Mark Reviews Movies

Star Trek Into Darkness


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: J.J. Abrams

Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, John Cho, Alice Eve, Anton Yelchin, Peter Weller, Bruce Greenwood

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence)

Running Time: 2:12

Release Date: 5/16/13

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Review by Mark Dujsik | May 16, 2013

The key debate in Star Trek Into Darkness features the characters trying to decide whether to follow orders and fire a cache of torpedoes upon a terrorist who has attacked their organization, killed their friends and comrades, and could strike again at any time or to try to arrest this criminal, who also happens to be a member of their organization, and bring him to justice. What's fascinating about the way Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof's screenplay establishes that central dispute is that it's a no-win scenario.

If the ship launches its payload, there's a distinct possibility that the occupants of the planet where the terrorist is hiding—a species that has only shown to crave battle since their discovery—will use the attack as a reason to go to war. If the crew tries to arrest the outlaw, they will be disobeying direct orders from their superior, and there's still the very real possibility that they will be captured, interrogated, tortured, and killed by the warrior aliens.

Once again, war with a planet that has nothing to do with the terrorist is probable, and after many revelations about the nature of the terrorist and another villain hiding in plain sight, it turns out that neither option is necessarily right. One is simply more wrong than the other in the bigger picture.

The allegory here is neither subtle nor does it need to be (It's so overt, in fact, that the film ends with a retrospectively apologetic dedication to veterans of the post-9/11 conflicts). This is, after all, a film based on the Gene Roddenberry television series from the 1960s that used its futuristic setting as a way to comment on the social and global issues of the time.

This is an exciting entry—one of the best entries, really—in the series. It embraces both the desire to offer mightily impressive spectacle and the capacity for exploring ideas. Thankfully, the ideas this time around—unlike 2009's Star Trek, which clumsily established itself as an alternate timeline of the original universe—have nothing to do with time travel and trying to ensure unnecessary continuity between the previous versions and this one (save for one random scene, which uses a cameo as a way to shoehorn in an extraneous revelation via deus ex machina or vice versa).

The film opens with the stakes immediately high in a prologue that sees James Kirk (Chris Pine), captain of the starship Enterprise, and "Bones" McCoy (Karl Urban), the ship's chief medical officer, running from some angry aliens through a lushly red forest. Meanwhile Spock (Zachary Quinto), Kirk's second-in-command, tries to plant a cold fusion device in an erupting volcano that could destroy the indigenous life forms on the planet.

We know no real harm can come to the main crew members this early in the story. Aware of this conundrum, the screenplay uses the scenario for two key decisions on the part of its leads: Kirk decides to break the central rule of Starfleet to save a member of his crew, and while surrounded by lava and waiting for the timer on the device to hit zero (The film uses a ticking clock a few times and to surprisingly successful effect), Spock kneels, outstretches his arms, and calmly accepts his fate.

If the undercurrent of the plot is the question of the relevance of and necessity for ethics in wartime, the underlying thrust of the arcs of Kirk—the man who lives like he's never going to die and who's convinced himself that he'll never allow the death of anyone in his "family"—and Spock—the half-human, half-Vulcan who has experienced the annihilation of his entire planet and has determined never to feel that pain again—is a shifting perspective on death. The two have moved past petty bickering; their bond is now one based on grudging respect for each other.

After that predicament in the prologue has been resolved, the film eventually reveals its villain. Our first understanding of him comes not through his name or appearance but through his actions in a pair of nearly silent sequences—save for hushed words and sobs under Michael Giacchino's meditative score—that show how he manipulates the father of sick daughter into blowing up a secret Starfleet defense facility. This is a tough and cunning adversary—physically invincible and coldly logical (A scene in which he and Spock work out a standoff to its rational end before either makes a move plays with a connection between Spock's fixed belief in the rules and the villain taking that same philosophy to sinister extremes). His name is John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch, menacing even when tears well up in his eyes as he relates his history), but he also goes by another, more familiar name.

Kirk and his crew track Harrison to Kronos, an industrial wasteland that—as is appropriate for the home of the war-hungry Klingons (who are really intimidating here)—seems to have been at war with its own moon, which orbits just above its surface and is shattered in pieces reaching out toward space. The film's design is a marvel of diverse locales, images of space that look authentic, and worn ships that give a sense of their construction (most notably in a dynamic sequence that has Kirk and his trusty engineer Scotty, played by Simon Pegg, racing through their ship as its center of gravity changes).

The special effects have weight, and director J.J. Abrams (who, with cinematographer Dan Mindel, takes full advantage of ambient lighting to give the film a suitably otherworldly look) offers action sequences that are as diverse as the locations. The usual space battles take a backseat to scenes of controlled chaos (like a shootout between the crew, with the aid of a temporary ally, and a squad of Klingons) and coordinated feats of precision (like a truly thrilling sequence in which Kirk and Harrison dash through debris in the vacuum of space from one ship to another, with the complications mounting at every turn).

Just as the original series of movies found its footing in the second installment, Star Trek Into Darkness announces that the reboot of the franchise is ready and able to carry the mantle of Roddenberry's creation on its own terms. The film demonstrably shows that this world is still relevant as long as its incarnations are willing to take its characters and, above all, its mission seriously.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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