OK, there is really no way to fully discuss J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek Into Darkness without getting into spoilers, big spoilers, specifically in relation to one character and a plot point that sets off the film’s final third. Granted some of these spoilers are out there, but some are not. My one sentence, non-spoiler review would be that the film is entertaining enough if viewed in a bubble, but in context with the entirety of the Star Trek franchise it is a disappointment.
For a fuller critique read on, but be warned that there are spoilers from here on out.
When Abrams successfully rebooted the Star Trek franchise in 2009, he managed to do what was thought to be a near-impossible task – he not only refreshed the stale theatrical arm of the long-running science-fiction franchise but he did it in a way that allowed him to bring in a new cast to play beloved characters and in a way that not only didn’t invalidate what had come before but also freed him off the past’s shackles. And at the end of the film, Abrams and audiences were left with a new Star Trek universe into which the crew of the Enterprise could boldly go to seek out strange new worlds, etcetera, etcetera.
So when news reports about the sequel began to circulate stating the film’s villain would be Khan Noonian Singh, memorably played by Ricardo Montalban in the original Star Trek TV series episode “Space Seed” and then again in Star Trek: The Wrath Of Khan, I thought that was a bad idea. With a whole new galaxy to explore, why try to go and revive one of the series’ best loved villains? It seemed like a fool’s errand. The dynamic interplay between William Shatner’s Captain Kirk and Montalban’s Khan was in no need of updating, so why try? It was a story told well the first time, so why not take advantage of the blank canvas you have and do something new?
And so when Benedict Cumberbatch’s terrorist bombing character reveals to Kirk (Chris Pine) after leading the starship captain on a chase deep into enemy Klingon space that his name is Khan, I let out an audible groan. But then something happened. Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof zigged where you would have expected them to zag and set up a situation where Kirk and Khan had to form an uneasy alliance in order for both of them to survive. And it worked. I found myself actively warming to the idea.
However, just as the film manages to do what I thought was impossible in establishing its own unique working dynamic for the Khan character it had to go and recreate one of the entire Star Trek franchise’s most iconic moments – the death of Spock in the Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan. Now I am sure that Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof all congratulated themselves on being so clever as to reverse Kirk and Spock in this situation, placing Kirk in the deadly radiation-filled chamber and Spock on the outside unable to reach his friend. But this isn’t clever, it’s a terrible cheat. Abrams and company aren’t just taking elements of what has gone before and reworking them, they are relying on a specific moment from a previous film to evoke an emotional reaction from the audience rather than doing the heavy-lifting themselves and trying to create their own scene to do get that reaction. However, it falls short of achieving what they seemed to hope for and felt rather forced in the film. It not only pulled me out of the movie but made me lose any good will I had built up from their previous handling of Khan. It is just lazy and cynical screenwriting and the film’s third act suffers greatly for it.
(I should note screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (Lost In Space, I, Robot, I Am Legend) has a cameo as a Starfleet admiral in one scene. Since I have found a number of his films also suffer from third act difficulties, I half want to believe that it is his own bad mojo responsible for the problems here.)
The rest of the film is fairly top notch. The relationship we glimpsed in the 2009 Star Trek between Spock (Zachery Quinto) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) gets explored a bit more prominently this time, allowing for a comedic moment between the two with Kirk stuck in the middle and lets Saldana have more screen time and things to do than Nichelle Nichols got to do in any of the original cast films. Although not specifically stated in the film, there are a few moments for Spock’s character where we see how the destruction of his homeworld in the last film has colored his actions. The rest of the main cast all acquit themselves nicely with what they are given, though John Cho’s Sulu seems to get the short stick again.
As I stated before, Star Trek Into Darkness is an entertaining enough film if you experience it in a vacuum, without the baggage that fans of the series will undoubtedly bring with them to the theater. However, the filmmakers seem to be distinctly counting on that baggage to sell a major moment in the film’s finale but instead they only manage to remind us how much better the original was.