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Review: Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

Directed by: J.J. Abrams

Premise: A sequel to 2009’s Star Trek. The crew of the Enterprise is sent on a mission to apprehend a mysterious terrorist (Benedict Cumberbatch).

What Works: The 2009 reboot of Star Trek was an aggressive attempt to breathe new life into a flagging franchise and its filmmakers succeeded in reimagining Star Trek for contemporary viewers, retaining the signature elements of the series while presenting them in a way that was palatable to a mass audience. In the sequel, the filmmakers benefit from their efforts on the first film and build upon their successes. Into Darkness is not burdened by having to reintroduce the main cast and it is able to dive right into its story. Picking up where the 2009 picture left off, Kirk (Chris Pine) is the captain of the Enterprise but he a terrible leader, behaving recklessly and disregarding procedures and authority while demanding that the crew obey his every order. This sets up conflicts with Spock (Zachary Quinto) and with Starfleet command but it also gives Kirk some room to grow as a character as he must overcome his hubris. Kirk’s character arc in this film is just enough to give the narrative a discernible shape and grant the picture some emotional resonance. The villain of Star Trek: Into Darkness is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who commands every scene he is in. The Star Trek series hasn’t generally dealt with moral ambiguity but Into Darkness allows for some complexity, especially with Cumberbatch’s character, and that elevates this material. Star Trek: Into Darkness is primarily a popcorn adventure movie and as that it succeeds. The picture includes some specular visuals and like its predecessor it moves along at a breathless pace. The scenes of hand-to-hand combat are as exciting as similar scenes in other movies, the chases are visually dynamic, and the movie includes a lot of humor. 

What Doesn’t: Just as Star Trek: Into Darkness reflects many of the successes of its predecessor, it also echoes its flaws. Like the 2009 picture, Into Darkness is primarily Kirk and Spock’s story but in the sequel this comes at the cost of the other characters. The crew of the Enterprise is marginalized and left to mill in the background while Kirk and Spock carry the movie. Also like the previous film, Into Darkness shies away from the deeper moral and ethical layers that have historically characterized Star Trek. Earlier movies and television shows in this series made an effort to deal with contemporary social and human issues in the context of a sci-fi adventure. In this movie the filmmakers provide the fun but there isn’t much more to it than that. Into Darkness contains imagery and phraseology that invokes the contemporary War on Terror, including a crash sequence that is more than a little reminiscent of the imagery of the 9/11 attack, but the story does not dramatize these issues in a meaningful way. The film also has narrative problems. The plot of Star Trek 2009 was spotty and the same is true of the sequel, although the picture moves so fast and is so fun that most of the coincidences and logical issues are easily ignorable. A more serious narrative problem of this film is its constant references to previous Star Trek movies, especially 1982’s The Wrath of Khan. References to other movies are expected in a story world that is as rich and complex as Star Trek, but the filmmaker of Into Darkness are clumsy and self-conscious about it. Into Darkness repurposes ideas, images, and characters with little regard for what they originally meant and at its worst the film verges on parody.

Bottom Line: Star Trek: Into Darkness is a very enjoyable space adventure. The filmmakers of this new incarnation of Star Trek are not concerned with broader social issues or even plot but they have succeeded in creating a really fun—if flawed—action picture.

Episode: #439 (May 19, 2013)