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Star Trek Into Darkness: Spoiler Free Review * 09 May 2013


Star Trek Into Darkness is ultimately a film about deception.

It takes many forms throughout the duration, be it the nature of secrets and hidden identity, or self denial in multiple cases among the cast of characters - such as the need to lie to yourself to validate unthinkable actions, to deny a seemingly insurmountable parental legacy through rash action, or simply the unwillingness to allow an emotional attachment.

As always with Star Trek, it is a film that is heavily character led, regardless of the science fiction tropes, and if you become invested in those performing onscreen you will be rewarded heavily. The film is directly tied to its predecessor narratively, and sets out to address issues raised in that instalment while providing new ones. As pure entertainment it can be enjoyed alone and fresh with no previous knowledge, but to fully understand the motivations and actions of the characters a viewing of the 2009 film is strongly recommended. Star Trek Into Darkness is very much focused on cause and effect, examining the aftermath of encountering a vastly superior force and looking at existing enemies with new, more paranoid eyes.


Picking up a short time after the close of the previous film, we open at the midpoint of a thrilling adventure for the crew of the USS Enterprise that could effectively stand as a mini episode of the TV Series. It is instantly funny and frantic, introducing us to the cast in relentless, Indiana Jones-like fashion while placing some huge character stakes front and centre that carry all the way through to the emotional climax. Recalled to Earth, it becomes clear that the actions of Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), and to a lesser degree his first officer Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto), are indicative of young men who are struggling to fulfil responsibilities that they may not be ready for. The narrative forces them both to step up though, through the actions of a mysterious terrorist named John Harrison, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. 

Despite the large cast, Star Trek Into Darkness is basically a three pronged character piece that plays out between Pine, Quinto and Cumberbatch. Largely, the narrative belongs to Kirk, as he has to confront the legacy of his father while learning the true responsibility of being the captain, something he has deliberately avoided and was in hindsight left unresolved by the climax of the previous film. Chris Pine does far stronger work in Star Trek Into Darkness than the previous outing, the actions of Harrison leaving him shell shocked and blood hungry initially, before effectively showing the growing maturity of the man. As well as being flippant and funny, he plays things more subtly at times, and the moment he begins to consistently do the right thing brings us much closer to William Shatner's incarnation of the character.

The same applies to Zachary Quinto as Spock, who is still secretly reeling from the loss of his homeworld - like Kirk he carries out reckless actions, but justifies them behind a facade of Vulcan logic. Unlike before, the tentative steps towards friendship between the pair in Star Trek have here become great strides, with Kirk willing to break numerous rules and regulations from the very beginning to save a man he considers a friend, even when he knows Spock, intentionally remaining aloof, would be unwilling to do the same. For both characters, the film gives them an arc of growth towards the versions that exist in the original television series - Kirk a man who must accept what it takes to lead a command; Spock a man who rejects emotion but has to realise the importance of the connection of friendship. And for both of them, the catalyst of this arc is the presence of Benedict Cumberbatch's John Harrison.


Apart from snatched glimpses, Harrison does not have very much screen time in the opening section of the film. But as soon as he does fully appear, laying utter waste to a superior enemy force in spectacular fashion, Cumberbatch's performance completely dominates the film. Bringing both predatory intellectualism and imposing physicality, he effectively steals every scene he features in and forces the other members of the cast he interacts with to raise their game in kind. It sounds churlish to point this out of course as this is a distinct character, but at times the rythmic edge of his Sherlock Holmes shines through in some relentless explanatory dialogue - but then he surprises you by exploding into ferociously violent action of the kind we have never seen him play before. Cumberbatch gives us a far superior villain than Eric Bana's Nero in the previous film, one that is manipulative and dangerous, and certainly not above attempting to engender our sympathy to his cause - Harrison has without doubt been wronged by those he seeks revenge against, but despite the presence of a single, long tear when his motivation is revealed, the thought of siding with an avowed terrorist remains an uneasy concept. But of course, Star Trek is all about uneasy concepts, and the holding of a mirror to our preconceptions is its greatest strength.

When faced with these three performances, the rest of the ensemble is perhaps understandably given less to do. Faring best of all is Simon Pegg as Scotty, possibly in return for being the last of the major cast to arrive in the previous film. Scotty carries the morality of the entire narrative on his shoulders from the very beginning, and is consistently a character set on doing the right thing while also ably fulfilling the role of comic relief throughout the film. Karl Urban as Doctor McCoy, traditionally forming the trinity of friendship with Kirk and Spock, is sadly relegated in importance compared to the last instalment, but makes excellent use of the material he is given. Of all the cast, Urban inhabits a previously established role most effectively, and never fails to raise huge laughs with his performance as a result. Despite her heavy presence on the posters of the international marketing campaign for the film, Zoe Saldana's Uhura is also pulled back slightly from before, but still given a proactive role several times in the narrative - as a linguist, her use of Klingon is a standout - but her partial relegation to nagging girlfriend at one point is possibly a disservice to the character. Both John Cho's Sulu and Anton Yelchin's Chekov fare least well of all the returning Enterprise crew, their heroic moments toned down considerably compared to the previous film while just managing to make memorable marks. Also returning is Bruce Greenwood as Admiral Pike, successfully existing as Kirk's surrogate father figure and mentor, who ultimately spurs Kirk onto that already mentioned path of greatness.


 Aside from Benedict Cumberbatch there are two other major additions to the cast. Alice Eve appears as Dr Carol Marcus, a character who first appeared in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and there was the mother of Kirk's son. While Star Trek Into Darkness doesn't go down a truly romantic path with her and Kirk, she sparks frission with both him and McCoy in several comedic scenes. She is a good but relatively unremarkable addition on the Enterprise, her presence ending up more a story point than a vital new member of the crew. And Peter Weller plays Admiral Marcus, the head of Starfleet intelligence - to say more of him would give too much away.

The production itself is exceptional, perhaps even beyond that of the previous film. By his own admission director J.J. Abrams was never a Star Trek fan - instead preferring Star Wars from a young age, which is clearly visible in the visual and narrative beats of the 2009 film. Here he seems more aware of the world he is creating, and references both narratively and visually are dotted around for Trek fans familiar with the older material - for example, mentions of an organisation from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and models of starships from Star Trek: First Contact and Star Trek: Enterprise. This is definitely a film that remains accessible while also delving deeply into catering for older Trek fans, but arguably the latter tack could be interpreted as somewhat detrimental in the final half hour, possibly significantly weakening the film. Make no mistake, the conclusion of Star Trek Into Darkness will be something that is debated for a long time to come.

Regardless, Abrams' direction is absolutely assured, retaining his ability to slip from fist pumping action, broad comedy, and genuinely moving drama seemingly at will. Visually the film is an absolute treat, with the production design bold and challenging - the appearance of the Klingons in the film perhaps sums up the aesthetic of the whole thing in a single striking reveal, respectful of the past while spinning everything anew. The visual effects are thrilling to witness, though there is a reduced focus on space combat compared to the previous film, and aurally the sound design by Ben Burtt is, frankly, shattering. This is also the first Star Trek film to be released in 3D, and it is largely a roaring success. While the film is post converted having been shot on standard and IMAX cameras, the image gives superb dimensionality and depth in facial close ups and action scenes - the only oddity being out of focus objects placed in the foreground of the frame, whereas a natively shot 3D film would simply retain the focus on them and spatially place them closer to the viewer. 

Moving from regular 3D to IMAX 3D though is a further revelation. If you are lucky enough to see the film projected in a rare 70mm film print, rather than the more common IMAX Digital presentation, you'll bear witness to the original 'as-the-director-intended' version of Star Trek Into Darkness. Around forty percent of the film was shot natively on IMAX cameras - or to put it more simply when viewing, every shot that takes place as an exterior, be it space shot or planet surface - which expands the frame to the entire height of the screen. At the BFI IMAX at Waterloo in London, this means characters and ships are shown at a height of around five storeys high, completely filling your vision. It's the first film since Tron Legacy in 2010 to combine the full screen-filling IMAX ratio and 3D presentation, but unlike that film both elements are used far more aggressively here, giving almost complete immersion in the action onscreen. The only downside is when a sequence rapidly cuts between exteriors and interiors - the opening sequence is a strong example - where the ratio changes rapidly snap back and forth between the full size IMAX frame and the cropped ratio that all standard screenings of the film are locked to. The film prints of Star Trek Into Darkness are, as mentioned, very rare - the UK has three copies in the entire country for example, each valued at roughly $60,000 according to the BFI - but if you absolutely have to see the true presentation pinnacle of this film, it is well worth the journey to find one. The results make an already visually spectacular film exponentially moreso.

So where do both the 3D versions leave the 2D release of the film? Surprisingly, in very good stead. With the removal of the added dimension, you are able to admire the exceptional detail of the production design all the more. Instead of drawing your gaze to specific areas of the frame, the 2D print allows you to wander and study incidental material at your own pace. One example of this is the Enterprise herself - a much deeper, involved and - dare we say it - logical interior geography for the ship has been conceived in Star Trek Into Darkness, and in 2D this becomes all the clearer when you are able to see all elements equally instead of having your attention fixed on what the third dimension commands. And of course, those niggling issues with the previously mentioned out of focus foreground props and characters are not a problem in the 2D print, with it ultimately giving you the true 'in-camera' view of the film as shots were composed and captured. Yet having seen the film in all three release formats, it remains difficult to pick a favourite, as each remains different. At the very least, we recommend a 3D and a 2D screening to appreciate everything that is going on, with the IMAX 3D presentation being our top choice if you are able to view one.


As a film, Star Trek Into Darkness is perhaps marginally less crowd pleasing and satisfying than its predecessor, but makes up for it with a less frenetic pace and more emotionally involved character work that is fed by the imposing threat from a truly superb villain. Everything you want from a good time at the movies is here - comedy, drama, tears, spectacular visuals, sumptuous sound, excellent 3D and most importantly brilliantly played performances. But it is ultimately a film about deception, and both the narrative and the characters intentionally hold back many secrets that are best discovered by watching the film completely afresh. As a viewer, prior knowledge of Star Trek past may even affect your reaction to the film itself, so all we can say is go in with an open mind, but prepare for one hell of a ride.

We have more to say about Star Trek Into Darkness, and so we have created a second part to this review to go into even greater analytical detail of Benedict Cumberbatch's performance.

However, we strongly recommend only reading on on the link below once you have seen the film, as by discussing his role in detail we have no choice but to dip into the thematic weight of the story, and thus heavy spoiler territory.

Read Star Trek Into Darkness: Spoiler Review.