Four years ago, the Star Trek franchise boldly went in a different direction by doing something unexpected; going all the way back to the beginning. In the plainly titled Star Trek (2009), audiences were treated to a surprisingly effective reboot of the series featuring the original, iconic characters. The reboot was a huge risk, given the backlash that could have come from the hardcore Trekkie fanbase, but the end result proved to be a resounding success, becoming the highest grossing Trek film ever. I believe that a large part of the film’s success came from the unconventional choice of a director; in this case, famed TV Writer/Producer J.J. Abrams. Abrams had only directed one film prior (the underwhelming Mission: Impossible 3) and had stated that he was never much of a Trek fan before taking the job. This proved to be a good thing for the making of Star Trek, because Abrams set out to make a film that he would want to watch, broadening the appeal of the series beyond its fanbase.
This is why I liked the reboot so much because like Abrams, I was never much of a Trek fan myself. Star Trek was a movie that finally helped me to understand why this series has been a fanboys’ and girls’ dream all these years, and I was incredibly pleased to finally see a big budget movie that put emphasis back on the characters and plot rather than in the special effects. I particularly loved the casting in the film, as far as finding actors who could embody these characters without trying to mimic the original actors’ performances. Of course, given the movie’s enormous success, a sequel had to happen. After a long wait, the much-anticipated follow-up has come. Star Trek Into Darkness, picks things up right where the previous film left off and returns the entire cast and crew, along with J.J. Abrams back in the directors chair. A lot of hype has surrounded this film, given the strong reception of its predecessor, and I was certainly among those hoping to see a great follow up. Thankfully, this sequel is no let-down.
I can’t really go far into detail in the plot without revealing a few spoilers. Basically it follows Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and the crew of the Starship Enterprise as they track down a mysterious terrorist named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), who has struck the very heart of Starfleet, murdering many high-command officers in the process. Kirk is given charge to hunt Harrison down and kill him without mercy, an order the vengeful captain gladly accepts. Despite protests from his crew, including Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Scotty (Simon Pegg), Kirk finds Harrison hiding out on Kronos, the Klingon home planet, which is un-friendly ground for defenders of the Federation. After a confrontation, in which Harrison single-handedly takes on a whole army of Klingons, he and Kirk finally meet, and this is where the mystery starts to unfold. The remainder of the story is full of revealed secrets that both pay homage to past Trek lore, while at the same building a solid mystery at the center of the film’s plot.
Without spoiling a lot, suffice to say, the story holds up very well. This is an excellent follow up to the previous film; staying true to what’s been done before, while at the same time taking big risks and pushing the series further. One big difference is the size and scope of the movie. J.J. Abrams gives Into Darkness a much more epic feel than the previous film. The action set pieces are incredibly ambitious and will have most audiences on the edge of their seats. At the same time, the film still manages to keep its focus on the characters in the story, another excellent carry-over from the previous installment. I’m still very impressed with the actors playing the crew of the Enterprise. Zachary Quinto manages to hold his own as Spock, even when sharing the screen with the original Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy. Chris Pine still pulls off any amazing feat of playing James T. Kirk without ever slipping into any Shatner-isms. The film also features a lot more of Simon Pegg as Scotty, which is always a good thing. In fact, every iconic character gets a good moment in this movie; even Chekov (just watch his reaction when he’s told to put on a red shirt).
However, the standout here is definitely the villain. Benedict Cumberbatch delivers an astounding performance as John Harrison; a man who is much more than he seems. There is a big reveal half-way through the film about his character that could’ve easily been done poorly if played by the wrong actor. Thankfully Cumberbatch sells it perfectly and is able to make the character work well enough as the film’s antagonist, even setting aside where he fits within the Trek universe. The performance is so nuanced and memorable, that it really doesn’t matter who John Harrison really is in the end. He could be named anybody else, and the character as he is in the film would’ve still made a memorable villain. I’m hoping that this movie gives Benedict Cumberbatch a good career boost. If you haven’t seen his work on the BBC’s Sherlock, I highly recommend you do. He’s a very talented actor, and I’m happy to see him utilized so well in this film.
Unfortunately, the movie is not without some flaws. In particular, it has a very lackluster final act. Without going into too much detail, I will only say that the film oddly loses some of its focus in the last 30 minutes or so and starts to rely too heavily on plot conveniences and action film cliches. One of the things that these movies have done so well is pay homage to the original Trek films and series with several well placed references. For the most part, the references are well handled here, until the later part of the movie, when they start to become very heavy-handed. One scene in particular is almost lifted entirely from an previous film, and it will probably rub some die-hard Trekkies the wrong way. Not only that, but the final confrontation with the villain is kind of a letdown, given how the rest of the film has been leading up to it. The especially problematic part is that it leads to some out-of-character decisions made by the good guys, many of which don’t make that much sense. All of this creates a remarkably messy finale, which is not made better by a very rushed ending.
This doesn’t mean that it ruins the movie as a whole. I very much liked 2/3 of it, and I would still strongly recommend it to everyone. Most things are done right and I definitely think it’s a worthy follow-up to the previous film. The last 30 minutes of the movie does make it a lesser film, however, and I’m puzzled as to why J.J. Abrams and his writers decided to go in the direction that they did in the final act. They had done such a nice job with the previous 90 minutes, so what happened? It seemed that either Abrams was under a lot of pressure to fulfill audience expectations or he just didn’t know how to make old familiar tropes feel authentically in place in his story-line. Whatever happened, the movie still works. He may have stumbled over the line, but Abrams was still able to finish the race.
This also marks J.J. Abrams final outing as the standard-bearer of the Star Trek franchise. In 2015, Abrams will take over the reigns of the Star Wars franchise, crossing a bridge between two beloved galaxies that no one ever thought could be crossed. Into Darkness does end with the promise of more adventures to come, and I definitely would love to see more, especially if they keep this cast intact. That ultimately is the best thing about this particular film; it left me wanting more in the end. Despite its flaws, Star Trek Into Darkness is an enormous crowdpleaser, and it should be embraced by all audiences, Trekkie or no. I look forward to seeing more adventures with the crew of the Enterprise in the future, because after seeing how well the door’s been opened to new possibilities by Mr. Abrams, the sky really is the limit.