Review: ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ Is A Strong-Enough Second Helping

By May 9, 2013

Rating:  3.5/5 stars

By James Rocchi

The follow-up to J.J. Abrams’ 2009 “Star Trek,” ‘Star Trek Into Darkness” is a fair-enough second serving, one that owes perhaps too deep a debt to the original series and movies but that also manages to get the character relationships and the underpinnings of the series pretty much right. J.J. Abrams has been keeping a tight lid on the plot, up to and including the true past and true purpose of the villain of the piece, John Harrison (played by Benedict Cumberbatch with lifeless eyes and a velvet-sheathed blade of a voice), and I certainly won’t be the one to give things away here, and if the actual film doesn’t feel like it deserves that level of secrecy, well, I guess it’s easier to write a twist than a script in an age when the promotion of a film is invariably better-constructed and better-contemplated than the actual film itself.

Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof, “Star Trek Into Darkness” resumes the adventures of Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and his crew as they explore the galaxy, starting with an opening sequence that quickly delineates the stakes and consequences; Starfleet can avert the apocalypse, it seems, but it also has to play by its own rules. After a quick trip to Earth for some discipline, Kirk’s taken down a peg by his boss Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood) — but when Cumberbatch’s Harrison starts a bombing-and-baffling campaign against Starfleet, such concerns have to be put aside to deal with the challenges of the moment. Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) loads the Enterprise up with new experimental photon torpedoes and orders the ship on a mission to Harrison’s last known location, the Klingon homeworld — where their pursuit might be taken as an act of war …

There are, of course, reversals and revelations after that coming before you even have a chance to ask how you say “Gulf of Tonkin” in Klingon — and the ultimate revelation of Harrison’s motives and origins will not be blurted out here, although you can certainly find it everywhere. The end result is a bit too same-same to really enjoy as much as the first film — which had the advantage of both getting the band together (a story we’ve never seen before on film) and making significant changes to the Trek-verse as we know it, whether interpersonal or geo-political. “Star Trek Into Darkness” kind of slumps back into the franchise’s own canon, which is why it feels a bit less fun, fresh and funky than its predecessor; “Into Darkness” can feel like you’re simply watching a cover-version of plotting and problems you’ve seen before, albeit in 3D and with the occasional bit of IMAX.

(Star Trek sidenote: I can recall how fast, and how swiftly, “Star Trek” The Next Generation” went downhill after one little word: “Holodeck.” You’re out exploring the galaxy, dummies; why slump down to the equivalent of the basement to play dress-up when you have all of space to explore? Seeing the Abrams Star Trek go to one of the classic Trek plots — both a little early for an ostensibly refreshed franchise and a little haphazardly for the work of ostensibly smart people —  is the equivalent of lumbering downstairs to the Holodeck. In other words: I like seeing tribbles in this new Trek. I would dislike seeing the Enterprise called to a space station where the stores of the important grain the Federation needs to seed a new planet with and where tribbles are being sold, etc., etc., etc.)

But even my hardened heart is moved by the charm and verve of the new cast individually and, even more impressively, in interaction; a scene where Pine’s Kirk and Zoe Saldana’s Uhura commiserate about Zachary Quinto’s Spock is real and funny, while Karl Urban and Simon Pegg, as Bones and Scotty, also keep things both lightly fun and on-track with the dramatic points. (A drunk, argumentative Scotty gets the best joke in the whole film … then sobers up and lurches into action to save the day.)

As for Cumberbatch, he’s superb — so superb, in fact, that you wish he weren’t shoved into a prior moment from the series and instead given something new and exciting to do. Instead, he’s wasted as both cannon-fodder and canon-fodder. Again,  I didn’t exactly have a bad time watching “Star Trek Into Darkness” — but I also didn’t have as much enjoyment as I did watching the first Abrams “Star Trek,” either. Abrams is now headed to re-vamp “Star Wars” for Disney (in a stunning failure of imagination on the part of all parties involved — It’s one thing for Disney to say “We should get someone to do for ‘Star Wars’ what J.J. Abrams did for ‘Star Trek,'” and another to just hire Abrams, but such is modern Hollywood), and if this is his farewell to the U.S.S. Enterprise, well, it’s adequate and agreeable.

But Paramount and whoever they get to write and direct the next “Star Trek”  installment truly need to take a breath and acknowledge that a series predicated on a futuristic mission “to seek out new life and new civilizations” can — and must — break away from its own past if it’s going to matter as anything more than a meaningless clockwork money-maker with fresh faces grinding through old plots. It’s a big universe; the “Star Trek” crew — and we, the audience — deserve a real chance to enjoy it in adventures that are really new, not just Karaoke versions of old favorites.

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James Rocchi lives in Los Angeles. Born in Canada, he's a regular contributor, interviewer and reviewer for MSN Movies, Indiewire's The Playlist, GeekNation, and the Toronto Star. He's also written for, Netflix, Mother Jones magazine and The Guardian UK. A member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, you can find him on twitter @jamesrocchi.