Spoilers are revealed throughout about Into Darkness because they need to be addressed in order to illustrate how truly terrible the story is. To get a sense of the reviewer's opinion without learning specifics, he paraphrases the classic two-word review of Spinal Tap's Shark Sandwich, and simply writes "Shit Trek."
When it was announced back in January that J.J. Abrams was going to direct Episode VII of the Star Wars saga, many Star Trek fans were disappointed to be losing the successful producer/director. After suffering through the abysmal Star Trek Into Darkness, they should hope he never returns. Forget bad Star Trek; this is an extremely bad movie.
While Abrams and writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman came up with a very clever way to recast the Original Series characters through the use of an alternate timeline in the previous movie, their version of the Trek universe didn't seem much like the one I knew. There was little else clever about it and it was too focused on action. This sequel is even worse. The story of Into Darkness is so poorly thought out one has to wonder if it's because of the limited abilities of the writers (who are joined Damon Lindelof), or if they were too focused on delivering predetermined plot points and action sequences.
The movie opens with Kirk (Chris Pine) and McCoy (Karl Urban) running away from a primitive village because its inhabitants are after Kirk, who stole a sacred scroll. This Raiders of the Lost Ark diversion is so Spock (Zachary Quinto) can set off a cold-fusion bomb within a volcano that is going to destroy the village. Things don't go according to plan, and Spock gets trapped within the volcano. For some inexplicable reason, the starship Enterprise is submerged in the ocean rather than orbiting the planet. Well, at least a reason beyond someone presumably saying, "Wouldn't it be cool if…" To be fair, it did look cool, but that doesn't keep a person from wondering why.
The only way to save Spock is to have the Enterprise surface and beam him out with the transporter. Spock is adamant they not do this because if the villagers see the ship, it could alter their future in violation of the Prime Directive. He is more than willing to sacrifice himself because "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one," which fans will recall from The Wrath of Khan, an activity that increases as the movie progresses. Setting aside that neither Spock nor anyone else acknowledges saving the villagers from the volcano also could alter their future in violation of the Prime Directive and knowing the creative team wouldn't have the guts to kill Spock before the opening credits roll, Kirk does what he must to save his friend.
In England, a couple is grieving over their dying a child. A man, later revealed to be John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), approaches the father with an offer to save his daughter's life. In exchange for a magical liquid, the father becomes a suicide bomber, choosing the need of the one, as he kills countless others and himself at the Starfleet archive where he works.
In San Francisco at Starfleet HQ, Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) leads a meeting of starship captains and officers in response. Luckily for Harrison, rather than meeting in a secure bunker, the conference room has a great view out its windows at the top of the building and there appears to be no security protecting it, making it easy for an attack with an air-assault vehicle. Kirk damages it, but not before casualties are taken. However, Harrison beams out, but not to a nearby location to hide or an awaiting spaceship to take him away. Instead, his personal transporter somehow has the ability to send him out of the galaxy, many light years away to an uninhabited area of the Klingon planet Kronos. That's not science; that's magic or at least the magic of bad writing.
Admiral Marcus accepts Kirk's request to go after Harrison. Relations are just forming with the Klingon Empire in this timeline, so this is not an official Starfleet mission. Marcus gives the Enterprise 72 new photon torpedoes, all of which he wants fired at Harrison when in range, which seems like overkill and is sure to attract attention. Scotty (Simon Pegg) has never seen this torpedo model before, and when he isn't allowed to know what they are comprised of, he offers his resignation to get Kirk's attention, yet Kirk is so focused on vengeance he lets Scotty walk away so the mission can commence.
Harrison eventually surrenders and reveals his true identity: Khan Noonien Singh, a scientifically altered superman awakened from a cryogenic freeze after 300 years by Admiral Marcus in the hopes his intelligence and experience could help Marcus prepare for war against the Klingons. That's right; Abrams and his writers showed such little imagination that in their second Trek movie they reused the antagonist from the second Trek movie, as if he's some major character people were clamoring for. In Wrath of Khan, Kirk and Khan had a history together so the revelation was meaningful between the characters. In Into Darkness, they've never met so it's only meaningful to the audience, but it isn't because it has no effect on the characters or plot. If the character had remained a scientifically altered superman/terrorist named John Harrison, nothing would have changed.
Attempting to return to Earth, the Enterprise experiences engine trouble, which Khan says isn't a coincidence. Admiral Marcus shows up in a massive new dreadnought class starship and demands Khan and his people be turned over. Kirk learns Marcus plans to destroy the Enterprise and blame it on the Klingons in a false-flag operation to start a war. Kirk teams up with Khan to stop Marcus.
During the battle on the dreadnought, Spock, in more laziness by the writers, contacts original Spock to learn about Khan. Original Spock (Leonard Nimoy) said he wouldn't provide information to effect this timeline, yet does just that, informing Spock, and reminding viewers, how bad and dangerous Khan is, in case Khan's previous activities in the movie didn't already reveal that. Even odder is original Spock assuming Khan is the exact same person he encountered in his timeline, which seems illogical since Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) isn't, making her inclusion another pointless wink at the audience from the writers rather than a worthwhile addition to the story.
The Enterprise becomes severely crippled due to all the battles and it eventually gets caught in the Earth's gravity. What is also crippled is the imagination of the screenwriters and whoever else had input into the story because even worse than reusing Khan needlessly is their decision to remake the ending of Wrath of Khan. To save the ship and crew, Kirk is willing to sacrifice himself. Naturally, the engine room has no protection that would enable someone to work on a major engine component, so after knocking Scotty out, Kirk rushes in, kicks the part until it falls into place, and is inundated with a deadly amount of radiation.
When Spock died the same way in Wrath of Khan, it was meaningful to Kirk because of the length and depth of their relationship, which the audience mirrored. Then the pre-production of Star Trek III completely undermined it. In Into Darkness, the relationship between Kirk and Spock is new, as is the audience to these actors. More importantly, the writers not only showed death could be overcome early on in the movie, but they also showed McCoy conducting experiments with Khan's blood on a dead tribble (that's a whole other issue), rendering any emotion during Kirk's death scene felt by the audience void since anyone paying attention knew what would be coming.
Khan steers his damaged ship towards Starfleet HQ, streaking across the blue sky and crashing it into San Francisco, evoking imagery of 9/11. While we are repeatedly shown there's very little security used in this timeline, it is still impossible to believe a species that had developed warp technology, anti-gravity devices, and transporters had no defense system to protect the planet from Khan crashing his ship into it.
The movie's final action sequence finds Spock chasing Khan on foot and in the air through San Francisco so his blood can save Kirk's life because Spock has been elevated to the hero of the Abrams' film while Kirk is little more than a hot-headed jerk whose good looks get him chicks and whose choices get them into trouble. (and don't even get me started on the diminished role of McCoy). Uhura has to remind Spock to bring Khan in alive, though it's hard to believe Spock would kill Khan or that Khan's blood wouldn't work if it was taken shortly after his death. Even harder to understand is why no one apparently had the time to check or thought to wonder if the blood of the 72 members of Khan's frozen crew had similar life-inducing properties.
While there are many well-executed action sequences by Abrams and his team, his ridiculously excessive, nonsensical use of lens flare has created one of the worst-looking movies in recent memory. I have no idea why he uses it. The flares overwhelm the visual information and constantly take the viewer out of the moment. Cinematographer Daniel Mindel should have pulled an “Alan Smithee” or whatever the American Society of Cinematographers equivalent is to have his name taken stricken from the credits because his work here is a travesty.
After the movie, a title card reads “this film is dedicated to our post-9/11 veterans with gratitude for their inspired service abroad and continued leadership at home.” Forgetting for a moment the crimes some of our post-9/11 veterans have been charged and convicted of, it seems rather bizarre to honor veterans with a movie where the plot involves an attempt to start a war based on lies, bringing to mind conspiracy theorists who think 9/11 was an inside job to get this nation into war. There are many ways to pay tribute to those who have honorably served our country; this movie doesn't even come close.
Into Darkness will be on my list of worst movies of 2013 and is one of the worst I've seen in quite a while. And it's so unfortunate. The Star Trek franchise offers a universe (multiple universes now) of creative opportunities, so it's astounding to see a story so poorly conceived and not thought through. The next movie either needs to boldly go ahead with a completely new story or there has to be a reason to reuse past elements. Or maybe Paramount should stop trying to force it to be a movie franchise and put it back on television where it is a better fit.