"Monty Cristo" here. The below review originally appeared on my personal site, Arthouse Cowboy.
I spoil nothing, but I do layer in some bits of allusion that those who have seen the movie and/or are die-hard Trek fans will appreciate. I have a nothing-but-spoilers piece that will post on Monday (to be marked with all the requisite warnings).
Four years ago, I saw the first public screening of JJ Abrams' Star Trek with an audience who thought they were seeing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I was thrilled, captivated, and felt that it elevated the Trek mythos to be as digestable as Star Warsin the general public's view, and did so without watering anything down.
The new Star Trek movie is rife with elements to be spoiled, from the full nature of Benedict Cumberbatch's villain John Harrison to elements from the climax and elsewhere that have antecedents in past Trek lore. In the review that follows, I do my best to spoil none of these things, but I should note that I had them all forced on me and I managed to enjoy the movie very much regardless. The "big reveal" in act two, which I will discuss in a separate post, did not have to be kept secret for me, but the gasps in the preview audience with whom I saw it may have proven me wrong.
Aside from general sequel expectations, the bigger weight on the shoulders of Star Trek Into Darkness is its quest to balance the needs of the fanbase and the needs of the new. If this movie is to be a "real" Star Trek movie, it must incorporate and alter pieces of the canon to fit the new timeline established in the first movie. On the scale of a feature film, that means revising the most sacred of icons and elements, not just touching on them in the way that a new TV series might.
The script by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Damon Lindelof achieves something rare for me, in that it completely alters major events and characters and succeeds in telling a vibrant new myth with the bone marrow of the old one. This is like rewriting Star Trek's Old Testament, and finding new ways to describe the journeys of Noah, Abraham, and Moses to a base full of fervor.
I've been a Trek fan since childhood, growing up on the original series in syndication alongside the then-new Star Trek: The Next Generation. I have arguments with friends about the franchise's minutae on a regular basis. Episodes, performances, and critical iconic moments from the series mean more to me than many other touchstones of pop culture. My bond with this series is an essential part of the much deeper bond I had with my late brother.
He changed his mind all the time, but I feel it safe to say that my brother's favorite movie was Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I watched it with him dozens of times.
His autism manifested in many ways, and among them was a need to pause after, rewind, and replay favorite sequences in movies. I know many sequences of that movie better than I remember major events in my childhood. He treated the 2009 picture as another, separate iteration of the alternate universe that he loved the most. He enjoyed the spectacle and had fun.
I'm sure that posting this on the internet will invite loads of self-professed developmental disability experts to chime in that "you'd have to be retarded to love JJ Abrams' Trek!", and I would invite those people in advance to either check themselves or go to hell in the most direct way possible, whichever they prefer. The reason I bring my brother up in the first place is that I cannot think about Star Trek without thinking of him. Additionally, one of the various personality benefits of his autism was that he never went in to a movie with the version he wrote in his head, like many fans and critics have (and will). He went in sans ego to hopefully have a fun experience. Some of the best memories I'll ever have are in repeatedly re-watching thrilling, explosive, and provocative parts of the Trek movies with him. I want everyone to have the opportunity to have those kinds of memories as a result of "nuTrek" existing.
In the pre-internet world, we were all rather different sociologically. That is to say, we were much less exhibitionist and Facebookishly self-important via personal broadcast. We weren't able to know as much about the movies we were going to see. Though spoilers would still get out, our less-connected lifestyles leant to our not having spoilers forced upon us without our control or consent. There are those of us whose connection to a beloved universe like Trek will not allow us the sort of impartiality my brother had. It's something that I try to embody whenever I sit down for every movie, but I don't always succeed. I think of that as a disability.
Star Trek Into Darkness as an experience is an undiluted second dose of the high stakes adventure found in the first movie. One of the key things I said about the first Abrams Trek four years ago in the middle of a sleepless night holds true here:
Star Trek is an unrelenting, slam-bang naval war movie that rarely catches its own breath, even to hold for laughs. Shades of swashbucklers and submarine thrillers alike are all over the storytelling and smash-bam-kaboom stuff going on throughout.
The introduction to and uniting of the crew done, we get to have a proper world-shaking story with less exposition and re-ordering of reality.
Cumberbatch delivers a crackling performance in a role written with the complexity of an archetypal Great King villain. His motivations are deeply-seated and difficult to argue with if you look at them through the lens of his perspective. The reveal of where he comes from and who he is occurs about a half hour into the movie. What I can say that does not spoil anything is that rather than re-tell part of the cinematic canon, this installment is more a grand-scale retelling of an individual episode worth of lore, while at once pulling from sacred cinematic touchstones.
Peter Weller commands his scenes, delivering dialogue and serving a role that directly speaks to the core conflict within Starfleet. Are they an organization of scientists and explorers, or warriors at the ready? The depth of experience seen in Weller's eyes and bearing engenders a presence that lends more Shakespearean gravitas to the story. The bulk of the cast is comprised of a young and still inexperienced crew honing their skills for whom Weller is the anchor of strength.
Implausible action sequences and feats of science happen throughout, but this is why we engage with speculative fiction: it takes us beyond our modern grasp. Like the first movie, I gripped the armrests and tensed up throughout, despite knowing that our heroes would most likely all survive the movie (since that's what heroes do). References to classic canon are peppered throughout, going as late as elements established in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Some are delightful nods, but others came off as being a bit too much for my benefit. Then again, I can't pretend to look at it like a fresh-faced child in the way that I did Star Trek V: The Final Frontier when my dad took me as a kid.
These new movies have not been about the matured crew that was see at the outset of the original series. These are indeed the voyages of the starship Enterprise, but the broad focus of the story is what made these iconic characters who they are. The test of the movie is whether it earns the right to tell this story, and whether it does something new in addition to meeting prerequisites.
The petulant, jock-brained Kirk (Chris Pine) sees yet more personal growth here. He didn't magically become the Kirk of the original series in the span of one movie, as we learn he still has a ways to go. Doctor McCoy, Spock, and Uhura once again grab a healthy amount of screen time and development, with special focus once again given to Simon Pegg's lively Scotty. Sulu and Chekhov get a little more to do each in some respects, but still feel light on depth, which makes me hope they are teasing a more significant role for them both the next time around.
The great narrative victory comes from the father-son relationship between Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood) and Kirk bearing fruit from the sapling planted in the first movie. We are shown the meat of the answer to the question of how James T. Kirk grew into the man we know from the pre-existing Trek canon. Kirk became a man of priciple, duty, and success through a series of heart-rending trials, all of which carry weight here if given the chance. His relationship with his surrogate father pays dividends far beyond his initial cinematic exploits and his assignment as Captain of Enterprise. The throughline of Kirk's metaphorical "moving out of dad's basement" is what makes me like and admire the Kirk we have at the end of this movie much more than the one we left at the end of the last one. To me, he feels like 1/2 to 2/3rds of the Kirk we've known for over 40 years, with more growth to come.
The unfilled, unresolved space in the final minutes of Star Trek Into Darkness plants seeds that make me crave the next installment more so than this one. Maybe I just can't wait for (theoretically) more of the Klingons we see here.
The movie is open to all viewers: young, old, fans and neophytes. The script and execution deliver a concatenated series of themes, moral quandaries, and emotional truths that are broadly relatable. That doesn't mean "stupid", but approachable and welcoming. The logic isn't always airtight, but it never is in real life, either. If you want "stupid", go look to the newest Fast & Furious movie. I should note I don't mean that as an insult, but rather, an assessment.
A child somewhere will see Star Trek Into Darkness and later ask their parent, a teacher, or a mentor of some sort "why did they call that one ship the U.S.S. Bradbury?". People from kids to adults who've never been into the older series and movies will now watch them on Netflix, Hulu, or wherever. Someone who doesn't consider him- or herself a reader will pick up a science fiction book because they saw this movie. Someone will decide to lead their life in a creative pursuit because they were elevated by this "popcorn movie".
For fans, the "how would I have done it different/better?" question is unavoidable in a final assessment.
In the parallel timeline where I wrote and/or produced this movie, would I have made something different? I'm sure that I would have. I would have been petrified to tackle parts of the canon that they took on with alacrity. I would have been uncertain as to how I would make such a forceful play at the modern military industrial complex, and the human toll of how we have evolved as a society.
The people who took Star Trek Into Darkness on chose the bold path. They went there, and I'm glad this is how it played out.
Go have fun at the movies, and don't let anyone tell you whether you're allowed to or not, or whether it makes you stupid. In the spirit of the movie itself, don't be bullied into pre-ruining an experience with a friend or loved one that you can never have again.
Forgive me for all of the shameless Star Trek references throughout the above review, I couldn't help myself.