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

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by on May 16, 2013

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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