2009's Star Trek was a hot box office hit that managed to gain scores of new fans and please conventions of old school Trekkers. Well, most of them anyways. As Spock would say: "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." And for my fellow fans that is what it really comes down to in Abrams' take, making Trek movie for the masses, not love letters to old school fans who will dissect the films to pieces regardless.
Bigger means bigger here. Bigger effects. Bigger ships. Bigger explosions. Bigger battles. Big thrills with massive twists and turns. Yes, buckle your seat belts for the said twists and turns you're in store for. Hell, after all this time, even the Enterprise is FINALLY outfitted with much needed seat belts. I'll refrain from stepping deep into any specific spoiler territory here, they already exist aplenty online and are easily within one or two quick clicks of this review. Needless to say, it's only fair to be vague on the story, and a entirely different discussion can be made once one is freed from tiptoeing around the meaty plot details.
That said, this epic well-paced second big screen adventure starts off as it should, right in the thick of the action. We already got the origin story, so thankfully absolutely no precious screen time is wasted on getting reacquainted with our iconic intrepid crew: Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Sulu (John Cho), Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and Scotty (Simon Pegg).
What should have been a innocuous mission turns into a major breach of etiquette regarding Starfleet's Prime Directive, which protects primitive cultures from exposure to higher technology than they have developed on their own. Kirk being hotheaded Kirk pays no heed to such things from the rule book in order to save Spock's life on an alien world. Following the thrilling eye opening sequence, James T is stripped of his ship and command as a result of cheating death for his Vulcan friend. Echoes of plot points from the Shanter/Nimoy-era films will not fall on deaf ears to older fans.
Acts of brutal Earth-bound terrorism committed by Benedict Cumberbatch's former Starfleet officer John Harrison sees Kirk and crew sent off on a splinter cell mission to take him out while also leading them into a head to head battle with the Klingons. It's likely that the first half hour of Into Darkness contains more action and gunplay than we've ever seen in any version of Trek. Not only is that is a good thing, but now a staple regarding the more accessible direction the series has taken.
It's from this point on the highly appropriate Into Darkness title really kicks in as friendships are tested and lost, characters show their true colors, and the plot takes you on a rollar coaster ride free for all on what you think you know, and what you actually know. The first film which by including Leonard Nimoy as Spock, directly dealt with, explained and incorporated (but nonetheless rebooted) the original series' timeline. Into Darkness however plays with past ideas on a much more subtle level. It could have easily just moved forward freely on its own path, but fans (with varying degrees) will hear echoes from the rich history to recycle. How you feel about this here depends on your view of whether the series has earned the right to stand all on its own, or should adhere to taking various cues from the past.
Cumberbatch, best know for his acclaimed work on BBC's Sherlock, brings a menacing cold steel elegance to the film's rogue villain. While his role here has been the object of obsessive online speculation since he was cast, Cumberbatch truly tests the mettle of the crew and effortlessly makes his mark among the best of the Trek villains.
Alice Eve joins the cast as Carol Marcus, a familiar character re-booted for the new timeline. While a welcome addition, her necessary role in the plot tips the balance for the ensemble crew and takes away some screen time from Sulu and Chekov. Genre icon Peter Weller turns in a truly memorable performance as her father Admiral Marcus, who proves to be a crucial chess piece to the dynamics of the dense plot filled with heavy political and personal overtones.
For the most part, the film held me firmly on board. I marveled at the intricacies of the screenplay and Abrams' lens flare-adorned spectacle that I am an admitted apologist for. But then came one pivotal point in the third act and it all crashed on me, and the film firmly loses its identity. I have to admit certain subsequent script decisions dropped me hard, real hard. It's easily a debatable point, and I can't really expand on it this early in the film's theatrical run. But it's a firm loud announcement from behind the curtain of "Oh yes, we're really gonna do this" to the audience in the know.
The screenplay takes the rebooted characters their next level, and some of the interplay is exceptional. While perhaps not quite the middle chapter of a trilogy we may have expected, it certainly frees the series up from some necessary building block bullet points (despite how much I knew about the plot ahead of time, I still found myself constantly surprised as the story progressed). Expectations are big, and film makers like Abrams set their own bar sky high.
What works tremendously is the top notch visuals, as if that would be in doubt. If you can hold on for cameras with contant yet precise motion, you're in luck. There is a boatload of glorious CGI magic, it always feels tangible with substantial weight behind it all. The healthy portion of practical sets and effects mixed in should be applauded. The 3D conversion is also quite good, Abrams' directing and framing style thankfully lends itself to the extra layer.
Old fans and newbie fans will take away different things from the experience, and I feel those with less baggage from the past may be better off for it in this case. My reservations lie directly with the script choices made that tested me as an old school fan who sees the blank slate of the alternate timeline a greater freedom to move beyond Trek history, which is not always the case here. If your Trek filmography is comprised solely of the 2009 film, pay no heed to my cavets (which marred, but did not supersede my overall enjoyment of the film).
Up next for Abrams (in 2015) is nothing less than Star Wars: Episode VII. While I don't want Star Wars to look exactly like this, I sure don't mind knowing it may look a lot like this.
Star Trek Into Darkness opens in 2D, RealD 3D and IMAX 3D on May 16th.
REVIEW RATING: ★ ★ ★☆☆
Directed By: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Benedict Cumberbatch, Karl Urba, John Cho
Running Time: 132 minutes