One has to give director JJ Abrams credit; he knows how to make an efficient, entertaining film. I don’t think he will ever reach the height of Steven Spielberg, a director he intensely paid homage to with his last directorial effort, Super 8. But Abrams is one of the few directors who can conjure up a level of emotional resonance amidst narrative propulsion. Admittedly, it’s easy for me to crack jokes about Abrams’ bizarre infatuation with lens flares, but I admire the economical approach he takes to filmmaking. He establishes his characters, peppers in some fantastic jokes and visual gags, and lets the action unspool at a ferocious pace. Did I mention his films offer more laughs than most modern comedies? Sorry, for the redundancy. Regardless, Abrams is one of the few directors that actually generates a level of thrills in his films, often delivering a ridiculous return on investment for surging ticket prices. One of Abrams’ best films is his resurrection of the fledgling Star Trek franchise, a film series so old and musty that there was a level of doubt if it could even be resuscitated. Miraculously, Abrams delivered a fully engaging film that I have come to love even more over the course of the last four years.
Being that his reimagined Star Trek was a massive success, both critically and financially, Abrams was the clear choice to helm a sequel. We know the rules of a sequel: everything must be bigger, louder and more explosivier. Explosivier isn’t a word? Like the studio gives a shit. Anyways, Abrams gives us Star Trek Into Darkness, a film that definitely expands upon its predecessor in the ways a studio desires, but doesn’t entirely marginalize the precedent Abrams established with his original Trekkie endeavor. Into Darkness essentially begins the action with a terrorist attack in London that maims innocent civilians and garners the attention of the intergalactic police known as Starfleet. The terrorist, at first glance, is an every-man by the name of John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), but there’s a dark vacancy oozing from his pores. Later, after attacking a Starfleet meeting of the minds, Harrison flees to the planet Kronos. Following close behind is our charismatic hero, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine), who assembles his collection of space drifting heroes and searches for the destructive enigma known as John Harrison. Once Captain Pike and his rational sidekick Spock (Zachary Quinto) finally capture Harrison, we become privy to the terrorist’s true nature. It’s at this point that the screenplay makes a concerted effort to deliver a conflict that isn’t relegated to simply choosing sides, but forces our heroes to straddle the line of moral ambiguity.
On paper I appreciate the film’s decision to create a level of dissonance within its characters; forcing them into decisions that won’t entirely pay dividends. It’s an interesting turn for a summer blockbuster to take, but it also presents an issue: with the film shifting between villains and hollow allegiances,its resonance falters. Namely, it leaves Cumberbatch’s compelling turn of a mistreated warrior seem underwhelming. Cumberbatch’s presence alone is definitely powerful, yet it wains when shifts in focus reduces the attention he deserves from us. Piggybacking on the idea of characters being overlooked, another issue with Into Darkness is much of the Enterprise’s supporting characters are on autopilot. More specifically, the likes of Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban and Anton Yelchin come across as ancillary pieces of the film’s grand scheme. They’re just kind of there to push buttons and emote in a frightening manner. To a lesser extent, the same Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto slip into this same issue; both definitely fit nicely into their roles, but there isn’t a great deal of forward progression from their characters, acting or writing wise.
The one other acting highlight, not including actors named Cumberbatch, is Simon Pegg as Scotty. Definitely given more to do this time around, Pegg makes the most of it by stealing scene after scene. His impeccable timing and elastic face lends the film much of its finer comedic moments. In spite of this, from a character standpoint, Into Darkness disappoints because it fails to really explore the new depths and paths its characters have forged, but man is it a gorgeously shot film. The action sequences alone are worth the price of admission, as each scene wonderfully utilizes special effects without coming off as overly worked or busy. Naturally, they have a handful of lens flares built within, but not even their insignificant presence can undermine the kinetic energy Abrams installs in his scenes of dizzying splendor, which gain more traction through another fantastic score from Michael Giacchino. Seeping out from the action is Abrams’ sense of humor, which is a fine blend of visual gags and character moments. Great action sequences and comedic brevity aside, Into Darkness could have been a fantastic film, as well as one of the greatest sequels ever. Unfortunately, it’s a bit undercooked, never entirely allowing itself to reach the depths it promises. Still, it’s a wholly enjoyable two-hour ride that most films fail to offer.