Director J.J. Abrams’ frenetic and highly entertaining “Star Trek Into Darkness” (that’s right, no colon) may just be the quintessential Hollywood blockbuster. Take that however you like. Though it doesn’t have the operatic gravitas of Christopher Nolan’s action movies (The Dark Knight, Inception), it’s got just about everything else: spectacle, likable leads, a great villain almost worthy of our empathy, and enough human drama to keep you attached. That’s not to say the movie is perfect. Many of the characters can never quite seem to transcend their archetypes, there is not one strong female presence, and the conclusion is the epitome of deus ex machina. But, in the end, it provides enough entertainment to make up for its shortcomings.
“Into Darkness” opens with a sensational action sequence that is the entire movie in miniature, setting the tone for two hours of romping through space at warp speed, witty (but never quite clever) dialogue, some serious bromance, a bit of contrived plotting, and questionable stakes. The scene features the crew of the USS Enterprise surveying an alien planet for scientific purposes, as well as to prevent a soon-to-erupt volcano from destroying the planet’s primitive, yet burgeoning civilization. The mission is to be one of stealth. The indigenous people must not be alerted to the presence of other civilizations in the universe because such an event could intervene with their natural evolutionary trajectory. But Captain James Tiberius Kirk—the movie’s hero played by Chris Pine with determination and a boyish idealism—has never been a man of subtlety. Prone to recklessness and a delightful disregard for authority, Captain Kirk violates the “prime directive” of the mission when First Officer Spock’s (Zachary Quinto) life is in danger. If Kirk wants to save Spock’s life, he has no choice but to expose the Enterprise to the civilization. Tension ensues (as do the tears of Spock’s love interest, Uhura) between Kirk and Spock. Spock argues that his death is necessary for the mission while Kirk does everything in his power to save his friend regardless of the main objective.
It’s a question that pervades the entire movie: What is worth dying for? Or as this movie’s truly menacing villain, John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), phrases it, “What would you not do for your family?” hoping to tap into Kirk’s vulnerabilities as a way to execute a terrorist plot. Harrison’s motivations are quite local and human, but his terrorism manifests itself on a global scale, drawing a link between the film’s human element and its obvious parallels to 9/11. Just like the latest “Iron Man,” this movie exploits 9/11 but never quite engages with it. For example, Harrison’s terrorist attacks are used by a military official to justify starting a war on an unrelated, unsuspecting civilization. And that’s about as much as “Into Darkness” explores American foreign policy. (Oh yeah, there are some space torpedos involved that vaguely resemble drones in both form and function.)
Though “Into Darkness” lacks sophisticated political commentary, it has style in abundance, a great cast, and a plot that moves so fast you sometimes forget how simple it all actually is. The film is full of fast cuts and frantic camera movements that reflect the crazy speed at which the characters have to make decisions. To be granted entrance onto the USS Enterprise, you have to think fast and talk even faster, for at any moment you could be facing a catastrophic threat from a hostile civilization or from just one man. One would think that a film with such a premise would be lacking in the type of interpersonal drama necessary for character development, but that’s not the case here. Though the movie’s plot is constantly advancing—it’s full of satisfying narrative clicks, a revelation here, some spectacle there—it somehow finds time for the expression of raw human emotion via direct conversations. Almost all of the stakes in “Into Darkness” are somehow bound up in the banter between Spock and Kirk. If the two ever resolve their differences completely, the “Star Trek” franchise will be in deep trouble. Some of that dialogue might be wasted on annoying, inconsequential resignations and ephemeral crew changes, but most of the time, it’s all in good fun and essential to the plot—a testament to Abrams’ mastery of cinematic economy and pace, the way he balances spectacle and drama at breakneck speed.
A note on the format: Go see “Star Trek Into Darkness” in IMAX 3D if you can. The 3D is a bit annoying at times. Very few of the shots last long enough for the extra dimension to truly be effective, but the vast IMAX canvas sucks you in nonetheless.