space opera, at least the script mentioned those concerns.

Direction: Abrams keeps up a brisk pace and gets emotive performances from the cast of Star Trek: Into Darkness. I might disagree with his addiction to lens flares and the choreography of a few fight scenes, but Abrams has injected vitality into the franchise, and I hope that Disney’s recently acquired Star Wars universe is in good hands.

Visual effects: Other than the science quibbles above, Into Darkness is spectacular, as its crew faces off against hovering aircraft, hostile Klingon vessels, and a monstrous Dreadnaught-class starship. I liked seeing more of Earth in the 23rd century, and the sleek interior of the Enterprise seems larger than any of the other renditions of the famous starship, including the NCC 1701-E of First Contact onward.

Soundtrack: The classical score, while still not as memorable as that of earlier movies, continues the themes from the ’09 Trek. My favorite part is closing credits of Into Darkness, with its peppy recap of the music from the 1960s show, despite the movie’s grim title and premise.

Ratings: At an early dinner at Bertucci’s, the consensus was about an 8 out of 10, with Rich being the most critical at a 7 and Bruce being most generous with a 10. I’d give Star Trek: Into Darkness, which is rated PG-13 for violence and unnecessary language, 8.5, a B+/A-, or four out of five stars.

As usual, there are mixed to negative reviews out there, but I’d recommend that potential fans keep their expectations in check and go in with an open mind. We were pleasantly surprised to find that Into Darkness, for all its modernizations and minor inconsistencies, still felt like classic Trek. I’d like to see Star Trek return to television, where it can focus more on idealistic social commentary rather than villain-driven fisticuffs.

Of the trailers we saw, I’m still most interested in Neil Blomkamp’s dystopian Elysium and least interested in Jerry Bruckheimer’s campy Lone Ranger. Man of Steel is the next big summer movie I’m looking forward to. In the meantime, live long and prosper!

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3 thoughts on “Star Trek: Into Darkness review

  1. I enjoyed it, with one major exception – the scene near the end that’s entire lifted word for word and almost shot for shot from an earlier film, followed by Spock’s totally out-of-place outburst. That really, really didn’t work for me, and I think it was an awful filmmaking choice.

    I also didn’t like the way the action scenes were, for the most part, edited in the modern ADHD-style that directors seem to love so much, and in a lot of cases were poorly lit, so it was difficult to see what was going on.

    Actually, the more I think about it, although I enjoyed it in the moment, there was in a lot of ways less than meets the eye there, and several missed opportunities that would have made it a far stronger film (the cameo scene is one of those; I won’t say more for spoiler reasons).

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  2. Jim, I agree that the engine room scene you’re talking about in Into Darkness did kick me out of the movie. It was obviously a deliberate homage and flip to a previous film that casual fans should recognize.

    Spock’s emotional outburst didn’t bother me as much — as others have noted, the half-Vulcan is still closer to “The Cage” in his evolution, and given his mostly logical behavior at other times, it had a greater effect there. The short cameo we’ve both mentioned was a nice surprise, although I’m actually glad that it wasn’t longer. The trope of “If you don’t hear a plan, it’s more likely to work” was respected.

    The frenetic editing of action scenes has become the norm lately, although I found them easier to follow than those in Iron Man 3 or other recent flicks. At least most of the battles had a purpose and helped move forward the overall plot. I do wonder how the next Trek director will alter the tone and characterization — let’s hope for the better!

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