Has it really been four years since JJ Abrams ushered in a new era of Star Trek? It doesn't seem that long ago for some reason, but if you told me back in 2009 that I'd have to wait four years for a follow up, I would have had a conniption. That's okay, it just gave us extra time to absorb the whole "nuTrek" thing, as they call it nowadays. Honestly, even though I gave Star Trek a glowing review back in 2009, I have to admit that it just doesn't hold up as well as I thought it would.
After each repeated viewing, the problems became more and more glaring. For one, the "sheeple humor" is often overbearing. I define "sheeple humor" as broad humor inserted into a fantasy or sc-fi movie in an effort to make the characters more relatable to the "sheep" in the audience (namely, the 90% of the audience who aren't fans of the property but are just looking to see the latest popcorn tentpole movie). You'll notice a lot of it in superhero flicks, particularly the Marvel ones. And Star Trek 2009 is just dripping with that sugary nothingness of humor, like Fruity Pebbles in chocolate milk drizzled with marshmallow sauce and sprinkles on top. It's just too much of a guilty pleasure. Kirk running around with swollen hands. Sulu leaving the "parking brake" on. Chekov's "nine, five, wictor, wictor, two." Sheeple humor isn't necessarily bad for a movie, but moderation, people.
The other problem with the 2009 Trek is that it's so obsessed with turning Kirk's journey to captainship into a "hero's quest" that the hero's quest short-circuits the logic in the plot. Cadet Kirk has one successful mission and is promoted to captain? As Professor Farnsworth would say... whaaa? Granted, it was an especially important mission, but being a Starfleet captain is much more than one successful mission. An inexperienced captain can do a lot more damage to the Federation than Nero.
Fortunately, Star Trek Into Darkness resolves both of those problems. There is still some sheeple humor but it doesn't clock you over the head with a sledgehammer like it did in the 2009 movie. And without going into spoilers here, the movie opens with the consequences of promoting an inexperienced officer to captain. Consequences for bad decisions! That's something you don't see a lot of in the Star Trek universe. "That violation is going on your record, Mr. Worf." So what? That's as far as the typical reprimand goes in Star Trek. Into Darkness takes it one step further.
But the real strength of the movie is the interaction between the characters. It's evident that there's a special bond between Kirk and his crew and there are a few scenes with Spock and Scotty, in particular, that hammer that concept home. This also goes for Kirk's interaction with John Harrison, as the two toggle back and forth from conflict to cooperation and back again.
The action is loose and fun, and better realized than the 2009 movie. The special effects are spectacular, of course, with new aliens, crew members, and ships that will make you regret there isn't an action figure line associated the movie. (Although, considering the last movie's abysmal showing at the toy aisle, maybe that's for the best.) The new tech is a little over-designed, if that makes sense, much like what you might see in a video game. It's not bad, but it's certainly a departure from the clean and relatively underplayed Trek designs from yesteryear.
The plot is nuanced, with lots of twists and turns that make the movie interesting. There are also a few throwaway Trek references that long-time fans will appreciate. But the ending is much too derivative of something else. We'll talk about that in the spoilers section below.
Before we get there, I'll say that this is a more solid movie than the 2009 Star Trek, and considering I thought that was the best of the Trek movies, that would make Into Darkness the best cinematic version of Star Trek ever. That's not saying much considering most Trek movies have catastrophic flaws, but this is a great movie nonetheless. I'll give it 4 out of 5, which is actually what I should have rated the previous movie.
That said, Star Trek still works best on the small screen. nuTrek just can't hold a candle to Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, or even Voyager.
Now, on with the spoilers!
Set phasers to spoil!Alright, let's talk about the elephant in the room. We all were expecting it and it turns out it's true: John Harrison is Khan Noonien Singh. It's a bold move to recast such an iconic character, although they did it successfully with Kirk and Spock, so why not Khan? Benedict Cumberbatch does an excellent job as the new Khan, with a devastatingly awesome performance. This is the first time we see Khan really prove his genetically-enhanced worth, both in physical combat and stratagem. Neither were ever effectively explored in Space Seed or Wrath of Khan. In fact, one of the problems I have with TWOK is that Khan is spectacularly naive and easily outwitted by Kirk. But not so here. This is a fun and intimidating Khan to watch in action.
The other elephant in the room is the ending that pays homage to Wrath of Khan: Kirk switches roles with Spock and self-sacrificingly fixes the Enterprise's engines, killing himself in the process. nuTrek Spock even takes the role reversal one step further and screams "KHAAAAAAN!" in a way that some fans have compared to Vader's awful "NOOOOOOO!" in Revenge of the Sith. I thought this was forced at best and derivatively cheesy at worst, but I can get over it. One thing I can't get over is Spock Prime saying that "Khan was our most dangerous adversary." Um... really? What about the Planet Killer, which scarfed entire planets and aggressively attacked starships? Or V'ger, which almost eradicated the human "infestation" of Earth? Or the whale probe which almost boiled off its oceans? They seem a bit more dangerous than a guy who just commandeered a couple of starships.
I mentioned before that there are consequences to an inexperienced Kirk becoming captain. That is explored in the first few minutes of the movie as Kirk saves a pre-warp race from natural destruction, in plain view of the tribe no less. This is probably the most blatant violation of the Prime Directive we've ever seen, and it's great that not only are there definite consequences to doing this (there are almost never any negative consequences to violating the Prime Directive in the show, excepting Voyager's Season 2 episode Prototype) but also that this shows there's more to being a Starfleet captain that just saving the day once in a while.
But the Prime Directive is a huge concept in Star Trek, and the movie doesn't adequately explain to the audience why violating it is such a big deal. The Next Generation episode Pen Pals does a much better job exploring the philosophical dilemma of the Prime Directive. Into Darkness just speedily glosses over it to get to the next explosion.
One more thing: it's taken a while, but I've finally decided that I dig the Federation warship introduced in this movie, the USS Vengeance. As I said above, it certainly has a "video-gamey" look about it that's clearly overdesigned, but it's such an interesting departure from the Matt Jeffries/Andrew Probert/Rich Sternbach designs that I can't resist liking it. I'll definitely be picking up the Hot Wheels version that will be released soon.
And that's it for Star Trek Into Darkness! It was a great ride, and I hope the next movie is just as much fun. Assuming there will be a next movie... with JJ Abrams taking over Star Wars, who knows what will happen to Star Trek?