J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek Into Darkness features about as stark a qualitative difference between plot mechanics and character work as any blockbuster in recent memory. Judged by the former, this sequel is an absolute mess, one that not only fails to reward any deeper consideration of narrative mechanics both large and small, but actively disincentives any thoughtful discussion of how the story is put together. Pull at one string, and the whole thing starts to fall apart in extremely frustrating ways.
Yet on the character side of things, the case is the exact opposite. Abrams and writers Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof (whose mission in life appears to be crafting outstanding, emotional characters and character arcs in the midst of structurally questionable plotting) not only understand Captain Kirk and much of the crew of the USS Enterprise as well or better than most Star Trek creators, but are consistently capable of taking these figures in new, exciting, and creatively invigorating directions that stem organically from the audience’s collective knowledge of series history and iconography. As a character piece, Star Trek Into Darkness is not flawless, but it is largely fantastic, and remarkably satisfying for longtime fans of the franchise.
I myself gravitate, in most circumstances, towards the character work when judging a film critically. That does not mean I give Into Darkness a free pass when it comes to many of the messy, foolish story decisions – we shall speak about them in due time – but on the whole, the film reinforces my personal belief that strong characters and effective emotional arcs can redeem a wide swath of cinematic sins. This film never, on the whole, reaches the height of its 2009 predecessor, nor much of the larger Star Trek universe (as much as Abrams and company clearly love and have learned from it, this one has nothing on The Wrath of Khan), but in the balance, it is a good film, and at times comes inspiringly close to greatness.
One of the few choices that befuddled both newcomers and longtime Trekkers alike in Abrams’ 2009 reboot was the decision, at the end of the film, to give command of the Enterprise to Chris Pine’s young James T. Kirk. The film did an absolutely spectacular job with Kirk throughout, but making him Captain that soon, especially given the amount of immaturity and personality issues he (understandably) possessed, seemed, as Mr. Spock would put it, “illogical.” This was evidently intentional, I am happy to report, as Star Trek Into Darkness is, at its core, an exploration of the mistakes a young Jim Kirk would make on his way to become the legendary Captain we all know and love. Casual fans of the franchise and Star Trek newbies alike tend to forget that, as played by William Shatner, Captain Kirk was about as skilled, confident, intelligent, and effective a leader as has ever been portrayed in modern American fiction (those who pretend Kirk vs. Picard debates are even a remotely fair contest simply do not know what they are talking about). He was a profoundly vulnerable and human character, but one experienced, mature, and savvy enough to stay in control of just about any situation.
Yet I have no doubt that Shatner’s Kirk walked a long, arduous road to become the man we met on the historic five-year mission, and what I love about Chris Pine’s portrayal of Kirk is how capable he is of projecting the inner greatness that will eventually define him, while simultaneously wearing every rough edge, no matter how ugly, on his sleeves. He did this to great effect in the 2009 Star Trek, and his work here is even better, as the story – no matter how messy it may become at times – is clearly crafted to challenge, beat down, and ultimately re-shape Kirk into the commander we know he is destined to be.
In the film’s early sequences, a great deal of time is spent developing the relationship between Kirk and Admiral Pike, a truly stupendous decision given just how fantastic Chris Pine and Bruce Greenwood play off one another. Pike is one of those characters Abrams and company have taken further than previous Trek lore ever hinted at, and his scenes here are possibly the best in the entire film, setting the stage, both thematically and emotionally, for everything that is to come. Kirk opens the film by making some major, serious mistakes, and while Pike is understandably harsh with him, he is also willing to give Kirk a second chance – a mixture of honesty and faith that comes, in turn, to define the nature of character relationships throughout Star Trek Into Darkness.
The action proper gets underway after mysterious defector John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) launches a deadly attack against Starfleet headquarters, prompting a brash and wounded Kirk to go after him in the far reaches of enemy space. It is the kind of task I can imagine the older, wiser Kirk from the original series tackling fairly easily, and that opens up many fascinating avenues for Pine’s younger Kirk and his equally untested crew. This mission will either define or destroy them, and there is no middle ground, no room for half measures or ego-driven thinking. They will become the heroes they were born to be, or they will fail miserably, and the distance between those two outcomes is dangerously miniscule.
This is what I actually do like and value about the story – it feels relatively small-scale, all things considered, yet is thoughtfully calibrated to explore the characters, using franchise iconography and inverting the viewer’s knowledge of major Trek beats to contrast where these characters are now, in this alternate universe, with where they will be (or once were, depending on how we view all this temporally). I am treading lightly here, out of a desire to avoid any meaningful spoilers, because while some twists work well and some fall 100% flat, they are worth experiencing – and judging – for oneself.
What I will say is that the nature of the main villainous plot – something broader, mind you, than just Benedict Cumberbatch’s heavily marketed character – is spectacularly stupid, filled with enough Enterprise-size holes to fly an entire stellar fleet through. The film’s second act is extremely clunky, as Kirk and his crew try to piece the mystery of John Harrison and his actions together, and for a good chunk of time, character work unfortunately takes a backseat to relatively dry and mechanical narrative movements. It feels like Abrams and company had a solid beginning, a terrific third act, and some inspired ideas of where to take the characters over the course of the film, but no clear sense of how to organically move all the necessary pieces. Even at its best, some of the narrative material that lies underneath the strong character work is dramatically inert and logically broken, and I think even those most forgiving of messy storytelling will sense how undercut some of the action and emotions are by plot holes, inconsistencies, and general narrative shortcuts.
All this being said, there are bright spots in the storytelling, chief among them what the film does with Benedict Cumberbatch’s character. Had the true nature of his role been revealed to me before seeing the film, I would have thought it one of the stupidest directions Into Darkness could possibly go, yet in the end, I think it is one of the film’s most inspired elements. A lot of the plot surrounding him may be wonky, but Cumberbatch’s character keeps us guessing in ways that play off broader franchise history, and brings out really fascinating sides to Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the developing crew. Cumberbatch himself is stupendous, everything we would hope him to be in a Star Trek film and more, and the film absolutely devotes itself to making the most out of his performance, secrets, and especially his physical presence.
I have already noted what wonderful work Into Darkness does with Kirk, but it bears elaborating that Chris Pine gives one of the single best performances of the year so far, and that by the end of the film, he has both thoroughly claimed the role as his own and brought Kirk amazingly close to the man he was when audiences first met him nearly 50 years ago. In fact, every single member of the cast improves upon their work from the first film as their characters are deepened and fleshed out, with Simon Pegg’s Scotty and Zoe Saldana’s Uhura standing out as particular revelatory members of the supporting cast. Anton Yelchin’s Chekov and John Cho’s Sulu get less to do this time around than they did before, but I still think their big moments reveal deeper shadings than what we saw in the first film, and the actors relish every opportunity to hit dramatic high-notes.
Zachary Quinto’s work as Spock, meanwhile, actively floored me from start to finish this time around. I very much enjoyed his work in the first film, without ever feeling like he entirely captured the core of the character, yet from his introductory moments here, Quinto has honed, developed, and perfected his performance to outstandingly satisfying degrees. There is no doubt, at any point of Into Darkness, that this man is Spock, Leonard Nimoy or no, and what they do with his character is equally sharp, insightful, and satisfying as what is done with Pine’s Kirk.
The only area where characterization falls flat to me, unfortunately, is with Karl Urban’s Dr. McCoy. Urban himself is as good or better than before, reprising the role that completely stole the show back in 2009, but I feel Abrams and company fundamentally misunderstand what his role is in this series. McCoy is not just underused in this film, but actively mis-used. The Kirk/Spock/McCoy ‘holy trinity’ that fueled the dramatic and thematic framework of the original Star Trek series – emotion, logic, and a balance between the two all working in harmony – is simply absent here, and at no point does the film make any effort to underline that while Spock means a tremendous amount to Kirk, McCoy is his real ‘best friend,’ the default figure he goes to for emotional support or psychological advice. That character dynamic just doesn’t exist here, and it irks me, given what a clear grasp Urban himself has on what makes Leonard McCoy so special.
In fact, Abrams and the rest of the creative team would be well advised to marathon some Original Series episodes for a variety of reasons. I do not want to be ‘that guy’ – and I certainly do not object to Abrams putting his own stamp on the material – but I found my nerd instincts on high alert through a good deal of Star Trek Into Darkness for reasons that go beyond basic creative license. On their own, various technical or continuity issues – like 1st Officer being treated as a Starfleet rank rather than position (the corresponding rank is Commander, for the record), Klingons being confusingly (and unappealingly) redesigned during a period where they should look relatively plain, giving the ‘conn’ being depicted as a transfer of Captainship, the entire opening sequence misinterpreting the actual meaning of the Prime Directive, and a completely inconsistent understanding of the power, limits, and usage of a transporter beam – are just simple nitpicks, but in this film, those nitpicks are so constant and omnipresent that they do, sadly, become a trend. And it strikes me as a trend of sloppiness that could be avoided by a quick trip to any of several dozen Star Trek fan sites, or a quick phone call to Michael and Denise Okuda. I know, I know…I sound like a total, unrepentant dickhead fanboy right now – and I am gradually gaining clearer understand of why girls would not talk to me in high school – but I call ‘em like I see ‘em, and as a lifelong Star Trek fan (who is by no means even remotely as knowledgeable on this stuff as a large percentage of the fanbase), I found a lot of nits to pick, and I know I will not be the only one distracted by them.
But these are minor diversions, when all is said and done, because on the whole, Star Trek Into Darkness is a very good film. I have not even mentioned the tremendously choreographed and executed action sequences, awe-inspiring special effects, and accomplished use of 3D (this is far and away the best conversion I have ever seen – the film looks like it was shot for the format and is actually worth watching with that extra dimension). Michael Giacchino’s musical score, meanwhile, remains the stealth MVP of this rebooted franchise, going as far to propel the thrills, emotions, and major character beats of this film as any other element.
Star Trek Into Darkness has an awful lot of flaws, and I am sure they will bother some viewers more than others, but there is no doubt in my mind that the good dramatically outweighs the bad. This is not the best Star Trek has ever been, and at times, it does not even fully feel like Star Trek, but where it counts most – in the characters and themes that define them – Into Darkness serves as a powerful reminder of why I fell in love with the Star Trek franchise in the first place. It all goes back to a brilliant Captain named James T. Kirk and the wonderful, talented crew of the USS Enterprise, and as long as this new series continues to understand and experiment with what makes these characters great, it will continue to excel like few other blockbuster franchises out there.
The qualitative gap between narrative mechanics and character work is about as stark as it could be, but the latter is so effective, and the cast so tremendously effective in their roles, that Star Trek Into Darkness works well, all things considered.