(This review originally appeared at ReelFilmNews.com on May 16, 2013.)
Director J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot of the Star Trek franchise into a new alternate universe was met with resounding success – it was a critical darling, a fan favorite, and a box office smash. Why? We got to know the origins of characters that had, to that point, been around for 43 years. It was fun spending time with the younger versions of Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), Commander/Science Officer Spock (Zachary Quinto), Chief Medical Officer Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban), Chief Engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott (Simon Pegg), Communications Officer Nyota Uhura (Zoë Saldana), Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu (John Cho), and Ensign Pavel Chekov (Anton Yelchin). We saw the depth of their personae and became involved with them as they found their way through their relative adolescence in Starfleet. Four years later, they’re ready for action, and Star Trek Into Darkness doesn’t hesitate to drop you right into the middle of it.
But that is a lot of where my concern with this new release lies, as Star Trek Into Darkness is almost nothing but action, which isn’t such a bad thing, but I feel like we don’t spend time with the characters. Instead, we are forced to run along with them from crisis to crisis, the stakes rising every five minutes as a new problem presents itself. Abrams rushes us along at a breathless pace, and we’re left hanging on for our very lives as Kirk and company take on a new threat in the form of John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), a former Starfleet officer with a deadly axe to grind. In the first five minutes after the opening title appears, 42 men, women, and children perish as a result of a bomb blast that Harrison orchestrates, thus setting off a Starfleet-mandated manhunt ordered by Admiral Alexander Marcus (Peter Weller). As Kirk has personal reasons to go after Harrison, he volunteers for the job and takes the crew of the USS Enterprise with him.
Star Trek Into Darkness starts off with a mighty bang and works hard at sustaining its own momentum, which it does, but at a cost. The script, while funny and entertaining, doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for meaningful interaction, and what little interaction there is feels a bit shoehorned and forced. Nothing feels organic and natural, as the events of its predecessor so easily managed to feel, and the movie suffers for it. Abrams also seems to dangle Chekhov’s Gun (not a reference to the Pavel Chekov character at all) a bit too often and makes these hints obvious; by doing this, he makes the movie very predictable, and you spend a lot of the movie saying to yourself, “When’s that plot device gonna be relevant? Hmmmm….” He also borrows from previous canon to the point where homage or little nods of the head turn into straight-up theft, and the sudden lack of originality brought my personal enjoyment of this movie down a few notches. It almost seems like everything that happens is almost a paint-by-numbers game, with events or catchphrases dropped into the movie just so they can put them in there.
What gives Star Trek Into Darkness its lift despite its rote trappings is the capable talent in front of the camera reteaming to bring us good, old-fashioned Starfleet camaraderie. It’s evident that the actors have a natural ease working together, and it’s always enjoyable to see them do their thing. Pegg as the manic Scotty still manages to outshine the other characters, being at once the voice of reason and the voice of the unappreciated genius. That’s not to say that the rest of the cast doesn’t do well – on the contrary, they’re still rock-solid in their own personal takes on these storied characters. But the noteworthy addition to Abrams’ Star Trek canon is John Harrison, played coldly and brutally by Benedict Cumberbatch, star of the BBC’s recent “Sherlock” series. Both his characterizations of Harrison and Sherlock rely on being calculating and manipulative, but with his portrayal of Harrison, Cumberbatch turns on the evil and lets it run nonstop until film’s end. He is every bit the diabolical, maleficent bastard you think he is… and then some.
Ultimately, Abrams does achieve what he set out to do – make a visually arresting product. As this film was partially shot in IMAX, I’d recommend going to see it in that format wherever possible. Much like The Dark Knight, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, and The Dark Knight Rises, the bigger action and set pieces were shot with IMAX cameras, enhancing the scope and detail of the picture. One of my favorite things about the IMAX frame is that Abrams is finally able to fit the entirety of the Enterprise in one large shot, something he couldn’t quite do with the framing of this film’s predecessor. It’s a quite a sight, to see a battered Enterprise rising into frame with wispy clouds cascading off of her bow; it’s moments like this where Abrams reconnects with his audience and reminds them that no matter how broken and bent we may become, we can always choose to rise above and hold ourselves high.