WARNING: This review is loaded with SPOILERS. If you have not seen Star Trek Into Darkness, see the film before reading!
Like many modern Hollywood movies, Star Trek Into Darkness is almost impossible to judge on its own merits. It is the product of a society obsessed with fear of the other in a time when popular culture is folding back in upon itself. This combination of circumstances results in a film nearly crippled by its thematic contradictions. As originally conceived, Star Trek (the television series) was meant to show that human beings had reason to be optimistic about their future. But despite this film's attempts to claim otherwise, Star Trek's original utopian vision has been subverted by a culture that no longer believes in the show's core message. In other words, Captain sir, we're all doomed...
Star Trek Into Darkness opens strongly, with the Enterprise on a mission of mercy. Captain Kirk breaks some rules to save the indigenous peoples of the planet Nibiru, only to have Spock tattle on him and get him in trouble with their mutual mentor, Admiral Pike, former Captain of the Enterprise and now a Starfleet bigwig. Kirk is busted down a step in rank, relieved of command of the Enterprise, and Spock is transferred to another ship (the USS Bradbury, in a nice nod to one of SF's greatest writers). And while Kirk is clearly deeply wounded by the demotion, he knows that he made the moral choice.
The early part of the film does a good job of answering some of the open questions of Star Trek (2009). Kirk's rapid promotion from cadet to captain is seen by some as perhaps not a good thing, a realistic reaction to the events of the first film. Kirk is shown as something of a womanizer, a reputation somewhat undeserved in William Shatner's iteration of the character, but one that's taken literally here. However, given this new Kirk's tragic upbringing, it's understandable that Chris Pine's version of the iconic hero would find comfort in the arms of (several) women. This Kirk is still brash and arrogant, not at all the cool professional fans remember from the 1960s.
It's clear that in this film Kirk will be put through the crucible to find some maturity. But because this is 2013, Kirk's journey will occur through the lens of global terrorism. A suicide attack on future London, followed by an assault that kills one of Kirk's loved ones, sets the scene for Kirk's character arc. Will he be consumed by the need for vengeance, or will he grow into the captain that we remember?
At first it seems as though Kirk will indeed succumb to the need for revenge. He makes a personal request to a top-ranking admiral to get his command back so that he can go after the terrorist, revealed to be John Harrison, a Starfleet agent gone rogue. Surprisingly, the admiral agrees.
I was pleasantly surprised by a couple of plot points here. A society-altering piece of technology invented by Scotty in the first film turns up again, much to the surprise of jaded viewers who are used to such plot devices being used once and forgotten. And the admiral gives Kirk a blatantly illegal order - essentially telling Kirk to perform a drone strike against their target, who's holed up in a neutral location. Not only would this violate another planet's sovereignty, it could start a war - and besides, as Spock and other Enterprise crew members point out, assassinating a suspect goes completely against Federation principles. Scotty even resigns his commission in protest.
Here is where the film comes closest to capturing the spirit of the original show. As in the original series, the writers have placed a science-fiction gloss over modern issues to highlight the importance of making morally correct choices, even when it would be easier and more satisfying to give in to our darker impulses. The moment Kirk decides to disobey orders and arrest Harrison instead of simply killing him from afar shows vividly that Kirk is starting to become a true hero.
Once Harrison is in custody, however, the film begins to fall apart, degenerating into a never-ending series of action set pieces and unnecessary callbacks to earlier Trek lore. As in Star Trek (2009), the creators get so caught up in keeping the pace fast and furious that they make elementary mistakes in story logic and basic science, inconsistencies that take viewers right out of the picture. One of the film's multiple false climaxes is a reverse homage of an earlier (better) film, an incomprehensible choice on the part of the filmmakers because the scene isn't powerful enough to stand on its own, and its presence can only remind viewers of the superior film. There is also a cringe-inducing moment that rivals Darth Vader's infamous "NOOOO" in Revenge of the Sith.
By film's end hundreds of people have died and Starfleet's reputation must lie in ruins. And yet the movie ends with an optimistic coda that tries - and, unfortunately, fails - to reaffirm the original show's utopian vision. Yes, Kirk and company are boldly going on a five year mission to seek out new life and new civilizations, but those words ring hollow when the film's subtext reinforces our modern era, one seemingly utterly devoid of the hope Star Trek is supposed to offer. Just as our leaders and media try to tell us that we live under constant threat from malevolent outsides, this film's version of Starfleet is identically paranoid. Not without cause, of course; the filmmakers have built a world in which the threats are real and the paranoia justified, which says something about how they view the real world here and now.
There's much to like in this film. The performances are outstanding, with a great deal of character-driven humour. Production design and visual effects show great imagination and audacity. Small nods to the larger Star Trek universe, including references to Enterprise (the show) and Deep Space Nine are very welcome. The first half of the movie sets up an interesting problem and treats the audience with respect.
Unfortunately, the film crumbles under the weight of its chosen theme and that theme's dissonance with Star Trek's core values. This movie wears Star Trek's face, and it even makes a fair attempt at emulating its structure and philosophy. But it doesn't believe in Star Trek, and it shows. Perhaps the world really has moved into darkness, and dreams of a better tomorrow are behind us.