Star Trek Into Darkness is a thoroughly astounding reminder of what I love about the best action movies. The story is complex, almost to a fault, while still feeling relevant for our own world. The characters are also full of depth and intricacy, which allows the film to keep the viewer questioning who the real villains are. The action is constantly exciting and powerful, and it complements the plot perfectly without overwhelming it. This is a success of a summer blockbuster if I have ever seen one, and it has more than enough reasons to deserve your attention.
To explore strange new worlds.
The film starts off with a bang, as Captain James Kirk and others of the USS Enterprise are surveying an unusual tribe they, with one small problem being a nearby volcano that’s about to erupt. (Remember the awesome environmental imagery at the climax of 2003’s Return of the King film? That’s what this movie looks like at the start, and the art direction remains flawless from start to finish.)
The following scene, where the tribe is saved at cost (as the Enterprise’s crew breaks a fundamental rule of non-interference, leading to the primitive tribe seeing and worshiping the ship as it flies away), is emotional and exciting in equal measure. It and the rest of the movie do a great job of toying with any possible “comfort” the viewer may have surrounding the various characters and the dangers they face. No one in the film seems arbitrarily shielded, and the suspense feels highly convincing as a result.
Be mindful of consequences.
Unfortunately for Captain Kirk, his breaking of several major Starfleet rules, despite his noble intentions, earns him a variety of demerits. Some of these could have had more of an effect on the plot, but given the particular circumstances, this becomes rather understandable, if perhaps a bit predictable. There’s a terrorist somewhere in Starfleet, making the danger all too close to home in a setting full of alien species and worlds, and it’s not long before a series of brutal (and extremely loud) attacks devastates the organization and gives Kirk a prompting and an opportunity to pursue the person who did this and to bring him to justice.
This is where some very interesting ethical questions come into play. Because of where the perpetrator is hiding–a planet belonging to another species–any excesses in force used to capture him could easily be interpreted as a declaration of war. At the same time, to go along with the rather uncompromising orders Kirk is given, a new and untested weapon is revealed: its dangerous and unpredictable characteristics, coupled with the necessary questions surrounding the whole idea behind the attack, make the weapon more of a liability than an asset. These weapons are taken along anyway, but the movie smartly avoids letting Kirk and company “do as they please” without repercussions. Certain rather ugly aspects of the character are brought forth, as he imposes his sometimes unwise rules upon other people while refusing orders from superiors if he doesn’t agree; this naturally has negative consequences for Kirk and for his crew, but the film thankfully doesn’t try to cover up these kinds of problems.
I personally thought 2009’s Star Trek felt a little simple as far as the plot went, the first time I saw the movie, but regardless of how I eventually grew to enjoy that film’s story, the one in Into Darkness asks a lot of valuable questions from the beginning without ever feeling preachy or intrusive. The movie has no problems enjoying itself, but if there’s one thing Kirk needs to learn from Starfleet, it’s that the means matter as much as the intentions.
This is an admirable action film that is as deeply humane as it is deeply human, with characters who are treated with dignity even as they have a variety of significant personality flaws and conflicts. There are few “throwaway villains” to be used and tossed aside, even as a diplomatic negotiation gone wrong isn’t quite as important to the plot as it could have been, and danger quite often doesn’t come at the end of someone else’s weapon anyway.
There’s more to others than you might realize.
The story that follows, filled with one plot twist after another, starts off fast and stays fast as a number of characters reveal more of their personalities and backstories; this sort of complexity is the crucial element that I think would have made the plot and villain of 2009’s Star Trek film more interesting–but it’s definitely not in short supply here. Even when I had trouble at times keeping up with the latest character revelations, I was overjoyed that so many of them were even there. None of these people seem like cardboard, as they are all either charming or well developed, and both are true more often than not.
There is one rather naive “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” section that doesn’t go unnoticed by the plot, and it ends up causing problems on more than one occasion; at the same time, however, it does result in a Bilbo/Frodo Baggins-esque “love your enemies” situation that’s very refreshing to see, even as said enemies cannot be allowed to cause additional injustice to other people. This also has a side effect of avoiding simplistic “us-versus-them” portrayals of the various individuals and groups involved.
A later scene onboard a ship contains some of the fiercest close-combat moments in the film, one of which is a horrifying finish that happens offscreen but is still far too intense for children or sensitive viewers; that being stated, this comes alongside some especially powerful character-relations moments that feel significant even after so much action. A person who might have ended up as simple “eye candy” is instead given one of the most important roles in the story.
In the same way, there’s more to this film.
The story takes a number of morally upright stances that I honestly wasn’t expecting from the genre, and the film as a whole is blessed for it. The plot’s honest dedication to its message remains noticeable without ever feeling excessive, and that dedication has ways of manifesting itself that are as impressive and nearly as unusual as the situations that demand it. There is no “just-blow-them-away” mentality, which bothered me greatly about films such as Red Tails and (in hindsight) Act of Valor, and this is one of Into Darkness’s most defining and distinct attributes. Even when conflict makes itself unavoidable, it isn’t used as an easy excuse for bloodshed, and while I can enjoy over-the-top, absurdist entertainment on occasion, it’s amazingly refreshing to see films like this hold themselves to a higher standard.
On an artistic and technical level, it’s hard to find clear improvement when the previous Star Trek film was as amazing in this area as it was, but this film just looks wonderful from start to finish. Fight scenes are on rare occasion edited too quickly to follow easily, but ships, futuristic cities, alien worlds, and costumes and makeup all look excellent. A special mention goes to the impressive depiction of members of a certain race of aliens that I really don’t want to spoil–but you’ll know them when you see them. I’m not surprised that the film had a huge budget, because every aspect of it looks incredible. (Seeing the film with 3D glasses doesn’t really add much to the visuals, but there are two really neat effects at the end.)
The music is wonderful at prompting excitement or emotion when necessary, almost too much so: one villainous character is given ominous musical cues and close-ups very early on before we know anything about this person’s actions or motives. The presentation feels well-meaning but ill-timed as a result, because we’re taught to be suspicious of a person who hasn’t yet done anything wrong that we’ve directly seen or heard about. That being stated, the soundtrack does a great job of covering a wide variety of moods and is generally perfect for whatever scene it’s in. The opening song is particularly noteworthy, but I can’t think of a single moment in this film where the music was anything less than exceptional.
Star Trek Into Darkness is one of the most important blockbuster films I’ve ever seen, because it shows with courage and enthusiasm that a story can contain plenty of thrilling action and exciting suspense without compromising its own humanity or that of its characters. The story’s political bases feel timely and somewhat obvious, perhaps even being a few years late, but they are never thrown in the viewer’s face.
The movie as a whole deserves commendation for how it continually strives for something other than vengeance, and in the end that makes it more heroic than any amount of punishment it dishes out to the villains. I would recommend seeing the previous film first, but the characters grow and mature enough throughout Into Darkness that they can be appreciated by anyone. And this is a movie that deserves that much and more.