J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot of Star Trek was wildly successful. It raked in hundreds of millions at the box office, and revitalized the Star Trek franchise, which had languished for 7 years without a new film and 4 years without a TV presence (after 18 consecutive years of new shows). It also did something no Trek movie had done before; it made Star Trek ‘cool’ in the public consciousness. Combined, those factors ensured Abrams would get another turn at the helm of a Trek movie, and sooner rather than later. With today's release of Star Trek: Into Darkness, that trend is very likely to continue. It's a movie with all the same strengths and weaknesses of its predecessor, and if it worked before, it'll work again. Read on for our review.
Spoiler level: minor. This review contains character and actor names and a couple references to scenes without going into their content.
Let’s get this out of the way up front: Star Trek: Into Darkness is a very entertaining film, and you will probably enjoy it.
Into Darkness hits the ground running, quickly reintroducing the rebooted crew and the Enterprise in all its glory. The opening act reminds us of everything we like about the 2009 Star Trek; snappy dialog, direct references to important parts of the original TV show, and cinematography that shows off the power, grace, and majesty of a Federation starship. It also highlights many of the differences between classic Trek and Abrams Trek.
In Abrams Trek, everything is fast. Kirk runs fast, Spock talks fast, crewmembers are always scrambling about the bridge and engineering at top speed, and as soon as a decision is made, action is taken. Tension and conflict arises with immediacy, and is resolved at the same pace. In Abrams Trek, no screentime is wasted. If a section of dialog is a bit technobabbley or it’s just providing background, something shiny will appear to keep your eyes and your attention engaged. In Abrams Trek, the lens flare deserves its own billing. Oh my, the lens flare.
But the big question about the Abrams films, both in 2009 and 2013, is: are they Star Trek? It’s a complicated issue, but one that's worth answering to fans of the various Trek TV series. Let's start by answering a somewhat simpler question: are they sci-fi? Not really. They fit the Hollywood definition of sci-fi — after all, they're flying spaceships and talking to aliens — but of course sci-fi is more than that. It's about ideas; it's about taking some part of life and changing it, then seeing what happens as a result. That's why Leguin, Dick, and Vonnegut are celebrated as sci-fi writers alongside Bradbury, Asimov, and Niven.
Into Darkness and the 2009 Star Trek before it aren't about ideas. They're unrepentantly character-driven. They're space operas. Perhaps more importantly, they're action films. I say this not to be exclusionary, but so we can evaluate in the proper context: as a Trek-themed action movie, Into Darkness is fantastic.
But Trek isn't about action (space opera, sometimes — action, no). It has certainly incorporated action; Kirk didn't get the reputation for always having a torn shirt for nothing. But in the TV shows, the action was punctuation; it was the set-up to the plot, or a way to resolve it once a moral issue had been defeated. In Day of the Dove, we were constantly shown fight scenes, but their purpose was to show the exaggerated hatreds of the characters, and to set up the we-must-work-together ending. And let's be clear: Abrams Trek isn't the first time the movie franchise departed toward action, either. Star Trek 2, widely regarded as the best of the films, was certainly a space opera, and you could make the case that it's an action film. The last three Next Generation films tried to be action films and failed. Abrams Trek tries and succeeds.
So, is it Trek? Well, it doesn't pass the sci-fi test, but let's look at the characters. Christopher Pine's Kirk is an exaggeration of Shatner's Kirk. All the characteristics of Shatner's Kirk are present in Pine's Kirk, but magnified tremendously. On the TV show, Kirk had a reputation as a womanizer. In Abrams Trek, Kirk is shown waking up in bed with space-babes and hitting on almost every female he comes in contact with. A lot of times it's for comedic effect, and succeeds at being funny, but it also feels like a caricature. Zachary Quinto's Spock felt much more natural to me this time around, in some ways. He pulls off Vulcan stoicism well. The only downside is that his emotional control feels like a simple prop; he maintains his facade until the writers need to show how important some event is, then it breaks.
The other familiar crew members each get a brief moment in the spotlight, but the limitations of a two-hour movie prevent any significant depth. Bones exists to crack jokes and repeat his catchphrases. Chekov exists to run around looking overwhelmed. Scotty exists to solve whatever problem is keeping the plot from moving forward. Simon Pegg's Scotty is still jarring, to me. His role as comic relief doesn’t mesh well with my perception of Scotty. (People unfamiliar with the original series probably wouldn't notice, or care; he is funny.) Doohan's Scotty was funny sometimes, but not in such an intentional way. It seems odd to have that character cracking wise. Sulu's screentime is brief, but it's good.
The one character I truly lament is Uhura, though not because of any complaint with Saldana. She serves to highlight one huge difference between Abrams Trek and classic Trek: Abrams Trek is a guy-movie. The majority of Uhura's role in Into Darkness is to be Spock's love-interest. She has one brief moment of being her own person, showing her own strengths — and (very minor spoiler) she fails and has to be rescued by men. Aside from Uhura, there's only one other significant woman character in the film, and her main purpose is to be both eye-candy and a bargaining chip for the men. In fact, thinking back, I'm pretty sure Into Darkness fails the Bechdel test. It bothers me that this happens in a Star Trek film. One of Trek's driving principles is a future of equality; a future free of the sexism and racism and classism we deal with today. It's not always an easy thing to write into a story, especially one limited to two hours — but we should at least try.
But let's step back to the more mundane aspects of the film, for a moment. The visuals are absolutely stunning. The alien planets, outer space, and a futuristic Earth are all fascinating to see. More importantly, Abrams shows us the Enterprise as we've always wanted to see her. Whether it's tearing off into high warp, diving through the atmosphere of a planet, or having the hull torn open by phaser fire, the ship looks amazing. The inside looks amazing, too — engineering looks much more like the belly of an enormously complex spacecraft than ever before. The special effects budget was well spent. ...Mostly. Abrams is known for his use of lens flare, but rather than toning it back, it seems like he's doubling down on that reputation. There are also a few action sequences where camera shaking and flashes of light get a bit excessive. I get that moving the camera really fast around a completely CGI environment helps to mask the imperfections, but there are times where you'll know a whole lot is going on without being exactly sure what. I'd happily take a slightly-less-crazy chase scene if I can get a clear look at it.
The scoring is solid. Into Darkness takes its main theme from the 2009 movie, with a few improvements. It doesn't get in the way. The acting is generally fine, as well. The regulars are more comfortable in the roles; this time around, they're playing themselves as much as they’re playing the original crew. Benedict Cumberbatch brings his talent to a leading role, and he does well with what he was given, but he could have been utilized better. His character exists in two modes — complete stillness and furious action. There’s very little in between, and I think that middle-ground is where Cumberbatch thrives, as on BBC's Sherlock. Still, his character made a far more compelling opponent for Kirk than 2009's Nero.
There were a few points where the acting did strike a discordant note for me. To explain why, I'm going to step back for a moment and discuss one of the major themes of the Star Trek reboot. J.J. Abrams and the others running the show constantly use aspects of the original show — props, plots, attitudes, and characters — to inform the reboot. However, they’re very, very consistent about re-interpreting all of those aspects. Everything is close enough to be familiar, but different enough seem new. In most cases, it works; new phasers just look better than old phasers. New Spock is different from Old Spock, but not in a bad way. In Into Darkness, we meet a familiar alien race, and the re-interpretation makes them feel a bit alien again. But it doesn't always work, and this leads me back to the acting. Without spoiling the content, there are a few scenes that are much more direct adaptations of old Star Trek scenes than we saw in the 2009 movie. It is a really interesting and cool concept, but the execution felt very odd, for me. I'll try to describe it: knowing how the scene was "supposed" to go, it felt as though the actors were trying to recreate it, but failing. Obviously, this is not the case; it was clearly planned, scripted, and shot with painstaking care, until they got exactly what they wanted. Still, the similarity hit an uncanny valley between original and re-interpretation. Fortunately for most viewers, anyone who isn’t much of a Trek fan isn't likely to notice or care.
As a long-time Trek fan, Star Trek: Into Darkness occupies a conflicted spot in my mind. At the most basic level, I went to a movie and really enjoyed it. I don't regret the $10 I spent on it, and I suspect most people would feel the same. At the same time, I'm a bit troubled by the direction the franchise is taking. There are a whole generation of kids who are now growing up with a very different perception of Star Trek than I did. To them, it's going to be just another Transformers-style action flick with no lasting importance. There's none of the idealism, optimism, or broadmindedness that was inherent to classic Trek. It's not hard to see why that is; stories like that are much harder to tell on the silver screen, and even when done well, they don't make as much money. They're much better suited to episodic TV. Unfortunately, if we see a new Trek TV series (more likely: when we see a new Trek TV series), you can bet it will be done in the style of the Abrams reboot, and I worry that the true sci-fi stories and the thought-provoking allegories will be subsumed by over-the-top action and relentless special effects. At the same time, I think some Trek is better than no Trek, and the two Abrams films make a better legacy for the franchise than Insurrection and Nemesis. I almost envy non-Trek-fans for not having to resolve the conflict of What Trek Is versus What Trek Isn't.
Bottom line: go see it.