"Star Trek Into Darkness" Conventionally Satisfying

For a series that prides itself on space exploration, “Star Trek Into Darkness” is surprisingly shortsighted, remaining a little too close to its roots as a television serial. From a cold open that acts as a rousing but ultimately insubstantial short film, the world of “Into Darkness” feels closed off, particularly during a protracted, hour-long space battle in the film’s second half. Yet, what the film sets out to do is done wonderfully. It’s exactly what a self-contained “Star Trek” film should be. This means that, strangely, its lack of ambition is both its biggest strength and most glaring weakness.

Nearly the entire cast from J.J. Abram’s 2009 reboot returns here, led by Chris Pine as the interminably unpredictable Captain Kirk, and Zachary Quinto as everyone’s favorite Vulcan, Spock. Zoe Saldana (Uhura), John Cho (Sulu), Karl Urban (Bones), Simon Pegg (Scotty), Anton Yelchin (Chekov), and Bruce Greenwood (Captain Pike) once again lend support, but most are given far less to do in this outing – Urban being the one exception. The banter between the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise is as lively as ever, but in taking these characters to their breaking points, writers Roberto Orco, Alex Kurtzmann, and Damon Lindelof unwisely displace several of them for long periods of time. And a couple of their returns are of the “deus ex machina” variety.

Benedict Cumberbatch, one of several newcomers (along with Alice Eve and Peter Weller), plays John Harrison, a disgruntled Starfleet officer who sets the story in motion through an act of terrorism. In blowing up a London Starfleet archive, he ensures that some of their highest-ranking officers will convene at a particular time and place to discuss a plan of attack. It’s here that Harrison begins an all-out war on Starfleet. However, more than one of the main players has a deep-seated secret, and one of the strengths of the screenplay is in its intricately choreographed dance between dueling villains. Or are they villains at all?

There’s a kind of glee with which Abrams and his writers confound our expectations in relation the picture’s bad guy(s), and when the narrative stalls out in the middle of the second act, the film survives entirely on metaphorical wrenches cast into the story’s engine. Is the plot too myopic? Absolutely. Does that mean it’s not any fun? Not in the least. In fact, that it’s so self-contained forces us to enjoy “Into Darkness” on its own terms. It might not have the scope that some were hoping for, but in not aiming too high, Abrams has a vice-like grip on the proceedings, seemingly tailored to what he knew he could do well.

Since “Into Darkness” continues the pseudo-prequel thread of its predecessor – incorporating characters and references to the original TV series and films – Trekkies will likely get more out of the picture than casual fans. But for the most part, it’s highly accessible summer entertainment, easy to follow and even easier to enjoy on a surface level. The FX are second to none, and even the post-converted 3D is reasonably useful during some of the larger action beats.

But the film’s real joy is in watching its cast at work. Abrams has re-assembled one of the best young casts to ever grace a summer tentpole, and one can only hope that Abrams’ departure for “Star Wars: Episode VII” won’t keep the rest of the band from getting back together at some point. Pine and Quinto are tremendous together, and while Saldana is underused here, her screen time is some of the most genuine in the picture. Add to that the delightful quartet of Cho, Urban, Pegg, and Yelchin, and I’d pay to watch this group have a conversation about damn near anything. That they get to play some of the most beloved characters in sci-fi history is just icing on the cake.

Had “Into Darkness” shot for the moon and failed spectacularly, would that have been preferable to aiming for the middle distance and nailing it? We’ll never know. But it’s an agreeable ride and the fact that it treads so little new ground doesn’t much detract from its pleasures. Kirk, Spock, and company are back, and hopefully here to stay. We can only hope that the filmmaker who replaces Abrams in the director’s chair has as much talent but a little more vision. Then this wonderful meeting of cast and material might finally live up to its full potential.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: May 16, 2013
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: J.J. Abrams
Screenwriter: Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Damon Lindelof
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, John Cho, Bruce Greenwood, Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Alice Eve, Peter Weller
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence)