*WARNING* MASSIVE SPOILERS CONTAINED IN THIS REVIEW. DO NOT READ UNLESS YOU’VE SEEN THE MOVIE OR DO NOT CARE ABOUT KNOWING KEY PLOT POINTS
I’ll explain that previous sentence in a minute. First let me say that I’m a big Star Trek fan. I was never a huge original series buff, but I respected it and when the first of a new wave of Star Trek movies came out back in 2009 with a new cast I frankly expected not to like it at all. I saw it in the theater though, because it’s Star Trek and because I got free tickets, and I couldn’t have been more wrong. I was happily surprised to find a film that showed respect to the original cast and series while laying the groundwork for perhaps a new series of movies. The film wasn’t loved by everyone, some of the old Trek fans didn’t like the idea of what amounted to an “alternate timeline” Star Trek universe, but I was fine with it. It was fun and funny, it had drama, action, and great takes on all of the familiar characters. When Into Darkness was released I was excited. Please, if you do watch Into Darkness go rent the first movie and watch it before seeing this one. Vital information is there, and you’ll have a richer movie experience. Of course if you’re reading this review, odds are you’ve already seen Into Darkness anyway.
Into Darkness does a lot of things right, let me start there. The characters are still well written, and almost all of them are well-used. Sulu is the only one who doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but everyone else is here the way you remember them from the previous feature. The villain is portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch (I just love that name), who may not be well known to American audiences, but I know him and loved him for portraying the eponymous character in the BBC’s Sherlock series. If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and check it out, it’s just terrific. The acting in here is essentially first class, even by Alice Eve playing the character of Carol Marcus (careful Star Trek viewers should know that name). Her main function seems to be taking her clothes off and looking hot, but she does serve a purpose later on. The special effects are, as you would expect, excellent and flawless. The action is great, particularly when you meet Benedict’s character for the first time, the dude is just a badass. Most everything in this film works.
The problem here is the plot. This sets in about halfway to two-thirds of the way through the film, when we learn Benedict’s character’s name: Khan. Yep, Khan. THAT Khan! For those of you who haven’t seen Star Trek II or have no history at all with the original cast, you will probably go along and enjoy the movie just fine, because you don’t know any better. Have fun. Those of us over the age of 25, however, or who have seen the previous films are likely going to be less enthusiastic. As you’ve probably guessed, I’m referring to the fact that this film recycles the plot of perhaps the most revered Star Trek movie of all.
There are two big reasons J.J. Abrams should NOT have made this the plot of his new Star Trek film. First, you’re always going to be compared to the original film, and when the original was great you are going to suffer by comparison, plain and simple. That is taking a big risk, and honestly I can respect taking a risk. The second reason is a doozy. The emotional impact of this film, when Kirk dies, is barely even felt. This scene is what the entire film is working up to, the emotional centerpiece, and it doesn’t quite work. This is for several reasons. The original film was with characters who had already had lots of years together, lots of adventures; they were a family and there were close emotional bonds that the audience resonated with. When Spock died in Star Trek II it was devastating. The entire audience was in a state of shock, and then they were in tears when Kirk gave his eulogy; the movie just wrung you out emotionally.
There is no close emotional bond between this Kirk and this Spock. They’ve had a total of one adventure. One. They don’t even know if they like each other and they barely trust each other, they are just at the beginning of their relationship. There isn’t a rich history between this cast for the audience to connect to, so you don’t feel the punch during the finale, even if you *haven’t* seen any of the original films or series. Another reason is that the rest of us have already seen it. And seen it done better!
Also you know Kirk will not stay dead, and lo and behold he’s revived before the film is over. This is because Abrams had no choice in the matter, he’d painted himself into a corner. If Kirk stays dead everyone knows what the third film will be, a similar recycled-style plot along the lines of “The Search for Kirk.” Then you’ve got audiences thinking all these new Star Trek movies will just be remaking the old ones. Can’t have that. If Kirk comes back to life then why should we be that upset that he dies? Any experienced movie-goer has seen that a dozen times before.
So at this point we know what to expect. At some point someone will yell “KHAN!!!” Sure enough, it’s Spock, because Kirk did it in the original. The problem is this Spock doesn’t love Kirk enough to be that emotionally wrecked by his death, they don’t have a history that supports it. In fact not much has really changed between them from the beginning of the film–where we are told in no uncertain terms Spock would have left Kirk to die if their positions were reversed. Spock goes nuts anyway and everything devolves into a stock fist fight between Spock and Khan. Spock gets the hell beaten out of him, Uhura phaser-stuns him a bunch of times, Spock then gets the upper hand but they can’t kill him because they need his blood to save Kirk. The villain doesn’t even die (why not, because in the original he did?), robbing us of any satisfaction of his defeat. The original had the finale on their respective starships, in space, with Kirk and Spock out-thinking their nemesis. Star Trek should be about the triumph of the mind, not resolving the entire plot line by punching people out.
I give Benedict full credit for doing everything he could to make Khan great. He did as well as one could expect from any actor, and as I said I was already predisposed to like the guy. He just had the weight of history working against him. I don’t think the characterization went as far as it could with Kirk, because this film was supposed to be his coming of age. He gets kicked off the Enterprise because he doesn’t “respect the chair” and by the end of the movie you are supposed to believe he has learned what it means to be captain through hard experience. I didn’t feel that. Not because those events wouldn’t have been enough, but because I didn’t see it in his performance.
Instead of getting a great new original story like the previous film, we get this. It’s a shame, because these movies were building a new generation of Star Trek fans. Maybe I’m being over-dramatic. After all, if you haven’t seen the originals this will be an enjoyable movie. Not a great one, but a good one. It will still be entertaining. But it could have been so much more.