Now that was entertaining. That was, in fact, the kind of Star Trek film I’ve waited a long time to see, without even realising I’d been waiting for it.

I really didn’t have any great expectations for this film. I wasn’t particularly bothered about it either way,  having been largely unenthusiastic about the revamping of the franchise in the passed few years. While I found Star Trek (2009) reasonably entertaining – it definitely had nice moments – I certainly wasn’t as enamored by it as a lot of other people were. I considered it  broadly a Trek film for non-Trek fans. I also had gripes with the ‘alternative timeline’ motif, which seemed like a lazy construct to me, as well as with various other things (I don’t know what those bad guys were meant to be, but they weren’t like any Romulans I’ve ever seen).

Some of those gripes still feel valid; but I think a lot of my ambivalent attitude essentially came from being unable to tolerate anyone other than Shatner, Nimoy and DeForest Kelly in those lead roles. I still feel that to an extent, but Star Trek: Into Darkness is an awesome movie. Thinking about it, I’ve realised my main problem with the 2009 film was that it seemed to be rewriting the Star Trek universe in order to make its job easier, all of this alternative timeline business and the destruction of Vulcan being a way to get around the difficult work of trying to fashion story ideas from the existing canon of the familiar Trek galaxy. That annoyed me.

And even having Leonard Nimoy around for brief cameos to maintain a sense of connection with ‘our’ Star Trek galaxy doesn’t entire counter the sense that thirty-plus years of Star Trek storytelling – including right through TNG, Deep Space Nine and Voyager – had somehow been shafted, left to one side.

I think this was the main reason I didn’t regard the 2009 film too warmly. It’s also why I had far less issue with Star Wars: The Phantom Menace than I did with Star Trek (2009); The Phantom Menace, for all its weaknesses, didn’t feel like a reinvention of Star Wars, simply a ‘prequel’ as it said on the tin, and in keeping with the existing films that had preceded it. JJ Abrams’s Star Trek didn’t feel that way, but felt like a doing away with the previous galaxy. That film felt disconnected from its source, story and character wise.

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Some of these gripes I had with the first film have faded somewhat with Into Darkness, which I feel undoes much of the damage (I am aware that I’m probably in a minority in terms of that first film – most people seem to love it). I initially didn’t think much of the cast, considering them an overly good-looking, Hollywood-ised version of the characters, which the original cast certainly wasn’t. That’s still somewhat the case, but Chris Pine is definitely growing on me as Kirk; he isn’t Shatner, but as a younger version, it works, much the same way as Ewan Magreggor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi. Zachary Quinto‘s Spock isn’t quite as good, but is passable. Karl Urban’s McCoy, however, is spot-on, and was pretty much from the first film actually. The others are take-it-or-leave-it; I think Simon Pegg‘s Scotty is a lot better this time.

But I still think the new Uhura seems like a completely different character, as though someone thought ‘as long she’s black, it’ll do!’ Clearly the aim is to make her much more of a character than the mere space-receptionist Nichelle Nichols played; which is perhaps laudable, I’m just not sure. I’m even less sure of the Spock/Uhura romance. Some of it is funny in part, but it seems an unnecessary dynamic wedged in there just for the sake of a romantic element. Sulu and Chekov are likewise just ciphers, bearing little in common with the original characters other than basic racial profile.

Benedict Cumberbatch‘s Khan Noonien Singh is another question mark. His performance in this film is solid, but it seems a questionable casting choice to have an iconic and well-known character played by an Englishman with a straight English accent, when the original was Hispanic, with a clearly non-English accent (and with a name like ‘Singh’, presumably of Indian origin).

That seems a little incongruous to me, especially for a film that otherwise seems to have taken great measures to appear to connect with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. By the same token, why make the Carol Marcus character English when in the original movie she was clearly American?

It seems strange to me that the film appears very attentive to continuity in some areas and yet not in others. One would certainly hope the same disparity doesn’t carry into the new Star Wars films too, where continuity really is everything.

Speaking of Star Wars, one thing I certainly noticed in the 2009 film and even more so in this one, is how ‘Star Wars-ified’ these new Trek films seem to be, certainly in visual terms as well as sound effects. It might be that’s unavoidable when trying to create state-of-the-art, space-based SF – how can you not tread on George Lucas’s toes just a little? But the ships sound very Star Wars now, so do the weapons – even the phasers sound more like blasters than traditional Star Trek weapons. Now that JJ Abrams is in charge of the next Star Wars trilogy, you have to wonder how he’s going to keep the two franchises seeming distinct from one another and whether this could  be a problem. Star Wars and Star Trek have always felt, looked and sounded very different from each other. But that distinction seems to be lessening.

Getting back to the earlier point, while Cumberbatch‘s Khan is entertaining in itself, the character just seems like someone completely unrelated to Ricardo Montalban’s original character – and that surely isn’t the idea. The same has to be said for Alice Eve’s Carol Marcus. I can’t help but feel there must’ve been someone more suitable to play either of those roles; or at least that both actors in this case should’ve been made to play the parts more in keeping with the originals. That’s one area where the Star Wars prequels certainly got it right; not just with the obvious Obi-Wan Kenobi, but even with more incidental characters like the younger Owen Lars, for example.

You might be wondering at this point how it is that I claim to have enjoyed this film when all I’ve done is to complain. Actually the issues I’ve brought up are less complaints than simply things I find questionable. Yet all of this didn’t do much to detract from the genuine tour de force that Into Darkness is.

From beginning to end, the movie moves at a breathtaking pace, the action is superb throughout, the movie is visually stunning in a way that Star Trek movies have tended not to be, characterization is strong (mostly), dialogue sparkles (most of the best dialogue being the small witty banter, this being firmly in keeping with the repertoire and tone of The Original Series), and little details in some cases help keep the film feeling related to previous Star Trek canon, which the 2009 film didn’t really manage to do. Among those little details, there’s the obvious; the return of Khan, the inclusion of Carol Marcus and Christopher Pike and of course Leonard Nimoy’s original Spock, but also the less obvious, such as the reference to Section 31 (a pleasant link to Deep Space Nine, in my opinion Trek‘s finest incarnation). Even the inclusion of an updated version of the TOS theme tune in the end credits brought a smile.

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Of course the most obvious connection is to The Wrath of Khan, this being particularly brazen in the Kirk/Spock role-reversal, with Kirk this time being the noble self-sacrificer; this was a very nice take on things, as was the glass-separation rehash. Obviously it doesn’t bring the same lump-to-the-throat as the scene from 30 years ago did, but it isn’t meant to, and it resonates all the same. The “Khaaaaan!” moment maybe felt a bit too obvious – again, obviously no one’s going to do it quite like Shatner – but, heck, it was going that way and who can complain?

And while I mentioned some of the lack of continuity between this new Star Trek incarnation and its predecessors, strangely one of the discernible strengths of this new franchise is its own sense of continuity; whereas a number of the past Star Trek films were written broadly as standalone pieces with minimal inter-film dynamics (with the exception of Star Trek 2, 3, and 4), these new films seem more interested in follow-through and character development, which can only be a good thing. And unlike the Star Wars prequel trilogy, which at times groaned under the weight of the sheer amount of necessary story elements it had to factor in, these Star Trek movies have far more room for maneuverability and inventiveness, which may work to their advantage.

In fact, the first two episodes of the Star Wars prequel trilogy, for all their strengths (and I maintain they had  their strengths) could’ve definitely benefited from both the pacing and the dialogue of Into Darkness.

All in all, ‘Into Darkness‘ is possibly the finest Star Trek motion picture since ‘Star Trek III: The Search For Spock‘ – and that’s saying a lot. It’s certainly miles ahead of anything we got from the Next Generation movies. As well as massively entertaining in its own right, it also leaves me with new confidence in this revised franchise and the new direction. JJ Abrams has definitely injected new life into a franchise that had faded considerably from its better days. The first outing might’ve left me sceptical, but entry 2 has won me over and I’ll be interested to see where it goes next. It’s certainly a breath of fresh air compared to the passed 20 years or so of big-screen Trek;  and it is without doubt the most engaging and promising incarnation of Star Trek since Deep Space Nine ended (1993 – 1999).

Incidentally, I’m still not thrilled with JJ Abrams helming the Star Wars franchise, despite some of my earlier comments; I just don’t like the idea of one director controlling both the biggest franchises in sci-fi. However, Into Darkness forces me to be a little more open-minded perhaps about  the future of Star Wars, just as I now have to be about the future of Star Trek. Time will tell…

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