(This review will spoil some major plot developments from J.J. Abram's first Star Trek.)
Star Trek Into Darkness takes the solid foundation of the first film, and builds on it fantastically. The aesthetic of 2009's Star Trek remains with the action scenes, the creatively envisioned future gadgetry and even the infamous lens flare. Yes, the first film caught a bit of flak for the incessant lights that seemed dialed up to 11, but this film tones it down only a touch. It's no longer blinding, but it's familiar and consistent with the feel of the first film. Good compromise.
J.J. Abrams 2009 effort to reboot one of sci-fi geekdom's most well known franchises was perhaps the most brilliantly executed in reboot history. Recasting new faces as iconic characters, Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto), the trick they pulled in that film was to make the new series occur in a parallel universe; one affected by time travel. Different from the original series, but with the same characters and settings (well, minus Vulcan).
What made it really work was the presence of old Spock, played by the original actor, Leonard Nimoy. Nimoy's presence in the film served both to tie it in with the old series; acknowledging its existence, and also allowed the new series to take it's own direction with this slightly altered timeline. It was like the old franchise was giving its blessing that the new one be made, and be made differently. And how different it is! Unlike previous iterations, Star Trek was an action/adventure blockbuster, and a good one at that.
Star Trek as a franchise has always been interested more in the philosophical; forgoing action scenes for dialogue, problem solving and negotiation. The central corporate entity, Star Fleet, isn't even a military organisation (despite appearances), their purpose is exploration. While it retains Star Trek's penchant for action, Star Trek Into Darkness does justice to the tradition by throwing up a challenging situation for the viewer, with a complex plot that asks mature questions. Most of the film consists of two ships facing off against each other, but there are several parties with different objectives negotiating for control of the situation. There are probing questions of morality and responsibility and war and justice and sacrifice and others that are wrapped up in the thrilling story; the viewer is constantly on the edge of their seat being asked "What would you do?" "What's right in this situation?"
There are a lot of action beats, and some of them are great. The first time we see Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) fight is nothing short of awesome, and there are a few huge set pieces that are stunning to look at. Scenes where ships get shot, and people are suddenly sucked from their workstation into space are brutal, as are a few close-quarters combat sequences (although none of them are graphic, the sounds they make sure do set the imagination firing). There's also great stuff done with the simple premise of Scotty (Simon Pegg) running through a large room. You don't need to go over the top to create great entertainment. Perhaps as a whole the film is on the action-heavy side, with a few scenes running longer than necessary.But it doesn't feel badly imbalanced; the action doesn't get in the way of the dramatic development of the plot or characters.
Overall, I'd definitely recommend Star Trek Into Darkness, as probably the best follow-up to a blockbuster film so far this year.
For those of you that have seen it and might have missed it, I'll explain just how much old lore is crammed into this film. And it's a great surprise, really, so don't read on if you haven't seen the film yet.
It turns out that Cumberbatch's character is actually Khan. If you know even the pittance that I do about Star Trek you'll know that Khan is the main villain of it's most acclaimed film, Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan.
I'm not sure how well Khan's backstory in this lines up with the original series. I do know that in Wrath of Khan, Khan is originally stranded on a desert planet with his followers, alive and standing by him. The changes they made suit well, I think. Khans character seemed whole and coherent, driven by the desire to save his crew. Kirk and Spock's reversed roles serve each of their character arcs in this film, with Kirk learning humility, and Spock learning how to care like a human being. It's all very well done, and I hope the series continues to allow these characters to walk their own path.
And apart from borrowing that character, there are also large plot threads borrowed from that movie too. The whole business of Khan coming up from a deserted planet, to engage in a duel with the Enterprise crew, ship to ship. Yes there are a whole lot of twists and turns in this film, but beats such as the warp drive needing to be manually fixed; a major character sacrificing his own life by going into the radiation zone, and the death behind the glass door are all lifted from the older film.
The roles are reversed though! In the new film, Kirk sacrifices himself, rather than Spock; they are on opposite sides of the door. After Kirk dies in Into Darkness, Spock cries out "KHAN!", in much the same way Kirk did in Wrath of Khan (in a different scene). There are so many little details like this that go to show how intricately constructed Into Darkness is.
If I had to criticize it, I would point to its reliance on old Star Trek lore as a potential weakness. They pulled it off beautifully in this film, but if they lean on it too heavily in the future, the third film may suffer. They've well and truly established the universe as one where the same events may occur, but also as one that can break free and do its own thing. I hope they stay creative, because I love this re imagining.