Sunday, July 31, 2016

Star Trek into Darkness (2013)


So the 2009 version of Star Trek did something I didn’t think was really possible. It got mainstream viewers back into the theaters to watch a Star Trek film. Was it the magic combo of J.J. Abrams and lens flares, or was there some techno-babble validation that Spock could rattle off for us? In any case the success of the film was enough to convince Paramount to get a sequel in the works. I for one was looking forward to seeing where the crew trekked next. But was Into Darkness the destination I had in mind?


Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) finds himself in a bit of trouble when he ignores the Prime Directive during a mission, and exposes a pre-space faring culture to the sight of the Enterprise rising from the ocean. Kirk faces disciplinary action, but not before the Federation’s base in London is destroyed. Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) believes that a terrorist named Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) was involved. After Starfleet headquarters are attacked in San Francisco, Marcus sends Kirk and the Enterprise on a covert mission to attack Harrison who is hiding in Klingon space.

Kirk is all for the mission, but Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Scotty (Simon Pegg) are disturbed by it. Scotty even resigns his post, and Dr. Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) picks up point on the new photon torpedoes that the Admiral has given them. As the mission proceeds, Kirk makes a fateful decision that will put him at odds with Marcus and face to face with an enemy who will spell doom to a member of the crew. Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, John Cho, Anton Yelchin and Bruce Greenwood join in this Star Trek into Darkness.

Good Points:
  • Amazing visuals and sound design in this film
  • Excellent acting by just about everyone in the cast
  • Has great pacing and tells a compelling story

Bad Points:
  • Aims for a more dower atmosphere
  • Some of the familiar plot beats are going to be too distracting for some viewers
  • Those looking for less action than the 2009 film are going to be disappointed.


This movie gets a bad rap, but it is solidly entertaining and is actually a better made film than its predecessor. Cumberbatch brings a lot of gravitas to his role and makes for an excellent antagonist to our favorite crew. Meanwhile the plot delves into a moral dilemma that is relevant in traditional Star Trek fashion. While I was hoping for a film more about space exploration, what we got instead was a military thriller set in the Star Trek universe. It works well and is worth checking out, if you can get past some of the familiar surface plot and character points.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 5
Acting: 4
Script: 3
Music: 4
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total: 4

In Depth Review

You can't keep a good starship down.
I really enjoyed the 2009 version of Star Trek. I thought Abrams took a lot of the elements I love about the franchise and modernized them. He also brought a sense of fun and excitement to the films, something I feel had been sorely lacking in the last few installments of the series. That said, I was looking forward to seeing the new version of the crew journey to those strange new worlds and meet unique aliens and have adventures that thrilled and inspired. Well, Into Darkness has a very different agenda, and I have to say that I was a little disappointed when I figured out where this movie was headed.

I mentioned in my review of Nemesis that I think Paramount is really fixated on The Wrath of Khan, and that they feel that film is the template that all other Star Trek films must follow. I remember the writers saying early in preproduction for this film that they were going to focus on space exploration and not include a central villain in the story. They would instead have the conflict build from the unknown. That sounded great to me!

Has the Enterprise met her shadow self?
But at some point, gears were shifted and a new script was crafted. If this was a second movie in a “new” franchise then it needed to mimic the second movie the classic series. It needed to be Wrath of Khan. And how excited were the studio execs when they realized they could mimic the older film and get away with it because hell, this is a new continuity. So the ship was on course for Wrath of Khan with bigger special effects and lots more action.

The thing is Abrams and his writing crew took the story of Khan (and most importantly Space Seed the classic episode that introduced us to Khan) and used it as a starting point. Instead of making this a tale of one man’s revenge against Kirk, they turned it into a military thriller in which the crew of the Enterprise finds themselves trapped between a terrorist and a ruthless government. Into Darkness does what the 2009 film didn’t do: present us with current social problem in the lens of science fiction adventure.

This becomes the major stumbling block for a lot of people. If you can’t get past the concept of Into Darkness reimagining the story of Khan and his conflict with the Federation, then you just aren’t going to enjoy this movie. All the beats are there, with a few deviations. You know how the film is going to end, and even be able to predict some of the dialogue.

"No, I'm not Loki, I'm Khan. Not even the same actor...
are you even paying attention?"
Beyond that Benedict Cumberbatch is in no way Ricardo Montalban. Now some folks will say that is a good thing. But if Montalban’s performance as Khan in the original series is seared into your mind you may have disconnect issues seeing Cumberbatch in the same role (even if they spend the first portion of the movie calling him Harrison).

But leave aside those elements and focus on the film as part of the new direction of the franchise. Does Into Darkness continue the growth of the characters, the world of Star Trek established in the 2009 timeline, and provide an action packed adventure. I think it does. In fact, I hear people calling this one loud dumb movie, and I’m not sure where they are coming from. Did they see the same film I did?

Admiral Marcus' model collection is the envy of the
From a visual standpoint, Into Darkness continues the look and feel that Abrams brought to the series. There are some new away team outfits as well as new ships like the Vengeance dreadnaught that appears in the second half of the film. Like the previous film there are neat touches like the Admiral uniforms that echo the admiral uniform Kirk wears in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Abrams does stick to his lens flares, so if those annoy you, well you aren’t going to get away from them here. But I did find this film to be edited a little smoother, and actually have a lot less shaky cam going on it. In fact most of the action scenes and big special effects moments are top notch, another high point for the series.

The subdued colors are seen when the crew is not
on the Enterprise.
Fitting the name, the visuals in this film shy away from the popping color of the previous film. Instead a lot of the film occurs in the dark or with the primary colors being white, black, grey and steel. This fits the films approach to the political spectrums in the film. Kirk is presented facts that he feels are concrete. Black is black. White is white. But once he meets Khan, he realizes that none of that may be true, and that Admiral Marcus may be lying to him for reasons that are very much grey.

Much of the sound effect work continues to be top notch. Once again Ben Burtt that mastermind behind the amazing sound effects of Star Wars returns to supervise the sound design. We get a mix of the old and new and it works wonders in supporting the visuals of the film.

Michael Giacchino is back as the composer. His work for the 2009 Star Trek was really impressive. He continues his winning streak with Into Darkness. He brings back his bold and heroic theme for the Enterprise and Kirk. This time he uses many variations to keep things interesting. He also brings back Spock’s theme a couple of times, but not quite as fleshed out as we got in the 2009 film.

"What are you looking at, smooth head?"
Where Giacchino really shines are with this three antagonist themes. First up is the brash and aggressive music for the Klingons. While not quite as distinctive as Goldsmith’s Klingon theme from The Motion Picture, we get a theme that uses bold choral chanting – in the Klingon language! Next up is the theme for the Vengence. This theme is a little sad, but one that can turn aggressive very easily. We hear it quite a few times in the film, often mixing and playing with Khan’s theme – stressing the relationship between Khan and Marcus.

Khan does get a theme, one that is calculating, building slowly to greater and greater intensity. Giacchino uses it to great effect in the score, again playing it subtly when Khan is at work. One of my favorite moments in the film and in the score is when Kirk and Khan attempt to board the Vengence by propelling themselves bodily through space. Giacchino plays Kirk’s theme in counterpoint to Khan’s creating one hell of a musical ride that builds and builds in excitement. Giacchino is one of my favorite film composers working today and his work in the Star Trek franchise is consistently great.

Scotty pleads his case to Kirk.
The cast continues the fine job they started in 2009. Pine as Kirk gives us a very assured performance, with some small Shatner touches here and there. Quinto really understands Spock and his interplay with Kirk and Uhura makes for some interesting moments in the film. He also gets to shine a bit at the end when he faces down Khan in San Francisco. Karl Uban is just plain awesome as Bones. He gets a couple of key scenes, but I wish he had a bit more screen time. The same goes for Saldana as Uhura, Cho as Sulu and Yelchin as Checkov. While each character gets to contribute to the plot in some way, they really seem to be background to the primary conflict between Kirk, Marcus and Khan. Only Pegg as Scotty gets a bit more meat in his role. He is the voice of reason against Marcus’ mission and plays an interesting counterpoint to Kirk early in the film.

Carol pleads her case to the Admiral.
For the new roles in Into Darkness we have some key performances. Alice Eve as Carol Marcus is good in the underwritten role. Sadly she feels like she was added to have another girl in the movie who ends up standing around in her underwear at one point. Ouch did that moment feel forced (and Abrams has pretty much admitted it was). Peter Weller makes for fine commanding officer. His fear and distrust come through in spades, and he does a good job playing against Kirk and Khan. Another key role is filled by Bruce Greenwood reprising his role as Admiral Pike. He is a surrogate father figure to Kirk, and his actions act as a catalyst for the main crux of the film. Greenwood’s performance really helps these two films, especially his relationship to Kirk.

Khan doesn't plead to anyone.
Finally there is Cumberbatch as Khan. I think he does an excellent job in the role. He is calculating, menacing and passionate. All these elements rolled into one very dangerous individual who is driven to accomplish his goals. Cumberbatch plays the part to the hilt, and makes one of the best antagonists in the series. It is a different take on the same character, but still feels true to the character. It took me a couple viewings to separate his performance from the one in Wrath of Khan, but the movie works as well as it does because Cumberbatch is fearsome and yet we understand why he is doing what he is doing.

"The needs of the many... oh wait, wrong movie."
Or is it?
For the most part the script to Into Darkness works well enough. It delivers plenty of action scenes. It delves into the political thriller element with skill and presents us with an interesting core conceit. How far should a society go to fight fear and terror? Is it right to put innocents in peril or attack perceived enemies in territories under the rule of others? Do we let fear turn us into what we fear most? By the end of the film Kirk and the crew deliver the message that we shouldn’t fall into that trap. Admiral Marcus could take the higher ground, but instead gives into his fear. He brings Khan back, and in so doing creates a new enemy that turns out to be his undoing. In an effort to protect people from a perceived threat, Marcus causes the injury and deaths of many in San Francisco at the end of the film.

On its own, I think this core concept is a great one. Unfortunately the writers are locked into the Wrath of Khan template. And so they are forced to kill off a key cast member, because Wrath of Khan did it. Some people defend this as a way of reinforcing the mirror concept of the two timelines, and Spock Prime’s key scene suggests such a thing. That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t change the fact that Kirk’s “death” in this film feels unearned and resolved way too quickly.

Let the rage of a million Trek fans consume you!
When Spock dies in Wrath of Khan it had impact because of the years we spent with him in the television series, books as well as The Motion Picture. Leonard Nimoy was the embodiment of that character and his death had impact. On top of that bringing him back was the plot of an entire film The Search for Spock. That movie made the price for brining back a friend very high indeed. It felt earned in both cases.

Sadly Into Darkness feels like it is just mimicking those films because they were beloved. Kirk’s death feels flat because we haven’t been with Pine’s performance over years and several adventures. And his return just seems too convenient and pat. It isn’t a deal breaker for me, but it does harm the ending the film when it wants to deliver its biggest punch, it falls flat.

One of the more creative and thrilling scenes in
the whole franchise.
That said, I really enjoy Star Trek into Darkness. I think it delivers a story that does have impact and power (until those final sequences). I think Abrams’ film is better constructed and executed over all. And while it wasn’t quite the space adventure film I was hoping for, it makes for a film that sits along well with Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country in its take on political thrillers.

"Wait, you're a guardian of the what?"
"Wait, you're a Rider of what?"
The Enterprise prepares for some Vulcanology.

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  1. I think Cumberbatch’s version of a calculating Khan is indeed a big issue with fans of Montalban’s marvelously over-the-top and passionate original – perhaps especially as portrayed in the original TV episode “Space Seed.” The TV episode actually had an interesting philosophical take on eugenics. In “The Wrath of Khan” Khan was out for simple revenge – and he seemingly missed that Ahab, whom he kept quoting, hunted the whale as an embodiment of a malevolent universe. That said, I like “The Wrath of Khan” anyway. I like it better than “Into Darkness.” But “Into Darkness” is OK. One has to allow new actors (and new screenwriters) to put their own spin on things. It is a good action flick and I don’t mind a cynical political view either. I agree that the inverted death scene doesn’t really have an emotional impact for reasons stated.

    Keep having fun with captions

    1. Yeah, it is hard to ignore Montalban's Khan when it has been around for so many years. But I think a lot of new fans connected with Cumberbatch's version of the character quite well. I certainly enjoy the movie, and give it a slightly higher rating because I like what it tried to do as a military thriller.

      I do have fun with the captions... some may say I have too much fun.

  2. Yeah, a friend and I was talking the other day about Star Trek, and he mentioned the newer reboots. I had to admit they are really some of the better Trek movies in a lot time particularly if you lean more to action and adventure. Even when you take all the TOS or Next Gen movies they are a better direction to go in, and for me as a Trek fan they're on the right track.

    I know not everyone would agree with that, but again, hey it's the modern webby world. Not everyone is going to agree with anything these days. I didn't notice the lens flare (well I kinda did) that much in the first film, until it was pointed out on the web. But that doesn't diminish the film.

    1. Yeah I never noticed the lens flare in the 2009 when we saw it in the theater. It wasn't until someone pointed it out to me in our first DVD viewing that I noticed it... and now I can't unsee it. But Abrams has a style and it works for him. I won't begrudge him his lens flares.

      I will say that fun and adventure are the name of the game with this rebooted Star Trek universe and it works for me. I hope the television series can get back to a bit more of the social issues worked into the plot element that was so successful in TOS and TNG (and even DS9 which I'm enjoying right now).