Let’s be honest, it’s going to be pretty much impossible to have a detailed discussion of this movie without revealing many important plot points the filmmakers have gone to great lengths to keep secret. So I’m not even going to try; I’m writing this with the assumption that you’ve seen the film, and want to see what I thought of it. All of it. If you haven’t seen the film, and don’t want to be spoilered, then don’t read on.
With 2009’s Star Trek, JJ Abrams did for Paramount’s long running sci fi franchise what Russell T Davies did for the BBC’s Doctor Who in 2005. He not only revived and rebooted the franchise, but gave it a mainstream appeal that made it not only socially acceptable to be a fan, but actually kind of cool (this has made some fans of both franchises very angry).
Where Davies revived Doctor Who in its original medium as a TV show, Abrams chose to go the route of Star Trek’s long-established big budget movies. The result was an enjoyable, if big and loud, success, with the iconic characters recast and a new timeline established via Steve Moffat-style timey-wimeyness. As a result, the only previous Trek series that’s still ‘canon’ in this newly established Trekverse is Enterprise. The events of the others, which all take place after the change point, would happen very differently, if at all. Still, Abrams wisely chose to spare the beloved original Spock from the temporal chop, as Nimoy’s elderly Vulcan was left the only survivor of the now-redundant original timeline.
That may seem like a complex approach to a reboot, but it managed to have its cake and eat it by being both a sequel to, and a reinvention of, the original. It also, wisely, avoided the originals’ tendencies to target their fanboy audience; there were detailed references to all the original series, but they weren’t vital to understanding what was going on. The focus was, sensibly, on the iconic characters that are recognised by everyone, whether they’re fanboys or not. It probably helped that Abrams wasn’t particularly a fan himself, treating it as a new movie rather than a continuation of a decades-old franchise.
Now, four years later, the same team is back with the highly-anticipated sequel. The plot details of Star Trek – Into Darkness have been kept a closely guarded secret, and rightly so; it’s a movie that packs more than a few interesting surprises. Even the title, which is dramatic but generic, tells you absolutely nothing about the content of the movie. It’s different in that respect from the old Trek films; let’s face it, The Search for Spock pretty much describes that movie’s entire plot, and you could be sure that The Wrath of Khan would feature original series baddie Khan Singh, and that he wouldn’t be entirely happy.
So, let’s get the big one out of the way early – yes, Benedict Cumberbatch’s new enigmatic villain is indeed Khan. The writers, presumably aware of the online speculation about the matter, toy with audience expectations playfully for some time. Introduced as a mysterious figure promising to save Starfleet officer Noel Clarke’s ailing daughter (for a price), when asked his name he merely smiles. Later, after Clarke has paid back his debt by blowing up what is ostensibly a Starfleet archive in a futuristic London, the ‘terrorist’ is identified as ‘John Harrison’, a treacherous former agent of Starfleet black ops department Section 31.
After having massacred half of Starfleet’s senior staff, and finally apprehended by Kirk, he finally reveals his identity with a dramatic pause much like those beloved of William Shatner – “My name is… Khan.” What with the timelines having been so messed about with, you have to think a bit to work it out, but logically this would have to be the exact same Khan found floating in space in the original series episode Space Seed. That much hasn’t changed, though obviously the actor had to; just as the Enterprise crew have been recast, so has this most iconic of baddies.
His backstory remains the same though. He’s a genetically altered war criminal cryogenically frozen in a non-specified past time period (the original series gave the actual date as 1996, but that’s wisely avoided here). The surname ‘Singh’ is obviously Sikh and therefore Indian, but Cumberbatch’s Khan is no more South Asian than Ricardo Montalban. Where Montalban was Latino, Cumberbatch’s pale complexion and blue eyes are about as Anglo as you can get; still, both bits of casting can be explained (if you’re a sad fanboy) by Khan’s altered genes.
Cumberbatch’s Khan is more obviously a ‘superman’ than Montalban’s. Where the original was noticeably strong and highly intelligent, the new Khan is capable of taking out whole squads of Klingons single-handed, all while pulling off more Machiavellian manipulation than Hannibal Lecter. His plan is the same kind of ridiculously elaborate chess strategy that Lecter is prone to, pulling together improbably complex circumstances to the end he needs.
This is more than a jazzed-up remake of the original Star Trek II, though. Khan is far from the only villain here, and arguably has some justification in feeling hard done by and wanting to take revenge. It’s just that, this time, he’s doing it sooner, and not against Kirk personally. The film has a labyrinthine plot underlying its spectacle, involving conspiracies at the highest level in Starfleet, with Commander in Chief Admiral Marcus behind all the secret schemes that involved reviving Khan in the first place.
This too is a trope beloved of the various original Treks. I often wondered how lacking Starfleet psych profiling must be that so many of the organisation’s senior staff were paranoid megalomaniacs. There was the treacherous Admiral Cartwright in Undiscovered Country, the scheming Admiral Dougherty in Insurrection, and more than you could count in Deep Space Nine, including Admiral Leyton who led an attempted military coup of Earth.
Admiral Marcus is another in this long line, trying to spark the very war with the Klingons he sees as inevitable. He’s using Khan’s genius to help him design new ships and weaponry while holding the genetically altered renegade’s frozen crew as hostages. No wonder Khan’s a bit… wrathful.
The aforementioned Klingons are indeed on display here, though not taking centre stage. In pursuit of ‘Harrison’ after his attack on Starfleet HQ, Kirk and co follow him to the Klingon homeworld of Kronos (spelled more conventionally here than the original Qo’noS). The planet is orbited by a shattered moon; shades of the explosion of Praxis in The Undiscovered Country, though that makes little sense at this point in time.
Fan expectations are again played with; as with everything in these movies,we expect the Klingons to be bigger and more beefed-up, like the Enterprise’s bulging new warp nacelles. In the event though, Abrams obviously decided that the well-remembered look of the species shouldn’t change too much. Only one is seen clearly, after he removes the tantalising helmet that echoes their knobbly foreheads. He lacks the shaggy beard and hair of the now-standard Klingon, but the physiognomy is the same as usual. Besides, he’s not the first hairless Klingon we’ve seen; remember General Chang, in The Undiscovered Country.
Plenty of fan favourites and a thrilling plot then, but as before, the success of the thing rests on the established characters crewing the Enterprise. With the first movie having introduced them and established the bromance between Kirk and Spock, this one kicks off with them running the ship and (as usual) disobeying Starfleet orders for The Greater Good.
In trying to save a doomed planet, Kirk decides to ignore the Prime Directive not to interfere in developing civilisations (not that he ever paid much attention to it) in order to rescue Spock from certain death. The Vulcan, not unexpectedly, is less than happy about this and includes it in his report, getting Kirk busted and setting up a disconnect between the two friends that forms a central dramatic thrust of the plot.
These two characters have always been the glue that holds Star Trek together, so getting them – and their relationship – right is crucial to making the movie work. Chris Pine as Kirk channels Shatner far less than in the first movie, and arguably gives a better performance as a result. Kirk is still Kirk, but Pine no longer seems to feel the need to lift Shatner style mannerisms in speech and action, while continuing to make the Captain recognisably the same character.
Zachary Quinto’s Spock, by contrast, is still very much an extension of Leonard Nimoy’s original portrayal, though Quinto’s performance has enough depth and restraint to count as more than just a skilled impression. As in the first movie, Spock is in a romantic relationship with Uhura, and their travails allow us to see more of Spock’s ‘emotional’ side. We get the satisfying explanation that Spock doesn’t lack emotions; he merely ‘chooses’ not to feel them.
And sometimes he can’t manage that. He’s managed to shut off the trauma of seeing his planet destroyed and most of his race killed, but as ever, when it comes to Jim Kirk, sometimes his emotions can’t be held back. To me at least, the movie seemed to play with the almost homoerotic nature of their intense friendship, to the extent that I actually wondered at one point whether they were going to confess actual love for each other.
That point was, of course, the scene that was an outright lift, dialogue and all, from the original Star Trek II – subverted by the fact that, this time round, it’s Kirk who sacrifices himself to save the ship, and the distraught Spock who helplessly watches him die. When it became clear that this was what the movie was doing, I found myself torn between admiring its sheer chutzpah and frowning at its self-indulgence. But the scene still works, and for those coming to this unfamiliar with the original movies, will presumably come as a shock.
The rest of the crew are as good as before. Zoe Saldana is an Uhura who can more than hold her own against Spock (as it were). John Cho’s Sulu gets a turn at being Captain and likes it, while Anton Yelchin’s Chekov is still strangely adorable.
Karl Urban’s Dr McCoy has rather less to do than in the first movie, but still gets some classic Bones-style dialogue – at one point Kirk lampshades it nicely by telling him to cut out the metaphors. He also performs the vital plot point of discovering that Khan’s genetically enhanced blood can bring the dead back to life (courtesy of a handy Tribble), thereby saving us from a sequel entitled The Search for Kirk.
Simon Pegg’s Scotty is still basically the comic relief, but he gets a lot more to do this time round, being the first to suspect that Admiral Marcus is up to no good. As a result, he plays an integral part in the thrilling assault on the Admiral’s dreadnought, and Pegg gets to say some of James Doohan’s lines out of Star Trek II when Kirk heads for the radioactive drive room of the Enterprise. He’s living the fanboy dream.
Like its predecessor, this is a loud, brash movie, full of spectacular set pieces. The Admiral’s dreadnought, basically a giant dark version of the Enterprise, is just one example of how Abrams tends to the philosophy that bigger is always better. If you’re looking for nuance and subtlety, look elsewhere.
In keeping with the previous movie, this has the hallmarks of Abrams’ visual style. The camera can’t stay still for more than a second, making Michael Bay look like Orson Welles. The lens flare for which Abrams is rightly known is everywhere; the bridge of the Enterprise is equipped with so many glaring spotlights it’s a wonder the crew can see anything. Certainly the amount of lens flare in every bridge-set scene means it’s difficult for the audience to.
And yet, it is tremendous fun, with just enough depth to lift it above the myriad other blockbusters which seem to consist of, as my friend Javi puts it, CG things hitting other CG things. There’s real, proper characterisation, matched by decent performances all round, particularly from Zachary Quinto. Benedict Cumberbatch matches Ricardo Montalban’s charisma as Khan, although not his warmth; an intentional choice, presumably, as this Khan is a cold, calculating villain. And he still matches his predecessor for ham when he gets properly wrathful.
It may have, perhaps, one thrilling act too many, unbalancing the dramatic structure as a whole. Nonetheless, this feels like proper Star Trek, turned up to 11. It might be nice, some time, to see the franchise back as a TV show, with the chance to add nuance as well as spectacle. But a movie like this every few years? Well, that’s an event that can thrill fans and non-fans alike. Besides, where else can you see Sherlock Holmes getting Mickey Smith to blow up London to get revenge on Robocop?