So JJ Abrams returns with a second installment of his vision of Star Trek. Last time, we were treated to faithful reboots of the original cast with the exception of James T. Kirk. No, Kirk sat at the epicenter of the changes from the original timeline, so instead of disciplined risk-taker William Shatner played, we got…
Well, Chris Pine’s Kirk was kind of an asshole who had to figure what he wanted to be when he grew up. He wants to be captain of the Enterprise, but is he ready?
We are treated for the first nine minutes to what could be the tail-end of a rebooted series on television. The Enterprise is surveying a distant planet inhabited by a species that is still trying to figure those new-fangled wheel thingies someone just invented. In order to preserve the budding civilization, which lives around a very active volcano, Kirk and Spock hit upon the idea of a stopping a cork in said volcano, only Spock is trapped when Sulu and Uhura have to leave him behind. The only way to save Spock is to fly the Enterprise, which has been sitting under water for two days over Scotty’s protests, over the volcano and beam him out. It’s classic Star Trek, and you can see Shatner and Nimoy pulling this kind of stunt if Gene Roddenberry had the technology and the budget to do it. But it also has two very bad consequences. First, the natives think the Enterprise is their god now. Second, Jim Kirk gets demoted to Christopher Pike’s first officer for falsifying reports and violating the prime directive.
That sets up the spoilery goodness after the jump.
Kirk loses the Enterprise to Pike once more, and loses Spock to a transfer. You can’t have two first officers on board, now, can you? But someone goes and blows up a library in London, killing 47 people. Starfleet knows it was one of their top agents, a man named John Harrison. Starfleet Admiral Marcus convenes a meeting of all the available starship captains and their first officers to plan capturing and killing Harrison. Harrison ambushes the meeting, and Pike is killed. Kirk, outraged, goes to Marcus and demands payback for Pike’s death. He’s reinstated as captain of the Enterprise. Spock, whose new captain was also killed in the attack, returns as well, a tad jealous when a beautiful new science officer named Carol Wallace comes aboard.
Spock is not happy about the mission: Go to Kronos, the Klingon homeworld, and kill Harrison with extreme prejudice. Scotty objects to Admiral Marcus’ order that they use seventy-two specific torpedoes of a classified design to destroy Harrison. In fact, Scotty is so angry, he transfers off the Enterprise rather than carry out his orders. Already, Kirk is having second thoughts.
When they arrive at Kronos, they get into a scrape in an abandoned city with a Klingon patrol. Harrison appears and single-handedly takes them out. Kirk soon learns that Harrison is actually Khan and is three hundred years old. Khan states that Marcus discovered him and woke him up from suspended animation because he needed someone to help design weapons for the next big threat, a consequence of the previous movie. Now Marcus is trying to start a war with the Klingons so he can take them out as a threat.
Kirk soon finds himself allied with Khan and at war with Marcus. Not only that, Carol Wallace is revealed to be Marcus’ daughter, boarding under her mother’s surname to conceal her identity. She is also at war with her father, whom she sees as having turned into a monster. Marcus has, indeed, become a savage, intent on destroying the Enterprise over Earth and perpetuating the fiction he created that Kirk has gone rogue out of revenge for the death of Pike. Kirk and Khan overpower Marcus aboard his illegally built dreadnought, the Vengeance, but then Khan turns on Kirk and kills Marcus. Spock, now in command of the Enterprise, figures out how to wrap Kirk’s impulsive thinking around his own logic, and tricks Khan into taking away the torpedoes. He detonates those 72 weapons beams back Kirk, Scotty (who infiltrated the Vengeance when he discovered its existence), and Carol Marcus. Both the Enterprise and the Vengeance are crippled and falling to Earth. Kirk saves the ship, but is killed in a mirror sequence of The Wrath of Khan. Spock’s lifelong discipline is shattered, and the enraged Vulcan, after witnessing the Vengeance‘s crash into downtown San Francisco, goes after him. Yes, my friends, Spock has become one homicidal Vulcan, and the chase scene, worthy of a Daniel Craig-era James Bond movie, shows Spock more than willing to brutally and mercilessly kill the superhuman Khan, only to be stopped by Uhura. Khan’s blood, hinted at throughout the movie, is shown to have regenerative powers. McCoy uses it to save Kirk before he becomes one more slab of meat in the morgue. Khan is packed off in a cryotube and sent on his merry way to where he was headed before. Kirk takes command of a re-christened Enterprise for Starfleet’s first five-year mission.
One thing that struck me about this movie (and the last one) is Abrams’ willingness to put Star Trek into a real-world setting. The final battle between Spock and Khan take place in a futuristic San Francisco that is, at the same time, as recognizable as Chris Nolan’s Gotham City. The first nine minutes with the volcano also has a real-world feel. You might be asking “Hey, why are all the trees red?” at the same time realizing that red trees on an alien planet probably do look like that. After all, the volcano looks real enough. The London scenes give one the impression that one has walked into a muggle-heavy scene from a Harry Potter movie.
As to the cast, like Chris Pine in the 2009 movie, Benedict Cummerbatch has the most risk in this movie, playing a larger-than-life character originated by an actor with a strong personality. And unlike Zachary Quinto, who has Leonard Nimoy to shepherd his new Spock along, Cummerbatch cannot simply meet with Ricardo Montalban over coffee to go over lines and get pointers. But Cummerbatch plays the UK version of the present-day Sherlock Holmes, which makes him a natural for a super-smart egomaniac. Holmes is Sheldon Cooper, however. Khan/John Harrison is Hannibal Lecter, and it’s clear Cummerbatch took his cues from Lecter to give his character more dimension. His Khan is charming, manipulative, and even seductive. He manages to convince Kirk, still seething over Pike’s murder, and while you’re rooting for Spock to kill the sonofabitch, you still can’t help but sympathize with him. After all, he paints Marcus as the 23rd century equivalent of Dick Cheney, and we already see his daughter alienated when she learns this.
McCoy’s lines are written a bit better this time. In the last movie, it seemed as though McCoy just reacted in disbelief to everything around him as an excuse to give Karl Urban (who now owns this role, by the way) to wax sarcastic, even when there’s no reason to do so. This time, the writers do a mea culpa with Kirk saying to McCoy “Enough with the metaphors. That’s an order.” But McCoy has much more to do in this one, working with Carol Marcus to learn the real secret of the torpedoes, deflating Kirk and Spock’s collective egos (“Uhura and I had something to do with it, you know,” he says when Kirk thanks Spock for bringing him back from the dead.), and being the conscience of the command team.
Simon Pegg is pitch perfect as Scotty. Anton Yelchin plays a Chekov having to grow up faster than expected when Kirk promotes him to chief engineer in Scotty’s absence. John Cho’s Sulu is portrayed similar to Pine’s Kirk, a young officer coming into his own and with a lot of potential. Calmer and less impulsive than Kirk, he hints at Takei’s Captain Sulu from Star Trek VI, and Kirk encourages him to get to know “the chair.”
I have to give special props to Zoe Saldana for taking the ball and running with it in her portrayal of Nyota Uhura. Hers was a neglected character in the original run, and the writers and Abrams wisely have expanded her role. In the last one, she was an antagonist toward Kirk and largely a voice of reason for Spock. This time, she is the voice of the audience. She’s warmed up to Kirk. She repeatedly has to explain to Spock that he needs to be less anal about his Vulcan logic. She also stops Spock when he lets the rage out to run a bit too freely in the end. And let’s be honest. An Uhura for the twenty-first century should be out there risking her neck every other scene. Saldana shines as she plays Uhura facing down a squad of Klingons, then kicking some major ass in the ensuing fire fight.
Spock is still trying to learn nuance in his Vulcan ways, made more difficult by his relationship with Uhura and his growing friendship with Kirk. I mentioned Sheldon Cooper before in reference to Cummerbatch’s Holmes, but the comparison to the socially-challenged character from The Big Bang Theory applies here. Spock really sometimes doesn’t get why and when someone would break the rules in the beginning. To underscore the differences between Zachary Quinto’s Spock and Leonard Nimoy’s, the older Spock makes a cameo from New Vulcan and says, in a very young Spockish manner, “I have taken a vow to never give you information that may alter your destiny.” This the young Spock understands. Then his older self says, “Having said that…” and proceeds to explain why Khan Noonien Singh needs to occupy a morgue slab as soon as humanoidly possible. When Spock’s rage (Guess who yells “Khaaaaaaaaannnnn!!!!” in this one. I admit it. I laughed, but it worked for me.) goes too far in the other direction, we get the impression that Spock now has a clue to where the happy medium lies.
It’s Kirk, though, who evolves the most in this movie. One of the criticisms people had of the last movie was that Pine’s Kirk was, frankly, an asshole. Well, Abrams doesn’t try to gloss it over. After the first nine minutes, Admiral Pike spends the next nine minutes reminding the arrogant Kirk that he really is an asshole who was promoted too fast and mistakes blind luck for skill. “But I believe in you, Jim.” When Kirk knocks out Scotty (in a replay of The Wrath of Khan when Spock disables McCoy for that final sequence) and knowingly climbs to his own death to save the Enterprise, we realize he’s grown up. Quickly. In an earlier scene, when Admiral Marcus baldly states that Kirk’s crew and their reputation are to be sacrificial lambs to his fiction to justify a war with the Klingons, Kirk doesn’t fall back on bravado. He turns to his crew and says, “I’m sorry.” This is the Kirk Shatner played, still young and inexperienced. But now he knows it. He’s been humbled. That cocky edge is still there, but the arrogance has been tempered.
At the end, we have a different version of the original cast, which now includes Carol Marcus. At the same time, Abrams has also bent his new timeline back toward the Star Trek we used to know.