People, where do I begin? How can I possibly articulate in a semi-coherent manner how much I ADORED Star Trek Into Darkness?!
If you're worried about spoilers, this is NOT the place to be. Consider yourself warned.
Okay, here we go. :) Prior to Abrams' spectacularly entertaining re-boot of the Trek franchise in 2009, I wasn't a Trek fan in any way, shape, or form. I knew who Kirk and Spock were and that was about it. Any effort to engage with the film's source material previously had ended in apathy. But that film -- what Abrams and his cast and crew did for me then was introduce me to a vibrant cast of characters with a chemistry and an energy that reminded me of my personal science fiction favorite -- Star Wars. So the four year "drought" waiting for a follow-up has been absolute torture -- and to be quite frank, I was beginning to wonder if this movie would ever happen. And when it WOULD finally appear, could it possibly succeed in recapturing everything about the first film that I loved so much? COULD IT POSSIBLY LIVE UP TO THE HYPE??
Amazingly my answer to that question is YES. Yes, yes, and THEN SOME. Star Trek Into Darkness (do you have ANY IDEA how desperately I want to but a colon between "Trek" and "Into"?!) is a thoroughly entertaining, engaging sequel that continues to reinvent the tropes of this world while letting these new cast members, this perfect "Abrams-caught-lightning-in-a-bottle" ensemble make these characters their own.
Prior to this film's release I'd been reading rumors of the identity of villain, and the storyline's relation to what is (apparently?) considered one of the best classic Trek films -- The Wrath of Khan. So the night before I was due to meet friends to see Into Darkness I decided it was time to not just read about Khan online, but to watch the film -- and goodness am I ever glad I did, as I thought it thoroughly enriched my viewing experience and appreciation of everything Into Darkness works to accomplish on-screen.
So much of the success of Star Trek (both new and old) rests on the strength of the ensemble, and in particular New Trek is a positive gold mine of pitch-perfect, once-in-a-lifetime casting decisions and amazing group chemistry. But the relationships between various members of the crew (and I love them all) pales in comparison to the importance of the Spock/Kirk friendship, and here Abrams delves deeply into what friendship between two people who, on the surface at least, should have nothing in common to bind them together in friendship.
Now I can't speak in any great depth to how the classic Kirk and Spock friendship compares to the incarnation Abrams has given us in his re-boot, except to say that I feel New Trek is not only intent on examining how a human/Vulcan friendship works, but is perhaps more interested in how that friendship changes both men irrevocably. And for my money you could not ask for two better actors Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto to bring this legendary duo to life on-screen.
Pine's Kirk is cut very much from the Han Solo-hero mold -- good-looking, brash, and cocky, his Kirk would much rather act than reflect, sieze the day than think through the consequences. And his brash confidence has paid off in spades, bringing him success and command of the Enterprise -- but his success, his willingness to disregard the rules time and again has earned him not only the ire of Starfleet Command, but has arguably instilled in him a false sense of security in life and his ability to lead others.
Quinto's Spock absolutely fascinates me. Not only do we have Spock in a romantic relationship (more on that later), but Spock seems shaded with a touch more transparency, more hints of inner conflict rippling just below the logical Vulcan surface of his persona. And that conflict between his Vulcan and human halves, between the logical, unemotional side of his heritage and the part of him that genuinely wants to understand why he drives Kirk and Uhura insane just plays out brilliantly on-screen (when Kirk finds himself caught in the middle of what passes for a Spock/Uhura "fight" is one of the film's most hilarious scenes). When Kirk flouts convention and returns to save Spock from a volcano explosion at the beginning of the film, he genuinely does not understand why Kirk would be compelled to act so illogically or the potential consequences of his truthful reporting of the incident (which sees Kirk demoted). That gut reaction vs. a measured, intellectual response is the trigger that sets Spock on this inward journey to understand and relate to those around him throughout the film which culminates in a spectacular -- and very un-Vulcanlike -- emotional finale.
For his part, Kirk's character arc through the film not only neatly fits within the beats of Joseph Campbell's definition of the heroic journey, but the hothead must also learn the value of what someone of Spock's experience and perspective can bring to his life. Speaking to the heroic journey -- if the first film covered step one, the separation, than this second installment is Kirk's initiation and trial by fire. Disappointing his mentor, Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood -- okay let me just say, I get why this had to happen, but losing Pike was dang near as traumatic for me as the whole Coulson dying thing in The Avengers), and then seeing that surrogate father figure murdered sets Kirk on a path to revenge. This hearkens back to Kirk beating the Kobayashi Maru test in the 2009 film (also referenced in The Wrath of Khan) -- if the purpose of that test is facing a no-win scenario, of seeing how one would act in the face of sure death, having never accepted that as a possibility, Pike's death and the events that follow force Kirk to confront his fallibility. And in doing that, in recognizing that "how we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life" is a critical step in Kirk's heroic journey and maturation as a man and a leader.
In my rather random and sporadic watching of anything Classic Trek, while I always got the sense that Kirk and Spock were close friends what I LOVED about their relationship in this film is the glimpse we get into the DEPTH of that friendship. It is no stretch in my mind to say that the events of Into Darkness are a crucible through which the bond of friendship between them is solidified and strengthened. And we really see that played out in a powerful manner in how they push each other, how they change each other, and how through their friendship, through how they each take on the other's best qualities, each man is changed, arguably, for the better.
I understand that among some Trek purists Spock's relationship with Uhura (Zoe Saldana) is the subject of some controversy. Personally I think it is one of the best aspects of the new films, and I promise that isn't because I am a total romantic sap. *wink* I don't feel that Uhura fundamentally changes the logical, intellectual, supremely rational being that Spock is; rather she stretches and changes and challenges him in a way that is pure and simple an utter delight to watch on-screen. Quinto and Saldana play this atypical couple with more class and maturity than most film romances today in my opinion. Yes, Uhura gets frustrated with Spock -- but witness the looks she gives him before he's lowered into the volcano on Nibiru and after they survive the incursion into Klingon territory. It's love and acceptance pure and simple, and her ability to be so passionate about their relationship and ultimately so accepting of who he is (even though certain qualities occasionally drive her mad) just BAFFLES him. (And when he tells her that when he thought he was going to die he couldn't think about her because he feels TOO MUCH?! -- I DIE!) And watching Spock puzzle through the nuances of the relationships in his life, that will never get old, especially with an actor as fantastically expressive as Quinto in the role.
We all know I love Benedict Cumberbatch, right? :) Benedict did me proud here, and it was an absolute thrill to see him figure so prominently -- and so well -- in such a big-screen spectacle. In my experience following his career I've never seen him play such a villain. And being the superlative actor that he is, and stepping into a franchise that has grounded itself in the relationships between core characters, it's a testament to his considerable ability as an actor and the material that he was given to work with that his Khan is such a memorable, three-dimensional, terrifying villain. For while his actions -- blackmailing the Starfleet officer (hello Mickey from Doctor Who) into blowing up the archive, attacking Starfleet HQ -- are reprehensible, Cumberbatch never lets us forget that he is driven by a genuine love and fear for the safety of his crew, his family. There was a moment there when Kirk and Khan prepare to board the Reliant that I thought maybe, just maybe, "new" Khan was going to end more heroically -- Cumberbatch did a fantastic job playing painting Khan not in black and white, but shades of grey. And much like he will do anything to achieve his aim, so Kirk must also embrace what it means to be a true leader of his own crew, and come to terms with what he's willing to sacrifice for his family, the perhaps never-considered reciprocity of what he expects of them as their commander. While both men are driven by the same impulse, it's the choices each makes that ultimately defines who they are, for good or ill.
(Side note: Did Benedict perform in the fight scenes? Because that moment in Klingon territory when he saves Kirk, Spock, and Uhura is PURE DEADLY POETRY in motion.)
Where Kirk and Spock and Uhura and BENEDICT would be more than enough, Into Darkness goes above and beyond giving viewers a tremendous array of well-realized supporting characters that steal the show more often than not. *wink* I don't even think I can pick favorites, people, seriously -- I love them all. :) Off-hand I'd say Sulu's (John Cho) wins for most improved over his appearance in the 2009 film, as short but critical scenes give him the chance to test his own leadership potential when Kirk grants him the captain's chair. Please, can we have MORE of his character in the third film? Cho is a badass. ;-)
I absolutely LOVE Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and it was such a treat to see him get stressed out over assuming Scotty's position as chief engineer, when the latter resigns in protest over the presence of sketchy photon torpedoes on the Enterprise. I was seriously concerned about his safety when Kirk ordered him to don a red shirt, but thankfully that temporary transfer didn't blow up in his face (literally). And when he saves Kirk and Scotty I could barely contain my glee. :)
And Scotty! Could anyone else but Simon Pegg be so perfect for the role? I think not. I loved his professional outrage over the whole torpedo debacle, his insistence that he'd never help Kirk with anything EVER AGAIN, and then his own personal entering the Death Star moment when he discovers Admiral Marcus's secret warship Reliant (not to mention his solo heroics in the bowels of the oddly deserted ship). But more than all that, his indignant OUTRAGE at returning to the Enterprise after an absence of like a DAY only to discover she's falling apart around his ears. :)
I like Karl Urban a lot, and I like him as Bones...but maybe this is just a part of the original character that I don't get, but he seemed to spend an awful lot of time telling Kirk or Spock or whoever that he couldn't believe they were doing whatever it is they were going to do, instead of, you know, doing something. And while there's a lot of humor and warmth in his interactions with Kirk in particular, and he gets a moment with a TRIBBLE (!!), and those thirty seconds where he thinks he's going to get blown up by a torpedo, I am always left wanting. Like I just feel like there's more he should be doing than throwing around "dammit Jim's" and being hilariously neurotic. I LIKE it all, don't get me wrong, I just feel like he could play a bigger role vis-a-vis Kirk and Spock...I think that's what I'm getting at is I want more Bones being incredible. :)
While I don't know that I'd call Into Darkness a remake of The Wrath of Khan, exactly, it does borrow and adapt substantially from that film to fit certain story beats into the New Trek world -- and I love that. If the 2009 film established the two separate but similar timelines, this film takes that further by exploring how these new incarnations of the classic characters can take canonical story beats and experiences and make them their own. I think there must always be certain parallels, no? I find that it really enriches my appreciation of the Abrams films as I learn more about the source material.
That said, I LOVE LOVE LOVE how this film takes Spock's sacrifice in Wrath and turns it on its head. In this timeline, Kirk needed to come to the point where he was willing to sacrifice for a cause, for his family. And Spock -- with the insight offered from his counterpart Spock Prime (Leonard Nimoy) on New Vulcan, I truly believe he thought that defeating Khan would require him to make the ultimate sacrifice. So when his friend Kirk sacrifices his life to save the Enterprise he's absolutely gutted. Only then does he understand Kirk's drive to save him earlier in the film and how deep the bonds of friendship run between them, and how when evil threatens something near and dear to one's heart the gut response -- not the logical one -- oft-times demands action. (On a lesser level -- much less, since I didn't find Alice Eve as Carol terribly interesting -- I am looking forward to where the franchise goes with the canonical Kirk/Carol relationship given the characters' history in the show. I DO hope that the scripts up Carol's smarts in subsequent outings, as Eve was barely given enough to work with to raise her above my least favorite female scientist on film of all time, Denise Richards in The World is Not Enough -- that is NOT a mark you want to aspire to.)
So, wrapping things up, I basically think this film is pretty much pitch-perfect (just in case you couldn't tell). It's a fast-paced, energetic, engaging, and slickly-produced piece of summer entertainment with heart, thanks to memorable, well-drawn characters. Not only do you have the characters and special effects, but the film is just plain GORGEOUS. From the pops of vibrant yellows and reds on Nibiru to Abrams's apparent love of light halos illuminating the bridge of the Enterprise in space, every frame of this movie is a feast for the eyes. Finally, composer Michael Giacchino returned to score the film, and I think he outdid himself. From the action cues to gorgeous piano solos to his adaptation of the Classic Trek theme, every note of music complements the on-screen action perfectly. Very well done.
If you've seen the film I would (obviously) love to discuss! :) I can't wait to see where this crew takes us next, and I can only hope that the five year mission the Enterprise sets out on at the film's conclusion isn't some sort of sign that it is going to actually take FIVE YEARS for a sequel. Please, for the love Abrams, don't make me wait that long.
*Images copyright Paramount.