Review by Luke Whitmire

After watching Star Trek Into Darkness, I know J.J. Abrams is going to make a brilliant Star Wars movie. Abrams is a perfect fit to direct the impending Episode VII.

Mr. Abrams has solidified himself as a masterful, propulsive and visceral filmmaker along with James Cameron, Christopher Nolan, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson. The guy really knows how to place the camera, how to orchestrate action, where music should swell, and how to develop strong characterization. Only a few directors possess a certain conceptual talent to crystallize every film they make into a meaningful, entertaining and aesthetically profound experience for the viewer, and Abrams is blessed with that special innovative capacity. Into Darkness is ingenious, exemplary filmmaking that has the intelligence and emotional depth to render it fan worthy, even if it does get overly complicated and ludicrous at times.

What made Star Trek such a beloved and prolific franchise was the paradigm of allowing the characters to explore new worlds, observe, make contact with various cultures, face the unknown; the Enterprise struggling to understand and contemplate the meaning of life and the universe. Star Trek was built on the premise that you don’t always need a typical binary bad guy to carry the story, but Abrams has turned his Star Trek into a more contemporary spectacle, with the good guy vs. bad guy narrative that today’s audiences are used to getting from mainstream Hollywood. But Abrams uses this template the best way possible, and he succeeds by not allowing Star Trek to become a facsimile of previous blockbuster films.

When examining this particular template, we can look at how well Christopher Nolan used it in his Dark Knight trilogy, and then we see variations of it used in Skyfall, The Avengers and Iron Man 3. When this is executed very well, the audience unconsciously accepts this structure and it becomes very compelling and entertaining to the audience from movie to movie. For this paradigm to work, though, you must have a consummate villain, a worthy antagonist with a menacing force. Abrams does an impeccable job directing Benedict Cumberbatch as John Harrison, the malignant reality to the Enterprise. Harrison is a cold, calculating phantom who is a convincing physical threat, and Abrams handles his storyline with great dexterity. However, there is a controversial moment with this character that pays an homage to an earlier film that might come across as flat and blunt to some fans, but I had no issues with the scene. Harrison is a daunting foe, possessing superhuman physical prowess, and a psychologist’s eye for his adversaries’ weak spots. He taunts his prey with a glacial disdain.

I have to say that the life force of this movie is Chris Pine, and he once again inherits the character of Jim Kirk with greatness. I can’t think of any other actor who could play this character better than Pine. He is such a natural, and I’m amazed how he can emote and express the different attributes of Kirk. Now, he is not acting like William Shatner, he is portraying Kirk. You see the steps that he has to take to get there, but he is not quite the captain yet. This film is about the struggle to earn that identity, and to earn the respect from his crew members. Kirk must learn that to have synergy, you must have innate trust with your team all the time. He has to manage all the different personalities that make up his team. Pine is fantastic, he plays Kirk with a combination of anger, brashness, compassion and comedy. Abrams does a really good job showing how Kirk and his team don’t get along at first. Their mission is audacious, spectacular and energetic.

There is a great sense of motion and continuity from the 2009 film that emanates from the same cast and crew, enabling us to easily reconnect and re-engage with the characters that have become favorites with fans everywhere. Abrams weaves that archetypal dynamic through this film as he did so brilliantly in his 2009 Star Trek. Fans loved How Abrams established the heart and soul of the Kirk/Spock/McCoy triangle that resonated with audiences back when the television series first aired. Now, With a new threat rising, Abrams centers more the on Kirk/Spock relationship. In the 2009 Star Trek, you saw their relationship start from zero and gradually form a strong unity. Again, Spock’s (played by Zachary Quinto) logical precision clashes with Kirk’s imperfect ethics, and Abrams spends a lot more time in this film accentuating their discord. Also, Kirk’s relationship with Pike (Bruce Greenwood) has a much greater dynamic this time as Pike uses his wisdom to confront Kirk about his growing frustrations about a five-year mission. Pike sees Kirk as a kind of personal project, giving him advice, and mentoring him to be the greatest captain in Starfleet history. This breeds a father/son motif that is very profound and memorable. Spock even served under Pike (at the Narada incident) and is very loyal to him, but Spock gets stuck in between Pike and Kirk, and he struggles with whom to side with. Abrams does an impeccable job orchestrating this tension that leads to a greater foreboding. If the first film was about the crew coming together, then this film is about the crew working together. This ominous threat they encounter will either forge them as a team, or it will destroy the Enterprise forever.

It is a well crafted screenplay that borrows from two classics of literature (A Tale of Two Cities and Moby Dick) to give the central conflict and the Kirk/Spock friendship an emotional resonance. The internecine strife is caused by a terrorist bombing that motivates Kirk and his crew to hunt down the perpetrator. This story element is a reoccurring trope in a lot of mainstream Hollywood films today. Both Iron Man 3 and Into Darkness deal with terrorist bombings that kill innocent people. But, Abrams and his team of writers employ symbolism and metaphors to explore the concept of class and social order, and good vs evil.

Star Trek Into Darkness evolves into a different beast in the second act, and even replicates iconic scenes beat for beat. Screenwriters Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof saturate some scenes with meta-textual references that will for sure please the fan base. As I mentioned before, this film centers more on the Kirk/Spock relationship with the rest of the cast lingering in the shadows, but they are still richly developed characters. Simon Pegg has strong key moments as the adept engineer Scotty. Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana) continues to develop her love interest with Spock, but shows frustration with his unfeeling nature. Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) has supplied torpedoes to the Enterprise that causes tension among certain crew members. And Dr. “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban) remains the ship’s doctor who is incessantly exasperated by everyone’s ineptitude. The team has to decide if they will become an intergalactic firing squad, or a space band of scientific explorers and researchers.

Now that we are permeated once again with another blockbuster movie season, Star Trek Into Darkness defies your typical trope-filled spectacle with compelling, rich characters and a thematically strong story. But most importantly, Abrams allows his Star Trek to explore justice, vengeance, morality and the bonds of friendship, intelligently.

Bottom line:
J.J. Abrams once again captures the heart and soul of what made Star Trek a paramount sci-fi infatuation. He should restore your faith in the blockbuster art form, eviscerating any cynicism you might have had towards its value. Abrams’ contribution to the collective dreamscape has me elated about the impending collaboration with Lucasfilm to reinvigorate the most beloved franchise of all time, Star Wars, in 2015.

* * * * 1/2 out of 5 stars