Everything old is new again
(Warning: plot twists and story developments to be discussed in detail here)
So what about the movie? Had a blast. Loved coming back to a largely familiar-looking crew (largely because they were chosen and dressed and made up to look familiar), the way the performances either played with our knowledge of the series (Spock arguing with McCoy, Scotty fussing over warp engines, Chekov flubbing his Russian accent (weirdly Anton Yelchin is Russian-born, in an in-joke might be a touch too elaborate)) or wrung surprising variations, this being a whole other timeline (Christopher Pike giving Kirk fatherly advice; Kirk and Scotty butting heads over photon torpedoes--torpedoes, for crying out loud!).
Love the new incarnation of Carol Marcus (Alice Eve--see above and tell me you disagree) and the retooled Khan Noonien Singh. As played by the preternaturally intelligent Benedict Cumberbatch, Khan doesn't blink much, or shift weight, or even recognize the itch in his crotch (I'm assuming he has one--all men do--and that it must be maddening). He's sleeker and more intimidating, even if his evil master plan doesn't make a lick of sense.
I mean--after the gunship attack Khan teleports to Kronos, the Klingon home planet. Why? To hide, of course. Kirk mounts an expedition to the planet, tangles with Klingon patrols, is in danger of being wiped out when Khan steps in and wipes them out instead. Why? To be taken prisoner, of course.
Waitaminute--if Khan goes through such lengths to evade capture (teleporting to Kronos), why go through such lengths to be captured (wiping out all those Klingons)?
Perhaps Khan wanted to be captured by Kirk? But he hardly knows the guy--they just glared at each other through a windshield before this. Perhaps he wanted someone to bring the torpedoes containing his crew within reach? But he seemed to have only learned then that the missiles contained his crew! And why were they put in the torpedoes in the first place--to hide them? Why give them to Kirk to fire at the planet--to get rid of them? Isn't the danger too great that someone would take a peek inside (which is exactly what happened)? Wouldn't it be easier to use a hacksaw and incinerator?
And why doesn't Khan just teleport to his crew right off--because he didn't know where they were? Okay...so he planned to evade capture, changed his plans when he realized where his crew was...but why save Kirk from the Klingons then? Isn't assuming that whoever hunts him knows where his crew is hidden too much to assume (and we all know what happens when we do that)?
Which matters less than one might think--once Abrams cranks the movie to warp speed it whizzes along quite nicely, at one point (arguably the highest) reprising what may be the most famous scene in the entire series (with roles reversed), and re-enacting the most famous single cry in the entire series, only issued from a different mouth. Newcomers must be murmuring in fascination at the operatic overwroughtedness of it all, while authentic Trekkers hug themselves in ecstasy. Wondered myself if Abrams could sustain the clever parody / tribute all the way through, wanted to applaud when he somehow pulled it off.
Is it better than The Wrath of Khan? Not really. True Khan does seem more formidable, standing over a heap of dead bodies with bladed weapon in one hand--he's basically fighting for the survival of his men, will do anything for them (not to mention he's just designed a whole arsenal of superweapons). But the Khan played by Ricardo Montalban was filled with an all-consuming rage--he was always gulping in titanic breaths and letting it out slowly, as if to keep himself from bursting. He made more mistakes than his younger incarnation because Kirk kept pushing his button, and he couldn't resist making a grab at Kirk (his anger is his greatest weakness, and he knows it, Kirk knows it and still he can't help it). There was Melvillean grandeur to his rage, and a slightly comical, wholly compelling pathos.
By comparison this slimmer Khan 2.0 troubles our complacency but doesn't capture our sympathy--we hiss at him but don't laugh at nor love his predictability. Our reactions are altogether simpler, if fresher.
That freshness is Abrams' biggest virtue, at the same time most serious flaw. His reprise of Spock's death reversed is enjoyable for how cleverly it flipped over the original--we're enjoying the variation more than the scene's actual content (which I'm guessing when seen with fresh eyes is fairly if not all that memorably enjoyable). He's trading in a prequel / remake's most valuable asset--our nostalgic feelings for a well beloved character, plus the surprise we feel at seeing him so young (or young again). I submit it's an interesting last ploy for someone we've grown up with and known so long, but that it's at most filler material--stuff appended to what has already been the character's greatest moments.
As for newcomers--that's where Abrams' flash 'n furious directing style comes into play. Lens flare to signal a portentous moment, shaky-cam to capture fast-moving action, chop-suey editing to hold ADHD viewers hostage (one of these days I need to talk about the the many and nowadays all-too-rare pleasures--the gradually mounting sense of dread, for one--of a slow-moving camera glide).
(And here I might as well insert an aside noting how brutal the picture is--so Khan decimates half the Federation's senior officers, I can live with that; so the attacks on the Enterprise kills off a good number of redshirts and no one really comments (they're redshirts, for crying out loud--at one point Abrams actually cracks a joke at their expense); but crashing into San Francisco's downtown with almost no collateral consequences seems a touch, well, callous. McCoy freaking out to try save Kirk's life when hundreds or maybe thousands have died--I don't know. Even Shatner used to spare a line or two of concern for the bystander dead)
So is Into Darkness a good film? I did say I had a blast, didn't say I had a life-changing experience. Make of that what you will.