20 May 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

We went and saw "Star Trek Into Darkness" on opening night (9 May). I've just come back from seeing it my second time (20 May).

There are two reasons why I delayed posting this review. I had some notes written after my first viewing, but didn't really want to spoil it for American readers (the movie wasn't released till 17 May over there). I also really really wanted to see it again, and figured I'd take more notes that time and end up with a decent review. There may still be spoilers in the following review, but I will keep them hidden like this. (Just be careful where you move your mouse.)

Source: RealLife comics.
The above webcomic (from the US release day) is appropriate to the first day we saw the movie. In honour of the "Red Shirt" phenomenon found in the original TV series, I wore my "Expendable" red shirt from Thinkgeek. Dad came along wearing a bright yellow cycling shirt - the closest thing he had to command gold.

I highly enjoyed J.J. Abrams' previous "Star Trek" film, which was helpfully shown on network TV the week before release so I was able to refresh my memory of the characters. That film, with its central plot device of a time-travelling villain, used the rules of the Star Trek universe (some of its best films, in my opinion, are the ones featuring time travel) to reboot the franchise. The familiar characters from The Original Series are given a new spin, with their lives on an altered trajectory.

This way we can be reunited with characters that we already know and love, but hopefully won't feel like any storylines are being rehashed. This isn't Spider-man. I loved the "Amazing" reboot, but there are really only so many times you can tell the same plot.

A Vulcan in a volcano... there's a joke here somewhere.
Anyway, on to Into Darkness itself. The sequel begins with the Enterprise on a routine survey mission on a distant planet that is danger from being destroyed from within by a supervolcano. Our crew are pretty sure that they can interfere with nature, and save the planet, all without violating the Prime Directive (non-interference) if the natives never know they were there. Kirk being Kirk, he steals something from a temple, and things don't all go according to plan.
McCoy: "What the hell did you take?"
Kirk: "No idea, but they were bowing to it!"
As an opening to the film, it pays huge nods to the original TV series and the way the characters often interacted with strange planets. It also introduces a question that Kirk asks McCoy.
Kirk: "If Spock were here, and I were there, what would he do?"
McCoy: "He'd let you die."
This "what would the other guy do?" question comes back later in the story, and is a major influence in several character actions and choices.


Back on Earth, freshly demoted, the crew are just about to be separated when an attack on the Federation itself forces them back together again. Several Starfleet buildings are attacked by mysterious John Harrison, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Before J.J. Abrams released any character names or bare-bones plot outlines to the public, the internet was rife with speculation.

Was this "enemy of the Federation":
  • Khan Noonian Singh, the super-soldier villain from T.O.S. episode "The Space Seed" and the film "ST2: The Wrath Of Khan"?
  • Spock's brother Sybok, previously seen in "Star Trek V", with a grudge against the Federation in this new timeline where he has no home planet any more?
  • Or could it be Gary Mitchell, super-psychic villain with god-like powers from the first televised episode of T.O.S.?
  • Could J.J. Abrams and his writers be creating an amalgamated version of the above?

Or were they having fun feeding the audience interest with red herrings, as the production crew kept everything tightly under wraps?

Benedict Cumberbatch as John Harrison.
I think Abrams was enjoying the red herrings.

And no, I'm not going to tell you if any of the above theories were right. Not even with spoiler tags. Go see the film! (Or, unfortunately, you could just look up the film's imdb page. The cast list begins with a spoiler.)

Benedict Cumberbatch, familiar to many from the BBC "Sherlock", brings elements of that role to this one. Sherlock is highly intelligent, logical, and arrogant. Rogue Starfleet officer John Harrison is all of these and more, taken to 11. I won't go into any of his complicated motives, other than to say he has a serious grudge against Starfleet.

John Harrison: "I am better."
Kirk: "At what?"
John Harrison: "Everything."


No sooner is Kirk demoted and off the Enterprise than the attack on Earth leads to his reinstatement as he is given the mission of bringing John Harrison to justice. Each of the Enterprise crew get a chance to shine in this film, and all make major contributions to the mission. Here's some brief notes on each character (in alphabetical credits order).

Sulu (John Cho)
Shadowing his "classic" canonical future as captain of the USS Excelsior, Hikaru Sulu gets a turn in the chair when Kirk and Spock are on an away team. He takes his acting role seriously, delivering a terse ultimatum to Harrison hiding out on a Klingon planet.
McCoy: "Mr Sulu, remind me never to piss you off."
Scotty (Simon Pegg)
Scotty quits early on in the film, in protest over perceived "militarisation" of Starfleet, and the Enterprise in particular. But rest assured, he's back in uniform later, and still has a key role to play. His friend Keenser is back too - and provides a great Dr Strangelove visual gag.

Kirk (Chris Pine)
Captain: Kirk is still maturing into the gold uniform. After his pre-credits planet-meddling and Prime-Directive-ignoring escapades, he gets chewed out by Admiral Pike, who claims Kirk doesn't yet "respect the chair". By the end of Into Darkness, he's moved a little further from the cocky TV version, towards the more assured film version.
Ladies' man: Of course, this side remains. En route to Starfleet HQ, he cannot walk past female cadets without pausing to say "Hey ladies, Jim Kirk." This is mere seconds of screen time after he wakes up in bed between two Caitian women.

Spock (Zachary Quinto)
Spock is still struggling with the difficulties of being half human and half Vulcan. In one key discussion, he reveals that his not feeling emotions involves constant conscious decisions on his part. His romantic relationship with Uhura, first shown in the 2009 film, is continued here.
Kirk: "Are you guys fighting? Oh my god, what is that even LIKE?" 
Uhura (Zoe Saldana)
Uhura's crew role as Communications Officer is essential here, as her ability to speak Klingon proves useful when chasing Harrison across the Neutral Zone to Kronos. Advising against a shootout as a first response, Uhura reminds Kirk why she's on the away team.
"Let me speak Klingon." Kara suggests this may be the greatest geek pickup line ever.
Bones (Karl Urban)
Karl Urban's Dr McCoy is still my favourite of the characterisations on show. Not quite a DeForest Kelley impression, it still hits all the right notes for the metaphor-reliant chief medical officer. And the writers have fun with his McCoyisms:
"Are you out of your corn-fed mind?" 
"Dammit, I'm a doctor, not a torpedo technician!"
Chekov (Anton Yelchin)
As the slightly spoiler-y picture above (from pre-release stills) shows, Chekov dons the red in this film. Having shown his technical skills with transporters in the last film, it's no surprise the whiz kid is the chosen replacement when Scotty resigns.

Another new addition to the uniforms - padded jackets with colour-coded shoulder panels.

Anton Yelchin in a red shirt. Also, Dr Horrible cosplay in the 23rd Century!

The "Enterprise" brig and hallway sets bring "2001" to mind quite a few times.

What are the roaming communicator charges for a ship-to-ship call?


What's a Trek film without aliens? Klingons were originally intended to feature in the 2009 Trek film, but scenes of Nero serving time in a Klingon prison were cut. This time, in "Into Darkness", the Klingons make their long-awaited (if short-lived) big-screen appearance in this rebooted timeline.

At my first viewing, I was a little disappointed in the Klingon makeup. We only see one warrior with his helmet off. That said, I thought the helmets were pretty cool - a bit like the face-masking helmets from "Gladiator", but with built-in forehead bumps.

At my second viewing, I was more comfortable with the Klingon. I think what was missing was hair - the Into Darkness warrior shown is bald, with some gold piercings in his forehead ridges. I was hoping for the long-haired, bearded Klingon warrior look.


The new going-to-warp effect, goes a little further than the stretchy distortion from the 2009 film. This time there are contrails. In 3D, they're pretty damn cool.

What caught my eye in 3D (both times) were the little things - layers of embers floating through the volcano scenes, ashes and dust scattering in the Kronos scenes, and the debris floating mid-screen in the space jump.

Future London and future San Francisco look good for the moments they're on screen.

Yes, there's lens flare. Naysayers go on and on about this, but the blame lies as much (maybe even more) with the cinematographer, and his love of anamorphic lenses, as it does with J.J. Abrams and his stylistic decisions. From rewatching the 2009 film last week (with commentary), Abrams makes it clear that adding lens flare to exterior space shots was an intentional effect to mimic the reality of filming on a set, and adding to the illusion that the audience are seeing things really filmed by a cameraman in space. I've just got home tonight from seeing Into Darkness a second time - this time I kept an eye out for lens flare, and the Enterprise bridge, with all its bright lights and screens, is the only real place it stood out.


The 2009 "Star Trek" used an alternate timeline subplot to create a new history for the Trek universe, placing familiar characters (with new actor faces) in all-new situations. The sequel continues in this vein, sending our characters along their new career paths, but with even more characters from past Trek series/film canon. Alice Eve (in the pictures above) plays Dr Carol Marcus. In the William Shatner films, she played a past love interest, and mother of his son David (who was then killed by Klingons in film #3, giving Klingon lawyers a motive to put Kirk on trial in #6).

"Into Darkness", the second film in this timeline, contains characters seen previously in "The Wrath Of Khan", the original Star Trek sequel. It will be interesting to see if they attempt the same "old characters in new situations" routine - or similar - with "The Search For Spock" in a future Star Trek "III". There's no Spock to revive, but there is a Dr Carol Marcus, and we've made a first step into the Klingon Empire. Will we see a new take on Kruge? Whatever the case, I hope they resist any urge to bring Leonard Nimoy back. New Vulcan is only a subspace phone call away, but they can't ring up Spock Prime every time they run into danger, and ask what he knows about Alien-Race-Of-The-Week.

They've given the characters new destinies (to use Nimoy's lines from the 2009 film), so they should just run with that. In doing so, I hope that they don't stick too close to the previous films, but look to the 1960s TV show for jumping-off points instead. This is, after all, what the past filmmakers did for the first Trek sequel, "The Wrath Of Khan".

The new Abrams/Nero timeline is slightly earlier than the setting of the original films, to the point where Starfleet has yet to send any ship on a five-year mission into space. Developing plots that rework elements from classic TOS episodes would be a great way to come up with new films that would satisfy both hardcore Trek fans and new-comers to the film franchise. Or maybe even a remake of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, this time including Borg (see this novel) working alongside V'ger? I know I'd love to see "retro" Borg.

Will J.J. Abrams even be involved further in this franchise, given that he's now taking on the reins of Star Wars Episode VII? Time will tell.

In the meantime, this was an entertaining action movie, with dazzling visuals (the new going-to-warp effect is pretty damn cool), a great cast, and plenty of little Trek references and in-jokes.


This was an entertaining sci-fi/action movie, with dazzling visuals, a great cast, and plenty of little Trek references to keep my happy. Highly recommended. I will be definitely purchasing it when it's released on Blu-ray.

8.5 out of 10 Tribbles.
Today's RealLife comic.

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