Review by C.J. Bunce
After more trailers than we can count, more minutes of screen-time revealed in advance, and more advertising and hype than any Star Trek film in recent memory, Star Trek Into Darkness is not only better than you’ve heard, it’s the best Star Trek movie since Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Considering all my fellow uber-Trek fan friends had more negative to say than positive on this 12th motion picture entry, I was scratching my head to try to figure why this was the most fun I’ve had watching a movie in years–or maybe why they didn’t have as much fun as me.
Star Trek, the Original Series, is pretty much sacred, and not only sacred, its sacrosanct in the eyes of loyal fans, so J.J. Abrams was taking a risk by getting his claws into the franchise in 2009’s Star Trek. When I read that he was taking on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan material specifically, I thought he was just plain nuts. But then I asked myself, if I had the keys to the candy store what would I do if I wanted to make my mark on the franchise? Bring back Christopher Lloyd’s Klingon Commander Kruge or Ricardo Montalban’s regal Khan? Kill off a main character? Abrams did just what any of us would love to do, and I expect, this should set our expectations for what he will do with the third trilogy of the Star Wars franchise, which will have a much larger international audience and implications for Abrams’ own future.
As a viewer well-versed in the minutia of Star Trek, I expected to nitpick this film to death when walking into the theater and actually put off watching the film instead of seeing it on opening weekend like I had historically viewed the past films back to Star Trek VI. But not 15 minutes into the movie, when Kirk is being scolded by Admiral Christopher Pike (played deftly again by Bruce Greenwood) for violating the prime directive and then rightfully demoted, I was reeled into a cleverly twisting plot that delivered the goods at every level with a non-stop, action packed thrill ride that also managed to offer some of the best characterization for key roles than has been given to them in any prior Star Trek film, period.
Take for instance Simon Pegg’s Scotty. Not since the TV series was Scotty given the opportunity to play a key role in the story of a Trek film. Here he plants the seeds not as the throwaway silly Scottish chap, but as the moral voice for the film. Karl Urban’s Bones similarly gets many lines–good lines– and we learn something about him other than his “wait a damn minute” grunting, which was all we ever saw from him in Star Trek: The Motion Picture through Star Trek VI. We learn for example that he once gave a C section to a pregnant Gorn (with octuplets). And that they bite. Awesome! This sheds some light on why he later would try to work on the dying Klingon ambassador in Star Trek VI. And someone finally, onscreen, calls out Bones for his repeated metaphors.
But it doesn’t stop there–Uhura (Zoe Saldana) finally gets to do what she is supposed to do: use her communications skills to communicate with other species, and she does that here by trying to negotiate with some renegade Klingons. Although John Cho’s Sulu gets to test drive the captain’s chair with one good speech uttered against Harriman/Khan, his role seems merely as set-up for helming the Excelsior later on. Anton Yelchin’s Chekov, however, finally gets to don the red shirt as head of Engineering, something that was planned for the character before the creation of Star Trek: The Motion Picture for the almost-series Star Trek: Phase II. His role, too, was slight, but with a cast this big something had to give.
Where their opening performances in Star Trek 2009 were a bit lackluster, Chris Pine’s Kirk and Zachary Quinto’s Mr. Spock are flawless as replacements for the irreplaceable William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, at last comfortably settling into their roles as the best duo ever to helm a starship (although it can be said both seemed a bit unnecessarily emotional through the first two-thirds of the film).
Which brings us to the new cast of characters introduced in Star Trek Into Darkness. Science Officer Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) is dynamite as an intelligent one-woman spy trying to investigate her own father. Her father, Admiral Marcus, played by Peter Weller, is superb as a familiar but believable Star Trek villain archetype, made from the same mold as Admiral Matthew Dougherty in Star Trek: Insurrection, Admiral Cartwright in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Captain Benjamin Maxwell (Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “The Wounded”), and Captain Erik Pressman (TNG’s “The Pegasus”).
Then there is Benedict Cumberbatch as rogue Section 31 operative John Harrison, and ultimately we find, as the genetically superior Khan himself, complete with parkour skills and the ability to out-bat’leth a platoon of Klingons. Cumberbatch is probably the best actor of his generation, and with his eloquent voice, steely eyes, and stage presence, on the one hand the choice is almost a no-brainer. If you’re shying away from impersonations of prior characters–which is the best you can say of Anton Yelchin’s Chekov–then, if you’re J.J. Abrams–you’re going to be taking a risk with whomever you choose. Would we have been happier with his rumored first choice, Javier Bardem? Surprisingly for me, I liked Cumberbatch’s performance so much (and am a fan of his acting more than Bardem’s) that I wouldn’t have changed a thing. In the story that unfolds of Khan, and the performance by Cumberbatch, Cumberbatch became Khan. Unthinkable? Impossible? Not for me. And I’m a big believer in Wrath of Khan as THE Trek of Trek films.
What really worked for me was what the story writers–Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof–were successful at in this film versus the 2009 film. They actually improved our look at these characters. Kill off James T. Kirk in a way befitting the 50-year-old character instead of the pathetic death he suffered in Star Trek: Generations? Good call. Flip the classic Wrath of Khan climax to leave Spock to scream KHAAAAN!!? Hilarious. Show us instead of telling us why Kirk always referred to Scotty as “the miracle worker”? And they even brought back Scotty’s cool alien sidekick, Keenser, one of the updates I liked from the 2009 movie. Finally, FINALLY focus on the fact that Spock is half human, not just a green-blooded logical Vulcan? Right on. Did we need another cameo by Leonard Nimoy? No. Was it still fun to see him again? Absolutely.
Were there immense story problems that should make a Star Trek fan mutter to himself? Absolutely. Were they enough to spoil the film? Not for me. What were the story writers and Abrams thinking by submerging the Enterprise in the opening scene? If you’re going to nearly destroy the Enterprise, why not show us a changed “refit” bridge at the end? If you can transport a human from Earth to Kronos, there’s not much left for the imagination. Starfleet security is so poor that not one but two people can sneak aboard the two best ships in the fleet unnoticed? Really? And why is Abrams afraid of Klingons? What’s with those… inexplicable masks giving us little more than what was revealed in the deleted scenes on the DVD from the 2009 film? Sure, we finally got to see one face of his Klingons, but it was basically a classic Klingon with pierced ridges. Give us more, man! And why even in this century would a filmmaker do something so absurd as to show a FUTURE room full of admirals with hardly any women present, and a male doctor in a room full of only women nurses?
But what about the poignant scenes on Earth, including the impetus for the terrorist attack pulled from the pilot to the Battlestar Galactica reboot, revealing the show’s theme: What would you do to protect your family?
And what awesome Easter eggs and throwbacks to days of Star Trek past that were packed into the movie scene after scene. Dr. McCoy and Admiral Pike’s gray uniforms influenced by the look of the uniforms in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, with the admiral’s collar resembling the original black radiological suit collars worn by Engineering. Chekov’s red shirt from Phase II. The enigmatic Section 31. Spock raising his hands up from inside a volcano as he once did on the planet Vulcan in Star Trek: The Motion Picture to (almost) attain kolinahr. Admiral Marcus’s desk models foreshadowing that giant black new ship well before it appeared on-screen. Delta shields on every prop and piece of set decoration like it was the future’s Nike swoosh mark. Kirk having a past relationship with Christine Chapel that he doesn’t remember? Spock’s environmental suit with heat shield tiles like Torres’s future suit from Star Trek Voyager. Lines like McCoy’s “Shut up Spock, we’re trying to save you” paraphrased from the original series episode “The Immunity Syndrome.” Although I was expecting to hear the classic “He’s dead already” from Scotty, we got other great lines like “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” and “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Finally we have a movie I might go back again to see in the theater. That hasn’t happened for me since Star Trek: First Contact. Was Star Trek Into Darkness anywhere close to the science fiction, powerful storytelling, and depth found in the original series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, or Star Trek Voyager? No–but to be fair, only a few of the eleven other Star Trek movie efforts achieved that status. Hollywood believes special effects, destruction of worlds and ships and shocking main character deaths are the stuff needed in movies. Until Hollywood gets that right I’ll take a movie like Star Trek Into Darkness to keep me on the edge of my seat in my local theater.