JJ Abrams’s first Star Trek film was a flawed masterpiece. Yes, the time travel stuff had some problems, and yes there were way too many handy coincidences, but none of that smacked me in the face while watching the movie. These were things I noticed after the fact. I’ll give a movie credit for being so fun I don’t notice the blemishes.
The stakes were, then, very high for the sequel. We knew this new cast could deliver the goods, and we knew Abrams could direct the crap out of a movie… but would their reach exceed their grasp? Would they give us Godfather II… or Transformers II? Answer: neither.
For the sake of protecting readers, I will save my spoilers until the end. I can say that the film is briskly paced, and surprised me several times. However, that might be the worst thing about it. It pushes the envelope of being so stuffed full of things that I didn’t get a chance to savor any of the moments. A fun action sequence with a volcano and a weird pre-tech species immediately shifts to a melancholy bombing (yes, a melancholy bombing) and from there to a spectacular aerial terrorist attack to a tense showdown on an alien word to revelations of… You get the point.
The first Abrams Star Trek gave every character a special scene, usually with Kirk. They were developing the reasons these officers feel like family, and it worked. I felt like the script earned their relationships. Here, the relationships are considered part of the history, so very little is done to develop them. As usual, the Kirk-Spock dynamic is paramount, and I don’t have a problem with that. But Chekov’s role is reduced to running around with sunglasses on, Sulu gets one decent line, and even Bones is relegated to fourth (or fifth?) position behind Uhura. The only second stringer to get a really good arc is Scotty. He stands up to Kirk in possibly the best scene of the film. Kudos, Simon Pegg!
Now, I’ll be honest, there’s nothing really wrong with the movie. (Well, except for a couple of scientific errors that I’ll outline below.) The action is exciting, the humor is funny, the dilemmas are confounding. I just didn’t have a feeling that I saw… something greater than the sum of its parts.
So, it’s really good, but certainly not great, and not as good as its predecessor.
First, a technical point that bugged me. Much like Revenge of the Sith, this film has a star ship falling from the sky, and as it tilts and spins, the characters have to contend with gravity pulling them in ways the ship’s interior isn’t designed to handle. But… if the artificial gravity on the ship isn’t working (which, it can’t be, because it wouldn’t pull them sideways) then the gravity on display is from Earth. If so, then why is there any gravity on the ship at all. It’s falling. They would be (relatively speaking) weightless within the ship. They should have been floating, not running around on the ceiling. Annoying.
I expect there were some people surprised by the reveal that Benedict Cumberbatch’s character is Khan. (Though no one who reviewed the cast list on IMDB. Come on, internet, you don’t have to be that spoilery.) The reveal itself wasn’t so amazing. Just three people talking in a room. I would have preferred a more dynamic setting for such an important reveal. This leads to a remarkable sequence when Kirk and Khan must work together. Loved it. Part of me hoped that Khan wouldn’t actually be the villain of the piece… though I’d seen enough in the trailers to know that couldn’t be the case.
When Alice Eve’s character is revealed to be Carol Marcus, and we see her tinkering with secret torpedoes, I thought, “Awesome! Genesis devices! Admiral Marcus is trying to destroy Kronos by reformatting it at the genetic level!” Of course, the reveal that they were simply long range torpedoes into which Khan has spirited his crew-mates, I really hated them. Because, really? Would a torpedo really have enough spare room for an entire human-being-sized cryotube? If so, that’s one poorly designed torpedo.
The other bold choice was to flip the death scene from Wrath of Khan. This completely did not work. Why? Because I know this is a tent-pole franchise for a major studio. They won’t kill their lead. So as much as the idea of it was cool, and it must have been a hoot to write, it had zero emotional impact on me. They even telegraphed (way too loudly) the mechanism they would use to resurrect Kirk. What they should have done was have Uhura die. That would have given Spock way more reason to lose it, and would have made his chase after Khan at the end have much more resonance. They could still resurrect her (hopefully with a more subtly teased mechanism) but I wouldn’t necessarily put it past the producers to kill Uhura.
The other thing that bounced me out of the story was the number of clear parallels with The Avengers:
A pale, lanky guy with an impeccable British accent (despite the fact that he’s Indian!/a half-frost-giant from the realm of Asgard!) destroys a secret underground lair where the government is developing morally questionable weapons by toying with powers they can’t hope to control. Our heroes (one a by-the-book guy, the other a cocky troublemaker) track the bad guy (with the help of the one woman on the team) and capture him way too easily. Once incarcerated, the bad guy emotes villainously from within a sterile white cell with a big curved glass wall. A chase commences with characters flying on science-fictiony devices between the buildings of a major American city. The cocksure hero is forced to sacrifice himself to save the day, though he is saved by the one character who is most ruled by his emotions.
I have to assume the script for Into Darkness was written long before The Avengers came out… but did some of the writers see a copy of The Avengers script maybe? I dunno. Regardless, the parallels were too much to ignore.