These days I strictly ration my visits to the cinema, with the exception of two franchises that will immediately override the austerity lockout: one is the James Bond series, and the other consists of the Star Trek films. Currently the tally of each stands at 13 for the former up to last year’s Skyfall (or 14 if you include Never Say Never Again, which of course I don’t) while Star Trek Into Darkness marks the 12th film of the science fiction series that I’ll have dutifully trotted out to see during its initial theatrical run.
Let’s cut through the suspense and deliver the bottom line: is it any good? The answer is yes, very. If you love the 2009 JJ Abrams-helmed reboot (see my contemporary review here) then you’re almost guaranteed to love this follow-up since it contains all the elements that made the first film so successful, including the jaw-dropping spectacular visuals, non-stop adrenalin-rush thrills, the jittery camerawork and jump zooms and of course the lens flare that slathers every shot to the point of self-parody. Of course if you were among that group that felt the first film made a travesty of the original spirit of the Star Trek series then none of this is going to do anything to persuade you to the contrary this time, either. And I confess, I had at least one foot in that camp and wasn’t as utterly thrilled with Abrams’ first outing as many people were as a result.
The first modern-cycle Star Trek film spent a lot of its plot time setting up a ‘parallel timeline’ meant to appease that group of hold-out old-style Trekkers by suggesting that the classic Trek we knew and still love was safe in the ‘other’ timeline, freeing up Abrams to do what he likes here without fear of contradicting established series lore. With that done and out of the way in 2009, this film has a lot of extra time on its hands to play with: some of it is spent on being ‘bigger and even more spectacular’ and delivering some fan-pleasing touches like new-style Klingons, but fortunately the rest of it is invested on having a plot which is not only halfway decent, but which extends into operating on multiple-levels – quite a treat for an action blockbuster these days.
The initial story revolves around a mysterious terrorist named John Harrison who stages an atrocity on Earth that leaves many dead, and then follows it up with an even more audacious attack to make him Starfleet’s most wanted: the rule book goes out of the window as Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise go into full-on bloodlust in search of retribution, with only Scotty baulking at what they’re planning. This is the ‘darkness’ of the title, although as more layers of the mystery of Harrison’s background are peeled away there’s a second darkness exposed that’s even more disturbing and threatening, and which almost turns Harrison from being despised mass-murderer into legitimately being able to claim the moral high ground. That means there is a clear parable to the World Trade Center attacks, and the stance that the film eventually goes on to take holds out hope that today’s Western society might finally be emerging from a decade-long post-post-9/11 era and finally learning that if we adopt the same mindset of ‘bloody revenge for an unjust act perpetrated on us in turn justifies any action we take no matter how heinous’ then we are no better than those who did us wrong in the first place.
That’s just one level of Star Trek Into Darkness; it also works as pure action film, as a character piece either being a coming-of-age for a juvenile Kirk or the ultimate bonding moment finally bringing Kirk and Spock together into one command unit. But it’s the character of Harrison (played with an eerie, uncanny stillness and authority by Benedict Cumberbatch) that powers still more levels to the story and takes us to a place I genuinely hadn’t been expecting.
I’d always thought that the ‘parallel timeline’ gimmick of the first film would be totally dropped in this film now that it had served Abrams’ purpose, and indeed that does seem to be the case for two thirds of the film. And then something happens, which means that while the audience don’t have to know their old Trek canon to enjoy the remainder of the film, it only really succeeds to its maximum if you’re a genuine long term fan. Since I’d assumed up to this point that Abrams’ view was “Well, the old fans can come along if they want, but we’re not making these films for them,” this is quite a shock and surprise, and moreover it couldn’t have been done if not for that ‘parallel timeline’ set-up in the first film in the first place. It allows this new film to play out a riff on a seminal moment of the old show, one that even uses a reprise of original dialogue and staging but then filters it and twists it into a mirror image in a way that successfully unifies both ‘old’ and ‘new’ Trek and actually comes closer to winning me over to the whole Abrams version of Starfleet more than I ever thought possible.
Cast-wise, the excellent Cumberbatch is matched by the gravitas of other major addition to the cast, Peter Weller as Starfleet’s chief Admiral Marcus. Among the returning cast most get a decent turn in the spotlight with John Cho an impressive Sulu and Zoe Saldana getting more to do as Uhuru than Nichelle Nichols could ever have dreamed of. She is joined here by Alice Eve as Carol Marcus, for little apparent reason than someone noticed that this was a very male line-up and there was need for a gratuitous underwear scene. Simon Pegg gets his own spin-off story, Karl Urban is slightly underused but still does a disturbingly accurate channelling of DeForest Kelly as McCoy, and only Anton Yelchin’s Chekov is really left out of the fun. Zachary Quinto continues to be an exemplary Spock, both honouring the original performance of Leonard Nimoy while also finding his own way with the part, leaving only Chris Pine who for me remains a puzzling non-presence as Kirk – although it’s also fair to say that he doesn’t put a foot wrong in the part, so it’s not much to complain about.
When all the fights and stunts and eye-popping FX are said and done, seeing this film made me want to rush home and watch some Star Trek again: just not the DVD of the first Abrams film, but rather the classic movies and even the original TV series. As fun and frothy as this new blockbuster is with all its ADHD-inducing caffeine thrills, it felt a bit like a meal consisting entirely of chocolate, sugar and candy floss whereas the originals always felt rather more substantial and hence more lastingly satisfying. But to demerit Star Trek Into Darkness on those grounds when substance is clearly not something it’s aiming for feels cheap and underhanded, especially when it does what it does for two hours so superlatively well.
And who’d have thought that of all things to save the day, it would turn out to be a tribble?
Star Trek Into Darkness is currently playing in cinemas in 2D, 3D and IMAX versions. It will be available on DVD and Blu-ray later in the year. The first JJ Abrams films is available on DVD and Blu-ray.