Movie Review: Star Trek Into Darkness
By Matthew Huntley
May 22, 2013

Ladies and gentlemen, bear witness to shameless advertising in action.

Editor’s Note: There are significant spoilers in the review below. Proceed with extreme caution if you have not seen the film and have avoided plot points thus far.

I have a feeling Star Trek Into Darkness will garner a lot of impulse clapping and cheering from Trek fans. After all, the movie gives them exactly what they want in terms of the beloved characters and a fast-moving sci-fi narrative. But I also think their enthusiasm will be short-lived. Eventually they’ll realize this sequel, much like its predecessor, functions more as a reminder of why the Gene Roddenberry-created universe is so endearing and less as an original story within that universe. It recalls the characters’ past adventures but doesn’t exactly provide them a new one, which is ironic given the series’ longstanding tagline: “To boldly go where no one has gone before.”

Like most big-budget Hollywood sequels, this one picks up shortly after the events of the first movie, which rebooted the Star Trek franchise by introducing us to the younger versions of the original characters. Even if you’re not a Trekkie, you probably know them by heart: Captain Kirk (Chris Pine); Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto); Uhura (Zoe Saldana); Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban); Scotty (Simon Pegg); Sulu (John Cho); and Chekov (Anton Yelchin). They’re all back and, once again, the screenplay doesn’t bother to develop them beyond what we already know or what the plot requires.

This might have been okay had the plot itself been more interesting, but even it feels like a retread of old material and a safe attempt to get on the audience’s good side. It retools the origins of the cherished villain Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is made stronger and more menacing compared to when Ricardo Montalban played him in the 1960s TV show and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). I can just imagine director J.J. Abrams and the three screenwriters sitting around a table and planning the exact moment they felt the audience would let out a collective “Woo!” when the new Khan reveals his identity. It wouldn’t surprise me if they felt the character’s mere presence was good enough to win the audience over and assumed the rest would just fall into place.

Still, Cumberbatch is a superb choice for Khan. He has a towering presence and a fiery strength (not to mention a cunning wit), which are all the more appropriate considering Khan is a genetically altered superhuman. He tells Kirk about a cover-up by one of the heads of Starfleet, Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller), that involved the exploitation of Khan and his people so they could be used as weaponry against Starfleet’s enemy race, the Klingons. Khan awakens from his cyber sleep and convinces a desperate soldier to blow up a Starfleet command center in London, which is meant to instigate his vengeful plan to get the heads of Starfleet in the same room so he can kill them all in one fell swoop.

But Khan wasn’t betting on the plucky and quick-thinking Kirk to thwart his diabolical scheme. After Kirk’s mentor and surrogate father figure, Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood), gets caught in the crossfire, the mission to capture and kill Khan becomes all the more personal for Kirk and he’s tested to act within the confines of fair and balanced judgment (he’s no doubt influenced by his fellow crewmen, especially the ever-logical Spock). After Kirk beams himself to Kronos, the dark and dangerous home planet of the Klingons, it’s up to Kirk and the Enterprise gang to retrieve him, as well as unspool Marcus’ devious intentions.

Those already familiar with the original TV show or The Wrath of Khan will know the events of Into Darkness are meant to give the former supplemental backstory. And while Abrams and his filmmaking team are able to make “Darkness” fun and energetic, my overall feeling is that it’s more reiterative than fresh. It prompted me to ask a few questions, beginning with what’s the point? I mean, why re-introduce, re-inform and re-establish characters and plots that already exist? What do these updated Star Trek movies really bring to the table that wasn’t there before, in one form or another, or that the audience couldn’t have surmised on their own? Why not introduce a completely new villain into the mix, one that tests the pre-existing characters in ways we haven’t seen before? Why can’t these latest adventures be thought of as complete, separate entities, instead of as prequels to the films that take place in the relative future?

It just seemed like the whole point of a Star Trek reboot was to, in fact, revitalize the franchise, but I get the feeling Abrams and the studio are more keen on playing things safe and simply renovating old material instead of building something from scratch. Perhaps they were too worried about upsetting die-hard fans.

On the other hand, as mindless summer fun, Star Trek Into Darkness is solid entertainment. Abrams is a master of pacing and always keeps the story moving and coherent, even if the story itself is trite. We’re never bored and although the territory it speeds across feels overly familiar, the film’s momentum, special effects and ardent cast keep us engaged in the action.

These qualities will likely be enough to please most moviegoers, but I’m of the mind that if these new “Star Trek movies are meant to develop and push the mythology forward, it wouldn’t be right to simply settle for it being fun and exciting. We need to hold the narrative to a higher standard and demand the writers push it through a more rigorous creative process, one that results in a story beyond what we want to see and that merely makes us feel good and comfortable. Abrams and company obviously have the pull (and budget) to raise the stakes and take the series somewhere new and different. This may be riskier, but not knowing where you’re going is often the best way to discover a place you’ve never been, and is that not the underlying philosophy of Star Trek in the first place?