A film review by Craig J. Koban May 22, 2013


2013, PG-13, 133 mins.


Chris Pine as Kirk Zachary Quinto as Spock  /  Zoe Saladana as Uhura  / Karl Urban as "Bones" McKoy  /  Simon Pegg as Scotty  /  Benedict Cumberbatch as John Harrison  /  Bruce Greenwood as Pike

Directed by J.J. Abrams / Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof


I have found it next to impossible to discuss STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS without journeying into massive SPOILER territory.  You've.  Been.  Warned.   


After screening STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS I promptly went home and watched an episode of the original 1960’s TV series.  It was called “The Apple” and concerned the Enterprise crew visiting a strange alien planet where its denizens – primitive people with orange-tinged skin and little antennae protruding from their necks – worship an advanced machine that they believe to be a deity.   Kirk, Spock, McKoy, et al decide to help these subjugated people and restore them towards a sound evolutionary path. 

Now, why do I bring this up?  Watching this old episode reminded me of what J.J. Abrams’ rebooted STAR TREK series…is not.  If you’re willing to overlook its seemingly dime-store studio lot production values and archaic visual effects, the first gen STAR TREK series was – as Spock may iterate – fascinating because of its human – and not-so-human – element and the interplay between William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and Deforest Kelly.  These 40-plus-year old episodes never relied on action, spectacle, and fancy eyegasmic visual flourishes to set themselves apart.  No, they relied on characters that went on to become icons and solid writing that touched on contemplative themes.  That was and is the essence of great STAR TREK. 

And that’s precisely what’s lacking in the Abrams’ re-imagined and retrofitted TREK universe, something that I noticed a lot in his first 2009 STAR TREK film and yet again in its follow-up, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS.  Superficially, we get the classic Trekian characters of old, but both they and would-be thought-provoking storylines seem to take an aestheticizing backseat to frenzied and mercilessly sped-up action and grand CGI visual effects, which all seems like the least important elements of the finest TREK of yesteryear.  The 2009 feature afforded Abrams the chance – via some nifty, if not highly convenient, scripting - to take this iconic and incomparable series into the 21st Century by both honoring and ignoring key series cannon, which would appease TREK fundamentalists and non-die hards.  Unfortunately, too much of STAR TREK 1 and INTO DARKNESS feels like it's catering to lowest common denominator tastes for costly and intricately dense visuals, high tech production values, brawny stunts and whiz-bang mayhem.  More often than not in the new entry, I felt like poor Kirk, Spock, and McKoy were reduced to subjugated action figures within their own story.  



INTO DARKNESS takes place shortly after the 2009 film.  Kirk (Chris Pine, thanklessly making his captain his own and not a Shatner clone) and his Enterprise crew are – much like their alternate timeline counterparts in “The Apple” – trying to save a primal culture from destruction, this time from a very active volcano.  The Federation’s “Prime Directive” states that Kirk and his crew must not reveal their advanced hardware to the primitives or fundamentally alter their way of life.  Alas, the reckless, but courageous and crew-loving Kirk does just that to save Spock’s (Zachary Quinto) life at one potentially deadly point during the mission.  Predictably, this does not sit well with the Federation brass, and Admiral Pike (the solid Bruce Greenwood) is forced to strip Kirk of his captaincy and take control of the Enterprise for himself.  

While this is occurring, a vengeful and rogue Starfleet officer named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch, holder of, like, the coolest actor name ever) has decided to wage his own personal war of terror on his old bosses.  He manages to – in one of the film’s few potent sequences – plant and detonate a massive bomb in London and then unleashes, to Starfleet’s shock, a surprise attack on a meeting of all the higher ups in San Francisco that were convening to plot a course of action to apprehend him.  After the American attack, Admiral Marcus (played with militaristic coldness by Peter Weller) decides to give Kirk back his ship and crew with orders to track, find, and ultimately kill Harrison, who has fled to the Klingon home world.  Things get very complicated for the Enterprise crew when Harrison reveals his true identity and end game after Kirk decides to capture him instead of killing him as ordered. 

STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS only begins to develop a semblance of a dramatic pulse and unpredictable level of intrigue when Cumberbatch’s baddie fully emerges in the narrative, and the British thespian exudes such a caged and internalized animalistic hostility and aggression that is the stuff of savagely engaging protagonists.  He’s provided a back-story that I maybe shouldn't reveal, other than to say that it heavily hints at one particular classic TREK villain by twisting his origin story a bit by given him a psychological depth and purpose that perhaps outshines the rest of INTO DARKNESS' own story.  Cumberbatch radiates reptilian charm and icy resolve so resoundingly well that you can’t help but be transfixed whenever he appears on screen; he's this sequel's main epicenter of compelling interest.

Yet, he’s also part of this film’s problem.  He is - SPOILER WARNING - revealed to be, yup, Khan, the same genetically enhanced superman from the original STAR TREK II, but retooling such a beloved Trek villain for this new series is not the big sin of INTO DARKNESS.  The real misdeed here is how the Khan character is utilized to riff – a euphemism perhaps for uninspired copying – key scenes and sequences from the 1982 TREK film, right down to lines of dialogue end situations, albeit with little tweaks here and there and specific character reversals.  Instead of brazenly and boldly going where no sequel has gone before and taking this new crew in refreshing directions, Abrams and his screenwriters seem to wallow in lazily reformatting celebrated moments from THE WRATH OF KHAN that – if you consider the limited screen time that this new cast has had with one another – this series has not really earned.  There’s a callback scene here that also replays one of the original series’ heart-tugging death scenes, only to later cheat its way out of a potentially dark and ballsy sense of uncertain closure.  The nostalgic manipulation of viewers and TREK fans here is kind of unsavory.

All of this, and much more, reveals a startling lack of creativity and imagination that went into STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS.  This film plays upon our strong emotional connection to the finest moments of THE WRATH OF KHAN without actually telling a truly novel standalone story that deserves and earns such a dramatic reaction.  When Spock died at the end of the 1982 film, it was done at the expense of a wellspring of memories of his relationship with Kirk over several decades of immersing ourselves in their intergalactic bromance.  Chris Pine and Zachary Quito are fine actors, but when they try to re-appropriate such a scene it never reaches the same heights of tear-inducing pathos because they don’t have the same level of Shatner/Nimoy camaraderie that we really care about.  The chemistry between Shatner and Nimoy was unmistakably natural; Pine and Quinto’s is easy-going, but dutifully manufactured by comparison. 

It’s not that STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS isn't a proficiently made piece of summer entertainment.  For all of his lens flare-obsessed penchant for visual chaos, Abrams knows how to make a mind-blowingly good looking film, thanks largely to the ultra crisp and detailed cinematography by Dan Mindel (which is neither hurt nor helped by the 3D here), the virtuoso production design, and Industrial Light and Magic’s tour de force visual effects work that rivals anything that I’ve seen in a STAR WARS picture.  Yet, this new TREK is more about obtrusively eye-popping imagery first and telling a truly immersive character driven and thematically compelling story a very distant and regrettable second.  That, and the way it gracelessly borrows moments from everyone’s favorite big screen TREK adventure may leave many old school series purist ramming their heads against the cinema walls in disgust.  

Where, dare I ask, is the contemplative ideas-heavy sci-fi and richly drawn character interplay of the finest of old TREK here?  After watching INTO DARKNESS, I will take the cheaply disposable paper mache and cardboard cutout backdrops of the antiquated old series, which only helped emphasize and value its human – and Vulcan – personas struggling through futuristic, but relatable conundrums .  Too much of INTO DARKNESS, by comparison, seems hopelessly lost in space in its hero worshipping of making an unendingly spiffy looking adventure film that never really dramatically resonates as deeply as it thinks it does.  This is not the final frontier that Gene Roddenberry envisioned all those precious decades ago.


CrAiGeR's other





STAR TREK  (2009) jj1/2



And, for what it's worth, CrAiGeR's  ranking of all of the STAR TREK films:

1. STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN (1982) jjj1/2

2. STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME (1986) jjj1/2

3. STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT (1996)  jjj1/2




7. STAR TREK (2009) jj1/2




11. STAR TREK: NEMESIS (2002) jj






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