Before this review boldly goes where few others are likely to go given the near universal wave of critical love the film is currently surfing, it’s important to note that Jar Jar Abrams’ Star Trek Into Darkness is fun. An enjoyable romp. A superior Summer Sci-Fi Blockbuster. But boy, is it dumb! Gob-smackingly, face-slappingly, oh my God, you’re seriously going there dude, dumb!
Having managed the impossible just four years ago and delivered a swashbuckling, intelligent reboot of a franchise bordering on religion that felt fresh, original, ambitious and just cheekily reverent enough to keep the Trekkies happy (yes, you’re Trekkies, not Trekkers. None of you are trekking through the Himalayas or up the Orinoco. The furthest most of you trek is the toaster to heat a Pop-Tart) while carving out a healthy mainstream audience with his bold take on the voyages of the starship Enterprise, this time around Abrams has played it safe and eased back a little on the wiffle lever, delivering a smoothly mechanical, precision engineered sequel that still thrills but lacks the personality and chutzpah of 2009’s bold Star Trek.
Opening with a scene filched from an Indiana Jones flick as Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) are chased from an alien temple by some ooga-booga natives while, nearby, Spock (Zachary Quinto), Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Sulu (Harold from Harold and Kumar) neutralise a potentially planet-destroying volcano, Star Trek Into Darkness gets off to a thrilling and unintelligible start.
There’s no real reason for Kirk and McCoy to be running around the planet, they have no real involvement in the mission, but it’s crucial to the plot that the ooga-boogas chase them so they can break that most important piece of Star Trek lore, the Prime Directive, which forbids them from interfering in the development of primitive species.
So the ooga-boogas end up worshipping the Enterprise as a god (after Prometheus, anyone else think Erich Von Daniken’s Chariots Of The Gods may be writer/producer Damon Lindelof’s favourite book?) and Spock and Kirk fall out (Screenwriting 101 – create conflict) over Kirk’s cavalier attitude towards breaking the rules and Spock then grassing him up to Starfleet’s high command causing Kirk to be demoted. Which is, like, so totally unfair dude, he, like, only did what he did to save his bro’!
But these two crazy kids can’t stay mad at each other forever and they’re forced to kiss and make up when a terrorist attack destroys a secret Starfleet base in London. The culprit is soon identified as rogue Starfleet operative, the enigmatic ‘John Harrison’ (Benedict Cumberbatch), who’s launched his own private one-man war on Starfleet. After a second attack on San Francisco takes out key members of the high command, Harrison flees to Kronos, homeworld of the Klingon Empire, where he hides out in a conveniently abandoned and windswept city, waiting for the crew of the Enterprise to run him down and bring him to justice (“Ooooh, chase me…”).
Capturing the renegade fugitive, Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise discover there’s a lot more to Harrison than meets the eye and that their true enemy may be a lot closer to home as they uncover a galaxy-spanning plot that threatens to turn the Federation’s Cold War with the Klingons into a very hot one indeed…
Hey, hey, the gang’s all here, the returning cast slipping comfortably into their roles, each having their own little moment to step to the front and shine before slinking back into the ensemble. And there lies part of the problem with Star Trek Into Darkness; it feels bloated and familiar where the previous film felt fresh and exciting.
Pine, Quinto et al are all very good and the expansion of Saldana’s Uhura and Simon Pegg’s Scotty feels right even if it is at the expense of Urban’s McCoy or new characters like Alice Eve’s (Trekkie alert!) Dr. Carol Marcus who has little to do other than get down to her photon torpedoes in a scene that serves no purpose other than having a hot girl strip to her undies so the audience and Kirk can have a bit of a lech.
But there’s just too many characters doing too little. Would it have killed you J.J. to winnow the chaff a little? Take a leaf from Joss Whedon’s playbook and pointlessly kill someone’s beloved childhood hero. Seriously, no-one’s gonna squawk too much if Chekov (Anton Yelchin) takes a phaser blast to the face in the next installment. Overall the film feels very much like a naked stop gap, a bridge from Star Trek’s triumphant opening chapter to the promised third film when we join the Enterprise crew on that 5-year mission seeking out new life, new civilisations, boldly going blah-de-blah…
The greatest enemy Kirk and the crew must face however isn’t Harrison or the Klingons but the enemy within; Star Trek Into Darkness is writer and producer Damon Lindelof’s latest salvo in his campaign to singlehandedly dumb down Sci-Fi as a movie genre. Like Cumberbatch’s Harrison, he’s a man on a mission. Unlike Harrison who proves to have a superior intellect, Lindelof really couldn’t write “Phaser” on a dusty Venetian blind despite somehow managing to become one of the biggest writers in Hollyweird, something he’s achieved without actually having any grasp of character, dialogue or plot development.
Having already worked his special brand of magic on the once hotly anticipated Prometheus and Cowboys & Aliens, turning eagerly anticipated silk purses into logic and excitement-defying sow’s ears, not to mention his reportedly disastrous rewrite of the troubled World War Z, Lindelof delivers a Star Trek script that eschews character exploration in favour of setting up each new set-piece, telegraphing each obvious plot twist, papering over the cracks with references the Trekkies will love – “Hey dude, that’s a Tribble and did you see the sweet bat’leths those Klingons were packing!” – and blithely stepping around the gaping holes (Wait! The special photon torpedoes are filled with what?) while recycling dialogue and situations from earlier, classic installments as Kirk is forced to relearn all those lessons about sacrifice, responsibility and leadership that he learnt in the last film but has now conveniently forgotten. If you’re looking to pick nits, you’ll find a headful.
Which isn’t to say there’s not a lot here to enjoy. Abrams keeps things rattling along at a fair old trot, Quinto, Pine and Pegg are obviously enjoying themselves immensely and, for at least the first two thirds, the film delivers kick-ass, if entirely predictable, space opera which edges right up to the edge of going somewhere dark and unexpected that genuinely would be a game changer, allows you a glimpse of what might have been, then immediately retreats, deploying its own equivalent of Doctor Who’s sonic screwdriver (a plot-device that appears in the first 10 minutes of the film purely to make you think “Hmmm! I wonder if that’ll play an important part in the film’s denouement. Look, a Tribble!”) before setting everything right again. The action set-pieces for the most part are exciting with a three-way shoot-out between Harrison, the Klingons and the Enterprise Away Team and a Rocketeer-inspired traverse of a debris field between two spaceships, which echoes The Empire Strikes Back and 2001, and an Inception-flavoured shifting gravity race-against-time among the most inspired though the film’s final act devolves into empty spectacle with city-trashing crashing spaceships and a frankly thrill-free climactic foot chase and punch up.
The film’s biggest asset however is Benedict Cumberbatch who makes the leap from small to big screen with style. His mysterious, enigmatic villain is silkily seductive and lends the film a seriousness, a gravitas, it otherwise would have lacked, investing his bad guy with just the right mix of arrogant haughtiness and Shakespearean theatricality that would make the likes of William Shatner, Ricardo Montalban and Christopher Plummer proud.
A rollicking rollercoaster ride that’s just a little lacking in depth and soul, Star Trek Into Darkness is bang for your buck Saturday night entertainment. Let’s just hope however that J.J. deletes Damo’s number from the speed-dial when he jumps ship from the Enterprise to the Millennium Falcon…