Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

The Star Trek TV show was an important step in the evolution of science fiction, a post-Cold War series that offered a hopeful future, a future where race, creed, religion and gender were irrelevant and that even aliens from other planets were accepted as equals. The TV show spawned additional series, along with ten feature films, but things had become rather grim and the campy humor and brash personalities of the Star Trek universe had become tired cliches held together with duct tape and old tropes.

That’s why in 2009 when wunderkund director J.J.Abrams released the “reboot” film Star Trek, it was so well received. We all still want to believe in a future that’s better then the present, we all hope that the human race is going to create harmony, even if there are weird alien races in the mix. The film did very well financially, with domestic grosses topping $250 million.

Star Trek Into Darkness takes place a few years after Star Trek ends, opening with a cartoonish sequence where Spock (Zachary Quinto) risks his life to prevent a nascent civilization being destroyed by a volcano. When he ends up stranded in the fiery caldera it’s up to Kirk (Chris Pine) to violate the ever-important Prime Directive by revealing the ship to the locals in order to rescue Spock. But Spock has also violated the Prime Directive himself by interfering with the natural progress of the local tribe. Not good.

Back on Earth, Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood) later gives them the bad news: Kirk is suspended from Starfleet and Spock is reassigned to a minor space mission as consequence for violating the rule that Starfleet holds highest in its code of conduct.

All is not well in The Federation, however, and investigation of a terrorist attack in 23rd Century London reveals former Starfleet officer John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) as the culprit, causing Starfleet to convene an emergency meeting with the top brass, a meeting where warmonger Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) vehemently insists that “this is about revenge. Find him. Now!”

The action just speeds up from this point as we learn Harrison is considerably more than he seems, that there’s a plot to attack the Federation from within, and that not everyone in Starfleet headquarters is working for the same side. Action then moves to the far side of the Neutral Zone to Kronos, the Klingon home planet, where Harrison waits for Kirk to arrive.

Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Kirk (Chris Pine) question Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) from “Star Trek Into Darkness”

Star Trek Into Darkness is a rollercoaster ride, a non-stop parade of special effects that are often breathtaking. And yet, so many of the action sequences are derivative of other sci-fi action films. From nods to 2001: A Space Odyssey to The Fifth Element, from The Matrix Reloaded to Minority Report, from Blade Runner to, yes, Star Wars, few of the scenes felt original.

There are also lots of references, overt and subtle, to the original Star Trek TV series, including a guest tribble that was great fun to see. In a lot of ways, Star Trek Into Darkness is a film made for the Trekkie, the hardcore Star Trek fan who knows everything about the Trek universe, and if you’ve seen Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, you’ll recognize lots ripped from that film, interesting and poignant dramatic elements. We just needed the Genesis Planet to complete the set. 🙂

What I most liked about the original Star Trek series was the dialog, the camaraderie and occasional tension between Captain Kirk, Science Officer Spock, Medical Officer “Bones” McCoy and Chief Engineer Scotty. The film retains much of this energy with many amusing scenes and some terrific dialog between Kirk, Spock, Bones (Karl Urban), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Sulu (John Cho) and Chekov (Anton Yelchin). The relationship between communications officer Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Spock continues, and the sporadic tension between the two of them spawns some of the best dialog in the movie.

It’s a film for Star Trek fans. But does it work for everyone else? When I saw the film screened, it was easy to tell who the fans were in the darkened auditorium because they kept cheering and laughing at the inside jokes and obscure references. For the rest of us, Star Trek Into Darkness has a lot of plot hiccups. Enough that more than once I said “Huh? How did that happen? How did we get here? Where’d (s)he come from?” To avoid spoilers I won’t detail the issues but it marred a really fun film and makes me wonder if the “director’s cut” might not add 20min of additional footage that explains everything better.

I’m a long time Star Trek fan, and still remember watching the TV show with my Dad, who famously would ask “Explain to me why they’re entrusting this multi-billion dollar starship to this immature, headstrong Captain Kirk?” I could never answer, and yes, that question comes up again in this film. How rich is the Federation that they can go through huge starships in film after film?

Star Trek Into Darkness is definitely a film for science fiction fans. It’s fun, it’s entertaining and it’s non-stop action interwoven with humorous dialog. Heck, I think it’s more fun than Iron Man 3. But is it a flawless example of the best of sci-fi cinema? No, not so much. Still, go see it. You’ll enjoy.

One comment on “Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

  1. I loved the first JJ Abrams Star Trek movie and am really excited to see this one as well.

    Dave, what do you think of this compared to the freshness of the first?

    It sounds like maybe not so much but with a 9 year old that has no experience with Star Trek, only Star Wars, I am thinking of the first movie and the sequel making a great weekend series for us together

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