In 2259, Captain James T. Kirk is removed from his command of the Starship Enterprise for violating the Prime Directive. He had allowed the primitive inhabitants of the planet Niburu to see the ship in order to save them, along with Spock (Zachary Quinto), from a volcanic eruption. Admiral Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) is reinstated as Captain and Kirk is demoted to First Officer. Spock is transferred. Starfleet officer Thomas Harewood (Noel Clarke), under orders from John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), bombs a Section 31 office in London. During an emergency meeting, Harrison kills Pike and others, then transports to Kronos, the Klingon home world.
Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) reinstates Kirk and Spock and orders them to kill Harrison with a new long-range torpedo. Chief Engineer Scott (Simon Pegg) objects to an untested weapon on board, and when he is overruled, resigns. Pavel Chekov (Anton Yelchin) replaces him. On the way to Kronos, the ship’s warp-drive is disabled. Kirk leads a team including Spock and Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana) to the surface of Kronos, where they are ambushed. Harrison appears and kills all the Klingons, single-handed. Then he surrenders to Kirk.
Doctor McCoy (Karl Urban) and Marcus’ daughter Carol (Alice Eve) open a torpedo as Harrison looks on and find that they contain cryonically frozen humans. Harrison reveals that he is Khan Noonien Singh, a genetically engineered superhuman awakened by Admiral Marcus from centuries of cryonic sleep and forced to develop superweapons. Khan admits he sabotaged the Enterprise warp-drive, hoping for the Klingons to destroy it after it fired on Kronos, starting an Earth/Klingon war. Khan gives co-ordinates to Kirk which he has Scott investigate, who reports that it is a covert Section 31 Starfleet facility.
Enterprise is intercepted by the powerful Starfleet ship Vengeance, commanded by Admiral Marcus, who demands that Kirk deliver Khan, but Enterprise takes off for Earth. Vengeance easily pursues and disables Enterprise. Learning that his daughter Carol is aboard, Marcus transports her to his own ship, but Scott infiltrates Vengeance and his sabotage disables the ship. The transporters offline, Kirk and Khan space-jump to Vengeance. Khan then overpowers Kirk, Scott, and Carol, kills Marcus, and takes command of Vengeance.
Khan demands that Spock return his frozen crew in exchange for the Enterprise officers, but Spock and McCoy have removed the frozen crew. Spock detonates the warheads, crippling the Vengeance. Both starships plummet toward Earth. Kirk enters the radioactive reactor chamber of the Enterprise to realign the warp core, sacrificing himself to save the ship. Khan crashes Vengeance into downtown San Francisco to destroy Starfleet Headquarters. McCoy discovers than Khan’s blood has restorative powers that might save Kirk. Spock pursues the superhuman through the city and they engage in combat. Uhura beams down and stuns Khan. She stops Spock from killing him, and Khan’s blood revives Kirk. Khan is sealed in his cryonic pod again, and Enterprise departs on its five-year mission.
The film was directed by J.J. Abrams and written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof. All four were producers. At first, Leonard Nimoy declined to appear and there was talk of William Shatner in a cameo. There were problems with the script and the time the production was taking. They were reluctant at first to use the character of Khan, lest the movie appear to be a rip-off of Star Trek II, but they got over it. Michael Giacchino returned to score the sequel. The opening scene was a kind of homage to Indiana Jones. Benicio del Toro and Mickey Rourke were considered for the villain, but Benedict Cumberbatch was chosen after being recommended by Stephen Spielberg. Critics called him Byronic and praised his charisma and intelligence, but Nicholas Meyer called the film gimmicky and said that if it was going to rip off Wrath of Khan, it should at least add something.
A minor kerfuffle appeared over Alice Eve appearing in her underwear. In response, J.J. Abrams revealed a deleted shower scene by Benedict Cumberbatch. Sikhs complained of Khan Noonien Singh being cast as white. In spite of all this, it was the highest grossing of all the Star Trek films. This was Leonard Nimoy’s final role. He made sure there was coffee ice-cream available at all times. To keep Benedict Cumberbatch’s casting secret, a studio rep flew to London with the actor’s script handcuffed to his wrist. An inside joke about Anton Yelchin, as Chekov, being told to wear a red shirt turned creepy when Yelchin was killed in a freak motor-vehicle accident a month before the release of the next movie. The warp-core in the film is actually the National Ignition Facility Laser System at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where they are trying to invent nuclear fusion.
The computer of the Vengeance is voiced by Bill Hader of Saturday Night Live. Chekhov is in Engineering most of the time and does not meet Khan—a bit of a joke for the fans. The screenwriters read Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven for inspiration. Peter Weller starred in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension (1984) with Christopher Lloyd. Benedict Cumberbatch, Karl Urban, and Zoe Saldana all play superheroes in the Marvel movies. Christopher Doohan’s son James appears, as he has been doing since Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The scene in which a set of experts having an emergency meeting are ambushed, is much like one in Doctor Who: Aliens of London (2005). Both featured the actor Noel Clarke. On the desk of Admiral Markus are models of the Wright Flyer, the Spirit of St. Louis, the V-2 and X-15, a Gemini capsule, a Soyuz, the Enterprise NX-1, and the USS Vengeance.
J.J. Abrams is a fan and a fan’s director. In both Star Trek and Star Wars, he takes familiar themes from the existing canon and adds a twist the fans will find intriguing. As a result, his stories lack a certain originality, notwithstanding the brilliant casting of great actors, the sly humor, and the abundant action, which I love as much as any other fan. Into Darkness is a perfect example: take what is probably the favorite Star Trek story—The Wrath of Khan—and kill off Kirk instead of Spock, then use Khan to save his life. He could have expanded on a dramatic theme of his own creation—say, the Vulcan Diaspora after the destruction of their planet—and gotten a bit more love from critics, but he doesn’t tell stories for critics, he tells them for fans.