Given my seriously low expectations based on the 2009 film - which had been little more than an ignorant, irrelevant, and corrupted taxidermist's idea of Star Trek - the only reason I went to see "Star Trek: Into Darkness" is that I came into a free ticket. Everything about the new film's trailers and other advertising seemed to be promising a continuation of the same travesties, from the title to the emphasis on what seems at first glance like a juvenile, Transformers-like obsession with action over story. Now that I've seen it, I stand corrected. Star Trek - actual Star Trek - has returned in spirit. A spoiler-free analysis below the fold.
What made the 2009 film so contemptible to many fans can best be encapsulated in a single statement made by Captain Pike describing Star Fleet as a "peacekeeping armada." That such a fundamental mischaracterization of the entire fictional universe in which the film occurs was allowed through, and that it wasn't even the most egregious example of sheer ignorance, made it seem to me as a Trekkie that the people making the film had a basic disdain for the source material.
Star Fleet's core missions are science and diplomacy, and their ships are only armed at all as an emergency hedge. The TV series all make this abundantly clear: Star Fleet is not a military. Their combat training, while an important set of contingency skills in a dangerous frontier, is a pretty distant priority for the Federation compared to science, peaceful technological development, contact with new advanced civilizations, building on diplomatic relations with known ones, and the maintenance of the Prime Directive (hence, why it's Prime) to protect less advanced civilizations. None of that made any appearance whatsoever in the 2009 film. If any of it was mentioned at all, it was treated like a joke.
Instead, Star Fleet in the original reboot was portrayed as the US Navy and Marine Corps set in space, and there was no story at all: "Aliens" consisted of throwaway monsters and bafflingly motivated villains with no attempt to explore them, their culture, or their experiences in any way, shape, or form other than to make them Evill. What existed of the technical aspects of the so-called "plot" were sheer nonsense, and I don't merely mean they were scientifically problematic - I mean there was no science-fictional value to them whatsoever by which to judge them. They were pure MacGuffin with no connection at all to reality or intelligent thoughts about it.
With the exception of some brief moments of curiosity surrounding Vulcan culture and Zachary Quinto's admittedly stellar performance, the 2009 film as a whole was just plain stupid, hollow, ignorant, and painfully abusive of the source material and the audience, and it was not Star Trek by any stretch of the imagination. It was The Fast and The Furious with some space-y special effects, and the token references made to the source material to throw a bone to fans - e.g., a Leonard Nimoy appearance - were as gruesomely out of place as they would have been in any random action movie.
So in that context, I had little expectation for "Into Darkness" other than what the 2009 film delivered: Some intriguing special effects and a few moments of wit, but mostly just another insult. Sometimes it's awesome to be so spectacularly wrong. The new film certainly does have great effects - in fact better ones, and more of them, than the 2009 entry - but they in no way detract from the story, with the fact that there even is one being one of the biggest surprises I ran into. And it's not something trivial and preposterous painted on to the action as an excuse, but an actual reason for the action: Identifiably human (and I suppose Vulcan) motives for it. Motives that make sense in Star Trek rather than in Action Movie Land.
In the initial parts of the movie, you think they're headed on the same ridiculous lines as the first reboot - you think you've seen this script before in other forms, and that they've merely dressed it up in Star Trek clothing. But then it jams the wheel in a totally unexpected and salutary direction, and you start to realize with dawning enthusiasm that you've stumbled on to a real, bona fide Star Trek movie. You realize happily that this is the Federation you know; this is the Starfleet you recognize; this is a future that is better than our present, and a civilization with stronger moral fiber and specific principles reflecting the best in us. I take back every mean thing I said about J.J. Abrams after the 2009 film: Apparently he and his team are people who listen to fans, and they have succeeded where before they failed. They have brought Star Trek back to life.
Personally, I think the title is ironic: Star Trek was already in darkness, and had been since the post-9/11 paranoid psychosis that was season three of Star Trek: Enterprise plunged a dagger into the heart of the franchise, but this film finds the light again. How rare is it, and how wonderful, to find a movie advertised as dumb and ugly to appeal to the basest instincts, and instead find something decent? The performances are also more advanced than they were in 2009, more character-full. And as I saw it in Imax 3D, I found a number of scenes viscerally exciting, and unlike 2009 wasn't too busy retching in general disgust at the fundamentals of the film to appreciate them. Instead, I found that most of the movie works and fits together nicely into a complete whole, and you're allowed breathing room to appreciate each thing on its own level.
That said, I have a few quibbles. First - and I realize this is tradition, but it will always bother me - are the sounds in space and the aerodynamic behavior of things in vacuum. I hope some day Star Trek grows out of that, and once again creates inspiration from intrepid exploration of possibilities rather than fabrication of fantasies. Part of the value of Star Trek, at least on TV, was as an educational series that made people aware of ideas and concepts they wouldn't encounter anywhere else, and the set of such scientific ideas that have yet to be explored in visual media science fiction is still vast.
Hopefully some day there will be more TV series, and they will not only show space as we already know it to be, but explore some of the odder aspects of the environment that few people outside of space science and technology know about. I wouldn't ask a blockbuster movie to be so detailed, but it could at least make clear to people that space is a strange environment that doesn't follow human-intuitive rules of action. Into Darkness doesn't go that far, so it's not my dream fantasy of Star Trek, and in fact I doubt the film medium can handle that - it would have to be on TV to rigorously explore things. But it is a return to philosophical form, and that's the heart of the matter.
Secondly, what's with the jarring, forcible injection of Beastie Boys music in both the 2009 and this film? They weren't that good even when they were relevant, and in a Star Trek movie - which operates on a totally different aesthetic wavelength from rap and hip hop - their presence is obnoxious, not to mention anachronistic. No one has ever declared the Beastie Boys to be "timeless" music, or to address profound themes that would appeal across time - precisely because they're not. It takes only a few years - a couple of decades, tops - to know whether a piece of music has staying power, and how profound its appeal is. All due respect to their fans, but the Beastie Boys, while distinctive, are musically trivial. They will not be known in the 23rd century the way that Beethoven is known today, and they wouldn't belong in the Star Trek universe even if they were. If their inclusion were an aesthetic judgment, it's a very poor one.
I don't know if it's just someone with authority over the films conspicuously injecting their personal tastes into it, or if it's some Byzantine corporate decision by the studio suits trying to promote some content deal or other, but either way it sucks big-time. I give them credit for being less egregious this time around than the infamous Nokia ad jammed into the 2009 film, so it's just a moment of irritation blotting an otherwise damn good movie.
Now, it doesn't return completely to form: The story is still very much human- and Earth-centric, without a lot of what could be deemed "exploration" going on (though some), but the film explicitly promises that the franchise will soon enter that phase. But it makes up for the relative lack of scientific exploration with the moral and philosophical examination that had made Star Trek so brilliant in the first place. So, I highly recommend seeing it, and if you can afford it and have it available in your area, recommend going for the 3D Imax version.