Star Trek Into Darkness
2013 - 132 minutes
Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Written by: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, John Cho, Peter Weller, Alice Eve, Anton Yelchin
In 2009 director J.J. Abrams and his team, including writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, beautifully re-imagined the Star Trek universe, updating the space opus for a new era while paying proper homage to what had come before. The time travel/alternative timeline scenario that was set up allows freedom to boldly take these beloved characters and their starship Enterprise to new places - in space and within character arcs - without having to be stuck in the narrow scope of series cannon. New and exciting adventures are there to create.
Now comes Star Trek Into Darkness and what should be the first payoff of that narrative. The film is absolutely gorgeous to look and is a joy to listen to, but within the world created four years ago it seems a little schizophrenic. At times the film wants so bad to remind us of watershed events in the original film and TV series only to tweak it with a wink and a nod letting us know this is still Star Trek, but just different.
In an opening adventure reminiscent of the Indiana Jones series, the Enterprise crew is on a primitive planet attempting to save a race of beings from extinction by halting a volcanic eruption. This involves Spock (Zachary Quinto) setting off a device inside the volcano to render it inert. When things don’t go as planned and Spock faces certain death, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) makes the illogical decision to violate Starfleet’s Prime Directive and save him, exposing the Enterprise to the natives and letting them know they are not alone in the universe. With the Prime Directive clearly stating there should not be interference with developing cultures, this gives Starfleet no choice but to strip Kirk of his captaincy.
In addition to the alien planet being beautifully rendered on-screen, this event also serves to further advance the complicated friendship of Kirk and Spock – the ultimate fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants leader and the ultimate follower of regulation.
A new threat quickly emerges on Earth when the mysterious John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) manipulates a Starfleet officer to carry out the bombing of an archival building in London for reasons that aren’t immediately clear. Speaking of unclear, if you think the name John Harrison sounds a little too vanilla for a Star Trek character, you’re probably right.
Harrison has bigger plans to execute and Starfleet Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) quickly reinstates Kirk and sends him on a mission to eliminate the threat with no less than 72 advanced torpedoes loaded onto the Enterprise. This is where things start to get murky and over-plotting often gets in the way of rousing adventure.
Captain Kirk makes several decisions involving Harrison that seem like the right thing to do, but only get him and his crew in way over the heads. Instead of “taking him out” as instructed, they capture the fugitive with plans to turn him over to the courts for trial. In a scene similar to the interplay between Clarice and Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, Harrison speaks to Kirk and Spock from inside a glass cell, cold and calculating in the reveal of his true nature and motivations.
Cumberbatch is absolutely fantastic in this role, possessing both the physicality to be a destructive force and the steely resolve to make everything he does believable. Where the character and the film as a whole run into trouble are abrupt tonal shifts that move Harrison back and forth from pure evil villain to sympathetic creature. It is interesting when the crew has to form a tenuous alliance with him, however, there are more than a few quick changes in tone that lessen the effect and seem scattered. Things are muddled even further when Admiral Marcus pops up out of nowhere in the middle of space to confirm Kirk’s and the audience’s suspicions about his motivations. The final act attempts to balance action with the resolution of plotlines and even though forward momentum is always there, we’re not always sure what the stakes are or why we should really care.
Something the film does very well is manage its characters – giving a large cast all something to do that serves the story without seeming extraneous. Scotty (Simon Pegg) resigns his post on the Enterprise only to be drawn back into the mission. Chekov (Anton Yelchin) takes over in engineering; Sulu (John Cho) gets a run in the captain’s chair; Uhura (Zoe Saldana) confronts the issues with dating a Vulcan and plays a vital role in translating during a Klingon encounter (the first in this telling of Star Trek) and so on. Of the major supporting players, Karl Urban is the standout as Dr. Bones McCoy – capturing the essence of the character and the portrayal of DeForrest Kelley without crossing the line into parody.
Despite its issues with plot, Star Trek into Darkness is never boring or blatantly confusing. It moves ahead briskly and features solid performances all around. Most impressive are the effects and sound design. It is so refreshing when a big budget action/adventure looks and feels as though it is occurring in real spaces and not like actors walking around inside a painting. Objects and environments have weight and heighten the reality, but unfortunately the storytelling doesn’t always do the same.
© 2013 by Blake Crane