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.