'Star Trek Into Darkness' Review: Popcorn Bliss at Warp Speed

Star Trek Into Darkness

It's become something of a scapegoat for Hollywood's current love affair with loud, effects-reliant, mostly soulless tentpole pictures, but CGI spectacle isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's only when filmmakers use it to try and distract from under-developed ideas that it ends up feeling hollow; like any tool, it's only as effective as its user allows it to be.

Going into a discussion of Star Trek Into Darkness, this is worth pointing out for a couple of reasons. First of all, there's still something of a debate among the faithful over whether or not director J.J. Abrams' rebooted Trek universe is sufficiently grounded in the franchise's long-standing "ideas over action" aesthetic; second -- and probably more importantly -- the original Star Trek series addressed these themes fairly subtly, imagining a hopeful future in which our mastery of technology allows us to enhance our humanity rather than diminishing it.

All of which is a fairly roundabout way of saying that with Star Trek Into Darkness, Abrams -- and screenwriters Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, and Roberto Orci -- have pulled off a rather unlikely feat: They've put together a Trek sequel -- to a reboot, scheduled in the early weeks of prime blockbuster season -- that expertly wields impressive CGI effects and boffo set pieces in service of a strong message, confidently expressed with some of the best acting and dialogue in Trek history. There's silliness here, to be sure, but this is one Hollywood product that gets to have it both ways.

A little spoiler-free background to set the stage: As Darkness opens (with caffeinated camera work that immediately signifies you still aren't watching your father's Star Trek), our heroes are in the midst of a mission involving a primitive alien race, loads of swashbuckling danger, and plenty of rapid-fire quips (not to mention one moment in particular that'll play well to the IMAX 3D crowd). Befitting the rebooted Kirk's (Chris Pine) status as a brash 'n' cocky intergalactic rule-breaker, he's forced to choose between saving Spock (Zachary Quinto) and following the Starfleet's sacrosanct Prime Directive -- and of course, after Kirk saves Spock's bacon, Spock reports the incident to their superior (Bruce Greenwood), thus costing Kirk command of his beloved Enterprise and separating our bromantic duo.

But their split is short-lived, because there's a real nasty S.O.B. going by the name John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch, sounding for all the world like Alan Rickman) whose swath of destruction forces the no-nonsense Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) to put Kirk and Spock back in the Enterprise in order to bring Harrison to justice. There's more to the story, of course, but you get the gist; it's a dandy setup for ingenious set pieces, high-speed chases, shootouts, and hand-to-hand combat.

And if that's all Star Trek Into Darkness had to offer -- and it delivered those things effectively -- this would be a perfectly serviceable popcorn flick. As it happens, however, all that fizzy action is only the tonic that shrouds the movie's real substance: A thoughtful, borderline eloquent meditation on all kinds of timely (and timeless) themes, from moral relativity to the weaponization of scientific progress and the futility of revenge.

It's really spoiling nothing to say that Darkness is the umpteenth post-9/11 movie to address terrorism and the necessity of hanging on to one's ideals in a time of war. But what's mildly surprising is just how effective it is at underlining some of the show's best and brightest beliefs -- in comity, in sacrifice, in teamwork and friendship, in the way the people we think of as enemies can end up giving us sustenance -- even as it pads them with copious amounts of the type of rock 'em-sock'em action that the old Trek famously forsook.

If you're predisposed to dismiss this stuff as not "real" Trek, then you're unlikely to come away from Into Darkness having changed your mind. There are a lot of light-hearted interludes here -- including some truly, genuinely funny moments -- and probably a few too many obvious callbacks to the franchise's roots. From a certain point of view, Abrams and his cohorts could be seen as failing to take all that history seriously enough. But on the other hand, it's easy to imagine creator Gene Roddenberry doing exactly this kind of thing with the original Trek, if he'd only had the tools; after all, by the time the old cast had access to a movie-sized budget, they were too old to convincingly handle the sort of action that dominates Darkness' plot.

Either way, it'd be a shame to quibble with such a tautly constructed sci-fi action thriller, because lord knows we don't get enough of them these days. Pine and Quinto are great together, with chemistry that produces laughs as well as some truly affecting drama, and the movie's narrative leaps ensure that its flaws -- which include a handful of hoary military cliches that were old when Top Gun fell back on them, as well as a cheesecake shot and wedged-in romantic subplot that suggest no matter how old it gets, Star Trek will never know what to do with a woman -- zip by painlessly.

All in all, the movie's like the cool shot of the Enterprise underwater that pops up during that opening sequence: A comfortingly familiar sight, viewed from an exciting, unexpected angle. And if it's sort of a shame that Abrams is leaving the Trek universe to shepherd the revived Star Wars, at least he's doing it on a high note -- and as Darkness' closing moments make clear, he took care to leave it positioned in front of a whole final frontier's worth of stories. Can't wait to see how it prospers from here.

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About Jeff Giles

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Jeff is an entertainment writer and editor whose work currently appears at a variety of sites, including Rotten Tomatoes, Paste, American Songwriter, Popdose, Dadnabbit, Diffuser, and Ultimate Classic Rock.

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