I love the Star Trek franchise, although I consider myself a casual fan (not sure what the term for that is. Trekker?). When it comes to the Trek movies, I tend not to nitpick small details. The story and its themes are what’s important to me. Star Trek (2009) was about dealing with pain and loss, the uncertainty of the future, and learning to depend on others. It almost had to be about those things, since fans had to come to terms with the retirement of the original timeline. Anyways, Abrams’ first film was very good (though it had its problems), and it did what it needed to do: get Kirk in the chair, divorce itself from the rigid continuity of the original series, and rustle up some new fans. Hollywood being Hollywood, a sequel was inevitable. Four years later, Star Trek Into Darkness has warped into theaters. Is it as good as the last one? Short answer: no. Slightly longer answer: no, because it’s better. What?…Why yes I WOULD like to elaborate at great lengths! Onward!
KIRK, SPOCK, AND THEIR BROMANCE
It always bothered me how quickly Kirk got to command the Enterprise in the first movie. He basically from a cadet to the captain of the Federation’s flagship in a few days! It was a little rushed. But Into Darkness acknowledges that it WAS rushed. Kirk DID take command of the Enterprise too early. He depends too much on luck. He’s irrational. He exploits the loyalty of his crew. He really SHOULD spend a little more time at the Academy. People like Kirk: he’s smart, handsome, charismatic, and a risk-taker. Which is great, but those qualities allowed him to bypass the system and become responsible for a starship before he was ready. After all, it takes wisdom and experience to learn when to take risks and when to avoid them. That’s where Spock comes in.
In the first movie, Kirk and Spock spend a long time at odds with each other. Eventually, they develop mutual respect and admiration, but their inevitable friendship is only hinted at by Spock Prime. Into Darkness delivers on that promise by showing us how much one needs the other. Kirk must learn to keep his emotions in check and look at things logically. Spock has to accept his human heritage and understand that emotion is not a weakness. At the beginning of the film, Spock is willing to sacrifice himself on Nibiru so that its inhabitants can live (“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”), and Kirk doesn’t understand how he can accept his fate so easily. Spock, meanwhile, is the voice of reason for the vengeful Kirk after Pike dies. By the end, their positions are reversed: Kirk makes the logical decision that his life is worth the crew’s, and he sacrifices himself to save them without hesitation. Spock, moved to tears by Kirk’s death, is acting on anger when he goes after Khan moments later. Maybe some die-hard Wrath of Khan fans didn’t care for the Kirk/Spock role reversal in the final act, but I thought it was a great callback to the volcano scene. In that moment, Spock was deliberately unemotional about death, and Kirk couldn’t see the bigger picture. Neither could comprehend the other’s thought process until the whole ship and crew are threatened; Kirk is forced to start thinking like Spock, and vice versa. After the events of Into Darkness, it can truly be said that Kirk and Spock are friends, because they’ve learned from each other: they now fully understand each other’s perspective, and they’re better men for it.
Benedict Cumberbatch is predictably amazing as Khan/John Harrison. In the original timeline, it’s remarked that Khan is noble in his own way, and he makes a great foil for Kirk because they have many similar qualities. The same is true in this film. Khan is a cunning and savage fighter, and he has no use for rules or limitations. In that way, he’s very much like Kirk, just distorted to the extreme. Indeed, both men are aggressive, determined, and fiercely protective of their people, but Khan is willing to do whatever it takes to get what he wants, damn the consequences; Kirk has to learn the danger of that kind of attitude.
I don’t think it’s too controversial to say that Nero from Star Trek (2009) wasn’t a particularly compelling villain, but thanks to great writing and an intense, nuanced performance from Cumberbatch, we don’t have that problem here. Interestingly, in his first appearance on the original Star Trek show, Khan was initially going to be a big Nordic guy in order to hammer home the whole Nietzschean ubermensch concept. It wouldn’t surprise me if Cumberbatch’s casting was a clever nod to what almost was.
MAKING THE MOST OF AN ALTERNATE TIMELINE
Into Darkness makes excellent use of the alternate timeline concept established in the first film. The chain of events that brings the Enterprise into conflict with Admiral Marcus and Khan can be traced back to Nero’s attack on Vulcan and Earth. The Federation’s leadership realizes that it’s vulnerable, so it becomes more paranoid and militaristic, aggressively exploring as much space as possible. They find Khan (Presumably aboard the Botany Bay), realize who he is, and exploit his strategic genius in order to prepare for inevitable conflicts with the Klingons and other threats. It’s an interesting idea that Khan, despite being from the past, would have a better understanding of weapons than people living in the more peaceful 23rd century. We can also see less obvious signs that Starfleet has become more militaristic: the uniforms are darker, more official looking, and certainly not what we would expect from benign explorers (whether they were meant to or not, they reminded me of the Soviets). At any rate, the story manages to address 21st century terrorism and our responses to it without appearing heavy-handed, not an easy accomplishment.
I saw Into Darkness with a friend who had seen the 2009 movie and nothing else from the Star Trek franchise. He also thought it was great, and I believe that’s evidence enough that Abrams has succeeded at making Star Trek accessible to new audiences without alienating old fans. The references to the original timeline were enjoyable (though not too excessive), and I think it was smart of Abrams to have Into Darkness mirror The Wrath of Khan without blatantly stealing from it. In a way, it’s comforting to know that some things are MEANT to happen, regardless of the timeline we’re in.
BUT WHAT ABOUT EVERYBODY WHO ISN’T KIRK, SPOCK, OR KHAN?
Given the huge focus on Kirk and Spock’s budding bromance, the supporting cast is surprisingly well-developed. Even though he’s not in the movie for long,Bruce Greenwood’s Admiral Pike adds a lot to the story. Into Darkness confirms his status as Kirk’s surrogate father, and their scenes together are really touching; we can tell that they genuinely care about each other. Uhura has more to do this time around, and her interactions with Spock are a little more believable. It doesn’t look like we’ll see the resurrection of the Kirk/Spock/McCoy relationship that anchored the original films, but Karl Urban is more comfortable as McCoy this time around, and the character’s friendship with Kirk is strengthened; he also gets to participate in more of the action, which is fine by me. Scotty continues to be comic relief, but he plays a major role in the movie, demonstrates his expertise, and gets some good dramatic moments as well. Peter Weller and Alice Eve are also great as Admiral and Dr. Marcus, adding emotional heft to the Enterprise‘s tussle with the Vengeance.
NITPICKS (OKAY, FINE…I DO HAVE A FEW)
There are some minor things I would have changed. I will now list them:
1. Sulu and Chekov have nothing to do. I wanted to see Sulu fence again and I wanted Chekov to see some combat.
2. Not enough Klingons. Especially disappointing, given their awesome redesign. Here’s hoping the next one will be about them.
3. Always nice to see Nimoy, but his cameo felt really forced and didn’t contribute much.
4. I was fine with the naked cat ladies because…well, OF COURSE they would be unclothed after spending the night at Jim Kirk’s place. But the scene with Carol Marcus changing in the shuttle was an unnecessary, blatantly obvious chunk of cheesecake trailer-bait.
5. I don’t expect anybody to agree with me on this one, and I admit it’s weird, but I REALLY like the design of the Starfleet flight suits in Into Darkness, and I kind of wish they had been the new standard uniform. It seems really unfair that the female crew members have to wear skirts all the time.
6. Okay, this isn’t actually a nitpick at all, because I loved Cumberbatch as Khan, but I can’t help but wonder how Benicio Del Toro would have done in the role if the rumors about his casting had turned out to be true. I bet he also would have been pretty amazing. Just an observation.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE FRANCHISE?
Obviously, J.J. Abrams is moving on from Star Trek, which is for the best. I mean, even if he weren’t, we’d still have to wait another four years until the next movie in the series, and I REALLY don’t want to wait that long to see what happens with these Klingons! That’s where I think the series is headed, by the way (at least IT BETTER BE!). If Brad Bird were to take over like he did with Mission Impossible, I wouldn’t be too broken up about it. To be honest, I’m much more excited for the next Trek than I am for episode VII of Star Wars. But hey: here’s hoping Abrams gets better results from copying George Lucas than he did when “paying homage” to Steven Spielberg.