Review: Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013)

Star Trek.  What other science-fiction television franchise has left as indelible a mark on popular culture?  When the late Gene Roddenberry first pitched his idea in the 1960s, it was too high-concept for studio execs, who simply couldn’t envision a multiracial crew.  Who would have predicted there would be not one but five series (plus animated!), spanning a combined 28 seasons and nearly 40 years?

Into Darkness is the 12th big-screen venture in the franchise, a sequel to the 2009 film that creatively rebooted the entire Trek universe.  Much depends on how much a viewer needs the new to channel the old.  On the one hand, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, and Simon Pegg give nearly pitch-perfect renditions of the original Spock, Bones, and Scotty.  On the other, Chris Pine’s Jim Kirk is written as more of a hothead than his predecessor.  Indeed, at the end of the former film, I found it scarcely believable that such a brash and unconventional cadet would be given command of Starfleet’s flagship, no matter how daring his exploits (this is addressed to some extent in the current film).  But the tension between Kirk’s volatility and Spock’s cool rationality–and their growing friendship–is the emotional core of the story, so I may have to get used to a little inconsistency here and there.

It’s only logical.

The studio’s strategy is to provide enough fireworks to attract a new generation of fans, while remaining sufficiently loyal to canonical sources to keep the older ones happy.  ST:ID is first and foremost an action movie, flying at warp ten from the opening life-or-death crisis (involving a volcano!) to the exhaustingly sustained (and physics-defying) climax.  Along the way, with a wink and a nod, the script is leavened with in-jokes and cross-references that only a Trekkie could love.

It’s a delicate balancing act.  The plot device of an alternative timeline, established in the previous film, gives license to cut and paste story elements, characters, and snippets of dialogue from earlier scripts.  But doing so triggers expectations and raises questions in fans who know what’s “supposed” to happen next.  Will this script follow suit, or chart its own course?  The neutral zone between being too innovative versus too derivative is a narrow one.  There is a moment, for example, in which Spock echoes an anguished cry taken from an earlier Trek movie.  To me, knowing the reference, it felt oddly out of place (I’m being intentionally vague, of course; if you’re a long-time fan, you’ll know it when you see it).  Overall, however, the writers have done a more than decent job of navigating between old and new, delivering both freshness and familiarity.

ST:ID is thus a first-rate popcorn flick, beautifully choreographed and well-acted.  Fans of BBC’s Sherlock will also appreciate the scene-stealing performance by Benedict Cumberbatch–who seems to be making a nice career of playing disturbingly brilliant sociopaths.

But is it family-friendly fare?  Even in the 1960s, Jim Kirk was something of a womanizer.  The same is still true here, with two scenes depicting Kirk with scantily clad women (including aliens with tails that add a dimension of naughtiness to their cavorting).  These scenes are brief, gratuitously unrelated to the plot, and characterized more by hormonal excess than a desire for conquest.

The violence, however, is the greater concern for parents.  It is not violence of the detached science-fiction kind, in which starships dissect each other at a distance with phaser fire; it’s intense and highly personal.  Even the good guys are motivated by sheer, unapologetic vengeance.  They vent their rage in unbridled ways that would have invited a sermonette from Jean-Luc Picard, or a scornfully raised eyebrow from the Vulcans.  Thus, the movie may be inappropriate for the youngest or most sensitive viewers (which is, after all, what the PG-13 rating is supposed to mean).

(Red alert: the conclusion below contains spoilers.)

ST:ID soars, in part because of its predictable narrative arc: what is lost is regained; the good guys win, the bad guys lose (at least for now).  The story flirts with themes of sacrificial death and subsequent resurrection, and the triumphant end seems to justify the means.  There is no sense that the characters have been tainted by their descent into the darkness of revenge.  Indeed, Kirk is again given the big chair, and this time for an unprecedented five-year mission.  Spock, who removed himself from command for an angry outburst in the previous movie, here seems unfazed by his experience of murderous rage.  He has become, one presumes, more Comfortable With Himself.

What does one do when love and loyalty, in the face of loss, become a deep desire for revenge?  ST:ID suggests that justifiable vengeance will be rewarded.  As long as it’s directed at the bad guys, all will be well.  But Christians have and must practice a counter-story, in which none are righteous, enemies are to be loved, and vengeance belongs to God alone.

It’s part of our Prime Directive.

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