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“Star Trek Into Darkness” Review: Eye-Popping Action at Warp Speed

Note: while I endeavored to avoid them, this review may contain mild spoilers

The short review: Visually stunning and occasionally logically lacking, Star Trek Into Darkness is nothing else if not a 3D boatload – or starshipload – of fun, buoyed by an immensely likable cast and a script that offers banter aplenty with clever nods to series history, and manages to touch on a few potent political issues in between its interstellar spectacle and warp speed pacing.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jJMYAJ3_0uw?rel=0]

The long review: In 2009, fanboys (and girls) the world over held their collective breath as J.J. Abrams launched his lens flare-laden reboot of the Star Trek film franchise, boldly going where 11 other films had gone before. Retooling an aging franchise is no easy task, even in the very capable hands of a director like Abrams. It’s even more daunting when one considers the Star Trek fandom’s reputation for erudite nitpicking borne from an immense love for a sprawling franchise that has spawned 11 films and 5 separate TV series.

While it was not perfect, the film surprised many in terms of just how damn fun it was. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto’s undeniable chemistry, anchored by a stellar supporting cast, made for a truly enjoyable reinterpretation of a beloved universe. Much like 2009’s Star Trek, Abrams’ follow-up, Star Trek Into Darkness, is largely successful, striking a balance between the core values of the franchise and the kind of over-the-top, eye-popping action needed to beam butts up into cinema seats nowadays.

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Star Trek Into Darkness does many things right, but for some, it may fail to live up to their sometimes unattainable expectations. With all the advance buzz surrounding the film, it’d be nearly impossible to do so. Call it a sophomore slump, if you must; I wouldn’t. The film is still superbly entertaining, peppered with fist-pumping set pieces, and moves at warp speed so that it never has a chance to wear out its welcome. Plus, there are Klingons. And who doesn’t love a good old fashioned field trip to Kronos, honestly?

The film opens with a bang, a volcanic eruption, with Kirk and Bones sprinting through the red, Dr. Seussian fields of Nibiru in an attempt to distract its primitive indigenous peoples while Spock descends into a volcano to render it inert in an effort to spare them a searing lava-filled death. This sets up the core conflict between Kirk’s improvisational, seat-of-his-pants style of problem solving and Spock’s bookish adherence to the rules, even if the greater good entails sacrificing oneself.

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Naturally, Spock is unfazed by being lowered into the mouth of an active volcano, but, thanks to Kirk, Spock’s life isn’t the only one endangered, Kirk’s inabilty to adhere to the rules gets him suspended, and Spock is reassigned. That’s when an explosion tears through Starfleet’s main archive in London, killing hundreds of innocent men, women, and children, courtesy of the brooding, calculating, unreasonably strong man known only as John Harrison.

In between the spectacular set pieces and pitched space battles, the theme of terrorism and the notion of what would motivate someone to commit an otherwise unspeakable act of violence are visited time and time again, with each character asking himself or herself what he or she is willing to sacrifice in the name of perceived justice. A 9/11 allegory like this can come off as heavy-handed, but it’s couched in enough layers of genre trappings and popcorn flick fun that it works well in context, immediately giving the seemingly indestructible John Harrison an air of danger that Cumberbatch oozes from every IMAX-visible pore.

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Speaking of the devil, the identity of Benedict Cumberbatch’s character has been the most maddening Abrams-related mystery since we first laid eyes on that damn smoke monster back in 2004, prompting the Internet to whip itself into a Klingon-worthy fervor trying to suss it out. While I won’t spoil his identity here – nor should you in the comment section below – the reveal of Cumberbatch’s true identity is a clever twist on a classic character that should serve as both a nod to franchise history and subversion of expectations for those in the know. It’s a potentially risky move by screenwriters Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof, sure to polarize certain segments of the fandom. I didn’t have a problem with it, but I probably won’t be mind melding with any diehard Trek forum users anytime soon.

My deep and abiding love of Benedict Cumberbatch notwithstanding, Star Trek‘s strong suit has never been the villains; its heart has always been in the men and women of the USS Enterprise, and it’s fitting that Into Darkness‘ best moments come from the fast-paced, back-and-forth, Olympic jai alai-speed rapport. Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Sulu (John Cho), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and Bones (Karl Urban) are all back aboard the Enterprise, joined by newcomer Alice Eve, playing Carol [last name redacted], a stunning weapons specialist and Kirk’s sort-of love interest. It’s evident from watching them on-screen that this cast plays well together; they have an undeniable chemistry and charisma that leaps off the screen and their ability to deliver one-liners is second to none (especially if you’re Karl Urban).

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Yet, Star Trek Into Darkness is undeniably the story of Kirk and Spock, two strong personalities with deep convictions about how things should and must be done. The recurring question of the film is, “What does it mean to be a leader?” Must you be cold and clinical like Spock or do you rely on gut instinct and luck like Kirk? Pine and Quinto play off each other so well, and this script is tailor made to give them ample opportunity to do so.

Each man sits on the opposite pole on the sliding scale of leadership and over the course of the film, they must come to grips with the fact that in order to become fully realized men (and worthy leaders of men), they must meet each other halfway and take a page from the other’s playbook. Their bond is complex, surprisingly sweet and deeply personal in such a way that you may find yourself unexpectedly touched.

As I mentioned earlier, Star Trek Into Darkness is not perfect. It might not even be as good as 2009’s Star Trek. But it’s damn fun, and is absolutely worth your while. Star Trek Into Darkness is not a film about space; it’s a film about the men and women who boldly go there, and bring us along for the ride.

What did you think of the film? Let us know in the comments below. And please, for the sake of your fellow readers, please tag any spoilers so as not to ruin the surprises for the rest of them. Don’t like that stipulation?

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25 comments

  • I saw Star Trek Into Darkness in 3D last night, and I thought it was ABSOLUTELY AMAZING! The one who played Carol (I wont spill the beans on her last name) was HOT! and the one who played “John Harrison” (Again, not saying who he actually is) was amazing, but I knew who he was ;). The special effects, as well as the model work on the Enterprise, was amazing. I REALLY enjoyed the reference to one of the original Star Trek Movies (I wont say which one!). All in all, if I would HIGHLY recommend watching this movie for all Trekkie’s (Like me) or non Trekkie’s alike!

  • Saw the movie yesterday ,and it was AWESOME . Even in 2-D is was a great movie ,the plot was really good and clever . Benedict Cumberbatch was great ,and the rest of the cast as well .

  • Well, saying it doesn’t make it not stupid. I’m betting if someone tried to fly a bomber over DC, they wouldn’t have to call an Alaskan airbase for help.

  • Tom and This Dave….both of you made excellent points.

    This Dave, that particular happenstance seems to be a staple for “let’s save the Earth again” in Star Trek.

    Even the original Jim Kirk said it twice in the first two movies, albeit the second time was under different circumstances, and did not necessarily imply Earth as being threatened.

    ST:TMP Kirk: Mr. Scott, an alien object of unbelievable destructive power is less than three days away from this planet. The only starship in interception range is the Enterprise.

    ST II: The Wrath of Khan– Kirk: I told StarFleet all we had was a boatload of children, but, we’re the only ship in the quadrant.

    :)

  • There’s much to say (good and bad) about this movie, but I’ll keep it short:

    Spoilers

    The climactic battle took place at Earth, and there were no other ships around. At Starfleet HQ. There were no other ships around. You know, Earth, where Starfleet keeps it’s stuff? No other ships.

  • There’s much to say (good and bad) about this movie, but I’ll keep it short:

    Spoilers

    The climactic battle took place at Earth, and there were no other ships around. At Starfleet HQ. There were no other ships around.

  • No spoilers from me. I am a die in the wool Trekkie from the beginning…thus not referring to myself as a Trekker as the newer fans do. I agree with what I have read about Trek. I want Star Trek to survive me and Shatner and Nimoy….Just as it has survived without the great Gene Roddenberry. J.J. Abrams has a knack for revitalizing something while still keeping the core joy in what that thing was alive. He has certainly done that here. Did he “tweak” Trek canon a bit? Absolutely….but did he also pay it tremendous respect….You bet he did. The film is non stop from start to finish and while I agree with some critics who suggest some segments of Trek fandom will not approve of what he has done, I am not among them. Trek needs to be fresh to survive and this is as fresh as it can get without sacrificing the core personalities of Kirk and crew. Star Trek Into Darkness is a very good Star Trek film and a phenomenal science fiction piece regardless. It is also one of the most visually beautiful films I have seen in a long, long time. You will enjoy this picture die-hard Trekkie or not. :-)

  • I really enjoyed this movie, at least as much as the first one, but definitely not more than the first. Great dialogue and action, and humor. A few elements though kinda jarred me out of the movie into the suburbs of “Groansville”, but not so much that I could not enjoy the overall presentation.

    Unlike the first reboot film though, I doubt I will see this one multiple times in the theater. (The reboot, I saw 5 times on the big screen.)

    The IMAX 3D experience for this film was amazing, some of the best I’d seen. The story was really good, and the film excelled in the first half, establishing Kirk and Spock’s growing (and often tested) friendship. The second half kinda revisited some old territory that (while certainly twisted enough to make it interesting, and well played enough to make it emotionally impacting) shoulda really been left as untouched as sacred ground, but, again, it did not detract from my overall enjoyment of the movie.

    Live Long and Prosper, and I look forward to the next movie. :)

  • One thing that really bugged me was in the scene where all the starfleet captains and first officers were in a meeting, I think I saw one lady in that room full of dudes. You’d think there would be more lady starship captains hundreds of years in the future.

  • “Each man sits on the opposite pole on the sliding scale of leadership and over the course of the film, they must come to grips with the fact that in order to become fully realized men (and worthy leaders of men), they must meet each other halfway and take a page from the other’s playbook.”

    Subtle, Dan. Suuuper subtle.

  • As one of those rabid fans (I’ve been one since I was a child and watched TOS in reruns after school), I was disappointed. I loved the film, but I wanted the reboot of the franchise to be bigger, bolder, better, not merely a rehash of where we’ve gone before.

    I found Spock’s overt emotionalism jarring, but I think Pine really nailed his performance. They did a fabulous job with Uhura’s character and I hope they continue in that vein. Scotty was utterly fabulous as were the rest of the supporting cast, even with such minor parts to work with. I missed Bones being there in a key moment where I still cannot believe he didn’t show up. That made no sense.

    It was a good movie for those who don’t know Trek and a lot of long-term fans will be pleased. I will definitely see it again. I just feel like this story missed the mark by a long shot. There was so much potential in the reboot that was wasted.

  • I went to the fan sneak peak in San Francisco last night. It was in IMAX 3D, and everyone got a poster when they were leaving the theater. Star Trek: Into the Darkness – wow, what can I say about this without spoiling it for those of you that are planning on watching and without sounding like a total fan girl? J.J. did a fantastic job with this movie. It was visually beautiful with all the effects (I love watching them go into warp speed). The cast dynamic is still the same and fun to watch. There were a couple of new additions (screaming blonde chick seen in the movie trailer and my favorite…Benedict Cumberbatch). Check him out as Sherlock Holmes on BBC. Back to the movie….some of the lines were a bit cornball, but it didn’t bother me too much. Overall, I really like this movie. It touched on a couple of things that we all think about: “who can we really trust” and “what would you do/sacrifice for the people you care about”. Yes I will be watching this movie again

  • I read the plot summary… somewhere, and I just scoffed at it. Unless I get dragged to see it by friends, it’ll be a coin-toss movie like the last one was.

    And then I’ll end up a fan. But only after refusing to see it because it’s JJ and his pet lens flares.

  • Start working at home with Google! It’s by-far the best job Ive had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for $6474 this – 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringin home at least $77 per hour. I work through this link, http://Mojo50.com

  • I saw it in 3D last night in Dallas TX and it was packed. I’m one of those guys that took half a day off and went and stood in line for the 6 and a half hours before the movie started, 1:30pm till they sat us down at 6:50pm for an 8pm showing. JJ Abrams is a brilliant director and he stunned me as much as his 2009 Star Trek. It was friggin’ Awesome. So what if the writing is similar to the Shatner/Nemoy days…those were the 70’s and 80’s movies. We’re talkin’ 2013 and it’s about time a good director took the helm of this franchise and is drawing in NEW fans to Star Trek. BTW…I got this poster for the “fan sneak” screening last night http://www.imax.com/community/blog/star-trek-into-darkness-imax-fanfixtm-debut/ …S-W-E-E-T-N-E-S-S.
    Go see ST Into Darkness…you will not be disappointed.

  • Saw it last night and was surprised at how sparsely attended the showing was. Premier, 1st showing and free poster and it was less than 1/2 full in a major metropolitan area (Chicagoland). Dan Casey’s assessment was the first thing I thought when it was over. So much FUN. I am not a die-hard anything but I own the original movies and I am well versed in the S.T. Universe so I got all the inside jokes presented but I only take issues with lapses in logic and basic physics. Tho there were several, this is still a movie I would love to see again. Probably take my nephews and niece this weekend. Not kidding when I say I enjoyed it more than Ironman 3.