Zachary Quinto’s Spock and Chris Pine’s Capt. Kirk are joined by new cast member Benedict Cumberbatch.
‘Star Trek Into Darkness’
4 stars (out of 4)
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action violence
Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Benedict Cumberbatch
Director: J.J. Abrams
Run time: 132 minutes
In the opening scenes of “Star Trek Into Darkness,” Capt. Kirk and Mr. Spock illustrate fundamental differences in character. Amidst a noble attempt to save the destruction of an inhabited planet by volcano apocalypse, Kirk breaks the rules to save the life of his pointy-eared pal, who was willing to accept his fate and sacrifice himself for the greater good.
The rest of the film explores Kirk and Spock’s capacity for change. The long-standing “Trek” mythology, dating back to the 1960s TV show, exploited the dynamic between these two men, Kirk being ruled by gut instinct, and Spock, by intent, scrutinous logic. What makes director J.J. Abrams’ franchise reinvention – the first film, “Star Trek,” debuted in 2009 – work so well is the way he balances flashy pop filmmaking with strong character, the two elements shaking hands nicely. The initial sequence of “Into Darkness” is thrilling, fun and suspenseful, but it doesn’t exist merely to impress the audience. It establishes the film’s underlying theme. Neither side of Kirk or Spock’s argument is necessarily wrong.
Kirk and Spock continue to make moral judgments throughout the movie, informing the plot just as much as they stir up provocative complexities. Where many space operas make a clear distinction between right and wrong, Abrams’ “Star Trek” isn’t interested in simple clarity – the “Into Darkness” title suggests not a voyage into evil, but into murky areas of the mind. The “Star Wars” films drew a line in the sand, and Anakin Skywalker stepped over it to become Darth Vader; Luke Skywalker teetered on the edge, entertaining the Dark Side of the Force briefly before ultimately donning the white hat. (Ironically, Abrams’ next film will be the continuation of the “Star Wars” saga, and it’ll be interesting to see if he’ll navigate more complicated territory.)
Which isn’t to say “Into Darkness” is a brainy thinkpiece. It is wildly entertaining, propulsive and involving, funny and spiked with honest emotion. Respectively reprising their roles as Kirk and Spock, Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto adeptly handle all comedic, dramatic and physical demands thrown at them. They’re a terrific pair, a strong basis for the franchise. They’re buoyed by a game and talented supporting cast, primarily Simon Pegg as Scotty, Karl Urban as Bones and Zoe Saldana as Uhura, still romantically entangled with Spock.
Three new characters are introduced, and most significantly, the one played by Benedict Cumberbatch. He is a mostly, but not all-the-way bad guy. Of course, or else the excellent screenplay by Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman might betray its own ambitions. Cumberbatch’s character is a sinister type staging terrorist-style attacks on Starfleet Academy, then escaping to Kronos, the dangerous home planet of the nasty Klingons. Peter Weller plays Marcus, the Starfleet honcho who assigns Kirk and Spock the secret mission to assassinate the guy with some unsanctioned weapons of mass destruction, and Alice Eve is his daughter, Carol, a plot device who cons her way onto the Enterprise as an additional science officer.
I’m being cagey with plot details because the story has a few clever convolutions that work best to surprise an audience. “Into Darkness” also has many humorous exchanges, one-liners and callbacks to classic “Trek” motifs, from Bones’ myriad metaphors to Spock’s Vulcan nerve pinch. Abrams does large-scale action – and there are numerous set pieces, the most exhilarating being a sequence where Kirk and the Cumberbatch character don rocket-powered space suits and dangerously speed through debris-filled space – and small-scale character extremely well, although he tends to overuse weaving, handheld camerawork and distracting lens flare. But such complaints don’t make the film any less essential. He wisely, fearlessly and amusingly twists and subverts precedent and mythology. Traditionalists who get hung up on such change should find Kirk and Spock’s progression particularly poignant.