Despite a positive reception from both critics and general audiences, J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot of the Star Trek franchise was controversial amongst fans of the original series. While some embraced the film’s modern style, others were turned off by what they perceived to be a rejection of the spirit of the original. Star Trek the television show was about philosophy and ideology. Its main characters were more likely to solve a dispute with diplomacy than with photon torpedoes.
Star Trek the 2009 film, however, is first and foremost an action film. The film contains numerous pitched battles between the forces of good and evil. The antagonist’s motivation is barely existent, getting no more complex than “kill Spock.” There’s no denying that the film and the series come from entirely different worlds, but the complaints of fans were justified, to an extent. With Star Trek Into Darkness, it appears that Abrams and Co. have heard those complaints, and the film seems to serve as an apology.
Are there still exciting battles between enormous spaceships? Plenty, believe me. But without spoiling anything (and this review will be spoiler-free, worry not), our heroes are fighting to keep Starfleet true to its original intentions. When the film begins, the Federation is on the brink of war with the Klingons, and there are some people within Starfleet who want to weaponize the organization and turn it into a military. Isn’t this exactly what fans thought the 2009 film was doing? Well, not on the watch of Kirk and his crew.
The cold open of Star Trek Into Darkness, which people who saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in IMAX have already seen, isn’t an epic space battle, as most films like this would have opened with. The Enterprise is trying to save a primitive population from a volcano. That carries its own tension and stakes, but it isn’t a violent fight like the opening scene of the last film. The crux of the film is ultimately about what Starfleet stands for. Fans of the original series won’t be disappointed.
Speaking of which, the cast of the film is even better than they were the last time out. Our seven lead characters have all settled into their roles, and none of them are doing an impression of the actors who preceded them. Zachary Quinto’s Spock is of particular note. Spock is the definitive straight man, and he gets most of the film’s laughs. He’s self-aware, but never in a way that feels disrespectful to the legacy of the character. Chris Pine has some trouble with the film’s emotional beats, but he seems to have a solid understanding of who Kirk is. The screenplay does a great job of capturing him as a person, and not a caricature.
In fact, that could be said of pretty much all of the main characters. These people have become so ingrained in the popular culture that it would have been easy to write them as broad stereotypes and leave it at that. The crew’s tropes we all know and love are still there, but they’re rooted in actual three dimensional characters. The film also does a great job of giving each character their own moment to shine. It’s reminiscent of last year’s The Avengers, which had a similarly large roster of heroes to juggle, and succeeded in giving equal treatment to all of them. None of the main characters get the short end of the stick, and they all get to save the day at some point or another. This isn’t an easy task, but Abrams and Lindelof pull it off without any of the spotlights feeling forced.
Benedict Cumberbatch is introduced as “John Harrison,” so that’s how I’ll refer to him in this review. There’s a lot to be said about how the film deals with his character, but it’s nigh impossible to do without spoiling anything. I will say that I’m worried whether people who aren’t fans of the original series will fully understand who he is and what his motivations are. His history is given a quick explanation, but it’s easy to miss. It’s possible that the filmmakers overestimated just how well-known this character was. I fear that a lot of people will be walking out of the theater scratching their heads as to what Harrison was trying to do. Trekkies will immediately pick up on Harrison’s true identity (the mere mention of a certain number will tip die-hards off right off the bat), but the glossing-over of his whole motivation might baffle general audiences.
That said, Star Trek Into Darkness is a great deal of fun. It’s a breathless story that dishes out moments of nail-biting tension with wild abandon. The production design, the performances, and the storytelling all feel far more polished and refined than in the 2009 film. If you’re looking for two hours of thrilling adventure with solid writing and stunning cinematography to boot, you can’t ask for more than Star Trek Into Darkness. It’s a film that will please the Trek-illiterate and the hardcore fans alike.
Verdict: Movie Win