Star Trek Into Darkness is one of the greatest, if not the greatest cinematic rollercoaster ride I've ever been on. From beginning to end, the film is relentless in its action and its entertainment, barely giving you enough time to breathe—and it's all so worth it.
The rest of this review contains mild spoilers, some of which have been revealed in trailers or TV spots but others that have not.
Into Darkness opens on a new planet that the Enterprise was sent to explore, but Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) decides to take on a mission that violates the Prime Directive. Upon his return to Earth, he's torn a new one by Admiral Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), and his relationship with Spock (Zachary Quinto) is strained. However, the terrorist attack of the enigmatic John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) keeps them together and sends the Enterprise off towards the Klingon homeworld to capture the rogue Harrison. As the film unfolds, we're treated to an allegory about how defeating an enemy is not worth sacrificing our ideals and everything that we're trying to defend. Into Darkness is truly the first post-9/11 Star Trek film, with Nero's destruction of Vulcan being the Federation's 9/11.
It's this allegory that moves Into Darkness more in line with traditional Star Trek films. One of the big fan criticisms of Abrams' first Star Trek film was that it was too action-packed and missed the message that the best of Star Trek shows and films were able to put across. It dealt more with character themes rather than morality plays, but Into Darkness picks up on the morality tales and serves as an indictment of some of the more extreme anti-terrorism policies of the last 12 years.
That's not to say he let up on the action, though. The film moves at a heart-pounding pace and never lets up, with one major action beat after another, but not in a way that makes you feel like you're watching a film with action for the sake of action. It's all relevant and you can still care about the story. Parts of the action were also very reminiscent of Star Wars, which Abrams has said he was heavily influenced by. The Klingon homeworld, for example, had a scene that reminded me of the Death Star trench run, with our heroes flying a ship not too dissimilar to the Millennium Falcon. Indeed, it does seem at times like Abrams' Star Trek films were his Star Wars demo reel, but the films are not hurt by that.
The one issue I take with the action is that it moves so fast and so intensely that it becomes hard to be attached to what is happening at times. In this film, the Enterprise gets pummeled, but it happens so fast that it's difficult to feel like it's reaching a crescendo. Contrast that with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, with the battle in the Mutara Nebula. The Enterprise and the Reliant are slowly and methodically stalking each other. It's not fast and furious action, but rather a slow buildup that lets you invest in the stakes and feel for what's happening. That's something the original Star Wars trilogy did well too, and I hope it's something Abrams returns to for Star Wars Episode VII.
If I had one complaint about the characters, it was that a number of them were underdeveloped. Cumberbatch's Harrison, while a cold, calculating, and interesting villain, was less developed in terms of backstory and motivation than he could have been, though he was far better than Eric Bana's Nero in the first film. Dr. Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban) is at times relegated to a comedic metaphor machine, rather than the humanistic soul of the Enterprise as he was in the original Star Trek series. Many of the supporting players remain underused as well, much like the original series, though Lieutenant Sulu (John Cho) was given a major moment that will make any fan of George Takei's character jump for joy. Alice Eve's Carol Marcus is a solid, if not underused addition to the crew, leaving hints of what may develop between her and Captain Kirk.
In spite of those issues, though, the reason this film, like its predecessor, succeeds is because you genuinely care about the main characters. It's not just the iconic characters you care about; it's these new characters. I don't care about this Jim Kirk because of William Shatner; I care about him because of the arc that Chris Pine takes him on. I don't care about this Spock because of Leonard Nimoy, but because of the emotional development that we see Zachary Quinto portray. Towards the end, there's one especially emotional character moment where this is never truer.
In 2009, J.J. Abrams captured lightning in a bottle. This year, he proved that lightning can strike twice in the same place. When the credits rolled, my hands were numb. It was almost disorienting coming out of the experience, and that's what this movie is: a 3D IMAX experience. For the next half hour, I was on a Star Trek high, and a movie has never hit me like that before. As the film ends and the Enterprise embarks on its five-year mission, you can't help but be pumped up for the strange new worlds we might boldly go to next.
As Jim Kirk would say, let's go.
RATING: 4.5/5 stars