NOTE: This review contains minimal spoilers.
With a title like Into Darkness, I was concerned that Star Trek might take a bleak turn with an installment akin to The Dark Knight. Fortunately, the twelfth film in the franchise, while including some gloom, manages to rise from the depths and remain true to the overwhelming optimism that has always been at the core of Star Trek.
My other concern with Star Trek Into Darkness was that it would only be a thrill ride, a visual effects extravaganza with as much plot as a Fourth of July fireworks show. I love breathtaking effects as much as anyone, but I want something more in a Star Trek adventure. I want interesting characters. I want a creative story. I want a movie I can enjoy for years to come.
Star Trek Into Darkness delivers on all counts. Yes, the spectacular effects are there, exceeding all previous installments. However, character development and a rich plot provide the foundation for those visuals.
The movie begins in perfect fashion, on an Enterprise mission in progress on planet Nibiru. Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) has already decided to break the rules and save a primitive culture that would have otherwise been destroyed by a volcano. Having broken Starfleet’s Prime Directive of non-interference, he is soon faced with another such judgement call. Should he break the rule again to save one life?
Again and again, Star Trek Into Darkness poses the same moral dilemma in different scales to the characters: When is it justifiable to violate a code of ethics?
Having proven themselves in 2009’s Star Trek, which established this film’s alternate Star Trek universe, the actors portraying younger versions of the classic Enterprise crew now take full ownership of the roles.
The lines between Pine’s portrayal of this universe’s Kirk and William Shatner’s portrayal of the Prime universe’s Kirk are so blurred now as to be insignificant. Except for the timeline differences between the two universes, I have no trouble accepting that this otherwise is the same character.
Amazingly, the same holds true for all of the other legendary characters – Spock (Zachary Quinto), McCoy (Karl Urban), Uhura (Zoë Saldana), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Sulu (John Cho), and Chekov (Anton Yelchin). The inspired casting choices made for the 2009 film pay off even more now that the gang has already been properly assembled.
Establishing the proper feel for the characters is also a credit to the work of writers Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof. What I love about this incarnation of Star Trek is that it reveals more depth to certain characters. For instance, Uhura is portrayed in both films as an exceptionally talented linguistics specialist.
Composer Michael Giacchino reuses his strong but brief Star Trek (2009) opening to bridge the films. In fact, much of his Into Darkness score is indistinguishable from the previous entry. If I did not love his 2009 score, I would complain about this. However, since I rank Giacchino’s score just below the work of James Horner for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, I will give him a pass. Besides, these recent entries are more firmly based on the television series than their predecessors. There are not complete overhauls of musical themes each week on TV.
Back on Earth, Admirals Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) and Alexander Marcus (Peter Weller) hold Kirk accountable for his decisions. Meanwhile, former Starfleet operative John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) unleashes a terrorist plot. Cumberbatch’s Harrison proves a far more effective and interesting antagonist than Eric Bana’s Nero did in the previous installment. In fact, Cumberbatch contributes the best performance of a Trek villain since Christopher Plummer as Chang in 1991’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.
The script works better this time out, too, for Orci, Kurtzman, and Lindelof seem to have settled into their roles as well. For instance, Into Darkness wisely contains more of the interplay between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, an aspect that was noticeably subdued in the 2009 film. The strong bond between Kirk and Spock in particular is also explored here.
While I applaud this freedom, the writers sometimes take the parallels too far. Other than some broader concerns that I will outline in a future, spoiler-filled post, my main criticism of the script is that it borrows far too heavily at times from adventures already seen in the Prime universe. I understand and appreciate the occasional reference, but there are certain parts of Into Darkness that feel like retreads. Superb retreads, but retreads nonetheless.
With character origins out of the way, director J. J. Abrams is able to set a more acceptable pace for Into Darkness compared to his frenetic 2009 installment. While just as exciting as its predecessor, Into Darkness allows more time for the characters to breathe and to grow.
If the core of Star Trek is its underlying optimism, the fuel of Star Trek is its characters. Into Darkness achieves full power by doing those characters justice.
Story: 9 (out of 10)
Visual Style: 10
Update: For a more detailed analysis, including major plot spoilers, see my Star Trek Into Darkness: After The Movie post.
Revised Ranking of all Star Trek Films
#1 Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
#2 Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
#3 Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
#4 Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
#5 Star Trek (2009)
#6 Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (1984)
#7 Star Trek Nemesis (2002)
#8 Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
#9 Star Trek Generations (1994)
#10 Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
#11 Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
#12 Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)
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