Movie Review: Star Trek: Into Darkness

Fair warning: I am going to spoil this movie. Forget Abrams and his mystery box, there really isn’t any mystery at all with Star Trek: Into Darkness. He likes to pretend there is – he always does – but if you still haven’t figured out the BIG TWIST of this movie, I’m about to “ruin” it for you. Seriously, jettison all of that stuff. Let go of your hatred, as another now-Abrams sci-fi franchise would tell you. Take this one on its own merits. Because it does have merits. Some good ones. They’re there, and you can see them, if you can look past the overarching disappointments that still cling to this Star Trek and make you remember the previous iterations of it even more fondly.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures

Since the first new Star Trek film, the crew of the Enterprise has been doing some surveying and scouting work. Captain Kirk is eager to be considered for Starfleet’s first five-year mission, but his inexperience and constant flouting of regulations have put his entire career in jeopardy. Admiral Pike is willing to go to bat for his protege, but first an imminent threat to the Federation must be dealt with. That threat takes the form of John Harrison, or as he was known in his time, Khan Noonian Singh.

At this point, it’s really difficult to consider that a spoiler. A cursory look at even the movie’s IMDB page reveals the true identity of Benedict Cumberbatch’s character. To get the bad news out of the way first, this laziness is perhaps the biggest extant problem with Star Trek: Into Darkness. While the use of the genetic super-people from the TOS episode “Space Seed” is not without its cleverness and interesting moments, the blatant copy-paste of the character of Khan invites several questions. If he is Khan, and is named Khan, why is his actor a British man, instead of someone from India or southeast Asia? If he is like Khan but not the same as Khan, why is he named Khan? The use of the same name for a villain who is only somewhat similar to the other is laziness for the sake of name recognition, and the whitewashing of the character is extremely unfortunate. Taken as a whole, it’s clear that the creative minds behind the new Star Trek are mostly working off of old themes, ideas, and even names just to get butts in the seats, rather than trying to tell a new story, and this story in general and Khan in particular suffer for that.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures
A perfect specimen of the 21st century superman, preserved here in the most comfortable of iBrig units.

The only thing that really saves the character is Benedict Cumberbatch himself. He is electrifying in his role. He plays the canny, manipulative villain very well, holds his own in action scenes, and steals most of the moments he’s in. The cast overall is excellent, even more settled into their roles and deepening the dynamics established three years ago. Joining the cast is Alice Eve as Carol, an indirect parallel to another of Wrath of Khan‘s characters, and she manages to hold her own in the presence of the veterans. The main draw, however, and the best performances come from Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto as Kirk and Spock. As good as everyone from Karl Urban to Simon Pegg are, their dynamic is rock-solid by this point and they are a delight to watch together.

Good acting, however, is only part of the equation. A bad script or director can ruin even the finest performance. Thankfully, Kurtzman and Orci spare us the problems they suffered from in the Transformers movies, and as lazy as they are, they can write decent dialog when they actually try. I maintain that they do decent work when under Abrams as opposed to other directors. And Abrams seems to have throttled back on some of this more bombastic tendencies, allowing the human elements and powerful performances of his actors to come through the lens flares and dubious mysteries. For all of the fears some may have had about this director, his vision, and the future of other sci-fi franchises, I personally think it could have been a lot worse.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures
When the captain says, “Put on a red shirt,” you’re gonna have a bad time.

For all of its failings in rehashing plot and characters, sometimes in an extremely lazy fashion, Star Trek: Into Darkness delivers a story that is both light enough to convey the space opera sense of the original series and serious enough to get real moments out of its players. It surprised me in a few places, most of which were unrelated to the overarching plot. It feels like it’s trying harder than its predecessor, both in being a good story by itself and in being amenable to Trek fans. If nothing else, it is admirable for this effort.

Stuff I Liked: There are multiple nods to continuity here, both to the old universe and the previous film. Alice Eve’s character feels like more than just a plot device, and she’s not bad in the role at all. What is done with the original “Space Seed” concept and the role the war criminal supermen play in this new universe is interesting, and reflects a discussion that’s been going on between Trek fans for decades.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: So many things in the film just feel lazy. Khan’s name and backstory most of all. Also, you couldn’t come up with a better name than USS Vengeance? No legendary heroes or conquerers came to mind? Not even Caesar or Alexander or Ghengis? Really?? Some parts of the story were a touch predictable and none of the plot twists were terribly surprising. I still don’t know what Scotty’s little friend is supposed to be or do. I still have some trouble with a couple pacing moments: Kronos and Earth should feel farther apart than they do.
Stuff I Loved: Pine and Quinto are fantastic. Cumberbatch is downright legendary. The rest of the hero cast gets their moments, and not just action-packed ones. I adore what they do with Uhura. This film feels more geniune, deliberate, and structured than the last, and that feeling of cohesion leads to an overall better watching experience.

Bottom Line: Is Star Trek: Into Darkness a great film? I wouldn’t say so. I would say, however, that it’s very good. It stands with some of the better films of its previous franchise, and while it will never, ever, in a million years, live up to its spiritual ancestor, it has enough good moments and does enough things right that saved from being an aimless and shallow action flick with a familiar name super-glued to it. This Star Trek is definitely a cinematic animal, nowhere near as cerebral as earlier films or the television series could get, but as a straight-ahead sci-fi action-adventure, it works. Abrams sets out to make films for everybody, and this is definitely one of his more well-rounded and enjoyable successes.

Oh, And… Now that Abrams and his crew have this out of their systems, I really hope they can go in a new direction. Like they should have done last time. Seriously, guys. Give us something new.

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