J.J. Abrams’ s first Star Trek film was a surefire hit right out of the gate, impeccably cast and bringing some desperately-needed energy to a franchise that had been starting to drown in its own convoluted canon. Many of Abrams’s choices upset die-hard Trek fans, but I wasn’t among them–like Abrams, I’ve always kind of been more of a Star Wars guy and didn’t care much what was “different.” It wasn’t perfect, but I really thought the 2009 entry was a total blast from beginning to end, and expectations for the inevitable sequel were sky-high.

Nobody knows the rules better than you, Spock, but sometimes exceptions have to be made!

-James Kirk

Let’s be honest: the summer of 2013 was a major disappointment for film fans. A half-dozen major, incredibly expensive tentpoles came and went, blowing a lot of stuff up (too much), garnering middling reviews, and exhausting the public while often not making their money back. Star Trek Into Darkness was one of the first to hit the market, back when we still had the awesome-looking (judging by their trailers, anyway) Man of Steel, Pacific Rim, and Elysium to look forward to. Because of this, STID took a beating for failing to live up to the previous film, and its flaws were magnified in anticipation of what was coming down the pike later.

That wasn’t entirely fair.

Now that the summer season is over, STID has been released on Blu ray, and a re-appraisal is due. I sat down to watch it at home, hoping that I’d be able to let the film stand on its own merits, not comparing it to other recent releases or thinking about the fanboy criticisms that tore it apart.

Like many middle entries of a trilogy, STID is right away a darker film. Kirk gets demoted, and it’s only through happenstance (like, nearly every Starfleet officer getting killed in an attack–between that and the events of the last film, who the heck is even left?) that he regains his chair and sets out to capture the “terrorist” that we come to know as Khan.

Yes, Khan. And depending on your theater experience, that big reveal either drew gasps or stifled laughter. Mine was a mix of both. Khan is a big deal! He’s the single most memorable villain from the series to that point, and his introduction to the Abrams Trek-verse was perhaps inevitable, but the production team had hemmed and hawed (and denied, denied denied) Khan’s presence in the film leading up to its release that much of the knee-jerk reaction came simply from being annoyed about being jerked around. That was the second strike against the film, and we’re still not even talking about its actual quality.

The logic in this screenplay (from the usual suspects, Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman, with LOST genius/pariah Damon Lindelof assisting) was a little…squiffy. A few decisions are made by characters (Kirk letting Scotty resign??) that don’t stand up to the greatest scrutiny. The grand plan of bad guy Commander Marcus to secretly militarize Starfleet and force a war with the Klingons requires so much coincidence* you almost wonder what the point was, except that Kirk needed another obstacle.

*And, I mean, Marcus has a HUGE ship. Was no one on board at all unsure about firing on the Enterprise? You know if Kirk was there, he’d be leading a mutiny. Just weird for the film to not even consider the possibility.

Much was also made of the film’s “homages” to Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan in the third act, with Kirk and Spock switching roles for its most iconic scene. While this mostly works in the moment, it’s bound to suffer in comparison. Without the 30-year history that Kirk & Spock have in Wrath of Khan, the “death” of one of them just doesn’t carry enough emotional resonance, and poor Quinto gets saddled with the classic “KHAAAAANN!” line despite being Vulcan and with full knowledge that it’s inviting direct comparison.

Most confusing of all, the film introduces two new elements that have MAJOR implications for the franchise moving forward: the use of a personal transporter, which would kind of make their space ships moot, and Khan’s blood as miracle-healing serum. So great news: we don’t need the Enterprise to visit distant planets, and nobody ever has to die!

That’s the deeply cynical view, however. Many of these questions are probably answered already in the minds of the filmmakers (if not on the page), and will either be addressed or forgotten or swatted away. Furthermore, discussion of possible logical inconsistencies papers over the simple fact that there’s a LOT to like (and even love) about this film.

For starters, every single person in the cast is completely comfortable in their role, and even the simplest interactions are fun to watch because of the affection we have for them. Chris Pine is still a fantastic Kirk, matching William Shatner’s swagger. Zachary Quinto was hailed as dream casting for young Spock prior to 2009 and he makes the most of his meatier role here. Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, and all the rest have smaller arcs this time around but slip into their uniforms with ease.

But any discussion of STID has to begin and end with Benedict Cumberbatch. Those of you who know me are well aware of my fascination (bordering on obsession) with the erstwhile Sherlock, and his run in feature films (War Horse, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Hobbit) builds to a crescendo here as one of the most legendary characters in sci-fi history. He was never brought on to be Ricardo Montalban, because nobody can be Ricardo Montalban (that chest!) Cumberbatch fully makes Khan his own, carrying every bit of the superman’s malice and strength, but bringing us deep into his psyche so much that we can’t help but sympathize, even when his truest intentions are revealed. He owns every scene he’s in, whether through action or captivating stillness.

As a standalone sequence, Kirk and Khan’s space jump is more exciting and memorable than any from the first film, and that’s a triumph both of technology and in laying the groundwork for both those characters up to that point. It’s a tense, kinetically-edited marvel. And even though J.J.’s well-documented penchant for lens flares returns, it feels organic and not distracting. Composer Michael Giacchino unfortunately doesn’t have the most memorable theme for Khan this time around, but his work on the series has been remarkable.

Finally, the end of the film sets us up for the Enterprise’s five-year mission, where the production team will choose to either bring us another adventure from the original series or something brand-new. I know which I’d prefer. Because while Star Trek Into Darkness is still a great time, and even better on re-watch, I’d love to be surprised once more.


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