One of two movies I missed in the theaters which I got as Christmas gifts, Star Trek: Into Darkness is the second in the rebooted Star Trek franchise which kicks the past of the Trekverse slightly in order to give the filmmakers the ability to re-use – or not – any element of the original without having to justify it through prior canon. As I thought when first seeing Star Trek 2009, this was the precisely correct choice. Trying to reboot and adhere to prior nonsensically inconsistent "canon" would be a fool's game, and NOT explicitly undoing the canon would be even worse in terms of what the fans would do to you.
Into Darkness opens with Captain Kirk and his crew trying to save an indigenous people from a cataclysm they don't know is coming – a giant volcanic eruption – without violating the Prime Directive. Naturally things don't go quite so smoothly, and the natives do see the Enterprise as it emerges from a hiding location underwater (an impressive sight, and a nice change in concept; it allows the Enterprise to be much, much closer to the action while just as invisible to most people as it would be in standard orbit).
This forces a direct confrontation of one of Kirk's classic foibles (original and new Kirk): His tendency to disregard Starfleet regulations for the sake of his own judgment of right, wrong, and expediency. Spock, not realizing Kirk would try to downplay the incident in the log, filed a much more accurate report; the upshot of this is that Kirk is stripped of his command and is lucky not to get kicked out of Starfleet.
To me, this is one of the most important aspects of the film; they immediately smack Kirk with the consequences of his own decisions and show him that he is making mistakes – something that he is still clearly trying to avoid accepting.
But when a renegade Starfleet officer nearly assassinates the entire Starfleet upper echelon in the home sector, Kirk is given one more mission – to find and kill the assassin who is now hiding on the other side of the Klingon neutral zone.
This is just the setup. From this point on, Into Darkness embarks on a nonstop roller-coaster of black projects, espionage, betrayal, and personal choices of right and wrong.
This is another movie in which the trailers were extremely misleading. It's not a spoiler by now, I think, to say that the renegade Federation officer "John Harrison" turns out to be Khan, but just about everything significant in the trailers in terms of the IMPRESSIONS it gave was pretty much wrong.
This is a journey mostly of the crew of the Enterprise – not a physical journey, but an emotional journey in which the characters go through the processes that make them who they must be. James T. Kirk has to experience loss and swallow his pride, learning to use the resources of the people around him… and to trust them, when nothing else will serve. Spock has to find the way to walk the delicate balance between his Vulcan heritage and the human world that he lives in – especially the exasperating human who just may be the best friend he will ever have, and the minefield of human emotion which is, nonetheless, part of his own heritage. The other members of the crew – Uhura, Scotty, McCoy, Chekov – must find their own limits and decide whether they can forgive Kirk's failures and give him a second chance.
Cumberbatch's version of Khan is, of necessity, not Montalban's. He is a superman, yes, but not the same character, and this is a good choice; just as no one could possibly do Shatner's voice and overly dramatic stage gestures and get away with them, so no one else could pull off the larger-than-life Large Ham performance of Ricardo Montalban as Khan. Cumberbatch instead plays him as a much more believable superhuman, playing a game of lethal chess on three sides at once… and also often far more sympathetic. We may not agree with his actions, but his motives are very understandable and – like Tom Hiddleston's Loki – we are often left with the heartfelt wish that there was some way to make him change his course, divert fate by that one crucial degree.
As you can probably tell, my wife and I enjoyed the hell out of this movie. It moved fast, it told its story well, and the characters drove the action; they were not merely pieces moved around for the sake of the next action shot.
Into Darkness was not, of course, entirely without flaw; I can think of only a couple movies that have approached that. The major flaws were the sort that you encountered if you started thinking logically about the Trekverse – always a terrible danger.
Primary was the penultimate sequence in which a desperate Khan causes his ship to attempt to ram Starfleet Headquarters on Earth. While we can perhaps agree that this might work given the power of a starship which in this case was built specifically as a weapon, I would expect SFHQ to have SERIOUS shielding and major defensive weaponry which would be brought to bear on the kamikaze vessel. None of this was in evidence, and I think this was a significant weakness in the movie.
A similar problem exists with Mr. Scott's discovery of the secret warship, but here one could handwave an explanation that Scott knew he was going somewhere to investigate what was likely a black project, and could have "rigged something up" that would make IFF systems ignore him long enough to get in. He is after all the greatest engineering genius in the Federation.
The second significant problem was Khan himself – not as a character, but as a background. While the full name of the original Khan is mentioned onscreen, it is in no way established that this is in fact the name of Cumberbatch's character, or what exactly his origin was. I feel this is a weakness; we could have had a few moments of exposition or flashback showing what this universe's origin for Khan and his crew was, since the original Khan's background doesn't work (fleeing Earth from the Eugenics Wars in the amazing year… 1999).
I did particularly enjoy the way in which the movie played with our past knowledge – making multiple nods to "what once was" while making it clear, once more, that what was did not determine what would be, this time. Identical or near-identical lines spoken in similar circumstances… but by different characters, similar yet not identical situations, and even a surprise (for me) cameo by the original Spock who tapdanced around what he could and could not reveal.
Once more, also, the actors amazed me by bringing their originals back to a spooky life. Chris Pine, while physically not terribly like Shatner, and while also wise enough to not attempt the speech pattern or theatrical gesticulation of the original, manages to transfer Shatner's expressions and particular habits of posture to himself so well that it's sometimes eerie. Even more eerie is Karl Urban, who manages in a few scenes to hit the accent and timbre so perfectly that I almost expected to see DeForest Kelley on screen. Quinto, as previously, nails Spock perfectly. Zoe Saldana's Uhura captures the essence of her predecessor, even if taking her in a different direction, and both Simon Pegg's Scotty and John Cho's Sulu do their originals proud. (John Cho especially gets a real Moment of Awesome)
Overall, this was a very good movie and I hope to see another in the series.