May 16, 2013



STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS:  Worth A Ticket – Another Satisfying Trip On the Enterprise

J.J. Abrams and his Bad Robot cohorts, writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, did a bang-up job rejuvenating the Star Trek franchise in 2009, and their first next journey where many, many have gone before, the new STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS (this time with the addition of fellow Bad Robot club member Damon Lindelof) gets almost as close to warp-speed.

The major inspiration of the reboot was to establish an alternate timeline for new adventures that preserved the iconic characters but allowed them to diverge from the massive amount of canon that had accumulated over the decades.  Darkness continues that process, cleverly echoing but not duplicating some of the most famous parts of that canon, although in ways that can’t be described in detail without crossing into major spoiler territory.

Abrams, of course, comes out of television (as do all the film’s writers), and he has a series showrunner’s sensibility for fusing character development with action, one that eludes fellow blockbuster makers like Michael Bay and Gore Verbinski.  His opening sequence, for example:  when we rejoin the Enterprise, Abrams indulges his unabashed Spielberg-fandom (after devoting an entire movie to the master with Super 8), presenting an Indiana Jones-esque set-piece involving alien tribesman who live on a planet supersaturated with colors.  But even with all the running around, explosions and space ships, the script sets out what’s always been a central conflict of Star Trek:  the struggle between impulsive emotion and  detached logic, personified but not always practiced by Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and his best friend and First Officer Spock (Zachary Quinto).  That conflict will run through the entire movie, and include the actions of several other characters as well.

The events of the prologue lead to a gathering of the high command of Starfleet, headed by its commander Marcus (Peter Weller), and that leads–through a storyline that turns out to be more convoluted than it really need to be–to a terrorist known as John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), who blows up a Starfleet library in London and whose identity and motives are more complicated than they initially seem.  That, of course, brings the whole gang together, for a journey that takes them first to the Klingon home planet of Kronos:  Bones (Karl Urban–whose J.J. Abrams-produced series Almost Human was just picked up by FOX), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Scottie (Simon Pegg), Sulu (John Cho), and Chekov (Anton Yelchin).  Plus there’s a new crew member, the fetching Carol (Alice Eve), who apart from contributing a cheesecake shot for the benefit of Kirk and the 12-year old boys in the audience, plays a role that again can’t be fully described.

Abrams pulls off all the summer tentpole movie stuff with ease.  Not all $200M-budgeted spectacles are alike, and the CG here really is state-of-the-art, better than in many other similarly expensive movies, even the very difficult sequences of people fighting on computer-generated surfaces in daylight.  This is one of the relatively few 3D blockbusters that really should be seen that way, with some very effective, nuanced use of the technology to create shadings between foreground and background, not just to throw things at the audience.  The pace is swift (editing by Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey), Michael Giacchino has contributed another full-bodied, exciting score, the photography by Dan Mindel effectively uses hand-held camerawork to create immediacy, and the production design by Scott Chambliss is classy and convincing.  Not incidentally, all those people are returned from the 2009 crew.

Where Darkness stands out, though, is in the deftness of its writing and acting.  It’s not easy to balance a script among two leads, at least one villain, and five supporting players whom fans demand to see in some spotlight moments–while also telling a complicated story–but Kurtzman, Orci and Lindelof largely get it done.  Pine and Quinto have perfected spins on their characters that recall William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy without ever imitating them, and their interplay gives an emotional core to all the whiz-bang movie magic around them.  Saldana’s Uhura, perhaps thanks to her own breakout role in Avatar, has more to do here than last time, while Urban, Cho, Pegg and Yelchin each make the most of their signature bits.  Cumberbatch is one of the most distinctive, thrilling actors to recently come to public attention, and if anything, with his pale skin and odd features, he’s so perfectly cast as a big-budget supervillain that one hopes he doesn’t play too many of them.  In his first, though, he’s a terrific foil for our heroes.

Darkness sometimes falls victim to the lethargy of a middle franchise chapter; there just isn’t the same opportunity for surprise in a series that’s already underway than in the first or final installments.  There’s an overplotting problem, some of the dialogue is flat, and it’s unfortunately a staple of our blockbuster era that one giant ending isn’t enough when you can have three or four of them.  But most of the way through, the movie is in line with the best of its predecessors.

J.J. Abrams may be the first Hollywood auteur whose comfort zone is nurturing creations made by others.  He’s already tackled Mission Impossible and Star Trek, as well as the 1970s Steven Spielberg playbook in general, and of course his biggest challenge is still ahead:  he’ll be the first person since George Lucas himself to have control of a Star Wars movie, a task that will be trickier still because this will be a direct sequel to the two trilogies that exist–so alternate timelines and similar gimmicks are unlikely.  Based on his work so far, though, it would be unwise to dismiss the possibility that the force will be with him.



About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."