Film Review: ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’

“Star Trek Into Darkness” (Par)

J.J. Abrams sets his filmmaking to 'stun' with a sequel in every respect equal or even superior to its splendid 2009 predecessor

J.J. Abrams sets his filmmaking to “stun” for “Star Trek Into Darkness,” a sequel in every respect equal or even superior to its splendid 2009 predecessor, which lovingly and cleverly rebooted Gene Roddenberry’s long-running space opera following the black hole of 2002’s “Star Trek Nemesis.” Markedly grander in scale, although never at the expense of its richly human (and half-human) characters, “Into Darkness” may not boldly go where no “Trek” adventure has gone before, but getting there is such a well-crafted, immensely pleasurable ride that it would be positively Vulcan to nitpick. Global box office cume should easily warp past the prior pic’s $385 million for this sturdy Paramount tentpole, which opens overseas May 9 before beaming down Stateside one week later.

Abrams, whose last pic was the lyrical “E.T.”/“Close Encounters” homage “Super 8,” here tips his hat to the “Indiana Jones” series, opening with a thrilling setpiece that finds Kirk (Chris Pine) and Bones (the sly, loose-limbed Karl Urban) on the run from a tribe of very angry natives on the planet Nibiru. The natives, decked out in head-to-toe clay body paint, shimmer like human ceramics as they chase the Starfleet officers through a crimson forest, the lush colors of returning d.p. Dan Mindel all but searing the screen. Meanwhile, Spock (Zachary Quinto) toils away nearby, attempting to insert a high-tech ice cube into the raging volcano that threatens to destroy Nibiru and its inhabitants — a dangerous mission that quickly goes awry, building to a classic “Trek” standoff between stubborn Vulcan logic and impulsive human emotion.

The Enterprise crew has scarcely recovered from that one when, back on Earth, a terror bombing lays waste to a top-secret Starfleet intelligence facility and brings to the fore a new galactic baddie: a rogue Starfleet officer named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) who claims credit for the attack and, after an equally brazen follow-up, hightails it deep into Klingon-controlled space. The hawkish Adm. Marcus (Peter Weller) dispatches the Enterprise in hot pursuit, with this familiar-sounding objective: Shoot first, ask questions later, and avoid starting a war with the locals. Welcome to “Star Trek Into Zero Dark Thirty.”

Only, this John Harrison is a slippery sort who, when given the chance, claims not to be the villain at all, but rather a pawn in someone else’s deadlier scheme. And for much of its running time, “Star Trek Into Darkness” makes a good guessing game out of whether this mysterious stranger with the glacial glare and bones seemingly made of steel is friend, foe or — like the “old Spock” of Abrams’ first “Trek” — a little bit of history repeating. It hardly matters, because whatever Cumberbatch is playing, he’s wonderful to watch, infusing the movie with the kind of exotic grandeur Eric Bana’s wan Romulan henchman (arguably the weakest link in the 2009 film) largely lacked. Also making her maiden “Trek” voyage is the lovely Alice Eve as an ambitious science officer who lies her way on to the Enterprise deck and makes goo-goo eyes with the good Captain. She is not, it turns out, the ship’s only stowaway.

Having previously established an alternate “Trek” timeline in which all the events of prior series and movies still happened, but aren’t necessarily doomed to recur, Abrams and returning writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (now joined by “Lost” co-creator Damon Lindelof) here take that idea and run with it, invoking prior “Trek” lore when it suits them, freely branching off into new directions when it doesn’t. (Hell, there’s even some trouble with a tribble.) It’s a tricky business, balancing reverence with reinvention, but like the young Kirk, Abrams seems altogether more comfortable in the captain’s chair this time — not just in the large-scale action scenes, but particularly in the quieter ones, where you can sense his real investment in these characters and his confident touch with actors.

SEE ALSO: ‘Star Trek’ Premieres in London (Photos)

The film builds particularly well on the burgeoning Kirk-Spock friendship, with Pine showing reserves of vulnerability and doubt beneath his cocksure exterior, while Quinto adds gravitas to Spock’s eternal inner conflict — and his deepening romance with Lt. Uhura (Zoe Saldana). But make no mistake: The action, when it comes, is superbly executed, whether it’s giant vessels making mincemeat of one another, or the simpler excitements of old-fashioned hand-to-hand combat and foot chases through crowded promenades.

The best, even-numbered films in the original “Trek” film franchise were shaped by the guiding intelligence of writer-director Nicholas Meyer, who laced the Starfleet jargon with high-toned literary references and a gently self-mocking sense of humor. Abrams, too, manages to keep the mood buoyant even when the fate of the universe is hanging in the balance, more than earning his tears when he finally decides to milk them. But if Meyer’s primary references were Shakespeare, Dickens and Conan Doyle, Abrams’ are Spielberg, John Hughes and Cameron Crowe. In defiance of the self-congratulatory snark that has become de rigueur in Hollywood franchise fare, he brings a shimmering pop romanticism to “Trek’s” stalwart ideals of friendship, heroism and self-sacrifice. There’s something bold about that, indeed.

“Into Darkness” is a beautifully modulated and sustained piece of work across the board, with visual effects that seamlessly meld live-action and computer-animated elements, given further texture by old-fashioned celluloid
lensing (with 65mm Imax used for key action scenes). Post-production 3D conversion by Stereo D ranks among the best of its kind. The Enterprise has rarely looked sleeker than it does on production designer Scott Chambliss’ sets. Adding the cherry to the top of this cinematic sundae, composer Michael Giacchino’s soaring score once again revives Alexander Courage’s immortal Trek theme for the closing credits.

Movie Stills:

Film Review: 'Star Trek Into Darkness'

Reviewed at AMC Loews 34th Street, May 2, 2013. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 132 MIN.

Production

A Paramount release presented with Skydance Productions of a Bad Robot production. Produced by J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci. Executive producers, Jeffrey Chernov, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Paul Schwake. Co-producers, Tommy Gormley, Tommy Harper, Ben Rosenblatt, Michelle Rejwan.

Crew

Directed by J.J. Abrams. Screenplay, Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, based on “Star Trek” created by Gene Roddenberry. Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen/35mm/Imax, 3D), Dan Mindel; editors, Maryann Brandon, Mary Jo Markey; music, Michael Giacchino; production designer, Scott Chambliss; supervising art director, Ramsey Avery; art directors, Kasra Farahani, Michael E. Goldman, Andrew E.W. Murdock, Harry E. Otto, Lauren Polizzi; set decorator, Karen Manthey; costume designer, Michael Kaplan; sound (Dolby Atmos/Datasat), Peter J. Devlin; sound designer, Ben Burtt; supervising sound editors, Burtt, Matthew Wood; re-recording mixers, Will Files, James Bolt; visual effects supervisor, Roger Guyett; ILM visual effects co-supervisor, Patrick Tubach; ILM visual effects producer, Luke O’Byrne; visual effects, Industrial Light & Magic, Pixomondo, Kelvin Optical, Atomic Fiction; stunt coordinator, John Stoneham Jr.; assistant director, Tommy Gormley; second unit director, Guyett; second unit camera, Bruce McCleery; casting, April Webster, Alyssa Weisberg.

With

John Cho, Benedict Cumberbatch, Alice Eve, Bruce Greenwood, Simon Pegg, Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Peter Weller, Anton Yelchin, Leonard Nimoy.

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  1. Susu says:

    I know I’ll sound like an old guy, but J.J. Abrams just doesn’t get Star Trek. Maybe that’s just fine because he is searching for a new and younger audience that probably doesn’t get Star Trek either.

    Star Trek was never about the special effects or action. Most of the best Trek stories from all of the television shows (TOS through Enterprise) didn’t rely on either. Action and special effects were always there, but they were used to tell a story instead of becoming the story.

    To be fair, there is one thing to like about the new Star Trek reboot. The cast is great, and it is easy to see the original actors through them. After that, I’m over this thing. It is just an action movie series using Star Trek’s name to sell tickets.

    If you think this is great science fiction in the Star Trek universe, then enjoy it. If you are looking for something more and want to really understand what Star Trek is about then queue up “Measure of a Man” from TNG, just one of many classic Star Trek episodes that expose this new “reboot” for the sham that it is. Gene Roddenberry would be ashamed.

  2. RobB says:

    Just saw this awesome movie in 3D IMAX and that is the way to see a movie like this! This is the franchise for 3D IMAX and you will be amazed. The cast is great, the visuals are spectacular and set a new standard. The story, plot lines, etc, like all incarnations of Star Trek will remain debatable because that is also what fans enjoy about Star Trek.

  3. John Freimann says:

    I don’t care for Science Fiction, which keeps me out of the theater a lot these days; however with that cast I might have to change my mind and get a ticket.

    • Thomas Bray says:

      I’m not trying to convince you, but if you like a smartphone, using your computer, and flying on an airplane, it all was once science-fiction. That’s what makes a well-made science-fiction movie exciting! Everyone in the modern world reaps the enjoyment and pleasure of a small number of people who pushed ahead with ideas that were once thought of as ludicrous! Science is a very beautiful thing because it’s all around us

  4. Conspiracy says:

    SPOILERS……..

    I just want to know why they called this Villain “Khan”. Why not just make him John Harrison…yet another Genetic Manipulation along the same lines. It just makes no logical sense that a white Englishman is named Khan Noonien Singh…perhaps the most Ethnic name in all of Sci-Fi….in fact it defined who Khan was…an Indian/Punjabi Prince who rose up out of India and ruled 1/3 of the world.

    And don’t talk about timelines…the rift only occurred from the point Nero went back…everything that came before was the same. This smacks of Studio Whitewashing the character without changing the name just so they could hire Cumberbatch.

    • Oh yes, because a white Mexican named Ricardo Montalban was entirely believable as an Indian Sikh?

      • RobB says:

        I tend to agree with “Conspiracy says”. The ‘big reveal’ felt more like a big let down to me. If he were anyone one else I would have been happier at that moment in an otherwise fantastic movie. If I recall correctly in the TOS version Khan mentions there were others like him but he believed he was the last leader of his kind, so there was room for another Khan like character and plot in ST cannon prior to the JJ alternate universe.

      • John Freimann says:

        I’m not really sure as to what you are referring: however, if one is a good actor why shouldn’t he be believable? Acting is about being able to create a character outside of yourself. Whether an actor can do that or not tells us a lot about the extent of their talent.

      • Tonka says:

        Love that comment :)

    • TechFan says:

      I heard about this spoiler while the movie was being made. I don’t know if I’m in the ballpark since I haven’t seen the film yet but here’s my thinking. Khan was overthrown on Earth in the late 1990s, according to the episode “Space Seed” and his sleeper ship Botany Bay was discovered by the Enterprise over 200 years later. But ya gotta remember thanks to Nero, the timeline has changed between these two events and Starfleet Command has sent the Enterprise to a different part of the galaxy when Khan’s ship is found, this time by a Klingon vessel. A fierce battle for control of both ships kills everyone but Khan. Now worried he’ll be hunted down, on a rescue freighter he sees an old episode of “Undercover Boss” and goes through the same process Colonel Moon in “Die Another Day” used to transform himself into James Bond nemesis Gustav Graves. Except this time Ricardo Montalban becomes Benedict Cumberbatch. So there you go. See how this timeline change thing can work out?

  5. Brian Davison says:

    Geezer Trekkies clinging so desperately to the past crack me up. After the disasters of Voyager, Enterprise, Insurrection and Nemesis, Star Trek had two choices — evolve or die. No, this isn’t your Star Trek anymore and that’s a good thing. People actually want to watch this version of Star Trek, so you can either embrace a different take with a younger cast or you can sit in your basement watching the same DVDs over and over. Your call.

    • James A says:

      The real fans didn’t like those things either. Into darkness is what nemesis tried to be but wasn’t and the first movie only an answer to the better work Babylon 5, battlestar and mass effect did and which Ds9 and enterprise was only allowed to hint at.

      • RobB says:

        @Brian, it’s not fair to compare weekly TV shows to mega budgeted theater movies. Fans of Voyager and Enterprise would disagree they were “disasters”. JJ has made only two episodes by comparison. Over the decades fans have always found something they would have liked to see or not in all these Star Trek’s. We love the general concept so almost any Star Trek is better than no Star Trek. True fans love to nitpick.

  6. TechFan says:

    Abrams has been hit or miss with me. His TV shows “Lost” and “Revolution” left me wondering why I bothered. But his reboot of “Star Trek” four years ago was, as Spock would say, fascinating. Not fixing the timeline at the end of the film was an inspiration–a neat trick so there’s no locked-in problem with the events of the original TV series and movies. The new Enterprise crew members were brilliantly chosen, especially Simon Pegg as Scotty and Karl Urban as Dr. McCoy. All that helped make a movie that for me was fun, surprising, and exciting. And from what I’ve seen and read, “In Darkness” should continue to keep “Star Trek” boldly going in the entertaining direction it has gone before.

    • spokeat says:

      I quite agree – the cast are brilliant, especially Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban., Zoe Saldana and Simon Pegg. Chris Pine, John Cho and Anton Yelchin are outstanding as well. In any Star Trek episode or movie there are usually plot holes large enough to warp a starship through, but the ethics and morals and camaraderie on display more than make up for those. The team will be pulling more tightly together in this movie. What I like particularly are the “familial” and relational moments, the moments of true emotion, that come through in Orci and Kurtzman’s writing.

    • Jeda says:

      Enterprise was on par with TNG as a series. It’s such a shame that show wasn’t given more time. Season 3 and 4 were fantastic.

  7. Dr Spock says:

    I LOVE this new reboot of the franchise. Star Trek Troopers; running and jumping off of things and dangling from things and falling off of things. What more could a Trekkie ask for? Non-stop running and jumping and falling and dangling. Star Trek Troopers is awesome!

  8. Zach Johns says:

    I can hardly wait for May 15th – they took ‘way too long to get this movie on-screen, but I look forward to sterling performances, a typically hokey Star Trek plot, and great character development. I have always watched Star Trek for the characters’ interaction as a “family” and this film looks to draw the “family” closer together.

    Kewl ‘splosions and plenty of action are hallmarks of Summer releases; I wish people would quit downing Abrams for making a movie that will draw new people into the world of Star Trek. Then there may be an audience for a television show, which would be a great venue for science- and exploration-centered stories. Abrams and his writers have BROUGHT PEOPLE IN to see Star Trek, and that is more important than how Engineering looks or the specifications of the Enterprise.

  9. As an old-school Trekkie, I have to say that I am not at all pleased with this review. I saw the last Trek film that JJ Abrams did, and while I like the fact that we got the actor who played Thor out of it, to borrow a few words from the late Roger Ebert, this version of Star Trek is “an insult to science, to fiction, and to the hyphen in between”. Not to disrespect JJ, but this version seems to be less about the story and more about “kewl ‘splosions” and fights with bad guys who are bad solely for the purpose of being bad. Gene Roddenberry created the original Star Trek to be thought-provoking, and this appears to be anything but. If I do see the new film at all, it will be through a DVD rental.

    • Dan says:

      As a self-described “old school trekkie” you no doubt read Star Trek II and VI director Nicholas Meyer’s bio in which he basically described Gene Roddenberry as a crotchety old guy that didn’t like Wrath of Khan and clung to a boring, clunky Trek. Meyer took that and made it good. And now Meyer has taken that and made it exciting.

      People that worship at the altar of Roddenberry are elevating a false god.

      • RobB says:

        Not to take anything away form the “Great Bird of The Galaxy” but G.R. demanded the “creator” title and emphasized that over the reality of the team of creative people who made Star Trek more entertaining than his rather bland, ambiguous and sometimes ridiculous ideas. An example being Spock, who was originally conceived by G.R. to be red with a tail. When Paramount asked him for a movie idea, his was a God plot where God was the bad guy. One of his best writers from TOS, D.C. Fontana left the NextGen show in disgust. I am thankful for his “wagon-train to the stars” and his use of Horatio Hornblower as Capt. Kirk but many people contributed to both the success and failures over the past 47 years and I for one am looking forward to the future because of all of them.

    • Scott Foundas says:

      Dear Stephanie, Ebert also wrote of the 2009 “Trek”: “The movie deals with narrative housekeeping. Perhaps the next one will engage these characters in a more challenging and devious story, one more about testing their personalities than re-establishing them.” And so it is.

  10. Really pleased by this review. I hope Cumberbatch will continue his relationship with JJ Abrams in Star Wars VII

  11. sam says:

    benedict cumberbatch for the win! i love love the 2009 film, love the crew and jj– and having Benedict on board was like cherries upon cherries on top. What’s not to like???

    • Al Milson says:

      Benedict Cumberbatch looks like the only reason to go see this confused mess. I think I will pass.

  12. This is the one film I’m eager to see this summer in an actual, honest to God theater. i’m thrilled to read such a good review right out of the gate.

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