THIS REVIEW CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS
J.J. Abrams is one tricky bastard. The sequel to his 2009 reboot is every bit as surprising in its revelations as it is exciting in its edge-of-your-seat action. Near the half-way point of the film, Abrams drops a bombshell on the audience. The thing about it, though, is that the revelation may be more surprising in the fact that that it was never leaked than in the fact it was in the film. Abrams treats his secrets as if they’re his enemies; he keeps them close. The filmmaker is a master at keeping what he has up his sleeve there until the end product is released to the public.
The surprise in question is the fact that, wait for it, Benedict Cumberbatch’s villain is not John Harrison as we’ve been lead to believe. He’s actually Khan, who, as fans of the original Star Trek would know, is one of the series’ most notable villains. As someone who hasn’t seen “The Wrath of Khan,” the moment when Cumberbatch utters the phrase “My name is Khan” didn’t have as much of an impact as it did with the people behind me, who were obvious fans. But I am familiar with the film and character, so I knew the overall impact it would have on the film as a whole.
It’s hard not to imagine how the film would have been if Abrams had taken more chances story wise. The reveal that Harrison is actually Khan did two things: it offered a major turning point for the film which called back to classic Star Trek. But it also put a new kind of pressure on the film, whether intentional or not. Khan is a classic Trek villain and probably the most well known. Abrams did take a chance introducing him into his take on the franchise, there’s also a lot of what-ifs. What if Abrams hadn’t made Khan the villain? What if he stuck with what the character had been previewed as? A rogue Starfleet operative seeking revenge, who may be a nod to Khan, still would have made for an interesting character, especially under the dynamic performance from Cumberbatch. The fact that he’s Khan elevates the film for moviegoers familiar with the character to a point where maybe they’re more invested in his actions, but not much else beyond that. It reminds me of the Robin-dilemma in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Nolan chose to introduce a character that is as Robin as Robin can get without going fully-Robin. Except in this case, Abrams chooses to go fully Khan.
So does it pay off? After the reveal is made, the bar is set higher for the villain’s actions, even to someone who hasn’t seen the original “Wrath of Khan.” Keeping that in mind, I’ll say that Khan is a cunning, powerful, and worthy villain that is much more dynamic than Eric Bana’s Nero in the first film. Throughout the movie, Cumberbatch had complete control and it was always a thrill to see what he’d do next, even if his plan is reminiscent of most movie villains’ plans nowadays (the whole get-captured-because-I-want-to shtick . The only problem I had with the villain was the way he’s taken out. He’s built up to be so powerful, and then is defeated by a few stun gun blasts and a swift punch from a raging Spock in a battle that pits Khan, the unstoppable force, with Spock, the immovable object. This leads to a slightly disappointing conclusion, in which the events of the film are wrapped up so briskly that it’s hard to comprehend just what was so important about the whole thing if it weren’t for how engaging it was while it was happening.
But Khan’s defeat isn’t the only thing about the conclusion that disappointed me about this film. Towards the finale, Kirk dies an unexpected death. The scene is powerful, and adds an extra layer of emotion to a film ripe with action and entertainment. We see Spock in un-Spock-like form, nearly breaking down, as Kirk passes away behind a glass door after the two make a moving exchange. It falls expertly into the film’s theme of life and death, and what exactly that means to each character. This is all undone as Kirk is promptly brought back to life at the end using Khan’s blood. In a series that is sure to spawn a third entry, Kirk’s death probably would have been a poor marketing strategy, especially considering just how fun Chris Pine’s take on the character is. But from a story-stand point, the loss of the character would have been a total game changer and I would have liked to see how it’s handled in a third film. It also would have been a good send off for J.J. Abrams if he doesn’t come back for the third installment. His contribution to the franchise would have been left with a U.S.S. Enterprise crew reeling from the loss of their captain and perhaps a Spock who’s more in touch with his emotions.
Despite these gripes with the ending, I highly enjoyed the film from start to (kind of) finish. The film is a force of action, entertainment and thrills to be reckoned with. If it doesn’t surpass the first film in this category, it at least equals it and gives it a run for its money. It also adds another layer of character development, at least to Kirk and Spock, who’s friendship is a driving force for the film when Khan isn’t on screen. Zachary Quinto and Chris Pine are perfect as Spock and Kirk, respectively, and have a good chemistry on screen as their friendship evolves. Simon Pegg and Karl Urban as Scotty and Bones are terrific comedic gems despite the film delving into darkness. Zoe Saldana’s Uhura and Alice Eve’s Carol don’t do much, but what the film lacks in powerful female leads it makes up for in testosterone to the max, every feminist’s nightmare but an orgy of action that satisfied me.
Overall, I would see the film in theaters again. Maybe in 3D since I saw it in 2D. I think Abrams dropped the ball on some missed opportunities to make this a real game-changing sequel. It’s not “The Dark Knight” or “Empire Strikes Back” in that regard. But it is an absolutely enjoyable film, one that is very well done under the craftsmanship of Abrams. It’s hard to tell at this point what will become of Star Trek now that Abrams is on board Star Wars, but time will tell. We waited four years for him to go Into Darkness. If we have to wait even longer than that for Abrams to come back, then so be it. He’s more than proven he’s the guy for the job.