This is an interesting movie because despite its frantic pace and and big budget glamour all the best scenes are characters talking to each other. It’s also refreshing to see Star Trek infused with some ideology and philosophy again after the kind of neutral first movie.
First off, it needs to be said that this is kind of a remake of Wrath of Khan and this has irritated a lot of people on the internet (what doesn’t?). In my mind, all the problems with this movie are of its own creation and have nothing to do with the parallels to the older film.
At the outset of the film we see a theme of Kirk still being a rambunctious young captain bending the rules to follow his moral code and a Spock that has retreated too far into cold rationality. Kirk is admonished for not respecting authority and justifying his decisions based on bouts of good luck (both true) and is demoted for a violation of the Prime Directive (despite a very good reason IMO). However, things quickly escalate with a terrorist attack and Kirk spends almost no time as a first officer, a chance missed for at least some good comedy.
As I said at the beginning of this movie the best parts of the movie are all the rare moments when characters just… talk. The main one is of course Kirk and Spock learning from each about responsibility and emotion, respectively. The final death scene swaps the places of the characters from Wrath of Khan and is incredibly touching at least on Spock’s side. I was not as convinced that Kirk had really learned anything after two hours. Sacrificing for his crew was a characteristic he already displayed. I think the humility and loss he learns after Spock’s death in WoK is a more suitable lesson.
Of course, there were other great moments like basically every scene with Scotty and Kirk. Benedict Cumberpatch can monologue very well even if Khan’s character was weak and Peter Weller as the admiral was a more subtle but just as effective portrayal of a villain.
The movie’s political allegory is heavy-handed. Using long range torpedoes to kill a terrorist without trial is very similar to the discussion about the legality of drone attacks. Then we have an admiral convinced that war with the Klingon’s is inevitable and he will do whatever it takes to turn Starfleet into a military institution, essentially the 23rd century’s neoconservative. Scotty and Spock argue the morality of these viewpoints with Kirk during the movie but the moral battle is not explicitly fought here. Foes are physically vanquished at the movie’s end; their ideologies only as strong as they are. Instead we have action; Kirk follows the letter of the law rather than seek revenge, Spock saves Khan’s crew, at the end Khan is not sentenced to death but is put back in cryosleep. I do think the movie is a little cowardly in tackling the issues it brings up, but it at least tries to bring a little moral judgement which is more than we can say about most summer movies.
Now to get why this is just a good movie and not a great movie. It mostly comes down to Khan. The threat of Khan is mostly carried on the shoulders of Cumberbatch’s considerable charisma. His motives in the movie are murky at best with his backstory left with very few details and a little bit of confusion because Admiral Marcus and Khan tell slightly different stories. Much of the problem is the filmmakers seem to be relying on the audience already knowing Khan from the previous movie to do a lot of the hard work of character building. This is lazy and it doesn’t work.
Khan says he is desperate to get his crew back, but why a megalomaniac like Khan cares so vociferously about his crew is never justified. It also means that the very personal battle between Khan and Kirk is lost. From what I recall of the original movie, many scenes pit Kirk versus Khan in a battle of wits and determination; superman versus the height of normal man. Here Khan is a physical threat, but not as much of an intellectual foil to Kirk. I mean his demise was engineered by a very elementary ruse on Spock’s part; a double travesty for undermining Khan’s intelligence and for allowing Spock not Kirk to defeat him.
Finally, I could list a bunch of plotholes or the ridiculously unneeded final Spock chase scene or how I thought Spock yelling Khan was kind of cheesy (it works much better as something Kirk would do). However, a stronger Khan could have glided over these issues. I wonder what a movie without Khan would have been like and upgrading Admiral Marcus to primary villain. We can only hope that the next movie (or TV show!) has a little less baggage from the previous movies.