Star Trek Into Darkness
dir. J.J. Abrams
Release Date: May 15, 13
(An opening note: For the sake of full disclosure, it’s important to know before digging into this review that I don’t know a ton about Star Trek beyond what basic pop cultural awareness has taught me over the years. I’ve seen the first Abrams film and isolated episodes of The Next Generation. So if I miss out on small canonical references, that’s why.)
How do you review a summer movie? That question is a lot more elusive than many might think. For instance, take The Dark Knight, a film with glaring problems from start to finish that nevertheless became a full-blown cultural juggernaut. The glowing reviews have, with hindsight in tow, become some critics’ means of attacking the film, decrying the privileging of entertainment value over filmmaking acumen. This is valid to an end, but also negates the singular pleasure that comes from a truly entertaining big-budget spectacle, especially when so many of them prove absolute flops. For every Batman-Joker standoff, there are ten Battleships waiting with bated breath to set large-scale filmmaking back a few decades.
This is all a roundabout way of explaining why, for its issues, Star Trek Into Darkness is a wholly entertaining piece of destruction porn. Those issues, while not necessarily minor, ultimately fail to detract from a movie that moves at such relentless speed that you’ll be able to set aside your quibbles until at least after the credits roll.
After the events of the 2009 reboot, Kirk (Chris Pine) is the captain of the Enterprise, embarking on survey voyages with the vigor of a space pirate. At the start of the film, one of these surveys leads to Kirk violating the Prime Directive by a) attempting to save a primitive race from extinction by stopping a volcanic eruption and b) rescuing Spock (Zachary Quinto) when said stoppage goes awry, thus making the race aware of Starfleet’s existence. This leads to Spock’s reassignment and Kirk being stripped of his command, at least until a devastating attack on a Starfleet archive leads to Kirk requesting permission to lead his crew into the hunt for John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), the terrorist responsible. Complicating matters is the payload of dozens of high-powered missiles aboard the Enterprise, the launch of which would likely incite war with the Klingons, for Harrison takes shelter on their home planet Kronos.
Dizzy yet? Don’t worry. Into Darkness isn’t the sort of sci-fi film that speeds ahead and doesn’t care if you can keep up. Largely for better and only a bit for worse, once the Enterprise takes off, so does the film. The conflict between Kirk and Harrison keeps much of the film in space, and for all the film’s narrative contortions, it’s largely a story about the crew attempting to return to Earth despite virtually every other character’s attempts to stop them. This ably guides the film through its many spectacles, from a base jump through a debris-riddled field to a stunning sequence in which the film goes full Inception as the Enterprise free-falls through Earth’s atmosphere.
J.J. Abrams again directs with a distinct hand, working in light bits of character-based comedy (as always, the crew plays phenomenally off one another) in between panicked moments of CGI. That said, the film’s biggest problem is the same problem shared by every other J.J. Abrams movie: shot length. Rapid-fire editing has become the stylistic trick du jour for this decade’s action movies, which is fine when used well and tedious when not. Into Darkness is closer to the former, to be sure, but still can’t resist Abrams’ urge to keep the film moving as quickly as possibly by splicing forty different shots into simple walk-and-talk moments. There are a lot of fantastic shots (such as Harrison’s introduction as a gatling gun-toting death machine) that don’t resonate as they should because of the stylistic approach. However, this also doesn’t distract enough from the action to wholly ruin the movie.
Indeed, it’d be hard to pull that off, simply because of how riveting much of Into Darkness is. Even casual fans will likely see some of the film’s bigger twists coming, but the performances keep the film from feeling like a retread or a bore. Cumberbatch is undoubtedly the film’s ace, giving Harrison an unflappable calm that masks how through-and-through terrifying he is. His clipped, measured speech feels like the most sinister riff on his Sherlock work possible. Pine is again strong as Kirk, even if his character feels a bit recycled from the first reboot, but Quinto steps up his game in a big way as Spock. Rather than being the hyper-logical foil to Pine’s cowboy, Spock finally gets to evolve, and learn what it means to be (half-)human, rage and pain and all.
Unlike most films of its ilk, Into Darkness allows all the chaos and destruction and surprisingly bracing violence to have real consequences. While the film doesn’t fully commit to the fatal sacrifices it teases out, it still knows how to remember its casualties, rather than shake its head sadly and move on to the next progression of explosions. In a summer that’s already seen Iron Man 3 comment on the politics of fear, Into Darkness likewise gets topical with its violence, foregrounding a villain that’s as much the result of military hubris as he is a psychopath in his own right. Granted, it ultimately welches on this idea (Kirk learns how to disobey an order when it feels wrong to him, and is thoroughly punished for his troubles), as it does with most of its political subtext, but it’s intriguing nevertheless. Star Trek Into Darkness is the kind of entertainment where the issues can be found if you care to look, but won’t jump out if you’d rather just board the Enterprise and enjoy the trip.