At the end of the day, from a character perspective, Star Trek Into Darkness is about relatively inexperienced people struggling to find their way in the world, and often not living up to the best versions of what they could be and, we surmise, eventually will be. They are still feeling their way through things. That's appropriate, because, for better and for worse (I come down on the mostly "better" side, on balance) the makers of this film use the characters' inexperience to turn Star Trek into the efficient, mainstream, middlebrow, visceral cinematic blockbuster experience that the Trek film franchise has been moving toward for years, if not decades.
This is a flawed film, with some significant problems. But it is a consistently entertaining and well-paced one. It works on its chosen level probably better than any Trek film since First Contact, which managed to find the sweet spot of cinematic scope along with a deep Trekkian sensibility. Into Darkness probably has the inverse ratio of Trekkian-sensibility-to-cinematic-scope when compared to First Contact. Whether you believe it's the right ratio is a legitimate point of debate, but I've long believed — since the TNG films, anyway — that the Trek film franchise has been trying to align itself along a mainstream audience more than a Trekkian one. This one just aims for what that audience happens to be today.
Meanwhile, one of the defining characteristics of the J.J. Abrams era is its steadfast tenacity in paying homage to (or ripping off, depending on your level of cynicism) the original series timeline while at the same time rewriting it. After Star Trek 2009 — in which Nero's band of vengeful Romulans traveled back in time and erased the bulk of the Trek timeline as we knew it — Abrams and his writers could've declared their mission in homage-paying complete, abandoned the entire notion, and merely pushed forward with their own self-contained stories. But instead, they've fully embraced the idea that their version of Trek actually exists in a parallel universe that still contains one character (played by Leonard Nimoy) who knows that all of this has happened before and may again ... if perhaps much differently this time.
The subtext of these movies — and perhaps this will or won't become the theme for the entire reboot film series — is that all the world is a stage in Paramount's long-running theater, and the actions the characters take now are an acknowledgement of the efforts by the former masters of the production. It's not so much a subtext as a metatext.
Of course, subtext, or metatext, or whatever, doesn't mean a damn thing if your movie doesn't work on its own terms. That's why I was glad to find that Into Darkness was involving and entertaining while remaining recognizable as Trek while doing what it must to broaden for the summer action crowd in a millennium whose moviegoers value large-scale visual spectacle above all else. Such are the terms of the reboot; this is aimed at a more popcorn-centric and less philosophically inclined audience. I knew that going into Trek 2009, and I knew it here.
I mostly don't have a problem with that. Is Into Darkness the best that Trek has to offer? Not even close, but that's because Trek serves a lot of masters, and Summer Tent Pole wasn't traditionally one of them. The true essence of Trek is best suited for the television screen, working on a smaller scale with more ambitious ideas. But Into Darkness is Trek instead doing the mainstream sci-fi adventure thing and doing it pretty well. The best aspect of this movie is its action-oriented cinematic sensibility. Its biggest problem is its failure to truly confront its central premise, which is staring right at it from its title but which the film ultimately flinches from in the most meaningful ways.
The movie's cold open is in the long tradition of narratively unrelated curtain-raising crises, as Kirk's away mission on a primitive world in an attempt to save the indigenous population from an active volcano goes horribly wrong. This results in Spock nearly getting killed inside the volcano (much to Uhura's ire) while the Enterprise, doubling as a submarine, does its best to hide from the population, lest the sight of the starship break the Prime Directive. (Of course, there's the pesky argument that defusing the volcano is itself breaking the Prime Directive — or at least putting the lives of the crew at risk — but young brash Kirk is not going to let anything like rules get in the way of doing the right thing as he sees it.)
Kirk's stunt gets him severely chewed out by Admiral Pike in a scene that is a well-acted example of a hoary old cliché. Bruce Greenwood is very good at laying down the law while playing the part of father figure to the hero. The scene is an example of how familiar tropes can still be made to work. Starfleet strips Kirk of command of the Enterprise and gives it back to Pike, which to me was the moment when I was certain Pike was not long for this world. (Ultimately, we know this movie is not about Admiral Pike in the captain's chair, although I wouldn't have minded if it were, given how good Greenwood is.)
This sequence at least deals with, indirectly, just how insane Kirk's implausibly meteoric ascension to captain in the last movie actually was. (Looking back at it, it really doesn't make any sense at all, other than that Kirk had to become captain because that's his origin story.) But what this is all really about is the still difficult and evolving relationship between Kirk and Spock, and how Kirk's need to save his friend's life while breaking the rules lies at odds with Spock's unflinching Vulcan sensibilities of logic and truth.
Around this time, a highly secured Starfleet Section 31 installation in London is suicide-bombed by one of its own operatives who made a Faustian deal with a mystery man in exchange for saving his terminally ill daughter. The bombing results in the assembly of Starfleet's senior admirals and captains at Starfleet Headquarters in San Francisco. (The room, however, seems sparsely attended; just how big is Starfleet supposed to be at this point?) The investigation determines that "John Harrison," a rogue Section 31 agent, was the man who put the bombing in motion. Subsequently, Harrison launches an attack on the very room where the captains have assembled, killing Pike and many others in the ambush, before escaping to Klingon homeworld Kronos using Scotty's transwarp transporter technology (see previous film), which somehow ended up in the hands of Section 31 and Harrison.
Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) puts a thirsty-for-vengeance Kirk back in command of the now-captain-less Enterprise and gives him an arsenal of mysterious torpedoes (based on secret technology that Starfleet won't let Scotty examine, leading him to resign in protest) and a mission to fire them at Harrison's refuge in an abandoned area on Kronos. Are emotions running so high that bad decisions are in the making? Sure seems that way, and Spock among others warn Kirk to think before he shoots torpedoes at the Klingon homeworld. But Marcus has given Kirk the green light, so off we go into the darkness. Eventually Kirk comes to his senses and decides to go down to Kronos and retrieve Harrison as a prisoner.
The plot here moves at a brisk pace, which is to the screenplay's credit, even if I wonder about some of the sketchiness of the details, like the can of worms that is Scotty's transwarp transporter technology allowing someone to beam from Earth to Kronos instantaneously, not to mention how close Kronos seems to Earth in the first place — mere hours via starship based on how the movie makes it seem. But this is all typical of the reboot's take on Trek technology, which is that it's a means to a story's end, rather than something adhering to all the conventions that have been set up over the past several decades.
One of the conventions of the original series was the reliable Kirk-Spock-McCoy triad. The reboot has basically replaced that with a Kirk-Spock-Uhura triad, with Bones landing in a close number-four slot (where he utters folksy metaphors so often that Kirk finally orders him to stop). This is refreshing (and of course a reflection of the more central movie roles for women in genre films vis-a-vis a few decades ago), as it provides Uhura a much expanded role over what she had in the original series. The fact that she's in a relationship with Spock continues to be of interest here; I appreciated the way the script tied their relationship back into Spock's central dilemma of how he suppresses his emotions, something that has only become more important to him since having faced the destruction of his homeworld. (And along those lines, I also found apt the suggestion that Vulcan's destruction put the hawks in Starfleet on edge enough to accelerate their war plans, using Harrison as a tool.)
This film also gives us our first look at the reboot version of the Klingons, who come across considerably more alien and mysterious than in previous renditions. This is partly a matter of where we are in Trek history, where the Klingons are an unseen Cold War enemy (Marcus believes war with the Klingons is inevitable) that humans, even those in Starfleet, don't typically ever interact with. But another part of this can be attributed to the overall vibe of Abrams' take on Trek, which is much more in the vein of Star Wars than it ever was before. Everything has a slightly different feel, one that's a little more lived-in and less antiseptic than previous takes on Trek (which is not to say that Abrams' Trek is inherently better or worse, just different).
Once staring down the barrel of 72 torpedoes (the number is a subtle callback to "Space Seed"), Harrison surrenders and reveals himself to be the reboot edition of the genetically engineered Khan we all know and love from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Benedict Cumberbatch, in a strong performance, represents a true reimagining of the character, for better or worse. Once captured and trapped in a cell, we actually get to see the superior intellect in play that was only laughed at by Kirk in the original universe. The script here makes Khan deviously manipulative and calculating in a way that allows him to plot several moves ahead. That's definitely an improvement.
On the downside, Cumberbatch's Khan is absolutely no fun. Ricardo Montalban's version of the character was a performance brimming with playfulness and joy despite his deeply held rage and desire to kill Kirk. But here we get a cold 21st-century movie supervillain — a dour, sour, tortured and haunted soul with an unsettlingly creepy persona. He was awoken from cryosleep and exploited by Marcus to build weapons in preparation for war with the Klingons. The 72 frozen crewmates were Marcus' leverage, and when Khan thought Marcus had killed them he went on his rogue rampage. But now with Kirk putting Khan in custody instead of killing him, Khan and Marcus are now two opposing forces bent on destroying each other, and the Enterprise finds itself caught in the middle. It gets even more complicated once the crew realize they have Khan's crew stored in cryosleep within the torpedoes.
This, ultimately, uncovers the biggest problem and missed opportunity of this movie, which is that all its underlying issues about Starfleet's foray into darkness are rendered irrelevant by reducing it to the whims of, I guess, just one rogue admiral. When Peter Weller first showed up as Marcus, after seeing him play mostly villains in recent years, I initially held out hope that he might be a reluctant hero — a stern hawk, perhaps, but one representing a valid point of view. No such luck. Marcus eventually is revealed as a cartoon villain who is arguably just as evil as Khan, and he robs the movie of what could've been true substance.
Instead of being a story about how Starfleet started down a questionable dark path of military aggression — a relevant allegorical topic to be sure — we're instead left with nothing but unanswered (and unasked) questions. The suggestion is that the construction of Marcus' massive, sinister, black, unmarked Dreadnought-class battle starship (apparently named the USS Vengeance, but I don't believe this is ever actually said on-screen) was done in secret solely under Marcus' authority (how did he get the resources?) with a secret cabal of operatives. This means that once Marcus is inevitably taken down, so apparently is his agenda and all its consequences.
But what about the rest of Starfleet and the Federation? Did they have any say in this at all? What do they know and when did they know it? Wouldn't this storyline have been much more interesting if it was actually explored in political detail and was about examining the soul of Starfleet or the Federation rather than being reduced to a single madman's secret agenda? For that matter, Marcus' willingness to kill the entire crew of the Enterprise is unnecessary overreach. How does he hope to get away with it? Surely he answers to someone, and wouldn't the destruction of another Starfleet vessel raise some serious questions? When Marcus finally gives his big speech to Kirk about being the one who is doing this to protect the Federation, it's a weakly performed, hopelessly overplayed moment by Weller ("Who's gonna protect them, you?!?!") that's unfortunately a major letdown. By being so simplistically reductive, the movie abandons its most interesting issues rather than engaging them.
So, yes, there are significant problems here. They perhaps could've been fatal in a movie that overall was less assured in its action storytelling, but they manage not to derail the overall thrust of Into Darkness. It's just a shame that we couldn't have had the deeper substance that the premise suggests. Instead, we get a series of entertaining set-pieces that work on their own terms. Marcus' assault on the Enterprise is jarringly swift and brutal. Subsequently, Kirk's and Khan's space jump from the Enterprise to the Vengeance is suitably exciting. And the cat-and-mouse games where Kirk allies with Khan to take down Marcus when it's pretty clear Khan will eventually betray Kirk, manage to stay interesting.
We also have serviceable use of the supporting cast. Sulu and Chekov are sparingly used, but get their moments. McCoy continues to be amusingly cornpone. Scotty, after his early resignation in protest (which is a good scene; Simon Pegg plays Scotty sincerely when called upon, even though he usually operates as a comic persona), has a crucial role in tracking down Marcus' secret base orbiting Jupiter. Alice Eve joins the cast as Carol Marcus, daughter of the admiral, and is reasonably well used — aside from a shot in her underwear that is simultaneously so brief and so gratuitous that I'm convinced it was put in the movie only so it could be put in the trailer. And Leonard Nimoy shows up for a surprise cameo in what would be his final reprise of his most iconic character.
At the center of all this are Kirk and Spock and their relationship that observes how one is not complete without the other. After his early humbling, Kirk deals with a fair amount of self-doubt in trying to figure out how he's supposed to properly lead, and turns the ship over to Spock at a key moment. Spock tries to navigate his emotions, which are still not under adequate control. This becomes especially clear in the scene where Kirk must save the Enterprise by going into the warp core to bring it back online, subjecting himself to a fatal dose of radiation. I thought this scene worked as a mirror-image homage to Trek II (Kirk gets to sacrifice himself and die, and Zachary Quinto gets to shout "KHAAAAAAN!") while revealing something intimate about both of these rebooted characters at this point in their journeys.
Everything comes to a head in the final act of show-stopping visceral chaos, where the Enterprise is practically ripped apart as it's pulled down to Earth, while Khan decides to take his wrath out on Starfleet Headquarters by crashing the dead Vengeance into San Francisco Bay in an appallingly vicious act of destruction that, I must admit, got my blood pumping. It's typical of this movie's living in the moment that a starship plowing into a city is used mainly to drive home the point of Khan's savagery and thus Spock's need to chase him down, as if Kirk's (obviously temporary) death wasn't already enough. But the sequence is chillingly effective. Spock's pursuit and all-out fight with Khan is satisfying in its visceral energy and it turns Spock into the Awesome Kick-Ass Superhero we likely never expected him to become.
If this goes against the long-held view of Spock being fundamentally non-violent (which goes all the way back to Nimoy's original early take on the character and the reason for the invention of the Vulcan nerve pinch) — well, chalk it up to being indicative of the theme throughout these first two reboot movies, which is that Spock is still learning to tame his darker side, something which will come in time. Into Darkness takes place just before the Enterprise's five-year mission is slated to begin, so the Spock we knew from the original series wouldn't even have arrived yet. But the producers would be wise to avoid going to this well too often in the future.
Now, about the destruction in San Francisco: The story ultimately doesn't take responsibility for it, instead papering over it with a year's time jump forward and Kirk delivering a vague speech that mentions "those who lost their lives" (while carefully never mentioning a body count). Around the time Man of Steel came out (which also completely brushes off its mass destruction rather than being a bummer by acknowledging it), there was a story where someone estimated the damage done to the city of Metropolis resulted in 129,000 dead, more than 250,000 missing (probably also dead), and $2 trillion in damage. That was purely a rhetorical exercise, but it raises the valid point that the limitless scale enabled by CGI disaster far exceeds the story's limited abilities to consider it seriously. While Into Darkness' mayhem is nowhere near that level, the point still applies because the carnage is left purely in the abstract after it happens.
Really, in retrospect, Kirk's decision to bring Khan back to Earth rather than killing him looks, instead of noble, like it's the direct cause of what must be untold thousands of innocents' deaths, while Khan himself is quietly put back into the freezer rather than standing trial for such an outrage. City-leveling scenes like this one are like strange exercises in cognitive dissonance: The visual is arresting and compelling, but then when the story writes it off as ultimately inconsequential — as just another tool in the action-movie toolbox — then we are expected to as well.
(Also, I can really do without end-credit title cards referencing 9/11 at the end of movies that have nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11. Apparently, the producers felt guilty enough about ramming a starship through a bunch of city skyscrapers to acknowledge 9/11 in the credits — but not guilty enough to refrain from such a scene in the first place. Worth noting, although I'm not sure what conclusion to draw, is that these title cards were moved from the middle to the end of the credits for the Blu-ray release.)
In terms of an overall verdict, I'm going with three stars. Despite my qualms, on the whole I found it to be an effective and enjoyable piece of cinema. Although Abrams uses way too many lens flares and, yes, really needs to stop that, he knows how to pace an action/adventure and make it an involving experience. This is a Trek movie of and for its time, where the character and thematic content (and there is some, to be sure) is often eclipsed by the style.
Now that we're heading into the five-year mission with Star Trek Beyond, maybe we'll see Trek turn back toward exploration of sci-fi ideas. That would probably be a wise choice by the stewards of the franchise, such that they can take a crack at making this series their own rather than perpetually living with and in and alongside the shadows of the characters' alternate timeline, as appealing as that may be. They've got a firm grip on the characters and they've got a cast that works. If they can come up with an original storyline that's a little more Trek and a little less about satisfying the needs of a summer blockbuster, they might really have something here.