Yes, I'm back with another of my movie takes, this time on the film Star Trek Into Darkness, the second in the rebooted/alternate timeline Star Trek universe. As always, if you haven't seen the movie yet and you don't want it spoiled for you, then please step back from your computer or whatever electronic device you're reading this on and stop reading now. If, however, you're wise enough to know that movie reviews with spoilers are always more interesting than the ones without them...well...ahead warp factor one...
It's been four long years since director J.J. Abrams and his Bad Robot production team relaunched Star Trek with younger actors portraying the classic characters from the original television series. Despite some mostly unfair criticism from older Trekkies, the 2009 film brought in over $385 million worldwide and more importantly, introduced Star Trek to a much broader audience and an entirely new generation of fans. Abrams took considerable time before committing to the sequel, directing his Steven Spielberg tribute Super 8 in the interim, and the script by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof took several months longer than expected to arrive. In addition, actor Benicio del Toro had been lined up as the film's villain, but later bowed out and was replaced by Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch.
Opening on the planet Nibiru, we get a lesson on the importance of Starfleet's Prime Directive as the crew of the Enterprise attempts to save the primitive inhabitants from a deadly volcanic eruption. Captain Kirk is faced with the dilemma of either allowing First Officer Spock to die inside the volcano or violating the Prime Directive by revealing the Enterprise's existence to the native population. Since this is Kirk we're talking about, he quickly makes the call to rescue Spock, despite Spock's disapproval of his decision.
Kirk is cocky and prideful of his success as captain, especially his low crewmember casualty record, until Spock throws him under the bus by being truthful about the events on Nibiru in his report to Starfleet. Kirk's mentor, Admiral Pike, also voices his disappointment as Kirk ends up temporarily losing his command and busted down in rank to Commander. At this point, we presume Kirk will win back his command and redeem himself somehow, but don't really have a sense of the personal growth he needs to undergo along the way.
During an emergency meeting at Starfleet Command to discuss the bombing of an installation secretly belonging to the covert intelligence division Section 31 (Deep Space Nine shout-out!), the meeting is attacked by a mysterious figure named John Harrison who was also responsible for the bombing. Pike is killed during the attack, with Kirk losing another father figure, but under the instruction of Admiral Alexander Marcus, Kirk is given back his command at tasked with hunting Harrison down. It turns out Harrison is holed up on the planet Kronos, giving us our first good look at the alternate timeline Klingons.
All of this leads to the film's second act game-changer with the revelation that -- Surprise! -- Harrison is actually Khan Noonien Singh, the classic Star Trek villain from the 1967 TV episode "Space Seed" and the 1982 movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, played originally by the late Ricardo Montalban. Apart from justifying a younger cast, the whole point of the alternate timeline concept introduced in the 2009 film was to create a playground for classic characters to be brought back. And with Khan, arguably the most sacrilegious to fans, the screenwriters definitely make the most of it.
Deliberately playing off Trekkies' preconceived notions of what Khan should be and how events should play out, we're initially presented with Khan as a more sympathetic character. We're told Marcus and Section 31 actively went looking for things like the S.S. Botany Bay after the destruction of Vulcan in the last movie. It seems Khan was woken from his 300-year cryogenic sleep to develop weapons for war against the Klingon Empire, with the rest of the 72 comatose Botany Bay crew used by Marcus as hostages. Even more insanely, we also see Khan actively teaming up with Kirk to stop Marcus in an impressive sequence with the two jetting through space using only protective suits. And why wouldn't he? Remember, the alternate timeline Kirk has never met Khan before and has no knowledge of the events of "Space Seed" or Wrath of Khan.
But since this is Khan we're talking about, he naturally betrays Kirk and everything goes to hell. Khan seizes control over the much larger and sinister USS Vengeance and after the inevitable battle, both damaged ships are sent hurtling towards Earth. It's here that Wrath of Khan is flipped around, with Kirk (who has been humbled and is doubting himself) now making the sacrifice to save the Enterprise that Spock so nobly made in the 1982 film. This time, we see how Spock handles the loss of his best friend, made even more fascinating because this Spock is still emotionally compromised from the destruction of Vulcan. As the physical equal of the genetically-augmented Khan, Spock is relentless in his pursuit, chasing Khan through San Francisco and pummeling him over and over until Uhura gets him to stop.
So yeah, not an overly dull film. Despite the legitimate criticisms made against Abrams as a director, such as his silly obsession with lens flare, there are two things he seems to have a solid grasp on -- pacing and character moments. He knows how to stir things up, how to bring the feels, and how to stage action to keep things moving along. The talented cast certainly helps, as does another emotionally-charged score by his preferred composer Michael Giacchino, but ultimately it's up to Abrams to tell the story even if some of it is already familiar to a lot of us.
As things are brought to a close, we jump ahead one year with a rebuilt Enterprise about to embark on the five-year mission to explore strange new worlds and Chris Pine's Kirk finally allowed to utter the classic "Space, the final frontier..." mantra beloved by Star Trek fans. It's a defining moment for this alternate timeline, setting things up for just about anything to happen in the third film.
So what about the performances from the cast and the characters they portrayed? Well, as you might expect, I have a few thoughts...
CAPTAIN JAMES T. KIRK -- Chris Pine seems a bit more settled in as Kirk and although there are some lighthearted moments early on, Kirk is understandably more serious following the initial attacks by Harrison/Khan. His scenes with Zachary Quinto's Spock are among the most effective, giving the two characters a solid "bromance" as they interact with one another. It would've been nice to see Kirk outmaneuvering Khan once again, but at least things are left open for a rematch.
COMMANDER SPOCK -- As for Quinto, his Spock is becoming more intriguing with the exploration of unchecked emotions. The destruction of Vulcan continues to weigh heavily on the character to the point of affecting his relationship with Uhura and causing him to completely lose control in his physical beatdown of Khan. Either Spock is going to continue to have emotional outbursts in the next movie, or he's going to have to tighten his control through the Kohlinahr ritual.
DR. LEONARD "BONES" MCCOY -- Karl Urban is sadly given not as much to do this time, but gets a couple of notable scenes of Bones flirting with Carol Marcus and his discovery of Khan's blood as a healing agent. I do, however, hope that PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Aliens?) doesn't exist in the 23rd Century to give him grief for experimenting on a Tribble.
JOHN HARRISON/KHAN NOONIEN SINGH -- Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan is a truly excellent piece of guest villain casting. Yes, he's a British actor playing an Indian superhuman, but considering Ricardo Montalban was Mexican, I really think it's okay to let that petty argument slide. Cumberbatch is simply a superb actor who sinks his teeth deeply into the role and makes it his own despite Montalban's legacy. And thankfully, Khan is placed back into cryogenic sleep at the end, which leaves room for his possible return.
LT. COMMANDER MONTGOMERY "SCOTTY" SCOTT -- After being underwritten in the previous film somewhat, Simon Pegg's Scotty gets a bit more to do with his protest to Kirk over bringing 72 untested and unscannable photon torpedoes aboard the Enterprise. He's also a significant player in helping Kirk and Khan infiltrate the Vengeance and disabling it at a key moment.
LIEUTENANT NYOTA UHURA -- Zoe Saldana asked to have Uhura involved in the action more, so she gets to be part of the away team landing on Kronos to find Harrison. She gets to showcase her linguistics mastery by speaking Klingon, for all the good it does when things rapidly turn into a phaser fight.
LIEUTENANT HIKARU SULU -- Given a sizable action sequence in the last movie, it's no surprise that John Cho has less to do this time around. He gets to take the conn as Acting Captain in Kirk and Spock's absence, with a quick nod to fans familiar with his original destiny as Captain of the U.S.S. Excelsior.
ENSIGN PAVEL CHEKOV -- I'm sure Anton Yelchin worried a number of Trek fans the moment he put on a red shirt to replace Scotty as Chief Engineer. The move gives Chekov more to do thankfully, and it's always fun to watch him running around in a panic.
DR. CAROL MARCUS -- Alice Eve is another British replacement, but this can be explained away by Carol growing up with her mother in England. She also appears to be an attempt to add another female character to the central cast, which is certainly welcome and if she returns for the third film, it should be fun to see Kirk and Carol becoming a couple. The only question, of course, is whether they stay that way this time.
ADMIRAL CHRISTOPHER PIKE -- Bruce Greenwood reminds us of his cool Batman voice and to give Kirk more "I dare you to do better" motivation. Sadly, his character is killed off early on, but it's time for Kirk to step his game up as Captain and at least Pike won't be rendered a pathetic burned mute and confined to a boxy wheelchair that beeps yes or no.
ADMIRAL ALEXANDER MARCUS -- Sci-fi veteran Peter Weller returns to Star Trek after his appearance as John Frederick Paxton on Star Trek: Enterprise and gets to shout a little as Carol's father and the film's secondary villain. He's obviously no match for Khan, who murders him, but there's an interesting circular connection made by revealing him as Pike's mentor.
THOMAS HAREWOOD -- As a diehard Whovian, I can't overlook Noel Clarke, Doctor Who's own Mickey Smith, as the guy Khan manipulates into suicide bombing Section 31's installation early on. He doesn't get much dialogue, if any, but you can feel the weight of the world on this guy's shoulders as he desperately agrees to help Khan in order to save his dying daughter's life.
SPOCK PRIME -- Leonard Nimoy defies the odds once again by returning as the original timeline Spock in a brief but vital cameo appearance. Now residing on New Vulcan, because there had to be one, Spock Prime gets to inform his younger alternate self that yes, Khan Noonien Singh is a total douchebag and should not be trusted. The scene wasn't necessary, but keeps nitpicky Trek trolls from whining about Spock not picking up the damn phone to get some information on Khan.
All in all, people who loved Star Trek 2009 are going to love Into Darkness and Haters Who Hated Star Trek 2009 With Hating are probably going to hate this movie as well, especially since they've already made up their minds before seeing it. With J.J. Abrams off to hopefully fix the Star Wars franchise, things have been positioned to take Star Trek just about anywhere. Will we see Klingon Captain Kang from "Day of the Dove" next? Or Trelane from "The Squire of Gothos"? Or something completely unique and original? As a certain Vulcan once remarked in a certain 1982 movie, there are always...possibilities.
And for those who may be wondering, here's the updated list of my favorite Star Trek movies:
1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
2. Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
3. Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
5. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
6. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
7. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)
8. Star Trek: Generations (1994)
9. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
10. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
11. Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
12. Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)
Your friendly neighborhood movie reviewer,