Bottom line first: on things that truly matter, this movie mostly gets it right. I will see it again and add it to my Blu-Ray collection. However, on a number of other mostly minor matters, from nerdy technical quibbles to relatively inconsequential plot points, there are a lot of problems. Spoiler alert: I won’t avoid divulging key plot elements in this review, so if you have not seen Star Trek Into Darkness but plan to, you will enjoy it more if you don’t read this first.
The 2009 reboot of the Star Trek franchise with the film of the same name was, to put it bluntly, a radical reboot: all of the prior Star Trek franchise, from the original series through 10 movies and three sequel TV series, was erased from our imagined future and replaced by a blank slate future, free for a new telling of the stories of Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the crew of the Enterprise. It is worth remembering that the timeline alteration of the 2009 Star Trek was, throughout all incarnations of Star Trek, the worst possible thing that could happen. Loved ones were sacrificed in order to preserve history. This is all to say that the reboot took an extreme step to get that perfectly clean slate. It is therefore a bit unimaginative, after all that work, for the creative crew behind the second movie of the new franchise to rely on a villain from the second movie of the original franchise: Khan Noonian Singh. The plot of this movie, however, is fresh and original (enough so that it is essentially inconsequential that the villain is nominally the same as the villain from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and the original series episode Space Seed).
If Star Trek 2009 was about getting Kirk into the Captain’s chair, Star Trek Into Darkness is about making him worthy of the position. Kirk’s mentor and father figure, Admiral Christopher Pike, is one of many victims of a terrorist attack and mass assassination by Khan (given, for no apparent reason, the pseudonym John Harrison). Kirk is given orders by Admiral Marcus to kill Khan who has fled to the Klingon homeworld of Kronos. Kirk is hungry for revenge. Spock, who had his own issues with vengeance in the last movie, urges Kirk to find the moral good inside himself and apprehend Harrison to stand trial instead. That Kirk heeds this advice, and ultimately gives a very Kirk-like speech about resisting our primal urges for revenge and instead pursuing the paths of our better selves redeems the minor flaws of the movie. The central theme of Star Trek has always been that humanity can better itself: that within our species is the potential to become something much better than we are. The struggle to put our less noble natures aside and strive for betterment is at the heart of many episodes and movies. It is why Shatner’s Kirk kept breaking the Prime Directive and breaking the calm of static societies, and why Data kept striving to be more human. There is more than a glimmer of that flame in Kirk’s climactic speech in Star Trek Into Darkness exhorting Starfleet to reject the allure of militarism and instead turn toward the promise of the Star Trek motto: “to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no one has gone before”. It also recollects another defining trait of the original TV series, which was to offer some commentary on the political landscape of the time. The original series featured episodes touching on the issues of the escalating war in Vietnam, racial struggles within the United States, and the cold war. Kirk’s speech urging us to reject revenge in the face of Khan’s brutal terrorist attack is too late to stop our own wars of revenge, but the message of Star Trek has always been that it is never too late start being better.
The problems with the movie are much more superficial. Director J. J. Abrams and company have what can only be described as a willful disregard for any notion of time and distance. In both of the new movies, the Enterprise warps between the Earth and distant worlds in less time than it takes Khan to get from London to San Francisco. At that rate, the ship’s five year mission of exploration could be wrapped up in a week. The phrase “we’re the only ship within reach” has no more meaning. The forbiddingly dangerous alien world of Kronos is reached in minutes. It takes the crew more time to navigate their own ship on foot than to cross all of Federation space. Abrams’ fixation on keeping the pace of the action rapid results in every single warp trip taken in his two movies ending (after a few minutes of travel) with an unplanned crash out of warp speed, but always at the doorstep of their intended destination. Racing home from Kronos, the Enterprise gets crashed out of warp before anyone is even talking about approaching Earth, and then we discover that they are actually at the Moon’s distance from the Earth. This is like racing the Earth’s Moon (a quarter of a million miles away) to your house and getting stopped by accident when you are 1 inch from the front door. The same thing happened on the way to Vulcan in the 2009 movie and on the way to Kronos in this one. Abrams’ need for speed is matched only by his inability to imagine hand-to-hand combat that does not take place on a precarious flying platform.
In addition to achieving some sense of scale of space, I hope the next movie gives us a better sense of place in the starship Enterprise. Star Trek (2009) used a beer brewery as a poor substitute for Engineering. This sequel seems to have two or three engine rooms: the original brewery (which looks very much like a brewery) and a couple of more spiffy sets. But unlike past versions of the ship, we get no sense of how any one room connects to any other or where anyone is within the ship or who is at risk (or, frankly, how anyone survives) when huge sections of the ship are destroyed.
More annoying than these technical quibbles is the scene that introduces us to Harrison/Khan. His motivation is to rescue his 72 crew members (stuck in suspended animation and prisoner of the evil faction within Starfleet). For some reason, although he has superhuman strength and (presumably, though we see little sign of it) intellect, he’s incapable of setting off a bomb by himself and instead engages in a bizarre and totally unbelievable barter with the father of a dying girl that culminates with him setting off a bomb perhaps by dropping a dissolving ring into a drink in a bar. Maybe?
Followed by Kirk wondering what is in that strange bag cameras caught Khan with. When we see it, it is all completely mysterious, something we expect will be explained later. But at the end of the movie we realize that not only is there no explanation offered, but there is no plausible explanation that could have been offered. It is tempting to attribute this to co-writer Damon Lindelof whose writing resumé includes other gratuitous but ultimately non-sensical scenes (all of Lost (created by Abrams) and much of Prometheus). Khan’s blood is needed to save Kirk at the end, and somehow this means they cannot kill Khan. Not only does this not make sense, but it would have been much more powerful storytelling had they spared Khan out of morality rather than selfish interest.
The cast does a good job. They seem comfortable with their characters, though only Karl Urban’s Dr. McCoy feels like he’s the same character as the original version. Quinto’s Spock is less playful than Nimoy’s, Pine’s Kirk is, believe it or not, less cerebral than Shatner’s, and Simon Pegg’s Scotty is less cool than James Doohan’s. But they are not lesser characters, just different, and it’s better that they make them their own than try to replicate someone else’s performance. While Lieutenant Uhura (Zoë Saldana) has (happily) a much-expanded role compared to Nichelle Nichols’ original Uhura on TV, neither she nor guest star Alice Eve as Carol Marcus is given much to do. Eve strikes a pose in her underwear and talks back to her father, but Star Trek Into Darkness is a step backwards from the show of the sixties in terms of diversity. It’s very much a white male action flick. Even Khan, who is Indian, is now transformed into a white Brit (Benedict Cumberbatch). This cannot be explained by the reboot since Khan predates the time alteration of the 2009 movie.
But, true to the spirit of Star Trek, there is hope for the future. The ship is now about to begin its mission of exploration with a crew that has learned to trust each other. Unlike the title of this new movie, they are now poised to go forward, out of the darkness.