‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ Satisfies Fans with Entertaining Adventure

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CHICAGOJ.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek Into Darkness” is like a really solid mid-season episode of a great TV series. Entertaining, for sure, but lacking the energy of a premiere or the stakes of a finale. It leaves fans wondering what’s next in the franchise, which will surely make Paramount happy, but doesn’t stand on its own like the truly great part twos (“The Dark Knight,” “The Empire Strikes Back”). It’s a transitional film, expanding the characters, expanding the universe, but not really expanding on the cinematic potential for the series shown in the 2009 “Star Trek,” the undeniably superior outing. There’s a lot to like here, including strong performances, stellar sound design, and Abrams’ breakneck pacing, but those elements are balanced by the sense that this film falls short of the near-perfect blockbuster that preceded it.

“Star Trek Into Darkness” wastes absolutely no time. From scene one, Kirk (Chris Pine) and Bones (Karl Urban) are running from a tribe of people who haven’t even invented the wheel in an effort to distract them while Spock (Zachary Quinto) saves them from a volcanic eruption. Of course, something goes wrong (the film could have been called “Star Trek: Something Goes Wrong”) and it looks like Spock is going to die if Kirk follows the “Prime Directive.” In his logical way, Spock embraces this eventuality. You don’t break the rules to save a life, even if that life is important. Of course, Kirk acts more from instinct and emotion and he needs his First Officer and friend. The thematic core of “Into Darkness” is established – Kirk’s gut feeling vs. Spock’s logic and, more importantly, how a combination of both is needed for success.

Star Trek Into Darkness
Star Trek Into Darkness
Photo credit: Paramount Pictures

Before you can catch your breath from the whiz-bang-boom opening scene (one that felt a little too noisy and Bay-esque for my taste), an interstellar terrorist named Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) has blown up a top secret Starfleet project in London. As the power structure of Starfleet, including Admirals Pike (Bruce Greenwood) and Marcus (Peter Weller), meet to discuss how to face the challenge in front of them, they’re assaulted. In one of several arguable plot holes, Harrison leaves a clear path to find him. He’s hiding on a distant Klingon planet named Kronos. Admiral Marcus orders Kirk to take his team on a covert mission to simply assassinate the villain, avoid war with the Klingons, and return. Things don’t go exactly as planned.

There’s one thing that is clear about Abrams’ blockbuster filmmaking ability (other than his LOVE for lens flare…this time in 3D!) – he simply knows how to pace a film more expertly than most, maybe anybody, doing this kind of thing in 2013. “Star Trek Into Darkness” features more running, jumping, panic, switch pulling, shooting, crashing, and so on and so on. The plot is merely the device on which Abrams and his writers, Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof, build action scene after action scene. It does approach ridiculousness. When one thinks back on it, “Into Darkness” is really just a series of near-death events for Enterprise crew members in terms of plot. If you thought “Star Trek” was light on plot, don’t expect this one to be all that more complex.

To be fair, the writers of “Into Darkness” do find a way to get each member of the crew involved in the non-stop action. It’s still Kirk & Spock’s show but Bones, Chekhov (Anton Yelchin), Uhura (Zoe Saldanda), Sulu (John Cho), newcomer Carol (Alice Eve), and, especially, Scotty (Simon Pegg) each get major moments. The cast is totally up to the challenge. They already look as comfortable in these roles as people who have played them on TV for years. Quinto deserves major points for his dramatic development as an actor. He’s great here. On a writing level, Abrams and his team never lose sight of the dichotomy at the core of “Trek” – Kirk’s instinct vs. Spock’s adherence to the rules. And they make the case that neither approach will solve every problem, allowing these characters to grow to the eventual third chapter. Pine and Quinto both deliver.

Star Trek Into Darkness
Star Trek Into Darkness
Photo credit: Paramount Pictures

The perfect spotlight to Kirk vs. Spock comes in the form of Cumberbatch’s mysterious villain, a character who hides numerous, series-related secrets that I won’t spoil here, even if so many other critics, even those shown it far earlier than us in Chicago, had no problem ruining. I will say this – Cumberbatch is perfect. He balances his obvious intellect with a physical presence that he hasn’t really shown before. He’s terrifying and mesmerizing in equal balance and it’s highly unlikely that you won’t see a more memorable villain this year.

A better villain, stunning effects & design, strong performances all around – why does “Into Darkness” fall short of 2009’s franchise reboot? It’s the little things. That sense that the script moves so quickly as to disguise plot holes more than anything else. The repetition of the near-death experiences that happen so often that the final one doesn’t have the emotional strength that it otherwise would. I go back to that mid-season episode feeling. I really like “Star Trek Into Darkness” and think everyone who enjoyed the first one will as well, just like a great show that continues its season after its audience-grabbing premiere. However, it’s the incredible part twos that don’t just feel like the “next episode” but the “next series”. They grow and build in unexpected ways. “Star Trek Into Darkness” doesn’t do much that fans of the series won’t expect, especially with the nods to the original TV show and films. I’m a little tired of the nods. I want to see a “Star Trek” film that doesn’t just expertly and stylishly follow the familiar path but takes its own.

“Star Trek Into Darkness” stars Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelckin, Bruce Greenwood, Peter Weller, Alice Eve, and Benedict Cumberbatch. It was directed by J.J. Abrams. It was released on May 16, 2013.

HollywoodChicago.com content director Brian Tallerico

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