Principal Cast : Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, Alice Eve, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Peter Weller, Noel Clarke, Nazneen Contractor, Deep Roy, Jason Matthew Smith, Heather Langenkamp, Jay Scully, Jonathan Dixon, Aisha Hinds.
Synopsis: A rogue Starfleet agent must be brought to justice by Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise.
To Boldly Retread A Legendary Story.
When the planet Vulcan was destroyed in 2009’s Star Trek, JJ Abrams set the bar for what he was prepared to do to make his revised Trekiverse different from the previous thirty years of the franchise. He wasn’t afraid to shake things up, it seemed. It’s a pity, then, that the shaking up of the Trek universe seems to have stopped with that instalment, because Into Darkness doesn’t seem to want to shake things up at all. Oh sure, it looks flashy, and superficially does some narrative barn-dancing, but Into Darkness has a number of crucial errors that stop it being as brazen, as daring, as outright arrogant as the ’09 film was. They’re heavily spoilery, so with that in mind, I’ll be dishing out this review’s official spoiler warning when you need to stop reading – especially if you haven’t seen the film, and actually want to.
For those seeking a non-spoiler review, let me say this as plainly as possible. Into Darkness is as commercially swish, sharply filmed, glitteringly entertaining and, at times, jaw dropping, as its immediate predecessor. JJ Abrams taps into the zeitgeist once again with his alternative timeline Trek delivering all the explosive excitement, heart-pounding action sequences and superficially exciting narrative moments you could ask for. While I’d say it’s not really as good a film as Star Trek was back in ’09, Into Darkness takes us on yet another journey into the heart of space where danger lurks around every corner, and shadows aren’t always as accommodating as they appear to be. The film’s cracking pace, the hip-savvy dialogue and refusal to buckle to Trek conventions make Into Darkness one of the most approachable Trek films to date, and as far as sequels go it’s definitely as entertaining as the previous film – a film which retooled the ailing franchise for the millennial generation. This doesn’t mean it’s a perfect film – more on this down below – but as far as sheer popcorn-schnuffling enjoyment goes, they don’t come much bigger, badder and thrilling than Star Trek Into Darkness. And it’s definitely a film worth seeing on the Big Screen.
Henceforth, this review will be discussing key elements of Star Trek Into Darkness that involves plot and character spoilers. Reading further may spoil many of the surprises that await you when you watch this movie.
After breaking the Prime Directive, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) rescues Spock (Zachary Quinto) from an exploding volcano by revealing the existence of the Enterprise to a tribe of planetary natives. When he’s stood down as Captain of the Enterprise, Kirk is despondent – his career is salvaged by Rear Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood) who request he be instated as First Officer under his command. When a rogue Starfleet officer named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) blows up a secretive bunker beneath London, a manhunt is ordered by Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller), before Harrison attacks the undercover meeting and kills a number of officers – Pike included. Now back as Captain of the Enterprise, Kirk and Spock are given the location of Harrison as a desolate region on the Klingon homeworld of Kronos, and supplied with a cargo of top-secret photon torpedo warheads designed for long range obliteration. As Harrison reveals his true self to Kirk and the Enterprise crew – he is really a genetically enhanced super-human named Khan – it becomes clear that Admiral Marcus might not have been truthful with the real reason he wants Khan found. The Admiral’s daughter, Doctor Carol Marcus (Alice Eve), has stolen aboard the Enterprise to uncover the truth, and teams with Kirk to stop Khan wreaking havoc on Earth by unleashing more of his kind. Meanwhile, Scotty (Simon Pegg) locates a hidden Starfleet construction yard at a secret location revealed by Khan, to discover the existence of an enormous battle-class starship named the Vengeance. Admiral Marcus pursues Kirk and the Enterprise, intent on killing everyone who has come into contact with Khan in order to further his own agenda for war with the Klingons.
It’s a reasonable expectation that a modern tent-pole franchise film should in some way surprise us, shock us, or at the very least keep us entertained. Star Trek Into Darkness, directed by JJ Abrams and following on from 2009’s highly successful Star Trek, does (or attempts to do) all those things at the same time, and in many ways succeeds. However, it’s a flawed film in many respects as well, namely due to the production deciding to eschew the “new universe” of the previous film and reprise a major character from one of the earliest Star Trek feature films – namely, Khan from The Wrath of Khan. While attempting to deliver an exciting, adrenaline-charged sci-fi romp, Abrams seems to have missed the whole point of Star Trek’s most pop-culture savvy reference, which is “to boldly go where no-one has gone before”. Instead of going somewhere new in this film, he’s retreading old ground (albeit with a shiny new coat of paint, but still, retreading nonetheless) and I think this is one of the major problems I had with Into Darkness that prevented me from enjoying the film on its own merits. At least with Star Trek ’09, we were blazing a new trail; here, though, the parallels between Wrath of Khan – arguably Trek’s most revered opus – and Abrams’ take on things become more pronounced and less subtle, a sledgehammer tactlessness that cripples what might have otherwise been a genuinely thrilling new adventure against a terrific new adversary. Taking the Khan route is – in a nutshell – a bit of a cop-out, and something the new Trek shouldn’t ever have tried to touch. People who don’t know about Wrath of Khan probably won’t find this film flaw as relevant as those who do, so I guess in this respect I’m validating my argument with the benefit of hindsight, but given the opportunity to blaze a new trail for themselves, it’s frustrating that Abrams and Co have tried to be too clever by going back over old ground.
Into Darkness’s problematic plot development sees Kirk demoted and promoted within the space of about ten minutes, with about as much dramatic weight as sighing. What could have been a terrific emotional journey for Kirk to take, as he’s forced to consider that he’s not above the law, had the potential to really go somewhere different with Trek; alas, Kirk’s commanding officer, Pike (a terrific Bruce Greenwood, reprising from the earlier Trek) is killed by Harrison’s attack on Starfleet’s headquarters, and thus within the space of three scenes Kirk finds himself rescinded to the Academy for further training (after an early mission goes a little bit wrong) before being recalled as the Captain of the Enterprise. This redundant screwing with Kirk’s rank has no emotional payoff because it’s never given time to develop, nor is it even touched on again for the rest of the film.
Abrams also has a bit of a scattergun approach to the shock factor he gives Into Darkness, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that he’s unafraid to take risks with the characters we know, love, and hate. On a superficial level, Abrams delivers a few minor shocks – killing Admiral Pike, perhaps the most obvious moment to those who’ve seen the film. Abrams also gives us the destruction of downtown San Francisco, thanks to a crashing starship, the Vengeance, driven by Khan in an attempt to obliterate as many people as possible. There’s a sense of vacant wantonness about all the carnage of Into Darkness, as if Abrams is desperate to carve his name into the franchise by single-handedly obliterating more people in a single film entry than the entirety of the previous dozen films!
Another of the major concerns I had with Into Darkness was the singular plagiarism which utterly ruined the climax of the film. Reprising the now famous moment in Wrath of Khan when Kirk must watch Spock die from radiation poisoning after repairing the Enterprise’s warp drive – in this film, it’s Kirk who must repair the drive, and Spock must watch him die from radiation poisoning. Now, I’m all for symmetry and giving references to previous stories in a franchise film, but this moment is outright stealing. I mean, they steal the story from Wrath of Khan, reverse the characters within that moment, and don’t even bother to try and make it different. It’s a powerful scene, yes, in both films, but Into Darkness isn’t the film for it. Naturally, the death of Kirk brings out the oft-uttered “Khaaaaaaaan” scream of Trek fandom, this time voiced by Spock as he goes on a vengeful bender, yet another “homage” (ripoff) of the original material from Wrath of Khan. The fact that Abrams would even consider re-purposing this entire scene for his own use just undercut the frustration I felt throughout its entirety.
Still another issue I had with Into Darkness, but only a smaller one compared to those previously listed, was the treatment of Chekov and Sulu – Anton Yelchin and John Cho, respectively – who are given very little to do this time round. Sulu’s role is enhanced by doing “stuff”, although it means little as a dramatic arc for his character, while poor Yelchin is reduced to comedy relief of the painful kind, filling in for an off-ship Scotty. The primary characters, Kirk, Bones, Spock, Uhura and even Khan, are handled really well by the script, which spends a great deal of time “paying homage to” the original Trek (or ripping off, to be more accurate) and does its best to create a sense of urgency and frantic space hijinks whenever it can – come to think of it, one gets the sense that living in a near-utopian future is not quite as simple as it could be, with a crisis of some kind occurring nearly every other minute. Generally, though, the script rattles along with a pulpish, adrenaline-flooded ferocity that belies its often confusing foundation.
I say confusing because Khan’s motives aren’t really as clear (or as clever) as we’re expected to believe. According to this film’s mythology, he’s a genetically enhanced human being, a member of a group of equally powerful beings (all of whom spend the film locked in the Enterprise’s black-ops Photon Torpedo complement) seeking some kind of White Supremacist vendetta on the Universe. Somehow, though, this tragic underpinning of Khan’s character is lost by all the flotsam of Into Darkness’s gargantuan set-pieces and stop-at-nothing storytelling. The real villain of the piece, Admiral Marcus, is the film’s most surprising package. Rogue Starfleet personnel ain’t something of a novelty in Trek (hell, it was done in Insurrection) but to see the wonderful Peter Weller – yeah, the dude who played RoboCop, for Pete’s sake! – snarling his way around the Vengeance’s bridge barking orders at Kirk and generally being a prick, is pure storytelling genius. Not to mention, casting genius.
Leading the cast into battle once again are Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto, as Kirk and Spock respectively. Pine’s got that same cocky charm and swagger Kirk needs to be the resident bad boy of Starfleet, and it feels like a comfortable pair of shoes on your feet just watching him do his thing. Quinto’s Spock almost emerges unscathed from unflattering comparisons to Leonard Nimoy’s portrayal of the iconic role; it’s a groaner moment for fans when Old Spock shows up to give Young Spock some advice regarding Khan, in that it’s completely unnecessary story device. Quiet mutterings from audience members around me indicated I wasn’t alone in thinking this. Whereas in Star Trek, the arrival and inclusion of Old Spock in the film made sense from a narrative point of view, in Into Darkness, it’s just a bunch of fanwank. It adds nothing to the film, other than a moment for hardcore fans to gawp at. Anyways, back to Quinto. The relationship between Quinto and Pine is flawlessly portrayed by both actors. The begrudging respect, if not entirely friendship, is evident in every scene. It’s like both actors are channelling the rapport Nimoy and William Shatner shared in their partnership way back when, and while it does at time border on spooky, it’s simply terrific. Easily the most enduring, and endearing, aspect of the movie, for me.
Zoe Saldana, as Uhura, is given a little to do in this film, and her role (and relationship with Spock) isn’t as well rounded this time out. She gets a few ass-kicking moments, fronts up to some Klingons, and fires a few sharp retorts about her relationship with Spock, but as a character she’s limited in what she’s given to develop beyond that which we saw in the ’09 film. Karl Urban just nails the part of Bones McCoy again, allowing just a touch of knowing winkage to the audience to creep in here and there – while it’s not a role that develops much beyond his starting point, it’s always great watching Bones fire off another “Dammit Jim, I’m a doctor, not a….”. Bruce Greenwood’s essaying of Rear Admiral Pike is again very Father Figure, and it’s sad when he’s gunned down by Khan at a pivotal moment in the movie. I enjoyed Greenwood’s part, but it was definitely time for him to move on. Much fan consternation has been aimed at Simon Pegg’s portrayal of Scotty; he’s a lot more panicky and frantic than James Doohan ever was, and it’s a fair bet you’ll spot the accent Pegg sports wavering between Proper Scottish and Simpsons Scottish. I didn’t mind what Pegg does here, I just wish he’d turn it down from 11 to about an 8. Key to Kirk’s dramatic arc is the inclusion of previous-timeline character Carol Marcus, played by super sexy Alice Eve (She’s Out Of My League, ATM). It’s just a pity Abrams resorts to a gratuitous tits-n-ass shot of her in the film – it’s a moment which adds nothing to the overall plot but might have been included to “develop” her character a little. I doubt it, though. Eve’s performance is generally delightful, actually, and a far cry from what I was expecting. Consider me excited to see her in future instalments. Non-fans will need to know that in the previous Trek timeline, Carol Marcus was the one-time lover of Kirk, and mother to his son – a son who would be murdered by Klingons, bringing darkness into Kirk’s life. Doctor Who fans will also appreciate former TARDIS companion Noel Clarke (he played Mickey in Who for several years) in the opening London sequences.
As with the previous Trek, the visuals are uniquely JJ Abrams. A lot of consternation at Abrams’ use of lens flare in Star Trek is deserved when appraising Into Darkness, but the problematic and distracting overuse of it in the previous film is greatly restrained here. It’s used, sure, and you can definitely tell the two films’ are siblings, but like the title might suggest, light plays a less busy role here than it did previously. Breathe out now, haters. Visual effects are generally pretty cool looking, in particular all the stuff that happens out in space; it’s only when things get to Earth, and we have to wade through skyline after skyline of science-fictiony megastructures, that things become a little fuzzy. The destruction of San Francisco is well executed save for a couple of visual effects which look a little less-than desired, but on the whole, I thought the film was aesthetically quite cohesive. Set design and the widescreen scope of the film’s production are immaculate and impossible to fault, so in this regard Paramount has done fans a solid by not skimping on wobbly sets and plain-as-butter costuming. Michael Giachinno’s score is large in scope and scale, and appropriately zesty when required by the on-screen action.
I know, I’ve torn this film to shreds over what might appear to be the most minor of points, but the fact remains that as I watched this thing unspool, I grew more and more frustrated by what I perceived as shortcomings in the project. The use of the Khan character to draw in fanboys, whether his character worked or not, smacked of a lack of creativity to do something entirely new, and it annoyed me. As much as I enjoyed the film for the simple pleasure it is, substantial moments within it kept making me think of other, better Trek films, and that’s the point where Abrams lost me. Folks watching this who aren’t familiar with Trek lore might gleam much more frustration-free enjoyment out of it (the friend who saw this with me was blissfully unaware that Khan was a character from an earlier film) but anyone else might find themselves pondering why Abrams and Co decided to simply lift, nearly beat for beat, elements from Wrath Of Khan, an undeniably powerful Trek film in its own right. This bogglingly annoying decision is the single reason why I didn’t find this film as enjoyable as I should have, I suspect. It certainly played on my mind as I watched it, and even in the car on the way home I kept thinking how much better it wasn’t than Wrath of Khan, considering how much of Wrath they stole.
Star Trek Into Darkness might not hold up under scrutiny as a genuinely cool entry into Trek canon in the years and decades to come. Fans will see through the blatant ripoff of Wrath, while the fractured narratives and refusal by Abrams to actually commit to changing this universe from the previous again will annoy even casual observers once they re-watch this down the track. Superficially, Into Darkness is exciting, plays well as a pure, popcorn-munching extravaganza, but digging just below the surface uncovers a plethora of issues that, as a film critic, I just can’t overlook. Disagree with me on most, but the use of Khan as a primary story crux just shouldn’t have been the road they took. Whomever they get to direct the next one, should try for something new. Really new. Star Trek Into Darkness frustrated more than it entertained, but don’t let that stop you enjoying it for what it is.