When I sat down in the theater with my notebook in one hand and 3D glasses in the other, I was not sure what to expect of the second installation of JJ Abrams’s reboot of Star Trek. I hoped for excellent visuals, exciting action, and the nostalgia of the year and a half in which I watched every single Star Trek show and movie ever made. I expected I would cry, and I expected to be on the edge of my seat, trying to work out what the hell Abrams did, but man, did I get more than that.
In Star Trek: Into Darkness, Abrams indeed went where no one has gone before in the franchise; he made Kirk human. In other words, unlike the all-knowing sex god James T. Kirk portrayed by William Shatner, Abrams’s Kirk (Chris Pine) is more humble, still looking for his niche, still enamored by the glory of the captain’s chair. When Kirk is demoted to first officer by Admiral Pike after violating the Prime Directive on Nibiru by flying the Enterprise out of an ocean in front of a group of stone-age aliens, it is difficult not to see Kirk’s overwhelming disappointment and shame. He obviously hates his demotion — he is meant to be on the Enterprise. This is the first difference between Pine’s Kirk and Shatner’s Kirk; Shatner’s Kirk would have never shown such humility. He would have hijacked a ship and gone out to do whatever heroic thing was next on the agenda. But Pine’s Kirk is different; we can see and share in his love for the Enterprise and his crew. He is no longer the know-all icon of patriarchy, the man who can do no wrong and get away with breaking the rules. He gives up his life to realign the warp core and bring power back to a mangled Enterprise, saving the group from total destruction by an enemy starship. Abrams gives Kirk a new layer; underneath the snarkiness and iconic bravado, Kirk is insecure, afraid, devoted, and therefore, more relatable, and more able to grow.
Speaking of relatable, Abrams’s Spock (Zachary Quinto) redefines what it is to be half-human, half-Vulcan. In many ways, Quinto is the runaway star of this film. He is able to capture the sarcasm that Leonard Nimoy brought to Spock in the original television series, but pushes that a little further. In Star Trek: Into Darkness, we see how frustratingly annoying his avid rule-following and truthfulness can be. Most of the laughs that come from the dialogue in this film are a result of Spock’s interactions with other crewmembers (especially when he is sassy to Pike during a meeting about violating the Prime Directive, but insists that he is simply being logical). But Spock’s character also provides the most anguish, grief, and revenge. When Kirk dies of radiation in the containment chamber after realigning the warp core and Spock begins to cry at the loss of his greatest friend, it is as if all of his repressed Vulcan emotions radiate from the screen. I found myself crying too as I watched the swapped version of Spock’s death scene from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). It will remain one of the most moving filmic events in science fiction history.
Spock reveals his pent-up rage when he seeks revenge on Khan (Cumberbatch), and we begin to understand why Vulcans spent thousands of years learning to control their emotions. The fight scene between Spock and Khan was by far the most gratifying revenge of all (when Spock broke Khan’s arm after Khan said Spock didn’t have it in him to break a bone, I remember feeling the most exquisite sense of satisfaction). Spock’s bone-crunching, heart-breaking, blood-chilling, Vulcan nerve-pinching fury will forever redefine how we think about the typically non-violent Vulcan race. Quinto’s Spock, like Pine’s Kirk, is more complex, more relatable, and more exciting, precisely because it is possible to see his pain and empathize with his grief.
Now, about the return of the wrath of Khan… I am conflicted about Cumberbatch being the new face of Khan Noonien Singh, a.k.a. one of the most vicious villains in Star Trek history. In The Wrath of Khan, Ricardo Montalban portrayed the iconic villain and defined him as the sensual, bare-chested, longhaired trickster with maybe one or two facets to his personality. He was hell-bent on conquering, which is pretty scary if you think about it. But Cumberbatch, the tall, deep-voiced, pale-skinned man changed the image of Khan altogether. In Star Trek: Into Darkness, Khan is alien — something seems off about him. Evil seems to leak through what few wrinkles appear on his stone-like face. I am usually a big fan of Cumberbatch’s characters (like his role as Sherlock Holmes on BBC’s Sherlock), but his version of Khan really gave me the creeps.
Abrams’s Khan is more ruthless and more passionate about his people than Montalban’s Khan was about his. Kirk, Spock, and Uhura capture John Harrison (a.k.a. Khan) on Kronos, the Klingon home world, right after Khan practically single-handedly defeats a whole company of Klingon warriors. When they explain to him that seventy-two photon torpedoes are aimed at his head, his expression is nothing less than confusing. The guy is toting a gigantic laser cannon at his waist and doesn’t flinch when Kirk beats the snot out of him — why would he give up so easily, and why would he look so worried?
Later, when we find out that the torpedoes house the cryogenically preserved bodies of his people (i.e. the Augments, a group of genetically enhanced super-humans, from the Eugenics Wars of the 1990s), we understand his sudden desperation. He genuinely cares for these people — so he is absolutely willing to do whatever is necessary to protect them.
Surrendering is a pretty decent indication of passion, but it’s pretty hard to top looking like the Devil himself whilst squishing somebody’s head. When Cumberbatch is performing the scene in which Khan kills Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) for putting the Augments at risk, we’re able to see the depth of Khan’s fury. Cumberbatch stopped looking like the austere and slightly intimidating British guy who so expertly controls every situation — he loses himself in the moment, and his performance is so convincing that I still get goose bumps when I think about it. Abrams was spot on in casting Cumberbatch in this role. I can think of no one else who could give the already evil character of Khan yet another delicious layer of villainy.
The supporting characters, Uhura, Scotty, Chekov, Pike, and Sulu (Saldana, Pegg, Yelchin, Greenwood, and Cho), coupled with the excellent remake of Star Trek ships and aliens, only boosted the overall experience. The fresh outlook on angles, design, and computer animation added a sense of awe (like, really, a gigantic ship flying out of an ocean in front of a group of black-eyed, white-skinned humanoids hidden among odd red tree-things?), humor (I giggled when Scotty drunkenly said, “I told you so!” to a very concerned Kirk), and thrill (hello?! Jumping off of a super tall building, or through littered with detritus from a destroyed ship IN SPACE?!). Aside from Karl Urban’s (incredibly) annoying version of McCoy, the supporting characters, visuals, and sequences were about as close to candy as science fiction can get.
Star Trek has always been political and philosophical; it seems that Abrams has passively continued that tradition. Yes, there are elements of governmental conspiracy (e.g. a rogue admiral aiming to cover up his mistakes), revenge for the wronged (e.g. Khan avenging his people), and ultimate loyalty (e.g. Kirk and Spock’s friendship), but these elements often appear in Star Trek films. If anything, Into Darkness is a mash-up of The Wrath of Khan and Insurrection. But it begs us to wonder if our government is really doing what they are supposed to — protect and serve its people. This is a common question in Star Trek: is the United Federation of Planets really trying to be a scientific and explorative organization, or is it attempting to become a military power? This question translates to life in the 21st century: are we and our government truly the land of the free (to speak, to marry, to vote, to own, to believe) and the home of the brave, who set out to be an example of what tolerance, peace, and prosperity can really do for the whole of humanity… or are we self-righteous entrepreneurs trying to make a buck whenever we possibly can? Are we Kirk and Spock, or are we Khan and Admiral Marcus?
This question is a difficult one, and it is comforting to know that Abrams has not let the legacy of Star Trek fall into nothing but pretty faces and lens flares. All in all, Star Trek: Into Darkness is a must-see, and for the love of Kahless, Abrams: PLEASE MAKE MORE.