(I know that this review is a few weeks late, but I figured better late than never)
JJ Abrams makes Star Trek movies for people that have never seen Star Trek. That was the impression people received from his 2009 outing with the crew of the Enterprise. But with his sophomore effort, Star Trek Into Darkness, this is literally the case.
The plot picks up a few years after the events of the last film. Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) uses his trademark "to hell with the rulebook" attitude to rescue a crew member from harm. When Spock (Zachary Quinto) reports him to high command, Kirk receives harsh dressing down from his superior Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood). That scene in particular is quite good. Pike points out all of the obvious problems with Kirk's command style and how the young Captain uses his dumb luck as an excuse to justify his reckless behavior.
This sets up the fact that this movie is about Kirk truly learning what it is to be a captain of a ship. He has to learn how to make tough choices and own his failures. This also puts him at odds with Spock and creates a wonderful tension throughout the movie.
While this is going on a terrorist named John Harrison, played fantastically by Benedict Cumberbatch, has murdered a number of Starfleet members, throwing the whole organization into disarray. In the chaos, he flees to an abandoned part of the Klingon homeworld. Kirk is tasked with going to Klingon space and assassinating Harrison with long range photon torpedoes.
To speak more about the plot would be to give away some very interesting developments. A new member of the crew Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) joins the mission as another member of the old crew is kicked out. The remaining crew members are not give much else to do. There is very little character development with Sulu (John Cho) or Chekov (Anton Yelchin). Uhura (Zoe Saldana) does have a few good moments to show her bravery, but the focus is mostly on her troubled romance with Spock. This part of the story is well-written. As a friend of mine noted, the writers captured the way real couples fight.
But back to the main point about Star Trek fans vs. non-Star Trek fans. JJ Abrams decides to use this movie to revisit some very familiar Trek territory. A kind way to say it is that he is paying homage to some of the his favorite Trek lore. But here's the problem: for anyone who is a fan of the adventures of the original crew, the story is all too familiar. Some events that should be shocking, lose their sting. I could not help getting a sense of deja vu where I felt, "Hadn't I seen this somewhere before?"
I believe that is how most Trek fans will feel about the events that unfold in Star Trek Into Darkness. However, speaking with people unfamiliar with the older stories, they were excited and moved by the plot twists and drama in a way that can only happen if the story is new to you.
But apart from that, the movie is still rather fun. Particularly, Scotty (Simon Pegg) and Bones (Karl Urban) steal the show with their humor and charm. Watching Bones hit on Carol Marcus is quite hysterical. Alice Eve's performance is acceptable, but you can't help but feel that she was cast more for her anatomy than her talent, especially in one illogically unnecessary scene that puts her in her underwear.
But the movie is grounded in the performances and story around Kirk, Spock, and Harrison. Harrison is a fantastic villain whose backstory changes how you perceive him. Spock's character is taken to places in this movie that I have never seen in any other Trek adventure. And Kirk is brought very low, to the point of breaking. This is his trial by fire that will either make him the captain he could one day be or destroy him utterly.
Abrams fills the screen with wondrous spectacle and the Michael Giancchino score is top notch. The film's post-9/11 allegory is a little heavy handed, but the dedication to the armed forces at the end was a nice touch.
And that touches on the important theme of leadership. What does a real and true leader do? Some in the movie interpret leadership as doing whatever it takes, including some truly evil acts, for the safety of those under them. But can a good leader do evil for the sake of a good end? Trek wrestles with these questions as Kirk tries to understand what his decisions will cost.
If you like the last Trek movie, you will like Into Darkness. If you are a long-time Trek fan, try to let go of what you already know and enjoy this film on its own terms.
4 out of 5 stars.