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J. J. Abrams' Star Trek Into Darkness is a damn good time. That said, there are a couple of plot and character issues that keep this sequel from reaching the heights of 2009's Star Trek. As much fun as I had with the film, it never quite feels as fresh as its predecessor, thanks in large part to Abrams' decision to incorporate Khan, a character well established in the Trek universe, as the film's villain. Benedict Cumberbatch plays a sensational nemesis for James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto) and the crew of the USS Enterprise to oppose, but his motivations and backstory are slightly jumbled, suggesting Abrams and crew were unsure how much Trek lore to incorporate into this film. This creates the conundrum of a plot that feels both overstuffed and undercooked, but these issues are more than offset by the film's relentlessly entertaining narrative and some affecting human drama between the leads.
Abrams' first Trek outing appealed to series fans and casual viewers alike. I fall into the latter category and hold little nostalgia for previous films and television episodes. I think the casting for this latest Enterprise crew is great, and the filmmakers clearly love the franchise they're expanding. Star Trek Into Darkness continues the plot begun in Star Trek and begins with an Enterprise mission to Nibiru, where Captain Kirk breaks Federation directive to avoid contact with the indigenous population in order to save Spock's life. Incessantly honest Spock reports the deviation to Admiral Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), who assumes command of the Enterprise and appoints Kirk his first officer. A man claiming to be John Harrison (Cumberbatch) instigates the bombing of a London Federation archive and then attacks Starfleet headquarters. Kirk volunteers to track the man to Kronos, the Klingon home world, and reassumes command of the Enterprise. Commander Spock, Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Lieutenant Commander Leonard "Bones" McCoy (Karl Urban), Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu (John Cho), Navigator Pavel Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and Lieutenant Commander Montgomery "Scotty" Scott (Simon Pegg) join Kirk on the classified mission.
There is much to admire about Star Trek Into Darkness. The Enterprise crew plays off one another well and the personality conflict between Kirk and Spock moves the story forward. Spock's seeming lack of emotion has also irritated Uhura, who is furious that Spock gave little thought to her feelings when he consented to die on Nibiru. Kirk realizes after this shakeup that he may not be a very good captain, and his own crew begins to question his judgment. Uhura takes the lead on Kronos because she can speak Klingon, but it's Harrison - aka Khan - who saves the crew from Klingon soldiers. After dispatching the Klingons with brutal efficiency, Khan surrenders to Kirk to avoid being pummeled with prototype torpedoes from Admiral Alexander Marcus (Peter Weller). Khan is duplicitous and cunning, with a storied history and ties to the Klingons and their adversaries.
Trek fans will no doubt remember Khan from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, one of the better-reviewed films in the series. Abrams said in interviews that he used Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness because Khan is such a charismatic villain. Cumberbatch is certainly charismatic, and the filmmakers go to great lengths to re-imagine his character while paying homage to the original Khan. I think Khan is a fine villain here, but how and why he ends up on the Enterprise is a bit muddled. It's tricky to re-invent a franchise while continuing some of its traditions, and I can understand why some Trek fans might not appreciate this new Khan. But, no matter his backstory, Khan poses a real threat to Kirk and the Enterprise, and the British Cumberbatch acts to the rafters and oozes menace.
This Trek outing is certainly action packed; from the opening rush of a volcanic eruption on Nibiru to a thrilling scene where Kirk and Khan rocket through the debris-filled space between two starships. The film wastes little time re-introducing characters, and supporting players like Scotty and Uhura seem quite comfortable in their roles aboard the Enterprise. Newcomer Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) stows away on the Enterprise and becomes an important catalyst in the fight against Khan, which Spock leads as much as Kirk. There is a role reversal of sorts in the Kirk/Spock friendship when compared to The Wrath of Khan, and a late-film scene between the pair personifies the film's emotional core. Both Kirk and Spock grow up in Star Trek Into Darkness. I got a bit tired of Spock's stick-in-the-mud shtick early on, but it has an important payoff by the film's conclusion.
Abrams again fills his Trek universe with dizzying action sequences, seamless effects and gorgeous sets. The interior of the Enterprise is vast and detailed, and scenes of Kirk, Spock and Scotty running throughout the ship are seamlessly stitched together. The film may not be as emotionally impactful as its predecessor, but it's a gorgeous diversion to other parts of the Trek galaxy. Abrams again proves adept at crafting a nimble, thoughtful blockbuster, a skill that should serve him well as he takes on the Star Wars universe. I hope that those films, as well as the next Star Trek, can match the delightful energy of Abrams' first Trek film. Star Trek Into Darkness is an entertaining blockbuster stuck between exploring the galaxy and rehashing past glories.
Paramount continues to churn out gorgeous HD transfers for its new releases. Star Trek Into Darkness unspools on Blu-ray with a 2.40:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer. There's been a bit of controversy about this release in regards to the aspect ratio and bonus features, which I will discuss in greater depth in the "Packaging and Extras" section of this review, but the Blu-ray does not present scenes shot for IMAX in their native aspect ratio. The theatrical presentation had shifting aspect ratios for these scenes but the Blu-ray keeps everything at 2.40:1, which is less of a problem than a slight disappointment. Some people hated the shifting aspect ratios on The Dark Knight's Blu-ray, so to each their own.
Aspect-ratio hullabaloo aside, Star Trek Into Darkness looks amazing on Blu-ray. The opening sequence on Nibiru sets the stage with its stark red and yellow hues. The planet's inhabitants are striking in appearance, and the image is immediately and meticulously detailed and razor sharp. Texture is consistently impressive; every fabric, skyline and skin tone is unique and remarkably detailed. Colors are vibrant and perfectly saturated, from the bright reds of Nibiru to the cold greys of deep space to the sharp whites and glowing yellows of the Enterprise. Skin tones - both alien and human - are perfect, and shadow detail is consistently striking. Black levels are deep and unwavering, and a light layer of grain gives the transfer an attractive, film-like appearance. I noticed no problems with aliasing or noise reduction and only one instance of minor digital noise.
The 7.1 Dolby TrueHD soundtrack may not be quite as impressive as hearing Star Trek Into Darkness in an IMAX theater but it's pretty damn close. Immersive, perfectly balanced and exciting, this mix should please home-theater audiophiles. Starships roar across the sound field, Phaser blasts echo through the surround speakers and breaking glass clinks from ceiling to floor. All this action never overwhelms the dialogue, which is consistently clear, and Michael Giacchino's wonderful score is impeccably integrated. This is simply a floor-shaking mix that replicates the theatrical experience. Paramount is fast becoming the best studio in terms of Blu-ray audio! French, Spanish and Portuguese 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks are also available, as are English, English SDH, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This two-disc "combo pack" includes the Blu-ray, a DVD copy of the film and codes to redeem UltraViolet and iTunes-compatible digital copies of Star Trek Into Darkness. The discs are housed in a Blu-ray eco-case, which sports a cover art with stoic-looking images of our heroes plus a menacing Khan. The slipcover is a hard plastic with an interesting border that frames the clear center, shaped in the Starfleet logo, that allows the underlying artwork to show through.
So, now we get to the extras. The aforementioned controversy about this release stems from Paramount's decision to make several pieces of its created bonus content available only if customers buy the Blu-ray at certain retailers. Bill Hunt of The Digital Bits wrote an intelligent rant about the issue last month and I can't say I disagree. I've noticed that studios are beginning to skimp on bonus materials, even for high-profile releases like The Avengers and Wreck-It Ralph, and some speculate that this is a response to dwindling sales of physical media. For Star Trek Into Darkness, there are several retailer-exclusive editions: Target has a three-disc edition (or four-disc if you get the version with a 3D presentation) with exclusive slipcover and bonus disc with several additional featurettes; Best Buy's exclusive has a menacing slipcover and possibly some exclusive streaming extras; and iTunes got an early digital release that includes both a J. J. Abrams commentary AND shifting IMAX aspect ratios. I'm all for retailers offering perks like exclusive packaging but I'm not a fan of this piecemeal approach to bonus content. Now, I know not everyone watches bonus material like I do - and reviewing this material isn't always fun - but I completely understand why customers are beginning to feel burned by these promotional tactics. The trend will continue with several upcoming Blu-rays, and we'll have to wait and see how this plays out.
What bonus materials you do get are OK, but these forty-two odd minutes of behind-the-scenes footage are hardly comprehensive. There are seven featurettes highlighting specific sequences in the film. I imagine these could have comprised part of an extensive making-of documentary, so it's disappointing that they're presented in such short bursts. Here's what's included:
- Creating the Red Planet (8:28/HD) - The impressive opening sequence was created using a mix of in-camera effects and visual effects, and Abrams discusses how he achieved the look of the erupting volcano.
- Attack on Starfleet (5:25/HD) - The big Starfleet attack also mixed visual and practical effects, and this featurette reveals the actors on set during the big showdown.
- The Klingon Home World (7:30/HD) - This piece highlights the inclusion of Klingons in the film, and the filmmakers discuss updating the well-known antagonists while keeping pieces of Klingon history alive.
- The Enemy of My Enemy (7:03/HD) - Abrams discusses using Khan in his film, and Cumberbatch talks a bit about preparing to play this menacing villain.
- Ship to Ship (6:03/HD) - The film's most exciting action sequence is the focus of this piece, which reveals the push from pre-viz to final product.
- Brawl by the Bay (5:44/HD) - Quinto talks his big action sequence and what he did to train for the stunts.
- Continuing the Mission (1:57/HD) - This brief piece highlights Abrams' real-life work with modern war veterans.
J. J. Abrams created a worthy follow-up to his 2009 Star Trek reboot in Star Trek Into Darkness. The film stumbles a bit narratively, and I never really felt the impact of the death and destruction happening on screen. Nevertheless, Star Trek Into Darkness is an exciting, action-packed thrill ride that sees Kirk and Spock butting heads and a nefarious new antagonist to challenge the Enterprise in the familiar Khan. Paramount's Blu-ray looks and sounds phenomenal but is sadly lacking in bonus materials. Recommended.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.