Star Trek Into Darkness is a marriage of brain and brawn–a visceral space ride that effortlessly leaps from one masterfully-executed action sequence to the next, all while keeping you firmly invested in the characters you’re taking the ride with. It left me breathless, exhilarated, and even a bit moved. Although a problematic script prevents it from matching the dizzying heights set by its dazzling 2009 predecessor, the film nevertheless zips by on the strength of its gifted cast, including a phenomenal Benedict Cumberbatch, and J.J. Abrams’ gift for astutely juggling spectacle and smart storytelling. It’s not perfect but it delivers on its promise of pure escapist fun!
Abrams’ sets the break-neck pace from the outset with a Raiders of the Lost Ark-like sequence set on a red-skinned primitive planet. Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto) and the rest of the U.S.S. Enterprise crew are on a mission to prevent a mega-volcano from destroying all life on the planet. When Spock’s life is thrown into jeopardy, Kirk is forced to make a decision: Either let his friend die or risk being detected by the tribesmen-like natives thus altering the flow of the primitive population’s history. This decision is just one of the questions Abrams, along with screenwriters Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci dabble with throughout the picture.
The big questions of Into Darkness however, are reserved for the ethical issues raised when terrorism rears its ugly head, personified in the film by John Harrison (Cumberbatch), a former Starfleet member gone rogue. After Harrison orchestrates a series of deadly attacks on Starfleet bases in London and San Francisco, Kirk and crew are ordered by the Admiral (Robocop himself, Peter Weller) to find the terrorist and kill him, no questions asked. Finding Harrison proves surprisingly easy but when he starts dishing his side of the story, that’s when all the moral and ethical questions beepers start going into hyper drive. It’s also when things truly take a turn for the strange. Saying anything more would be revealing the film’s plot twists and turns, of which there are many.
Consequently, these plot twists and turns (which I promise I’m not revealing) are also reason why Into Darkness doesn’t gel as well as its leaner, more entertaining predecessor. After a sensational, near-perfect first hour in which all the cogs are placed in motion, the drama takes a major detour in the second act. Although this detour introduces additional tension into the proceedings, in hindsight it serves only to muddle the plot, and more importantly, the character arc of one of the major characters. These problems are later magnified when it becomes evident that a major confrontation the script builds towards never materializes, thus resulting in a resolution that is generic and, quite frankly, disappointing, especially for this caliber of filmmakers.
These issues – false build ups, and lapses in logic – are trademarks of Lindelof, a writer who has made millions on penning scripts that crumble on closer look (Prometheus, Lost, Cowboys & Aliens). Also problematic are the blatant (and rather cheap) homages to a couple of the older films in the cannon. One rather obvious nod in particular had me cringing. It’s a good thing then that Lindelof (along with Orzi and Kurkman) makes up for these issues by spicing things up with plenty of humor, comic banter between the characters and healthy character moments. Like the 2009 film, the relationship between Kirk and Spock remains the heart of the picture. Their debates – heart versus the brain, logic versus trust, kept me glued even when the plot got all messy.
It takes real talent to sell these parts and Pine and Quinto are both strong actors who have grown into their roles since they stepped into the big shoes in 2009. But Cumberbatch is the performer who makes the biggest mark. No offense to Eric Bana’s Nero, but Harrison is a vastly superior and menacing villain. Like the greatest actors, he gives Harrison greater heft than the script does. Everything from his controlled baritone delivery and choreographed annunciation to his raw athleticism works towards enriching his character. As true ensembles always do, even the supporting characters get their share of moments: Uhra (Zoe Saldana) struggles to maintain her relationship with Spock, Bones (Karl Urban), ever the pessimist, is critical at a key moment late in the film, Scotty (Simon Pegg) mostly played for comic relief, has a major role this time around playing detective. Even Sulu (John Cho) and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) get their time to shine. Only new addition Alice Eve (as Carol Marcus) is wasted in a role that amounts to little more than a gratuitous underwear shot.
The real star however, once again, is Abrams. Whether its big action set-pieces like the vivid opening sequence and the show-stopping, heart-pounding space jump sequence or small character moments like Uhra and Spock’s complicated relationship and Scotty’s comic grumbling, Abrams handles them all with the finesse of a master. Into Darkness is only his fourth film (after Mission: Impossible 3, Star Trek and Super 8 but it bears the fingerprints of an auteur at the prime of his career. If Star Trek Into Darkness is a precursor of what to expect from him when George Lucas hands him the keys to the Star Wars universe, my wait just got a little tougher. Now if only he would get rid of the bloody lens flares!