Guest Movie Review: Star Trek Into Darkness
“Space: the Final Frontier.” These were the opening credits of NBC’s science fiction serial Star Trek, which first aired on September 8th, 1966. The show ran for 79 episodes, becoming known not only for its engaging stories but also its social allegories and a remarkable (not to mention ethnically diverse) cast. During its three seasons it was never a major revenue earner for the network; Gene Roddenberry’s creation was one of the earliest examples of a “cult hit” with a small but passionate fan base. NBC pulled the plug in 1969, despite furious letter-writing campaigns from the show’s fans, forever known as “Trekkies.”
Fortunately for them, Roddenberry and the crew of the starship Enterprise, this was not to be the end. Star Trek’s fandom supported an animated rendition of the original series and four live-action spin-offs that were making new episodes as recently as 2005. The original cast of characters – led by legendary captain James Tiberius Kirk (William Shatner) – also starred in six movies, followed by the cast of spin-off The Next Generation (with Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean Luc Picard) in four more. After the dismal performance of the final entry, Star Trek: Nemesis and the cancelation of UPN’s Star Trek Enterprise, it seemed as though the once-robust franchise was finally at an end.
Fortunes changed in 2009 with J.J. Abrams’ modern reboot Star Trek, which saw the original Enterprise crew re-imagined as a young cast and re-engineered for summer blockbuster potential. Abrams, whose biggest contributions to Hollywood at that point had been on television and the sequel Mission Impossible 3, was a bold choice to invigorate the franchise, and despite some fan speculation as to whether he was really the man for the job, he acquitted himself handily, not only establishing the beginning of a whole new Star Trek universe, but doing so in a way that was fun and exciting and appealed to Trekkies of all ages. Suddenly, what was deemed impossible before its release – a Kirk and Mister Spock not played by Shatner and Leonard Nimoy – was not only believable, but canon. Though it did suffer a few problems, Star Trek became the franchise’s rebirth, giving a whole new generation the chance to share in Roddenberry’s original vision.
It’s now four years later and Abrams returns with his 3D sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness. Once again, Abrams presents us with the adventures of the Enterprise, captained by James Kirk (Chris Pine) as it explores new worlds and new civilizations. In this entry, Kirk and company are tasked with taking down rogue special agent John Harrison (Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch) who is suspected of destroying a Starfleet library and killing several ship captains in his wave of terror. But Harrison is a dangerous foe, and Kirk’s impulsive nature might be getting his crew into extreme peril. With not only the Enterprise but all of Starfleet on the brink of destruction, only through sacrifice can Kirk hope to keep his crew and friends alive.
Several people who made Star Trek such a hit return for this new movie. Besides the director himself are screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, alongside current go-to script guru Damon Lindelof. The entire cast of the previous movie also returns. The main story, which consists of Kirk rejecting hubris and finding humility, is exceptionally well-done, taking a typical plot that happens to work remarkably well with these characters. The movie also does a wonderful job building up the friendship between Kirk and Spock (a scene-stealing Zachary Quinto). Pine and Quinto are a marvel on the big screen, with each actor adding their own spin to these legendary characters while definitely keeping them in line with their 1960’s progenitors. The special effects crew is also intact, though care should be taken to mention the significant diminishing of lens flare that had become a joke in 2009’s wake. And the musical score by frequent Abrams composer Michael Giacchino is absolutely fantastic, establishing the honor and dignity of Starfleet while also keeping that feeling of dread from one moment to the next. My only complaint with the returning talent is that the script almost exclusively focuses on Kirk and Spock, and while castmates Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin and Bruce Greenwood all have their moments, they’re ultimately left on the sidelines to make room for new (and admittedly good) performers such as Alice Eve, Peter Weller and Cumberbatch.
But what makes Into Darkness better than its predecessor is that while everything from character interaction to special effects feels more or less the same, much else has been improved. Item number one is the villain, who didn’t require you to read a fifth-rate comic book to fully understand his motivations (Yes, Nero, I’m looking at you). There was never really any doubt that Benedict Cumberbatch would knock the character out of the park; the actor has been steadily gaining a following not only through his BBC stardom but also by taking bit parts in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, War Horse and the Hobbit trilogy. Is John Harrison the perfect villain? No, especially when a reveal midway through proves to have been the worst-kept secret in Hollywood the past six months. Despite being known for keeping things quiet on his sets, Abrams screwed up on this one; audiences who ought to have cheered and screamed at its announcement remained silent in their foreknowledge. But Cumberbatch is an uber-talented performer who carries large parts of the movie on his shoulders and could have an entire film circled around his role. I’d watch that one-man show. Eve and Weller also prove to be able performers, and Abrams and his crew definitely use them to their full potential.
One of the reasons the original Star Trek series was so popular was that it used the science fiction setting to talk about modern themes and ideas, showing us war, discrimination and intolerance through family-friendly eyes. Does Into Darkness have its minor problems? Sure, but it overcomes those by not only maintaining the level of quality from its predecessor and showering us with geek references from a bygone era, but also embracing Gene Roddenberry’s original vision of what Star Trek was supposed to be. It’s the best movie of 2013, and definitely worth the voyage to your local theater. If you’ve ever seen Star Trek on either the big or small screens, then Into Darkness becomes a must-see adventure.
John C. Anderson is a freelance writer and movie enthusiast living in Boston. His movie reviews can be found at Hello, Mr. Anderson.