My dad was always a fan. I wouldn’t necessarily call him a Trekkie, but he was a fan nonetheless. If Star Trek repeats or any of the later spin-offs were on TV – usually around 6 or 7pm on BBC2 on a weekday – I’d often find him sitting through an episode before dinner. But me? I’d watch if I had nothing better to do, but I have to be honest: despite lapping up nearly every other sci-fi TV show or film myself, Star Trek always left me a little cold. I’ve never hated it, but equally I’ve never loved it. The Shatner / Nimoy films? Nah, it’s OK thanks, I’d much rather watch The Empire Strikes Back again instead.
Yet I am one of the many thousands that has found much to enjoy about JJ Abrams’ successful re-booting of the franchise as a going cinematic concern. Long-time fans may well recoil in disgust at certain sacrilegious elements, but I’ve enjoyed the fresh life that has been breathed into these old characters. Despite my natural cynicism, 2009’s Star Trek was a hugely-entertaining affair, with sharp dialogue, great visual effects, charismatic performances and an injection of post-MTV sex n’ swagger; normally word of the latter would get me running for the hills, but to give the new series wider appeal Star Trek needed to be brought up-to-date, and it worked. Central to the movie’s appeal was the interplay / bromance between Chris Pine’s James T. Kirk and Zachary Quinto’s Mr. Spock, and Abrams has relied on this – and the other elements mentioned above – so that the formula works once again with Star Trek – Into Darkness.
The film begins with a standalone prologue (formulaic, formulaic and thrice formulaic – can someone actually produce a blockbuster that doesn’t do this, please?) that had me rather fearful, given that it partly resembled an old Star Trek episode, albeit with better visual effects (the alien savages, though, are truly terrible and I feared the worst). But the spirit of the 2009 film is soon re-captured with admonishments for the brattish-but-brilliant Kirk delivered by his superiors and several early clashes as a result of Spock’s overly-logical thought processes and predilection for sticking to the rules. The opening 20-30 minutes is set largely in future versions of San Francisco and London, and both cities look fantastic, not-so-subtly showing some famous features in the background to tie them into the present. We are introduced to rogue Starfleet agent John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch, pronouncing every single syllable intently so that we are left in no doubt that he is a) an AC-tor and b) an AC-tor that is playing a villain).
Harrison engineers the blowing up of a hidden defense archive centre in London that is gathering data on the Klingon empire, and then subsequently attacks Starfleet headquarters before fleeing to the Klingon homeworld of Kronos. Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller*) orders Kirk and Co to track Harrison down, and they set off in search of their new enemy, only to find out things aren’t quite a simple as they appear to be. Naturally. (It’s nice to see Peter Weller back in a reasonably meaty role, especially given that he has one of the most piercing glares known to man and the role requires him to glare, glare and glare some more. In fact, thanks to Peter Weller’s glares I finally ‘get’ the fuss behind 3D. A Peter Weller glare in 3D is quite something, and could probably reach into your very soul on a good day. Take my word for it.)
Into Darkness delivers on its fairly impressive first and second acts, and despite a couple of largely forgettable segments when you see the Enterprise in peril yet again (cue extras stumbling from one side of the frame to another, at an angle, for the umpteenth time) the tension is maintained and at least three of the film’s set pieces are pretty exciting. The main problem, though, is that the idea of a Klingon threat to mankind is initially built up but when the USS Enterprise finally gets to Kronos the Klingons serve merely as incidental cannon fodder. Presumably the species is being held back for a third, and possibly final, film. Ultimately this desire to set the scene for a follow up makes you feel a little short-changed, though it’s certainly free from the kind of misjudgements that plagued Iron Man 2.
After a brief fight Harrison gives himself up, and shortly thereafter – following a couple of plot twists you will probably have read about or will see coming – his threatening, super-strong and super-smart villain loses some of his menace. This bad guy seems more like a minor problem after he teams up – albeit briefly – with Kirk and the Enterprise. Still, for a while, Cumberbatch shines as the calm, grudge-holding nemesis, filled with contempt for his captors while he stays one step ahead of them.
The best moments involve Kirk and Spock. I enjoyed both Pine’s and Quinto’s performances here every bit as much as in the predecessor, and to top it all Pine is even starting to resemble William Shatner (ever-so-slightly, I hasten to add, and thankfully not the T.J. Hooker years). Quinto’s poker-face never drops when Spock is on the receiving end of Pine’s comically-exasperated tirades, and he also has a few amusing (and touching) scenes with Uhura (Zoe Saldana) as he fights to keep his ‘other’ relationship on an even keel. The crew is fleshed out with lighthearted turns involving old favourites like Scotty (Simon Pegg, doing for the Scottish accent exactly what Dick van Dyke did for the English), Chekov (Anton Yelchin, doing the same for the Russian accent, which is even more impressive considering that he’s actually Russian) and the magnificently cynical, grumpy ‘Bones’ McCoy (Karl Urban, once again making the most of his screen time).
One of Abrams’ big successes is that he has given the supporting cast things to do in both films that just about feel necessary within the framework of the story. Alice Eve joins the fold as science officer Dr. Carol Marcus, but her addition seems a little superfluous. There’s enough comic action between the Enterprise’s two big guns alone, but the rest of the crew chip in regularly with amusing lines, withering put-downs and generally manic overacting as they dart around attempting to fix warp drives and drive warps. Echoes of the overly-earnest TV series are there in terms of the look and feel of the Enterprise, and certainly with regard to the costumes, but in tone this new incarnation is far lighter and all the more inclusive and enjoyable for it.
But – rightly – we’re left in no doubt that it’s the Spock and Kirk show, and both are given their big set-piece moments: the former involved in a thrilling fist fight in the sky above San Francisco and the latter in an implausible but nail-biting scene where he is shot across space from one ship to another, negotiating debris and a failing space-suit as he aims for a small opening hatch. These moments are the high points of Into Darkness, though the battles involving the Enterprise itself – an exploration vessel rather than an out-and-out warship – are infuriatingly short as always; this universe always seems to be lacking in space dog-fights. Into Darkness includes those ever-panicky cries to get the shields up as the crew gets its arse kicked from one galaxy to the next, but you never truly feel as though one of this tight-knit bunch might actually die or that the ship might actually be blown into a million tiny pieces. A bolder line in the third film, perhaps with the death of a major character, would be a welcome surprise. Especially if they stay dead.
That said, Abrams has delivered the kind of wit and thrills I’m after in a Friday night blockbuster, and he has re-modelled this sci-fi institution well, acknowledging its past but refusing to be a slave to it (and that certainly bodes well for another project he has on the side). Despite the foreboding and slightly misleading title Into Darkness is light and fun, like its predecessor, and does not pretend or try to be anything other than a loud, exciting space adventure. If that’s what you’re after it shouldn’t disappoint. I left suitably entertained.
Directed by: JJ Abrams
Written by: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zoe Saldana, Peter Weller, Karl Urban
Running Time: 132 Minutes