*WARNING spoilers for the beginning of the film, but otherwise a mostly safe review*
When you have re-energised a legendary series of television programmes and films with a brand new movie that was both critically and commercially successful – bringing old characters into the modern world and introducing hoards of new fans to a well-established fandom – where do you go next? In the case of Star Trek: Into Darkness, the sequel to 2009’s alternate reality Star Trek reboot, you just get better. At what? Everything.
It’s unusual for me to do this, but I actually went in to see the new Star Trek film almost blind in terms of knowing what to expect. Whilst it’s true that I knew about the pre-Abrams Star Trek and had seen the prequel to this film, I had pretty much avoided all additional info on Into Darkness. Reviews, trailers, on-set photographs – I had stayed away from all of it. All I knew to expect when going in was, put simply, darkness. Posters had shown images of Benedict Cumberbatch’s long-coated character silhouetted against a background of debris conveniently moulded into the shape of the Starfleet logo, and – hauntingly – a picture of the U.S.S. Enterprise falling to Earth with a trail of smoke behind it. Taglines talked about falling, darkness, and single chances. As many sequels seem to be doing today, the new Star Trek seemed very much committed to going “darker and edgier”. So much so, in fact, that I was worried it would slip over into melodrama, leaving what made Star Trek great behind it. Thankfully, I was proven wrong.
From the very beginning of the film, we’re right in the middle of the action. Within the first few scenes, multiple main characters are placed in danger, a planet is put at risk, and tough moral decisions are already being made. It is made clear that, in more areas than one, the film is not going to be holding back. With such an into-the-action entrance, it’s like having all the base elements of the last Star Trek thrown back at you, proving that this film is going to be no less technically brilliant than the last. The music returns, epic as ever. The CGI and overall graphics are even better, creating an intense atmosphere and giving a flawless quality to the futuristic setting that at once makes it both imaginably realistic and utterly awe-inspiring at the same time. The actors slot straight back into their roles as though they’d never left them – it doesn’t feel like you’re seeing familiar actors, but have just met Kirk, Spock, Uhura, and the rest of the crew again after a short holiday. Meanwhile, the script snaps back and forth at lightning speed, delivering humour, information, and epic one-liners with equal skill. And whilst all this is happening, you have this feeling of being on an incredibly engrossing rollercoaster ride – a feeling which starts from the first act, and doesn’t let up until the very end.
So in terms of performance, entertainment, and epicness, Star Trek: Into Darkness is excellent. That said, what really impressed me about this film is the direction it took with the deeper, and indeed the darker, elements. If the first Star Trek film of the new world seemed very much in the spirit of the original Star Trek series, with its adventurous style and bantering humour, Into Darkness was closer to the spirit of the follow-up series. Where the original series was, the majority of the time, meant to be fun, The Next Generation took a more serious turn and took every foreign situation as an opportunity to delve into moral ambiguities through the use of a sci-fi setting. Neither was better than the other, and in a sense they can’t really be compared, but Into Darkness certainly wasn’t afraid to explore the underlying complications of the characters and their actions.
It is these characters that are what truly drives Into Darkness. Though situations and settings are fantastical, the ultimate core of the film is the people: what they do, what they think, and what they feel in reaction to the events of the plot. In some respects, it is like all the characters have suddenly turned around and examined their own world. The things we might notice and comment on as viewers, but expect never to be mentioned in-universe, are brought up and addressed. Luckily, it’s done thoughtfully and genuinely, solidifying the story instead of detracting from it.
At the beginning of the film, Kirk’s and Spock’s most outwardly defining characteristics – their arrogant bravery and cold logic, respectively – are brought to the surface in critical events and thrust under the spotlight by other characters, with consequences for both. Character development is not limited to the main good guys, however. Unlike last time’s somewhat one-dimensional Nero, new villain John Harrison makes for not only a formidable enemy, but one who has significantly more depth, and far more similarities to a certain determined captain than might be comfortable to acknowledge. Even Scotty, a character who works mostly as comic relief, takes on a new role as a catalyst for moral decisions, leaving him and others to make tough choices and confront the results. If “darkness” refers to the sometimes grimly philosophical side of Star Trek, then this film has fulfilled its promise to go there.
Never fear, though, those who were expecting a less heavyweight experience from Into Darkness. Along with the ethics, the way humour is managed in the film is one of its most impressive elements. You could be forgiven for expecting an approach of serious-funny-serious-funny in the film, given that the awkward choice of an off-on switch with humour is a nonetheless popular choice in predominantly dark films. Oddly and brilliantly enough, that isn’t the case here. Bursts of laughter and drama are expertly spliced together, creating an easy flow from one to the other. It might be the most edge-of-your-seat scene in the movie, but Scotty can cut in with a witty remark and it still be funny, yet the scene remains as exciting as ever. Goodness knows how the writers and director pulled off such an effortless race around a course of dark, light, and self-aware corners, but there is no denying it is done flawlessly, in true Trek fashion.
Following up from the path of Abrams’ first Star Trek movie, Into Darkness ups the stakes without sacrificing any more than it needed to. All there is to love about the new Trek films: from the humorous banter and awkwardly funny comments, to the breathtaking space travel, to the subtle (and not-so-subtle) homages – it’s all here. Still, the new movie also brings the spirit of going “where no-one has gone before” by exploring strange new worlds of characterisation, motives, and beliefs. The end result is a high-speed, deeply-rooted ride through time and space to a land of cinematic brilliance. Beyond the darkness, lies greatness, and the new Star Trek film has achieved it.