STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS is such an improvement over its 2009 predecessor, that the only comparison I can come up with was the vast improvement STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN demonstrated over STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE. It’s a wonderful and unexpected surprise that is thrilling to many filmgoers and infuriating to others. I can understand both points of view.
The thing is that this literally isn’t the STAR TREK you grew up with. Some of the characters and events may be similar. But as J.J. Abrams established in his 2009 STAR TREK film, these are the early voyages of the Enterprise as seen through the prism of a timeline altered by a genocidal madman. Ergo, many of the encounters Kirk, Spock and the rest may have experienced beforehand will play out differently or not at all, and their ability to survive these ordeals is now in question.
At the beginning of STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS, the crew is in the midst of utilizing a prototype piece of scientific equipment to keep a volcano from erupting. Unfortunately, in order to save Spock (Zachary Quinto) from the impending detonation, Kirk (Chris Pine) makes a decision to violate the Prime Directive – the most important rule of the Federation which states that there be no interference in the development of a primitive species (defined as any species that has not yet discovered warp technology – yes, I know all about this stuff). Spock reports this dereliction of duty, excusing his own violation of the Prime Directive (saving a pre-industrialized species from natural extinction) by noting how Vulcans embrace technicalities. Spock’s report gets him reassigned and Kirk’s captainship revoked. Kirk is given a second chance by his father-figure Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood). The relief is short-lived as a mysterious figure named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch – one of the most English sounding Englishmen acting today) declares a one-man war on Starfleet, sending the Federation scrambling.
Harrison takes refuge on the Klingon homeworld, a place forbidden to the Federation. In retaliation for this crime, Kirk and Spock are reinstated on the Enterprise and sent on a covert mission to bring Harrison to justice. However, the nature of the mission causes Kirk and the rest to re-examine their duties and their relationships with each other and their superiors.
Abrams’ STAR TREK is very different, and not all of this comes from the plot he developed. Yes, the events of the previous film gave Abrams a bit more free reign to violate TREK canon. This might not seem like a big deal to outsiders, but you might not realize how sacred and complex the TREK timeline is to devoted fans. Over six television series, ten feature films and more novels and short stories than can be counted, the timeline is so detailed and branches in so many different directions, that there are actually a handful of people who get paid to maintain the TREK chronology for the purposes of continuity.
But I submit that there is a lot of difference between Nu-TREK and the older series. After all, neither of the two major events in Abrams’ first film would effect other relationships such as the romantic involvement of Spock and Uhura (Zoe Saldana). And if Abrams has anything to say about it, my guess is he isn’t expecting those two to consummate their relationship once every seven years either.
Also, the rhythm is quite different. Roughly half the action on the original series took place on the bridge of the Enterprise. Quite a bit takes place there today as well. But everything seems busier. If the camera isn’t moving around, the people are running around themselves. Everyone seems to be in an urgent hurry and there is even one long shot from INTO DARKNESS that jokes about how much running goes on in these films.
So, it’s different. And I am perfectly fine with that.
My appreciation of STAR TREK stems from the original series and the first six films. While I don’t dislike say THE NEXT GENERATION, I just never took to it in the same way. There are characters I found dull or annoying and this trend continued for most of the TREK incarnations to follow. I am a fan of TREK novels and some of them, such as the ones written by William Shatner himself, are actually better than any of the films before or sense.
So, I like this original crew. But I also like comic books which tend to retcon things constantly. I also enjoy any attempt to find new ways to tell stories. It wasn’t blasphemy for me. Having said that, I was not a big fan of Abrams’ first STAR TREK film. There were clumsy plot points that relied on far too many coincidences, a terrible villain and worst of all, a lack of understanding when it comes to the characters (check out the Kobayashi Maru scene from Abrams film and contrast that with the actual explanation of those events from STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN and you won’t just see a difference in events, but a difference in understanding what the characters did and why). All in all, I didn’t see what the big deal was and chalked up the praise it received to people’s interest in shiny new things.
STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS is shiny and new as well, but it also happens to correct pretty much all of the problems suffered by the 2009 film. Abrams seems to have listened to some of the initial criticism he received and the writing team of Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (joined this time by Damon Lindelof) seem to have a much better grasp of the characters without contradicting what they had established in the predecessor. Also, the filmmakers don’t throw the mythology under the bus like the first film did. In fact, one’s appreciation of this film may only be complete if they have a familiarity with the original series and first six films.
Pine and Quinto, while no Shatner and Nimoy, have grown on me in this second installment and much of the drama hinges on how much they have grown on one another as well. Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg and John Cho continue to grow in their parts and the metamorphosis is as pleasing as watching the cast of the original series. Alice Eve and Peter Weller make intriguing additions to the cast as well. As far as villains go, Cumberbatch’s Harrison is far more interesting and threatening than Eric Bana’s poorly written, poorly realized Nero. It’s the characters that really make this film shine, the dynamic between them leading to several scenes that continue to resonate emotionally long after they are done. It’s a summer film that managed to get me a little verklempt.
The film is also incredibly fun without being completely brain dead. The momentum never stops from beginning to end, which leads to a dizzying ride all the way through. And just when you think it’s over, there are still more surprises in store.
While die-hard Trekkers may have some legitimate gripes, this film stands on its own two feet just fine. It’s a real treat for the fan who isn’t ignorant of the mythology but is also a bit more loose with it for personal reference. STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS is the best TREK film in over thirty years, even if it isn’t the TREK everyone is comfortable with. ★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
– Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence and gratuitous sexual imagery (which is of course the best kind).
– Running time: 2hrs 12min.
And if you need a second opinion, read Austin’s review HERE!