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“Star Trek Into Darkness” Review: J.J. Abrams’ sequel sets phasers to familiar

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J.J. Abrams accomplished what many thought impossible with his 2009 reboot of the “Star Trek” franchise that simultaneously recast the main characters and created a fresh start for future films, so there’s been no shortage of interest in what he’d do for an encore with “Star Trek Into Darkness.”

While hardcore fans and armchair Trekkies alike speculated about the plot and potential cast of characters in the second installment of the rebooted franchise, the real question at the heart of it all boiled down to this: Would the new “Star Trek” follow the course laid out by the previous franchise, or would the crew of the USS Enterprise boldly go where their predecessors had never gone before?

If “Into Darkness” is any indication, the answer is mostly the former, with a little bit of the latter to keep things interesting.

Without revealing too many of the film’s surprises, “Star Trek Into Darkness” finds James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) booted out of the captain’s chair by Starfleet after a routine exploratory expedition takes a bad turn. His demotion doesn’t last long, though, and he soon finds himself commanding the crew of the Enterprise with Spock (Zachary Quinto) at his side, in pursuit of a terrorist named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). Harrison’s one-man mission to destroy Starfleet takes the crew of the Enterprise and their quarry across the far reaches of space and into Klingon territory, and sheds light on some dark secrets that could bring the universe to the brink of war.

In some ways, “Into Darkness” is an improvement on its predecessor, taking the outer-space action and ambitious effects sequences of “Star Trek” to the next level and upping the visual ante. The spaceship battles are more intense, the stunts are more fantastic, and even the villain gets an upgrade with Sherlock star Cumberbatch.

Eric Bana’s villainous Romulan miner Nero served as a nice foil for Kirk and the Enterprise crew in the previous film, but his character never managed to stand out from the events unfolding around him. The opposite is true for Cumberbatch’s turn as Harrison, who commands your attention every moment he’s on the screen and also provides a nice distraction from some of the flaws in the film. In fact, the “Sherlock” actor is such a powerful presence in the film that it does him a disservice when his character’s true identity – a classic character from the original television series – is finally revealed.

Rather than letting the audience sit back and enjoy the fascinating character that Cumberbatch is crafting, the film’s big “surprise” removes any uncertainty regarding his motives and what his future holds. It’s all too bad, really, because in the run-up to the big reveal, Cumberbatch manages to give the rebooted “Star Trek” universe an original, memorable villain that differentiates it from everything that came before – much like The Borg did for “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

In tying this particular character’s identity to the past, “Into Darkness” misses a great opportunity to give the rebooted franchise its own identity.

As for the returning cast, the entire crew of the Enterprise gets a bit more time to establish themselves in their roles, and it serves each of them well – particularly when it comes to Kirk and Spock and their relationship. While Simon Pegg is a bit underused as Chief Engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott, we do get a bit more time with Karl Urban’s version of Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, who hams it up with his trademark metaphors and curmudgeonly spin on the events transpiring around him. Where the first film went a long way toward selling audiences on the new cast, “Into Darkness” finds the actors settling into their roles a bit more comfortably – particularly John Cho (as Sulu), who continues to be one of the standouts in the new-generation “Star Trek” cast.

As a science-fiction adventure for summer-movie audiences, “Into Darkness” does a nice job of providing all the excitement and explosive moments one expects from a blockbuster of this sort, but it might try a little too hard to hit the obligatory beats for fans of the franchise. At times, the amount of catchphrases and call-outs to the past becomes a bit distracting, with each famous line inviting comparison to the previous actor’s delivery and tugging you out of the moment.

“Into Darkness” also suffers some technical issues that could be worth considering when you decide which version of the film to see. While the IMAX format serves the scope of the story well, the 3-D treatment creates a lot of blur whenever the camera pans over a detailed environment. This is especially frustrating during some of the action scenes set against lush backgrounds, as there’s a real sense that the setting would make the sequence even more epic if it wasn’t so blurred. If you’ve had problems with films presented in IMAX 3D in the past, “Into Darkness” will probably offer more of the same.

Still, despite its technical issues and some missed opportunities, “Star Trek Into Darkness” manages to deliver as an effects-fueled summer blockbuster that both advances the new franchise and tells a wildly entertaining story. Most importantly, it leaves fans looking forward to exploring more strange new worlds, new life forms, and new civilizations with the crew of the USS Enterprise.

“Star Trek Into Darkness” hits theaters May 17, and stars Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Zoe Saldana, among others. The film is directed by J.J. Abrams.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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