Benedict Cumberbatch in "Star Trek Into Darkness" (Photo : Paramount PIctures)
Back in 2009, J.J. Abrams brought the "Star Trek" franchise back to the forefront with a solid reboot. The film was noted for its relentless pacing, its solid cast of newcomers, and its ability to re-establish the magic that created legions of Trekkies. It also introduced the world to the technique of exaggerated lens flare.
As is often the case, a sequel creates a great sense of excitement and anxiety in the same measure. Fans anticipate seeing their favorite heroes embark on a new journey, but are also wondering if the tremendous artistic success of the original will reappear in the sequel. In many ways "Into Darkness" not only lives up to these expectations but exceeds them on many fronts.
As the film opens, Captain Kirk, Spock, and the Enterprise's crew are attempting to salvage an ancient culture from a volcanic eruption that would end their existence. Spock (Zachary Pinto) heads into the volcano to set off a device that would freeze the eruption. His chances of survival are minimal and any attempts from the Enterprise to save him would blow their cover and endanger the objectives of the mission. Kirk (Chris Pines) eventually decides to save his best friend, earning a tremendous amount of consequences. Spock files a report indicating that Kirk ignored orders and the latter winds up losing his post and facing questions about maturity and responsibility for his actions. Meanwhile Spock's behavior causes issues with Kirk, leading to the film's central thesis: Will the Vulcan ever truly embrace his own human nature?
The film takes a major twist when the mysterious "John Harrison" (Benedict Cumberbatch) arrives on the scene. Harrison blows up a building of the space federation and proceeds to fire upon its highest commanding officers. Kirk is swiftly reinstated as the Captain of the Enterprise and sent on a mission to capture Harrison on Kronos, the planet of the Klingons. From there the film develops a breakneck pace that entertains and engages. Space battles will abound with a jump through space from one ship to another ship paying homage to a sequence in "Empire Strikes Back."
In this writer's opinion, the greatest weakness of Abrams' first "Star Trek" was a rather bland and predictable performance from Eric Bana as the film's central villain. Cumberbatch is not only an instant improvement, but showcases himself as one of the more unforgettable evildoers in recent memory. He has a piercing stare that is both expressionless and frightening. Despite his cold manner, there is one scene in the film that provides a powerful insight into the character's tragedy. Any more information on that particular scene would require major spoilers; however, it is impossible for anyone to miss such a brilliant moment in the film.
The remainder of the cast does a surprisingly solid job as well. While Cumberbatch's mere presence dominates the film, Pinto and Pines share a few intimate scenes together that help remind the viewer that despite the visual effects and fantastical world, this story is in fact a human drama filled with compassion, love, and brotherhood. Simon Pegg also steals scenes with his whimsical humor.
The film's pacing and storytelling is wonderfully organic in its execution, but does seem to run out of gas as it nears the finish line. One character blames another for a death, even though the latter really had nothing to do with the aforementioned demise. Fortunately, the confusing reaction proves to be the perfect excuse to set up the final action sequence. The solution to one major dilemma is resolved quickly thanks to a plot point revealed to the viewer earlier, cheapening the tension of the climax. While earlier action sequences were continuously built upon increasing stakes throughout the movie, the final sequence is short and repetitive; the stakes never really build. The actual conclusion of the fight is by far the most disappointing bit of the whole sequence as it abandons logic established about one character's seeming invincibility earlier in the film in order to hastily tie up loose ends ("Iron Man 3" suffered from the same bit of illogical conclusions). After the dust has settled, Abrams decides that the best way to conclude the film is with a speech and another sequence where the characters get in a ship and ride off into the galactic sunset; the childish tone of the sequences takes away from the mature feel that permeates the remainder of the movie.
Abrams continues to utilize lens flare as a visual motif in this film. He seems to be more conservative this time around with the flare not becoming as big of a distraction as it was in the first "Star Trek" movie. Michael Giacchino's terrific score matches the vibrancy of the imagery and editing.
"Star Trek" fans will be thrilled by the twists, turns, and nods to previous franchise installments present throughout "Into Darkness." Everyone else will likely marvel at the film's relentless pace and Cumberbatch's iconic turn.