There’s a scene in Star Trek Into Darkness, J.J. Abrams’ zippy, operatic return to the final frontier, that includes what can only be described as a new cliché of blockbuster myth-making. The good guys, hotheaded James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and his relentlessly logical foil, Spock (Zachary Quinto), have arrested and imprisoned the bad guy, a stoic terrorist-demigod played by the imposingly proper British actor Benedict Cumberbatch. The heavy is safely contained behind a thick plate of Starfleet-grade glass. So why does it feel as though he has his captors right where he wants them? Anyone who’s seen Skyfall or The Avengers, The Dark Knight or Abrams’ own Mission: Impossible III, will recognize this textbook tactic in establishing villainous bona fides. (In truth, it probably goes back to Hannibal Lector—a fiend never more menacing then when scheming in captivity.) That the scene still works like gangbusters is a testament to the primal, goosebump-provoking power of Cumberbatch’s performance. For the first time in years, maybe decades, the crew of the Enterprise faces a worthy adversary, though he ends up proving more of a physical threat than a cerebral one.
Yes, brawn trumps brains again in Abrams’ alternate-universe Star Trek, where the heady, philosophical concerns of Gene Roddenberry’s original series take a back seat to expertly engineered pyrotechnics. Even more so than its 2009 reboot predecessor, Into Darkness is a machine built for speed, fueled by its unyielding digital cacophony and the popping personalities of its bickering spacemen. (The spacewomen, alas, still haven’t been given much to do besides look good in flattering regulation uniforms.) This Trek is taller, faster, and stronger than the last one, but it’s not quite better. The warp-speed pacing makes Into Darkness consistently nimble entertainment, but it also obscures some of the careful character work Abrams achieved during his first outing in the captain’s chair.
“I thought we were explorers,” moans Scotty (Simon Pegg, still delightful), in protest of the crew’s militaristic marching orders—a seek-and-destroy mission through enemy territory. The search for Cumberbatch’s turncoat, who lays siege to Starfleet in one of the film’s numerous sound-and-fury showdowns, serves as the catalyst for this war-minded sequel. As pure spectacle, Into Darkness delivers. The opening chase scene—set on a gorgeously crimson alien world—is a puckish tribute to the stranded-on-a-rock, away-mission episodes of the original TV show. There’s also a wonderfully kinetic human-missile sequence, and a topsy-turvy passage in which Pine must navigate a turned-on-its-ear Enterprise, as though he were traversing the capsized Titanic. Is this a $200 million dry-run to the director’s forthcoming Star Wars sequel?
Rip-roaring set-pieces aside, the biggest pleasure here is still the yin-yang chemistry between Kirk and Spock, even as the writers sand down the barbed edges of the characters’ interactions. (The two are full-fledged friends now, brothers even; the antagonism is missed.) Quinto, looking and sounding more Nimoy-ish than ever, remains the heart and soul of this spit-shined Trek, but the last movie gave him a bit more to sink his teeth into. Having largely gotten a handle on his un-Vulcan-like temper, Spock spends much of Into Darkness serving as a mouthpiece—airing moral objections, providing a voice of reason, reminding audiences of the core Trek principles. (There’s a stodgier, less sexy movie in the repercussions of the first scene, in which a flagrant violation of the Prime Directive reshapes an entire civilization.) Through Quinto, Abrams pays lip-service to bigger political and ethical questions, before moving along to the next CGI blitzkrieg.
While Into Darkness rarely resembles the thinking-man’s science fiction saga it purports to continue, the film’s worst moments are, ironically, the ones in which it pays direct homage to its forebears. For especially misguided example, Abrams’ parallel-timeline conceit allows him to re-imagine one of the most iconic scenes (and lines) in the Trek canon, through a revisionist callback as cynical as the entirety of Super 8. But there’s a middle ground between too much reverence and not enough, and the actors hit it consistently. The new Enterprise crew—not just Pine and Quinto, but also Karl Urban’s hilariously cranky Bones and John Cho’s steely Sulu—nicely capture the spirit of their characters without ever resorting to imitating those who used to play them. Here’s to boldly going where others have gone before, but taking different routes to get there.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details not talked about in this review, visit Star Trek Into Darkness’ Spoiler Space.