Regardless of whether you’re a casual summer blockbuster moviegoer or a long-time Star Trek fan, you’ll find that Star Trek Into Darkness pitches straight down the middle. You can jump into it not knowing anything about Trek and still fully enjoy the characters, environments, and story, although there are elements within that story that will resonate deeply with Trek fans.
But just because the gang’s all here doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s Star Trek.
A note before we begin: This review is spoiler-free. We’ll have a more in-depth analysis (with spoilers) on Monday, after everyone has had a chance to see the movie, courtesy of our TNG and DS9 recapper Keith DeCandido. However, we can’t guarantee that there will be no spoilers in the comment section below, so proceed with caution if you don’t want to be spoiled before seeing the film!
There were two things I ultimately wanted from Star Trek Into Darkness; essential qualities to Star Trek that I felt were missing from the 2009 reboot. I got one of them, but the other still eludes the Abrams era of Trek, and this feeling pervades the movie. I’ll illustrate with a point-counterpoint.
Star Trek Into Darkness is exciting. The 2009 reboot was a breath of fresh air in this regard, energizing Trek in a way that seemed impossible, shaking off decades of atrophy and reminding us just how fun it was to tune into the adventures of Kirk, Spock, and the crew of the Enterprise. It was shamelessly manipulative in doing so, and Into Darkness is no different. If you had fun watching the 2009 Star Trek you will unquestionably have fun watching this movie. But that’s the thing….
It’s too much like the first movie. The first movie could be forgiven its exuberance and massive plot holes in favor of establishing the new timeline and the new aesthetic of the rebooted Trek. The sequel was an opportunity to move forward from that, to really expand upon this fresh new universe. But by sticking to the formula established in 2009 Into Darkness lessens the impact of its own story. How many times do we have to watch the Federation brought to heel by a single madman? How many times do we have to watch the Enterprise get torn up? Spectacle is fine, but Into Darkness gives the impression that these new movies know only one way to accomplish that task. This leaves it up to the actors to sustain the movie by ekeing out new aspects of their character. Thankfully….
The cast is ridiculously charming. This is a cast that feels like a crew in a way they didn’t in the first Abrams film. There’s history there now and they have each others’ rhythms down in a way that turns out to be absolutely vital to creating a believable story out of Into Darkness. Not only that, but the main characters actually feel a little more matured, a little different, by the end of the film, and there are unbreakable relationships forged with a spirit that truly harkens back to the Original Series and those adventures.
Cumberbatch’s character is terrifically alluring and you don’t get to see nearly as much of him as you want to. At one point he and Kirk are forced to rely on each other and you wish that portion of the movie would never end.
But it’s still kind of dim-witted considering that it’s Star Trek. This is what eluded the 2009 film (A SUPERNOVA. CANNOT. DESTROY. A GALAXY.) and it continues to be elusive in Into Darkness, although its sins of scientific and storytelling logic are not as egregious. What the movie is really missing, what it really needed to put some effort into portraying, is the notion that humanity has become better and that expanding our galactic horizons means expanding our personal horizons. There is no exploration in Star Trek Into Darkness. Seriously, Abrams, if there’s a third movie then please have it center around exploring the galaxy.
Because Chris Pine’s Kirk actually feels like he’s supposed to be the captain now. This was another element missing from the 2009 Star Trek, which was ostensibly Spock’s story, but Into Darkness is unmistakably Kirk’s journey. Kirk’s actions in this film make it clear why he is in charge and, more importantly, why everyone allows him to be in charge. That, in turn, cements this new cast as the legitimate, if fresh-faced, crew of the Enterprise. Chris Pine in the captain’s chair is something I’m excited about seeing in a way that I wasn’t before watching Star Trek Into Darkness.
Does that make it Star Trek, though, if it’s still missing a sense of exploration? I don’t know, and I may never have a clear answer to that question. To people coming to these movies anew, this is what Star Trek is and if the movies don’t continue to grow and become smarter, that’s what Star Trek will continue to be until they get tired of watching the same story and tune out. In the same respect, I think Trek fans who grew up with the Original Series or TNG will eventually find movies that are just constant homages a bit tedious. So it seems that either way the new Trek movies need to outgrow the formula they’re beginning to establish.
And while Star Trek Into Darkness was fun, it’s pushing its luck by repeating the same formula. We need these movies to explore, to captivate yet another generation with strange new worlds and new civilizations. There’s no denying that Star Trek has successfully gone back to its roots. Now it’s time to move ahead.
Some small extra tidbits because I can’t help myself:
- Kirk/Spock shippers, this is your movie.
- There’s a nice shout-out to Star Trek Enterprise and Next Gen at the beginning of the film.
- That was definitely not the Qo’noS I’m used to seeing.
One final note: It would be great if people could white out major spoilers in their comments below, but we cannot guarantee that there will be no spoilers from this point on. Please avoid the comment thread if you do not want to see anything that cannot be unseen…
Chris Lough is the production manager of Tor.com and at first was all like, Ceti Alpha V, but then was kind of like… Ceti Alpha VI? And then was all, forget it, V’ger.