Gregory Ashman rewatched
Star Trek: Into darkness in the end felt a lot like the 2009 reboot to me: a slick and confident example of 21st century filmmaking tasked with simulating a piece of pop culture entertainment that does not easily bend to the will of the flashy adrenaline spectacle of what is now the modern summer blockbuster. The mid 20th century optimism and focus on civil rights that first provided a lens for Gene Roddenberry's utopian idealism of the original series and subsequent movies and TV series has pretty much been discarded by Abrams and company for the basic logistics of how the Trek world operates and the broad character tropes fans have associated Kirk and co. with for decades. These creative choices have allowed the director, producers, writers, and even production design elements to paint the world of Trek on a different canvas for a new age. Fair enough. It had become sadly apparent that after the debut of Star Trek: First Contact on the big screen in 1996 that a stagnation had set in and the producers in charge of Trek were no longer able to create exciting, philosophically rich stories even with exorbitant budgets and more time for writing. Plus, to be completely honest, I'm not even sure the general public was still interested in the parable like stories that have been a staple of the Trek brand for years. So in this creative vacuum I can understand the need to inject some new blood to shake things up and they really succeeded in putting Trek on the pop culture map again - a feat I have grudgingly come to respect. No doubt a greater focus has also been placed on whizz-bang showmansip and a decidedly post 9/11 attention to detail in the crafting of the story lines. Ultimately, some of this works but what doesn't felt like a bit of a thudding convoluted mess but overall I had a ton of fun with this film as a fast-paced action adventure story that helped to progress the arcs of most of its players.
The things I like about this latest outing? For one, the look of these Bad Robot films are astounding. The movement and look of starships, the weight of explosions, the beautiful CGI renderings (the contrast of the red vined jungle of Nibiru and its native inhabitants with the vertiginous versions of future San Francisco and London teeming with alien, human and even technological life are striking). The world of Star Trek and quite frankly, this depiction of civilization in space has never looked so expansive and epic on the big screen.
I also thought the thematic tone was a step in a different direction that I liked considering the decision to shake things up with an alternate timeline in the 2009 reboot that witnessed the destruction of one of the Federation's founding worlds, Vulcan. The militarization of Starfleet and the usage of the Black Ops organization Section 31 were plot elements taken from the Dominion War storyline of DS9's later seasons and it completely works here. The inclusion and forced collusion of Khan in all this however not only invites comparisons to the greatest film in the franchise (which shares his namesake) but feels like a very convoluted approach to what could have been a more streamlined story without his inclusion. I gotta say though that Cumberbatch's performance was stellar- his steely, calculated, and detached resolve as the main villain was amazing. The problem is that he just wasn't Montalban's version of the character and what made that role so great were the layers of irony underlying the character. The original Khan could be a romantic one minute and a savage the next- and despite being a brilliant strategist it was his ego that ultimately made him fallible. Cumberbatch does the best he can though and I especially love his scene in the brig where he explains the circumstances of him becoming a pawn for Starfleet's new expansionist and military posture at the expense of his comrades- those he holds most dear. This no-nonsense version of Khan seems to work a lot better for the way this timeline has unfolded but I would have liked to see more of a personal vendetta involved in all this drama but that is the fanboy in me who loves Wrath of Khan speaking. Clearly the writers wanted a marketable villain that people would be talking about but at the same time didn't want a complete re-tread of what came before. All nitpicks aside- I can sort of understand that.
The other supporting players get some good screen time and continuity for their roles. Uhura uses her linguistic skills to try to help out the crew on the hunt for Harrison on Kronos, Sulu expands on his command abilities, clearly foreshadowing his ambitions to captain his own ship (The Excelsior in Star Trek VI), Scotty has an interesting subplot in helping to unravel Section 31's machinations too as well as going head with Kirk when he realizes that there is more than meets the eye in their mission to apprehend Harrison for his acts of terrorism. I could have used a bit more of the Kirk-Spock-Bones triumvirate but the writers of the film obviously wanted the focus to be on the Kirk-Spock bromance and that does help a bit with the payoff towards the end, even if everything is reset with the whole super blood maguffin that cures death. I think the writers did the best job with Spock in the end. Quinto's portrayal is entirely serious and earnest and the destruction of his home planet , the loss of his human mother as well as his relationships with Kirk and Uhura have all been strands that have provided fertile ground for Spock trying to figure out what it means to be human as well as Vulcan. Even more so than the original series and movies, Spock's journey towards eventually becoming Spock Prime (who makes a brief in this one) seems to be a more visceral and interesting struggle- this helped inform some of my favourite scenes from the film between Spock and Admiral Pike early in the film as well as Spock's final battle with Khan high above the San Francisco skyline in the closing action beats.
Going forward I wouldn't mind seeing more of a film that continues the focus on character as well as a little bit more of the science, that well, makes science fiction worth watching. Philosophically, they give the prime directive some consideration as a federation policy in Into Darkness and I would like see subsequent movies ask more of these harder questions.