WHY WE LIKE IT: The humor. The effects. Chris Pine finally gets to say "the words".
WHY WE DON'T: Boldly going where everyone has gone before.
REVIEW: Despite this blog's earliest focus and three years of daily Star Trek reviews, I didn't manage to go see Star Trek Into Darkness when it was in theaters, so this review comes after seeing it for the first time on DVD (spoilers ahead, kids). I think I can put the finger on why many Trekkies, including myself, were disappointed. Into Darkness proves that J.J. Abrams' Star Trek is not ITS OWN THING and that it refuses to go ITS OWN WAY. It cannot exist without the original franchise. I don't mean that in the obvious way that you need the original so you can have the remake, but rather that Into Darkness keeps harking back to (in this case) The Wrath of Khan. Rather than tell a new story, it's making us watch alternative versions of scenes the original Star Trek II that simply would not exist unless they were referencing a past continuity that supposedly doesn't exist anymore. We meet Khan under completely different circumstances, but somehow, it leads us down the same road in which the Enterprise's warp core is off-line and someone needs to punch Bones out, get in there, and get a lethal dose or radiation. This time it's Kirk, whom you know won't die (and he doesn't) so that's just a lame (and telegraphed) deus ex machina about to happen. When Spock screams "KHHHHAAAAANNNNNN" we're deep in pop culture inside-joking territory. Embarrassing really. I can't even fathom why they'd bring in Old Spock to talk about this moment in his timeline, as it's not relevant to what actually happens AND draws attention to the plot's creative bankruptcy. Abrams' Star Trek is basically the over-Crisesed DC Universe at this point. Not "what will happen next?", but "how will all the things I know happened be reinterpreted?".
So I wish they'd treat it as a reboot already, and not an alternate timeline. Because like the first Star Trek film, it doesn't really work AS a What If. I mean, why do Khan and Carol Marcus have different accents (and in Khan's case, different racial type)? It's nonsense. A lot like the plot, which often seems contrived to create opportunities for 3D. I never see 3D films in 3D, and certainly my TV at home isn't geared for it. So when stuff flies at the screen, I may or may not think "oh yeah, this was meant to be 3D". In this case, I totally do because a lot of those sequences are either lame, obvious, ridiculous or all three. The chase through an ancient city on Kronos, for example, or losing gravity on the Enterprise, or flying through debris between the two ships, or even the opening chase. One of these, fine, but it's like every set piece was designed not with the story in mind, but with the need to make it a 3D sequence. To me, a climactic fist fight at vertiginous heights is the oddest and laziest of Star Trek movie clichés. It happens in a lot of the weakest finales - Generations, Insurrection, Nemesis, and Star Trek - and it happens again here. Thanks to cooler effects, it's a lot cooler than fighting on some scaffolding, but it's still the same idea.
Despite the copycat script and 3D motive, the plot could still have made sense. It doesn't. Spock is so by the book he refuses to be saved from an active volcano because the natives would see the ship, but he's already breaking the Prime Directive by saving the tribe from their volcano god! Why is the Enterprise sitting underwater, waiting to be seen by said natives? For no other reason than Abrams thought seeing the ship rise out of the sea would be cool. But since the shot is echoed in the climax with the ship similarly rising out of the clouds, it seems redundant. Admiral Marcus' warmongering is something that's been done better in Deep Space 9, and just makes me long for a time when not every action film has to feel like it's in the shadow of 9/11. Isn't that a little old-fashioned by now? It's fertile ground for moral dilemmas and all that, but Section 31 was never my favorite idea, and the "enemy from within" trope has been way overused in the past few years (a few times by Abrams himself). Don't get me started on the contrived "people cryogenically frozen inside torpedoes" thing, or how Trek communicators can apparently make long-distance personal phone calls between Klingon space and Earth. We're still in an off-scale brewery whenever we're in engineering, which yes, still rankles. And Kirk loses another father figure, because that has to happen every damn movie it seems. The loss of Pike will be sorely felt.
So what does the movie do WELL? The answer is, a lot of what the first film did well. There's a lot of humor, like Kirk wanting to know what a relationship fight with Spock would be like, or Chekov being overwhelmed by his new engineering tasks. And the effects are excellent, of course. Like the first film, every member of the cast is catered to, though mileage may vary. Kirk is our hero, and he must deal with his various daddy(admiral) issues, tempering his maverick style with the need to follow orders. That's good character development and I'm still impressed by how Chris Pine can channel Shatner in a look, a smile, a remark, without doing an impression. His relationship with Spock is again the main focus, and frankly, I'm ready to move on. I guess Into Darkness tightens their bond and makes them the friends we know from TOS, but Spock discussing his feelings isn't anything I really care about or find innovative. Sadly, Uhura gets sucked into Spock's drama, an accessory to HIS story, though she does get to kick a little ass. Scotty refuses a bad order and gets put off the ship, giving the character a chance to play drama and tension as well as comedy. Simon Pegg rises to the challenge. Chekov gets engineering in his absence and makes a mess of it (not his fault though). Sulu gets a shot at the captain's chair, which is appreciated even if it's another example of referencing the previous version, but doesn't get a whole lot more than that. Did I forget Dr. McCoy? I guess I did. Make of that what you will. He's a doctor, not a torpedo disarmer. Oh wait. He's kind of that too.
The movie must also cater to a number of guest cast members, including two villains. We have Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan, a good choice in that he's brilliant at playing the smartest man in the room, but somewhat wasted in a retread of previous storylines. Admiral Marcus is Peter Weller giving the same basic performance he did on Star Trek: Enterprise, fine, but nothing surprising. We don't know if his attempt to start a war with the Klingons worked, or if it's inevitable (it probably is, since it happened before and must happen again), but I'm guessing it'll be front and center in a third film. Probably with Young Kruge at its spearhead. He has to kill a Marcus, right? And that Marcus will be Young Carol, who joins the crew by movie's end, just so she's positioned to be Kirk's next loved one to die. There. I've done Roberto Orci's job for him. Alice Eve's Carol is a cipher anyway, nowhere near as interesting as Bibi Besch's older Carol Marcus was. I kind of wish Noel "Mickey Smith" Clarke's desperate father from Khan's opening gambit had stuck around. He seemed a much more interesting and tortured supporting cast member.
I did like the film starting in the middle of a mission, on a cool-looking planet, with the characters all already in jeopardy, and there were a lot of throw-away references to things we've actually seen in the IDW comics like New Vulcan, tribbles and so on. It fills in the world and the time between movies, and winks at fans off the extracanonical stuff. The comics will now get a chance to do a proper 5-year mission, which the Enterprise is assigned to at film's end, tying the movie to the start of the TV series with Young Kirk doing the famous opening speech (revised TNG version). It's a good ending, though it does feel like Kirk is only getting these opportunities because Starfleet flag officers keep getting massacred.
LESSON: It's never a good idea to actively draw comparisons between your film and a way better one.
REWATCHABILITY - Medium: A fair action film with good humor and beautiful effects (when not trying too hard to 3D the place up), Into Darkness fails by strapping itself to the original franchise's top movie.