How do you define your world? What are its borders and boundaries? For some, their world can be their family – their spouse or their children. For others, their world can be their career – the lifetime quest for respect, power and authority. Whether defined narrowly or widely, we each inhabit a world made of the choices, decisions and actions of our lives. But what if that world were threatened? What would you do to preserve it? What would you give to ensure its existence, its safety and its continuance? If your child is lying in a hospital bed, dying from a disease that has no cure, what would you do if a man came with a miracle? What if that man offered you that miracle for a dark and terrible price? Would you pay it? Would you turn it down?
These are the questions at the heart of Star Trek Into Darkness, the sequel to 2009’s reboot of the classic science-fiction series. Like most good science-fiction, there are great visuals and great action, but it’s the ideas at the core that propel all of it. In that sense, it keeps with the traditions of the original Star Trek – to postulate questions to the audience while entertaining them. Director JJ Abrams and his cast and crew manage to continue the traditions laid by creator Gene Roddenberry while adding all the style and visual eye candy that modern technology allows. There are missteps in this movie. But while we’ll get to them, I don’t think they detract enough to say this isn’t a good movie.
The story focuses on the hunt for Lt. Commander John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), a former Starfleet officer involved in the development and production of new and terrifying weapons for Starfleet’s more militaristic senior command. After several acts of terrorism by Harrison, Starfleet’s leader, Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller), orders a recently-demoted Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) to hunt Harrison down and kill him. The idea of going on an assassination mission does not sit well with the rest of Kirk’s crew nor is the prescribed method – launching newly-developed tactical missiles at Harrison’s hideout place on the Klingon homeworld. The mission brings new science officer Carol Wallace (Alice Eve) on board, who seems to have a strong interest in the missiles. The mission and the missiles force Engineer Scotty (Simon Pegg) to resign his commission after pointing out that they’re supposed to be explorers and not soldiers. It puts Kirk at odds with Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Doctor McCoy (Karl Urban), who feel Harrison should be brought back for trial for his crimes. What course Kirk will take will force him to come to terms with what kind of leader he wants to be.
If there was a sense of system shock at seeing Pine, Quinto, Urban and the rest of the new cast slide into the roles of the classic Star Trek during the 2009 reboot, that has worn off by now. They all inhabit their roles well and you have no trouble believing that this is Kirk, Spock, Bones, Uhura, Scotty and the rest. Or rather, that they are the versions of those characters for this universe/timeline. Their interactions feel more natural and not like they’re playing at a different version of the originals. Of note, Pine manages to portray the complexities of Kirk – the hotshot daredevil and the charismatic leader – rather well. The romantic relationship between Uhura and Spock is more developed this time out and both Quinto and Zoe Saldana get to riff on it, while taking it to a place that becomes critical during the climax. Of the rest of the crew, the one who gets most screen time is Pegg’s Scotty, who resigns his commission but becomes integral in latter parts. That said, they all get some screen time and moments to shine – Sulu’s threat to Harrison, Bones’ analysis of a tribble, Uhura the warrior, etc.
Of the new additions to the cast, the one that stands out the most is clearly Cumberbatch. An actor with rock-star level following across the pond, he’s been slowly seeping into American consciousness with roles in BBC’s “Sherlock” and Steven Spielberg’s War Horse. His Harrison is both off-putting and mesmerizing. When he tells Kirk that he is better than him at everything, you do not doubt it. The intriguing thing is that he is both victim and villain in this story. He’s a man who has been forced to do things against his will to protect those who matter most to him. In that sense, he is no different than Kirk. It is that interplay between him and Kirk – defender of their crews – that brings up a lot of the questions regarding the morality of Starfleet’s actions as well as Kirk’s.
I can happily report that the same quality work from the first movie goes on behind the camera in this one. Michael Giacchino provides another great and beautiful score, full of bombast and excitement. The costumes by Michael Kaplan work well in depicting both a future that is different but related to ours as well as showing the growing militarization of Starfleet – gone are the red unis from Star Trek and steel grey is the new look. The make-up for the alien cast members, the set designs for the ships and cities and the special effects all manage to immerse you in this Earth of the future – you see night clubs and suburbs and factories. Yes, the lens flares are still ever present and the Enterprise’s deck does still have that clean, sterile, Apple-Store-look, but it’s not as big of a distraction as before. And the movie is not just fun, but funny. There are great little moments and jokes in this and the entire cast is game for them.
Abrams and writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci sought to create a new story while using plenty of the old Trek canon. Some would say they ended up using too much of the canon, but they find ways to avoid being a straight-up copycat. Part of that is a benefit of the “altered timeline” explanation that began this reboot. Things are no longer the way they went. Kirk is eagerly awaiting orders to take the Enterprise on her famous five-year mission to deep space. The Federation has not gone to war with the Klingon Empire. They are a threat but not one out in the open. And it is this perceived threat from the Klingons and others that is slowly pushing Starfleet’s senior leaders to consider turning their peaceful organization into a machine of war.
Which brings us back to the questions I asked at the start regarding how you define your world and what you would do to preserve it. The movie plays with these ideas through the characters of Kirk, Harrison and Marcus. Each one has something they want to protect – some more narrowly defined that others. But in their quest to protect their own worlds, each will be confronted with how far they are willing to go to do so. People like Marcus and Harrison will go to no end. Will Kirk follow suit?
Now I did say there were some flaws. Let me touch upon them here but only slightly. There’s no way to delve deeply into the negative aspects of the movie without spoiling it so I’ll try to avoid getting into details. There’s one major revelation about a third of the way in that while not unbelievable will color a great deal of how you see the movie. For most, it’s not going to be a problem. But it can take some out of the movie entirely. There’s also a major emotional moment in the third act that you know won’t have the payoff they’re trying for. Without delving into details, the resolution is announced way ahead in the movie and the emotional moment cannot resonate because too many will laugh at that moment. Also, as I stated before, expect plenty of callbacks, mentions and references to the classic Star Trek series and movies. The mainstream audience that they’re targeting is likely to miss them but for Trek fans, they may prove to be too much. At some point, they might even go “All right! Enough! Show me something new!!”
That is the flaw that keeps this movie from being great. There’s just too much that’s derivative of something else. You got scenes and callbacks to the 2008 reboot – honestly, how many times will they demote Kirk before they finally just leave him in the damn chair? You get scenes and callbacks to the classic Trek movies. And then you get scenes that are lifted out of other science-fiction series (That shuttle flight with the Klingons is a total rip-off of The Empire Strikes Back’s asteroid sequence). All that visual flair and all that opportunity and it’s like Abrams and crew just cannot trust themselves with this franchise. They have great action sequences and the germinations of good ideas in there. But they can’t help but run back to what’s tried and true.
Star Trek Into Darkness is a good movie. It’s a really fun movie. It’s also a movie you should see on the biggest screen possible. This is the rare movie I recommend you see it on IMAX 3D. The visuals are great and the sound is awesome. You will have a good time. And for the most part, the plot and the story serve the movie by getting out of the way. But it’s like listening to a cover band – say Hayseed Dixie or Dread Zeppelin – play one of your favorite classic songs – you’re thrilled to hear it and you enjoy the performance, but it cannot knock the original out of your mind. I hope that for the next movie in the series, Abrams and his staff plot out something original and scientific while keeping all the fun, cool, geeky stuff that this one had. They had some good ideas in there. Maybe they needed to germinate a bit longer.
Go see it. Have fun.