I haven't been so excited about any other movie in months, and I just came out of an opening night screening of this right after work--that is, the first chance I could possibly see it. Over the past few months I have followed everything having to do with this film, even seeing The Hobbit primarily so I could see the first ten minutes beforehand. I've read so many reviews of this it's approaching sad (if not far beyond), and, going in, I knew the entire story beginning to end. Also, given people's main complaints, I started to form opinions about what were probably the miscalculations of the film, and to gird myself for disappointment. Well, I needn't have worried, I sat there glued to the screen the entire time, and walked out one hundred percent satisfied.
There are a great deal of spoilers regarding this film, so I'll have to go a little backwards and talk about it generally before we get down to actual story matters. Let's see. My main issue with the last film (which I also unexpectedly loved as well) was that Kirk came by his Captaincy without any real effort, or display if his ingenuity of skill, and I wanted to see him face a real challenge. Well, the writers obviously listened to me, since I know they are glued to this website night and day, and also that, well, that was everybody's complaint about the last movie. It was very much a romp, bringing everyone together on the ship, and the story and emotions took a back seat. In this one, you have an actual story and the characters really get to do stuff and solve a big challenge, and it works well. People have complained that certain characters get shortchanged here, like poor Sulu especially, but you know what? That's GOOD. Because stories get ruined and thrown out of balance under pressure to give everyone a significant part. It's a strength to have a story focus on a few characters and let the others wait for a later movie, and this one focuses on solidifying the bond between Kirk and Spock.
There are ties to an earlier Trek character featured in a specific film, but people who say that this is a "remake" are delusional. The last film controversially got around criticism that it doesn't conform to "canon" by having the canon made irrelevant by an altered timeline--a movie I think was ballsy and brilliant--as it frees this series up to introduce characters we know in a different context, and they are free to develop their own way. It also, for a film that was converted into 3D after shooting, looks incredible and is lovely and detailed. I just saw Jurassic Park converted to 3D, and it looked like I was watching it through a layer of iced tea. I'm trying to think of what else to say up front... don't know, but if you want to see it, if you're a Star Trek fan, I say stop reading and GO! And now, into spoilerville. Oh wait, we still have a paragraph or two, I see.
The movie opens with an action sequence on a primitive planet about to be destroyed by a volcano. In order not to violate the Prime Directive [not to interfere with primitive cultures], the Enterprise is parked on the sea floor, and Spock is going to freeze the volcano without the locals knowing. WHY then Kirk and McCoy go in to see the natives is simply left undiscussed. Anyway, looks like Spock is going to buy it, but Kirk raises the ship in front of the natives, fucking with their poor fragile little minds, and beams Spock out. This is the part I saw before The Hobbit and walked out feeling "Oh no, the Enterprise crew have left behind their thoughtfulness and are now just the rockinist, sockinest action team in the galaxy." Luckily, some gravity arrives fairly fast.
Kirk is upbraided for thinking "the rules don't apply to him" and told that "he doesn't respect the chair, because he's not ready for it." Pretty much what I would have said. But, more emotionally engaging, Spock doesn't understand why Kirk saved his life, and what it means. Uhura is also pissed at Spock for not appreciating how upset she'd be if he died. Similarly, Scotty is soon betting that Kirk won't accept his resignation, and is surprised and offended when he does. So for a film that is going to be about solidfying the bonds of the crew, it has found a clever way to bring content calling into question what loyalty and an emotional bond means to the surface.
Plot-wise, this fellow John Harrison has bombed London, which calls all of the Starfleet officers into one room, which is exactly his plan. We get enough Christopher Pike bonding with Kirk to remind us of their relationship--before Pike is killed. New guy Admiral Marcus, played the the splendor of Peter Weller, send Kirk out to kill Harrison, who had decamped to the Klingon planet [where, surprise, moon Praxis has already exploded, something that happened in the 6th movie with the original crew]. He loads the enterprise with 72 missiles, and wants the Enterprise to fire from the edge of the neutral zone and kill Harrison--not capture and bring him to trial, as would be more the Starfleet way. This, by the way, is your contemporary resonance content.
SPOILERS > > >
Kirk decides to capture him instead, which they do after an action sequence with the Klingons, and Uhura's featured scene. After some blah-blah, Harrison tells us that he is... KHAN! And the missiles actually contain his crew. And Admiral Marcus actually sent the Enterprise out there to die starting a war with the Klingons. There is some space battle [I miss the old conception of the ships as engaging in nautical battles] and a mid-warp battle, and the ships end up disabled and falling to Earth. This is where the movie grabs a heaping helping of The Wrath of Khan, and where I was gearing up to have my biggest reservations about this film.
This time Kirk goes into the radiation zone to fix the engine, and ends up having a tearful scene with Spock now on the other side of the glass. It is a pointed reversal of Spock's death in Wrath of Khan, and works well enough as a scene, and works thematically to cement the Kirk-Spock bond, as well as Kirk realizing the full commitment of being captain, thus fitting in with the overall arc of the movie. But in retrospect, I think the filmmakers have done themselves a bit of a disservice here, not so much hurting us as hurting their own film. For one, it makes this film an appendix to Wrath of Khan, rather than a counterpart, fit to stand alongside. I suspect it was done quite consciously to tie the films together, but you know what? They are always going to be tied together simply because the antagonist is Khan. So just as this film is building to its climax, we have a bit of diminution by saying "it's really just a footnote to that film." Secondly, it inserts a layer of audience distance--again, RIGHT when we should be most emotionally involved--by removing you to compare this scene to its original, compare dialogue to the original, which takes you away from engaging in the emotions. And adding the "KHAANN" scream right in there, a scream admired mostly for it's awesome cheesiness, only further diminishes the actual emotional connection we're supposed to be feeling by throwing on this element of parody. Anyway, after the destruction of San Francisco and a long chase, Kirk is brought back to life, which is a relief rather than having to have a whole other film bringing him back.
< < < SPOILERS END
At the end of the film they depart on the five-year mission that was the original TV show, meaning that the two movies bring them to that starting place--and I can dig it. What other little notes are there? Scotty was Scotty this time, not just Simon Pegg on the Enterprise, which I appreciated. Karl Urban continues to be ideal as McCoy, but the writers need to remember that McCoy does more than just grouch, he’s often a happy and congenial character, and often serious and concerned. Some have complained that characters who are not Kirk or Spock get shortchanged, but as noted, the film is centered in Kirk and Spock’s deepening bond, and every character does get a key scene and important role.
Another common criticism is that it's too action-oriented and goes so fast nothing has a chance to stick. Well, I think we have to realize that it's a contemporary blockbuster, meant to appeal to a wide audience, and right now that means these fast-paced movies with few moments left for contemplation. The original cast movies, save the first one, were all action-oriented and shortchanged the sci-fi ideas as well, meaning that it may be endemic to having one movie every few years, as opposed to the leisurely luxury of a weekly series. The Star Trek of the series is never coming back, but what's apparent from the first few minutes here is that these people love Star Trek, and that affection and respect for the characters is worth a great deal.
As in the first one, the overwhelming feeling is that it's really fun. And I think that's the overall thing that makes these films enjoyable, and appealing to Trek fans, is that this team is really thinking about what a Star Trek lover would want to see, and showing it to them. Don't you want to see the Enterprise rising out of the ocean? No? Well, don't you want to see the Enterprise falling out of the sky? Don't you want to see the Enterprise lose gravity and become a shifting funhouse where shuttles are falling out of their docks? Don't you want to see the events that forged the bond between Kirk and Spock? Don't you want to see the development of Scotty's love for the Enterprise? You can tell that this team wants to create a film that shows Trek lovers what they want to see, while also pleasing kids with attention deficit disorder and undiscerning moviegoers in China and India. So you have a film that remembers its audience and makes it a big priority to show its audience a good time, and that goes a long way.
Yes, especially if you liked the first one.