Star Trek Into Darkness – A Review

Let’s get this out of the way: I am not a Star Trek fan.

I feel that I should be upfront about this. I have little to no interest in what is going on outside the realm of Earth. Other planets and other galaxies don’t appeal to me. I am fairly indifferent to most stories revolving around aliens, space ships and intergalactic conflict. In real life, I’m pretty “meh” on whatever NASA is doing. I didn’t see Star Wars until I was in my thirties and I wasn’t all that impressed. And I certainly did not grow up watching re-runs of Star Trek or its subsequent spinoffs. Galaxies far, far way or going boldly where no person has gone before just ain’t my thing.

When it was announced that the Star Trek was being rebooted in 2009, I met the news with a shrug and figured this was a franchise that I’d be sitting out of. However, the favorable critical response and enthusiasm of the general public – regardless of Star Trek fandom – was enough to get me to check out the film; no one was more surprised than me when I really, really enjoyed it. J.J. Abrams and company managed to make a film that was both accessible to Star Trek newbies and doubters like myself and that appeased lifetime fans. That is no easy task. They told a story that had never been told before – the coming together of the Enterprise crew – but had enough nods to Star Trek gospel and history that they weren’t completely reinventing the wheel. I have only a rudimentary knowledge of Star Trek references – you can’t exist in the world of pop culture without knowing the basics, like “Beam me up, Scottie” or the Vulcan hand sign – but more wasn’t required to enjoy the film. I may not have gotten all the callbacks and shout outs, but I never felt lost or confused. It didn’t inspire me to go back and watch any of the Star Trek related media that had come before, but it did make me interested in checking out Star Trek Into Darkness when it was released this weekend.

I didn’t enjoy Star Trek Into Darkness quite as much as Star Trek, but it was still a fun and enjoyable movie. There is a lot of action and some fun character moments that tend to trump story. The actors continue to breathe new life into these classic characters and Benedict Cumberbatch is a welcome addition to the cast as the film’s villain. This film continues to be manageable to the casual viewer; despite the movie’s backdrop, this felt much more like an action film than a sci-fi film. Star Trek Into Darkness doesn’t cover a lot of new ground, but it is certainly an exciting ride.

After an assault on the Federation, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto) and company are charged with going after the mysterious terrorist John Harrison (Cumberbatch) responsible for the attack. Armed with missile torpedoes, the Enterprise leads a manhunt into Klingon territory where they must track down Harrison without sparking an intergalactic war. You know – a regular day at the office. As they delve into the mission, it becomes apparent that there may be more to this incident than they have been told and that not everyone is who they seem.

I am not surprised that I favor the first movie of this rebooted franchise to the newest installment; I tend to like the “bringing the team together” aspect of stories more than subsequent chapters. My favorite part of any heist movie is assembling the rag tag group of people for the plan more than the actual heist. I like the relationships and the interactions more than the big action. Because I was unfamiliar with these characters, I enjoyed seeing how they all came together and became a crew and a team. Now that they have been assembled, I’m a little less interested in the story when it isn’t reinforcing and exploring these relationships in new ways. This does not bode well for my enjoyment of Avengers 2.

This does not mean that I didn’t like Star Trek Into Darkness, just that I didn’t think it was interesting or fresh as the original. Abrams appears to be more interested in action than exploration in the second go round, so there is less time devoted to these characters as people. Pine and Quinto seem more assured in their roles in the second film and the relationship between Kirk and Spock continues to be one of the highlights of this franchise. Perhaps it is because my relationship with the actors that originated these roles is tenuous at best, but Pine, Quinto et al. have managed to make these characters their own, while still paying tribute to the spirit of the franchise and the iterations that have come before them. However, the movie really came to life whenever Cumberbatch was on screen. That is partially because Cumberbatch is awesome – watch Sherlock on the BBC if you need further proof – but also because he was an interesting new character. Cumberbatch has a real presence and his scenes were definitely the most enjoyable for me; I actually wish that more of the film was devoted to him so we could spend additional time with him. Plus who knew that Sherlock could kick some serious ass?

The action sequences were pretty thrilling and the special effects are dazzling, but I’ll admit that I found parts of Star Trek Into Darkness a little formulaic and predictable. They were still quite exciting to watch, but not much in this film felt all that surprising. There is a much higher body count and level of destruction in this film than in its predecessors. This is definitely Star Trek kicked up a notch and the result is a good match for the summer movie season. I didn’t think that this film was as substantive as the first, but it is a solid film with some humor and good character beats mixed it with a lot of explosions and action.

Some other thoughts:

  • I’ll be curious to hear what die-hard Star Trek fans think of this film. I think that there are enough “deep cuts” to make them happy, but under Abrams’ tutelage these films are aiming for more mass appeal and mainstream success. I’m curious if the fan base is happy with that and feels adequately served.
  • I still don’t get the Spock/Uhura romance and wish that they wouldn’t spend so much time on it.
  • While I encourage you to watch Star Trek, you could probably jump into Star Trek Into Darkness without any problems. You’d miss some of the details, but they rehash enough of some of the same material that you would get the gist.
  • When Zoe Saldana was on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, she alluded to Uhura being given more to do in this film. I think her definition of “more to do” is a little loose, since the women are mostly sidelined in this film and peripheral to the action and danger.
  • I didn’t see the movie in 3-D or IMAX, but it still looked pretty spectacular.
  • Do we have any definitive proof that Benedict Cumberbatch and Alan Rickman aren’t the same person (or at least not related)? Because I have my doubts.
  • I was super excited for the new Anchorman 2 teaser that appeared before the movie, partially because I’m pretty obsessed with this movie but also because I’ve been watching trailers for After Earth since before Christmas and I’m sick of them.
  • I realize this is only tangentially related, but Patrick Stewart rescued a baby bird in Park Slope.

Star Trek Into Darkness is a good popcorn film that dances the line of science fiction and action movie quite well, but lands more on the action side of the equation. After breathing some fresh life into these characters with their origin story in the first film, the second film is more focused on putting them in exciting and dangerous situations. There is slightly more emphasis on style than substance, but there are still enough quieter moments that ground the film and explore the relationships and worldviews of the characters. The rebooted Star Trek movies have successfully gambled in trying to appeal to both the devoted fans of the series and the casual viewer/newbie. I may have been slightly less enamored with this second installment, but I’m still interested in following this franchise as it goes forward which is a testament to the cast and direction. I’ll be curious to see if there is any noticeable difference when Abrams jumps ship to take over the Star Wars franchise. If he can make me care about light sabers and the force, that man can work miracles.

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