I admit that I wasn’t the biggest fan of JJ Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek film. While there was nothing overtly wrong with it (besides some rather prominent lens flares), there was nothing overtly right with it, either. It had a confusing plot involving time travel, an uninspiring climax and action scenes that were (with the exception of a thousand foot plummet onto a tiny platform) rather by the books.
So I went into Star Trek: Into Darkness without any great expectations. And I was very pleasantly surprised.
The film starts with an action sequence involving a volcano and a chase through an alien forest that is already as exciting as anything the last film had to offer. Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise are on a mission to save an alien planet by disabling a volcano–but without revealing their presence to the natives, thereby violating something called the “prime directive,” which seems to stipulate that advanced cultures cannot reveal their existence to primitive ones.
Captain Kirk is far more likable this time around. He’s still got his swagger, but it’s tempered by real heart. Ironically, the film has him lose his captain’s badge at the start of this movie, just as we, the audience, are finally getting to see the qualities in Kirk that make him a good leader.
This Star Trek is mostly about the action, but what emotion there is comes mainly from the relationship between the two leads, Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Kirk (Chris Pine). The two have always been vastly different, but they are no longer the polar opposites they were in the last movie. Kirk is still reckless and hyper-confident, Spock precise and uptight, but each of them are less so than they were before. They feel more like real characters and less like two opposing archetypes. The conflict between them is no longer just the conflict between two differing sets of ideals, but between two friends and comrades.
As soon as the villain of the film, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, makes an appearance, the tension between Spock and Kirk takes a backseat to the movie’s numerous thrilling action sequences. Somehow, JJ Abrams manages to cram it all in–we’ve got lase-gun fights, fist-fights, spaceship fights, chase scenes on foot and in the air, and “fix-the-ship-before-it’s-too-late” sequences. Actually there may be too many of these; the movie’s air of constant climax is arguably similar to that of The Dark Knight, but more wearying. There are times you wish the film would take a deep breath and give us a moment of calm before plunging us into the next storm. Throughout the whole movie, characters are running to and fro, screaming commands and suggestions at the top of their lungs. It goes from the suspenseful to the farcical before the end. “We need to reverse the polarity of the negative auxiliary couplings to reset the core manually before the field generators can stabilize the thrusters!” someone screams. “If we reverse the polarity it will cause a reaction in the warp core that will destabilize the entire negative ion drive!” someone else hollers back. (NOTE: the actual lines in the movie were slightly different, but the idea is the same). All the yelling about broken parts of the ship that need to be fixed or reset or stabilized is guaranteed to make your ears ring by the end of Into Darkness’ two-hour running time.
Nevertheless, each action sequence is brilliantly staged. The highlights of the film are two suspenseful scenes, one in which Kirk must struggle to fix his failing ship amidst changing gravity, and another in which he must shoot across a field of debris from one spaceship to another. Gone are the irritating lens flares that were oh-so-distracting during the 2009 film. While a few flares do crop up now and then, they do what Abrams probably wanted them to do last time around–make the movie feel more “space-ey.”
As for the plot, it’s mostly just a vehicle for the action scenes and the occasional one-liner or dramatic exchange between Kirk and Spock. Like the last film’s plot, it feels a little muddled and rushed, with a blink-and-you-miss-it 5-minute long explanation in the middle of the film the only chance you’re going to have of understanding exactly who the villain is and why he’s doing what he’s doing.
Benedict Cumberbatch is melodramatic, but manages to pull off an intensely creepy voice as John Harrison, a rogue Starfleet genius/super soldier. Chris Pine as Kirk delivers a more nuanced, layered and likable performance than last time around, and Quinto’s Spock is quite enjoyable as well. The minor characters do well in their roles, with the possible exception of Chekov, the crew’s token Russian, whose accent is regrettably abysmal (my girlfriend, who speaks fluent Russian, was distracted by it the entire movie).
To conclude, Star Trek: Into Darkness is a solid summer hit, more serious and less humorous (though hardly absent humor) than Iron Man 3, but comparable in terms of the quality of its action scenes. It’s also much more visually appealing, featuring special effects that just might be on their way to an Oscar nomination. JJ Abrams has proved he can do a good science fiction movie, and it seems as though the upcoming Star Wars film is in good hands.