Introduction: Being a Trekkie at heart, I was excited to see the franchise get a reboot with 2009’s Star Trek, directed by J.J. Abrams, which featured a younger “Original Series” crew. I had my reservations but the compelling cast, dynamic plot, incredible action, and gorgeous cinematography made me a firm believer that Abrams was perfectly capable of reviving a well-deserving classic sci-fi series.
When I heard rumors of a second Trek film with the same cast, I was excited but wondered how it could hold up to the initial film’s high bar. Turns out Star Trek Into Darkness exceeded all of my expectations at warp speed.
The Story: Abram’s revival shows the Original Series’ cast as their younger selves, with Chris Pine as a youthful (yet equally adventurous and reckless) James T. Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Spock, and Zoe Saldana as Uhura, along with the rest of the crew. While the first film featured the obligatory introductions, Into Darkness jumps right into the action and rarely stops. Plot-wise, Kirk and company are sent out to hunt down a terrorist within Starfleet who is responsible for unleashing some violent attacks on Earth. The terrorist, known initially as John Harrison (played by Benedict Cumberbatch from “Sherlock”), sequesters himself on Kronos, the Klingon home world, which resides outside of Federation space. Any wrong move on Kirk’s part could ignite a war. But while a star system-wide conflict is avoided, the cornered and captured Harrison reveals a sinister plot generated by some unsuspecting sources with potentially devastating effects. Harrison appears to be a pawn in the game but he’s actually a much bigger player who knows what moves to make, who to use, and when to move in for the kill. Not to mention he isn’t all he appears though, at the risk of unleashing a major spoiler, I won’t say more. But I will say Harrison’s character is a critical centerpiece to the “Trek” canon and the reveal is well-done and definitely worth being surprised.
My Take: I continue to be impressed with the cast. Most of them are relatively unknown to me (though I knew Quinto stared in the NBC series “Heroes,” which I never watched). Sometimes I think lesser known actors can pull off a job a big named star can’t. Each of the characters here are spot on and even borrow from their older counterparts’ behaviors, mannerisms, and attitudes. Rather than being an utter disaster, it’s a perfect unity where the crew faces personal conflict or differing opinions but it’s depicted with maturity as well as some humor. I do want to call special attention to Pine, Quinto, and Cumberbatch’s performances (though certainly not to downplay anyone else). Pine’s Kirk and Quinto’s Spock carry on their chemistry and friendship from the first movie and it’s interesting to see how two such different personalities become close comrades. Chris Pine is a classic, cocky Kirk but delivers it with a deft hand. He’s tough but not afraid to express softer emotions without turning weepy . Quinto also puts his all into a young Spock and masters his character’s torn nature as half-Vulcan and half-Human. Lastly, Cumberbatch plays a perfect villain; he’s cunning, cool-headed, and even altruistic at times but never without a big sucker punch hidden up his sleeve. Also, Harrison isn’t just the villain because that’s his role; he actually makes us care about him – at least until he starts stabbing backs.
Cinematic-wise, Into Darkness is just as gorgeously filmed as its predecessor. Some people have criticized Abrams of being trigger happy with the flare lens but I love it. In both movies, I thought that lighting technique gave the scenes a celestial, ethereal quality. If it was done all of the time, it would lose the wow factor for me. But overall, this movie makes a great use of darkness and light, appropriately enough. Almost everything associated with the Enterprise is bright and full of light with rarely any shadows. On the contrast, Harrison and other antagonistic cronies are painted in darkness, blatant indicators of which side they stand for.
Star Trek Into Darkness also doesn’t skimp on the action though it’s not overkill. I was on the edge of my seat the entire time, especially once the story takes us into space where anything can happen. The constant twists and turns not only make for great entertainment but also good storytelling. Most of the time, I had no idea what to expect and it made for a speedy two and a half hours. A good action-driven movie should employ several set pieces, which are scenes of principle action. In my opinion, many action movies employ way too many set pieces without any story or characters to ground them. If something is going to explode, the audience needs to care about why it’s blowing up, who is doing it, why they’re doing it, and how it ties into the plot. A series of mindless action sequences without a good backbone falls apart once you get past the surface. But Into Darkness proves you can pack in the action and not leave it detached from the story or characters involved. Rather than move from set piece to set piece, Into Darkness keeps it together with a solid plot and absorbing characters, not to mention good moral questions regarding who really is in the right and how far Kirk will go to seek justice.
Even though Gene Roddenberry purposely crafted “Star Trek” to be devoid of religious contexts, he did emphasize the noble virtues of loyalty, courage, compassion, and friendship. These are still carried out by the Enterprise’s younger crew here. Among all of the explosive action, another thing I loved about Into Darkness was its unabashed exposition of these virtues. There are too many incidents to name but two that stood out to me are when Kirk refuses to leave Spock to fend for himself on a planet facing a catastrophic natural disaster. Even though rescuing Spock proves dangerous, Kirk is willing to risk his life for his friend. Spock doesn’t grasp this immediately and insists, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one,” but he later understands how some ties, like the ties between friends, are stronger than protocol. Another scene has Spock in the captain’s chair, urging his crewmembers to evacuate when the Enterprise is on the brink of falling apart. But Sulu (John Cho) adamantly says they’re all in this together, and if it means dying as a crew, then they die together. In a self-centered, selfish society, seeing a movie that covertly praises courage and loyalty is definitely worth major kudos.
In the end, Star Trek Into Darkness is an awesome action sci-fi movie, but the reason why it works is that it’s more than just that. It has a heart and shows an undying faith in human nature as well as the power of friendship and triumph of good over evil. In fact, its title alludes not to how easy it can be to slip into moral ambiguity. Sometimes trying to combat the sins around us may actually cause us to fall. Even Kirk himself observes, “There will always be those who mean to do us harm. To stop them, we risk awakening the same evil within ourselves.” But the difference is what we choose to do. It’s not who or what we associate with that makes us good or bad – it’s the choices we make. While Kirk and his crew aren’t angels, they’re capable of making moral choices and showing that life is about more than just serving yourself. Sometimes these choices may not look like the smartest courses of action but doing the right thing can be difficult, if not outright scary, yet there are times when a stand has to be taken, especially a stand for what’s right. As Kirk admits, “I have no idea what I’m supposed to do. I only know what I can do.”
Content Breakdown: Star Trek: Into Darkness was given a PG-13 rating but my assessment of its content is as follows:
Language – Minimal and not pervasive. Compared to some films in the same rating category, this film is almost entirely clean in that regard.
Violence – Most of the violence is of the typical, sci-fi action variety (including many scenes of peril) with minimal to almost no blood and absolutely no graphic violence or gore. Basically, if you’ve seen the various “Trek” television incarnations, nothing here violence-wise will come as a shock.
Sexual Material – Overt sexual content is non-existent save for some of Kirk’s flirtatious ways. The absolute worst the movie displays in this regard is briefly showing some female characters in their underwear but that’s as risqué as it gets (and one such scene is played more for laughs rather than anything sexual).
Thematic Content – Difference between revenge and justice, loyalty, courage, selflessness, compassion, friendship, and moral ambiguity are all themes that get addressed here in a way that isn’t heavy-handed.
Recommended Audiences: In my opinion, I believe Star Trek: Into Darkness stacks up this way (note that just because something isn’t recommended for a certain age group doesn’t make it “bad”):
Children – Not recommended. This film is too long for anyone younger than eight to sit through. Likewise, the scenes of tense action might be frightening to younger viewers who can’t follow the story’s plot.
Older Children – Recommended, but with a child’s maturity in mind. Again, the storyline and length may be a stretch for some children. But if an older child is already into “Star Trek” in any of its forms, they will probably enjoy this, too.
Young Adults & Adults – Recommended. Teens and adults should find much to enjoy and discuss in this film, both “Trek” and non-“Trek” fans alike.
The Run-Down: Overall, Star Trek Into Darkness keeps the momentum from the first film and has a plethora of positives, from fresh characters to a compelling plot and full throttle action. But more importantly, it upholds and praises classic virtues, showing viewers the importance of bravery in the face of danger, loyalty towards those you care about, genuine friendship, and the importance of doing what’s right as opposed to what’s popular or politically correct. J.J. Abrams scored a home run for me with Star Trek and he only duplicated (and multiplied) what I loved about that film here. May the Trek franchise live long and prosper for years to come!