CAUTION: THERE ARE SPOILERS BELOW FOR STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS (2013)
Last year in 2016 marked fifty years of Star Trek (1966-69), and just a few days ago we observed thirty years of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94). It is without a doubt that Star Trek still lives on as being one of the most popular and celebrated franchises of all time, and in 2009, director J.J. Abrams reinvigorated this series, that while still having its fans, was in need of a boost. Well the Star Trek (2009) reboot certainly blasted into theaters as a huge critical and financial success. Even non-fans of Star Trek enjoyed the film. One of the things that was so great about the movie was that while it was essentially "rebooting" the franchise world, it still felt like it could be a continuation of the long-standing film series. It was re-visiting familiar characters, but the characters before we had seen them originally in the 1960s television show and six following films with that same crew. This new Trek also could stand on its own; you didn't necessarily need to see any other films to understand what was going on or be able to have a good time at the movies.
Why does Star Trek Into Darkness get a bad rap?
Then Star Trek Into Darkness came, and over the years, it has become everyone's least favorite of the now new trilogy of Star Trek films. Why? Well, because fans complained that it is essentially a remake of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), which also is coincidentally celebrating an anniversary of thirty-five years this year. I would wager that Star Trek Into Darkness is not only vastly underrated, but might just be the best and not the worst of this new Star Trek series.
Let's talk a little bit about "remakes." I will tell you upfront that generally this writer is not a fan of remakes, unless they aspire and achieve to do something different that offers a reason for another version's existence. However, I am usually in the minority regarding this. As a general rule, while many people do say they want to see new things and originality, they still like to see things that they have seen before. Not to bring the rival galaxy into this too prominently, but let's glance a moment at Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015), coincidentally also directed by J.J. Abrams like Into Darkness. The people who have issues with The Force Awakens is due largely to the opinion that it felt too much like a "rehash" of the original Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977). Some fans and non-fans may agree or disagree, but it seems like those who do agree still enjoyed The Force Awakens. While it may or may not have been a rehash of the original film, audiences cannot deny that there are definite similarities in both films, especially from a storyline standpoint.
All of this is to say, why can The Force Awakens be similar to A New Hope, but Into Darkness cannot be similar to The Wrath of Khan? What's the difference? Like The Force Awakens, Into Darkness is not a complete retread of The Wrath of Khan. Of course there are many similar scenes and characters, but the storyline is enormously different. In fact, Into Darkness pays tribute to The Wrath of Khan with the original Spock Prime (Leonard Nimoy) talking with new Spock (Zachary Quinto) about how Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) will be a nemesis that they will face in the future. They are not discounting the original film here.
What makes Star Trek Into Darkness the best film from the new trilogy?
So why is Into Darkness the best? Part of the dissatisfaction with Into Darkness probably stems from J.J. Abrams being "quoted" as saying that it would NOT be a remake of The Wrath of Khan, which understandably would rub some people the wrong way. But what a lot of people overlook in this second film is the emotional punch it packs, especially towards the conclusion. Yes, in a way it is very similar to the end of The Wrath of Khan, but that doesn't make it any less powerful or moving. The original film from 2009 did an all-star job in casting its characters, creating not only memorable performances but characters that we really come to care about, and more importantly characters that we can clearly see care about each other in their relationships. This is something that the original series and original six-film series with William Shatner, Leonary Nimoy and company always knocked out of the park. Here in Into Darkness, we again have an outstanding cast of people like Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin, John Cho, and of course a new addition of Benedict Cumberbatch playing a delightfully evil and maybe even sympathetic Khan. We really see in this second film how the relationships between the crew have grown and continue to grow despite the darker circumstances this time around, and how much the characters mean to each other even if it isn't always literally spelled out by the dialogue. There are some really heartfelt scenes here between characters that you wouldn't expect out of a modern day, action-packed science-fiction film, and it raised the quality and sophistication of a typical Star Trek film. Star Trek of 2009 laid the ground work beautifully, and Star Trek Beyond (2016) gave us another great space adventure hearkening back to the original Trek series, but Star Trek Into Darkness, while it may have a slightly borrowed inspiration, still stands on its own as not just a great Star Trek film, but a great film and sequel period. It took what it needed to in order to introduce a new generation to the jaw-dropping mythos that is Star Trek, and added a layer of refreshing humanity.