Movie Review: “Star Trek Into Darkness”

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star-trek-into-darkness(Note: this summer, we are running two reviews of the some of the biggest films. For Shawn Kotzen’s take on “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” see here.) 

“Star Trek: Into Darkness,” the second film of J.J. Abrams’ reboot of Gene Roddenberry’s late-’60s space saga, is one of those films that I had a great time watching while it was going on. It was only after I thought about it a little bit that the numerous flaws and plot holes started to show.

The film works as a sci-fi and action film that’s mostly- but not completely- true to the ‘Trek’ universe. But “Into Darkness” also falls short of both the first film and, uh, the other “Star Trek II,” largely because there are just a few too many plot holes and storytelling cheats for comfort.

Much in the way that Abrams’ previous film, 2011’s “Super 8,” was a conscious tribute to early Spielberg films like “Close Encounters” and “E.T.,” “Into Darkness” functions as an elaborate homage to 1982’s “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn,” recreating both themes and specific moments. Abrams’ gambit in the first film to alter “Star Trek”‘s established timeline and continuity pays off in some ways, though not so much in others.

Set, apparently, not too long after the events of the 2009 film, “Into Darkness” has Kirk once again flouting the Prime Directive- though for good reason- and temporarily demoted. He and the rest of the Enterprise crew are then brought into contact with an evil Starfleet turncoat (Benedict Cumberbatch,) who’s possibly allied with an admiral (Peter Weller.) Cumberbatch’s arc leads to a major revelation, one that was guessed correctly by the vast majority of observers… about a year ago, on the day Cumberbatch was first cast.

Despite a character arc that’s all over the place, Cumberbatch makes for an excellent villain, much better than Eric Bana’s cipher of a bad guy in the previous movie. He’s legitimately menacing, and charismatic as well, even if his plan doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

The rest of the cast performs pretty well too. Chris Pine has the swagger of the young Shatner down perfectly, while Zachary Quinto is continually a revelation as Spock. Others, like Jon Cho’s Sulu and Anton Yelchin’s Chekhov, aren’t given a whole lot to do. Alice Eve is on board, as well, as a science officer whose character may be familiar to fans of the early films.

With a couple of glaring exceptions- one particularly chaotic action scene involving the Klingons, and those ever-present blue lens flares- the film looks fantastic. The production design is both faithful to the Trek mythology yet comfortably in the 21st century- or I should say, the 23rd.

So what’s the problem? There are major storytelling cheats in both the first and third acts. The first twist is nonsensical but forgivable, but the last is much more problematic. Without spoiling much, what took an entire movie in the first series takes about three minutes in this one, and it looks an awful lot like an unearned deus ex machina. Speaking of the third act, it owes more to “Speed,” “Die Hard” – and every other 1990s action-adventure that concluded with the hero and villain fist-fighting aboard a movie vehicle- than to the “Star Trek” universe.

Abrams’ likely-now-concluded tenure as “Star Trek” director was mostly a success- he brought the franchise back with the hits, including an excellent first film and so-so second one. Still, I’m curious to see what another director can do with this material.

There have actually been three “Star Trek IIs”: “Wrath of Khan,” “First Contact” (the second and by far the best movie featuring the Next Generation characters) and now “Into Darkness.’ While undeniably entertaining, the new film is the pretty clearly the weakest of the three.

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