Before this review can begin, it is very important to remember that five minutes into J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek film, the entire Trek timeline, going back to the very second that James Tiberius Kirk is born, was forever altered. So, there was no five year mission. No Khan. No Next Generation, Deep Space 9, or even a Borg assimilation of Jean-Luc Picard. And Cameron never got his own ship. The writers, Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman, wisely gave themselves a clean slate to work with and then proceeded to re-build a universe that was just as compelling, if not more action-packed than before. And it worked very well.
Now, four years later, J.J. Abrams, along with Orci and Kurtzman and now Damon Lindelof, have returned to the Star Trek universe with Star Trek Into Darkness. Many wondered what these creative folks would do with the clean slate. Would they tell new and exciting stories to would expand on the foundations that the classic Trek TV and movie franchises were built on, or would they go in an entirely new direction and develop a convergent timeline that fans (new and old) could both equally relate to? The answer is both.
Into Darkness opens on the planet Nibiru where the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise has been assigned to observe a primitive people. There just happens to be a volcano that is on the verge of catastrophic eruption, and so Kirk (Chris Pine) and Bones (Karl Urban) infiltrate the Nibiri people to try to help them, all the while Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) try to stop the volcano by deploying a device that Spock created that would freeze the lava and save the indigenous people. Everything that can go wrong does and Kirk is forced to break the Prime Directive to save Spock’s life.
Back at Starfleet, Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood) is forced to reprimand Kirk for his actions, and Kirk loses the Enterprise. At the same time, in London, a terrorist attacks a Starfleet archive killing over 40 people. This puts Starfleet on full alert, but the terrorist, a man named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), knows Starfleet protocols and he attacks the hierarchy, directly setting in motion a series of events that gives Kirk his ship back.
Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) then assigns Kirk and crew to a special mission to hunt and kill the terrorist Harrison with 72 special torpedoes that Starfleet has just designed. Harrison happens to be hiding on Kronos, the Klingon home world and a forbidden territory, and the mission takes on a greater risk of starting an all-out galactic war.
As the Enterprise enters Klingon space, the ship’s drives fail leaving her stranded and Kirk, Spock, and Uhura (along with a couple of red shirts) head to the planet’s surface to find and apprehend Harrison without further risking galactic war.
I want to stop there, as I cannot go further without dropping major spoilers, and that ruins the fun (even if you’ve already heard them all by now). I will say that there is a ton of action, fights, explosions, and even skin as Pine is shirtless and Alice Eve (who plays science officer and daughter of the Admiral, Carol Marcus) is in her skivvies for a scene. And there is death and destruction; lots of death, and lots of destruction.
Into Darkness works well to further expand on the characters that were essentially reset in 2009, but unfortunately, Orci and Kurtzman seemed to get drawn into a twisted version of telling the same story over again and some of the twists in this film have been seen before–in a Star Trek film. Because of that, it doesn’t resonate as well as it should have and comes off as cheap. If Abrams and crew had just played the film straight from the beginning and not tried to play the “secret–we have a twist” game, the narrative would have been able to stand out on its own without rehashing themes previously told.
Star Trek Into Darkness is still a fine film on all fronts. It is shot well and the 3D transference looks fantastic (thirty minutes were shot on native IMAX, but the film was transferred to 3D in post-production). The action pieces are pulse-pounding and the acting is top notch by the leads, and Karl Urban deserves major kudos for his turn as a fantastic Leonard “Bones” McCoy. In my opinion, his turn in the 2009 Trek was one of that film’s brightest spots and Urban brings it again here. Lastly, Simon Pegg honors the late James Doohan with his inspired performance.
It speaks volumes when the second tier folks are hitting performance home runs while the leads are working hard to get on base. I am not saying Quinto, Saldana and Pine are not good in their roles; I am saying Urban and Pegg are that much better. Chris Pine plays Kirk as best as he can, and he actually nails the womanizer part very well. Pine’s Kirk feels like he could woo (or try to woo) any female around. And even with that revelation, he is still outgunned by Urban. It’s a good problem to have when your fourth and fifth positions are matching and exceeding the first, second and thirds in terms of acting.
Greatly deserving to be singled out, Benedict Cumberbatch simply goes supernova in his role as “John Harrison.” His physical performance, matched with his deep, commanding voice and even the telling look in his eyes all come together to create a tyrant who has the brains and brawn to bring Starfleet to its knees. I was not familiar with Cumberbatch as an actor before this, but know that I will be seeking him out in the future (editor’s note: BBC’s Sherlock starring Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman is truly must-see TV). He offers a masterful turn as the terrorist villain of this film and so much more.
J.J. Abrams was not a Star Trek fan when he signed on to reboot the series in 2007. What he has been able to do with the franchise is astounding. Star Trek Into Darkness is a perfect set up for a new TV series if Paramount wanted to go that route, with or without the crew of the Enterprise. This is the launching point to finally go back–and go further–with the now classic “five year mission to explore strange new worlds and new civilizations.” A film series cannot do what needs to be done here, as each new film will have to be bigger and better than the one before, and the mythos will suffer for it.
Star Trek Into Darkness is a great film that, despite its de ja vu moments and storytelling weaknesses, moves the franchise ahead and sets course for a new future. With incredible performances and marvelous action which, let’s face it, is not a classic Star Trek staple, Into Darkness brings the franchise to a crossroads. Tell more films, sans Abrams who is leaving to direct Star Wars films, or bring the franchise back to where it belongs, on TV. Either way, I hope that whoever is in charge takes a look at the greater Star Trek mythos to mine for stories instead of rehashing the old ones over and over again.
Star Trek Into Darkness is rated PG-13 and opened in theaters everywhere on May 16, 2013.