WFTB Score: 10/20
The plot: Terrorism comes to Starfleet, forcing Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise into a perilous hunt for the perpetrator without – hopefully – starting a war with the Klingons. Though they get their man, a sudden reversal of fortune means Kirk has to trust his enemy in a situation, and on a ship, where trust is in very short supply.
With friends like First Officer Mr Spock (Zachary Quinto), Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine) might well wonder why he needs enemies. When Kirk breaks the rules to save Spock’s life, he’s rewarded by said friend promptly dobbing him in to Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood). Demoted and almost as cross with Spock as the Vulcan’s slighted girlfriend, Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Kirk is nonetheless tasked with accompanying Pike to Starfleet in San Francisco to discuss the bombing of a facility in London; when that meeting is itself attacked by rogue Starfleet employee John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Pike is killed, Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) orders Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise, including gruff doctor ‘Bones’ McCoy (Karl Urban), to follow Harrison to the Klingon planet Kronos and kill him with newly-developed photon torpedoes. Eyeing the weapons with distrust, chief engineer Scott (Simon Pegg) refuses to accompany his bickering friends as they argue about how to deal with their enemy; but as they are all to find out, nothing is quite what it seems, and that applies as much to unexpected new crew member Carol (Alice Eve) as anyone, or anything, else.
Although 2009’s Star Trek wasn’t perfect, it was sustained by the simple pleasure of seeing some memorable characterisations resurrected; it was a rattling good sci-fi tale to boot. Into Darkness comes with high expectations, then, and it gives me no pleasure to report that they’re only ever partially met. The Spock-Kirk relationship is laid on entertainingly thickly, the Spock-Uhura one making for an entertaining side-line; and with Karl Urban channelling DeForest Kelley to great effect the film boasts a compelling quartet, even if the spadework was all done by Bill Shatner and co. in the 60s. The visual effects are top-notch (with much less of the silly lens flare that dominated Abrams’ first Trek outing) and provide plenty of thrilling, large-scale action sequences: in space, underwater, on planet surfaces, inside ships, outside ships; the downside is that some of the set-pieces are filmed in slightly hectic (3D-centred?) fashion and many, like the opening Raiders of the Lost Ark-style chase, seem to be action for action’s sake. Furthermore, while the plot is reasonably sound and results in significant nods to Trek lore, there are some queasy politics in evidence as terrorist atrocities are used to justify an ‘inevitable’ war. Unfortunately, you can’t use suicide bombings or images of craft flying into buildings without it having a specific resonance these days, and there’s nothing subtle about the message behind Admiral Marcus’ hidden agenda. There are too many endings, too.
A big plus for Star Trek Into Darkness is Benedict Cumberbatch. His “John Harrison” (I won’t give away his secret) combines the intellectual weight you might expect of the Sherlock star with a surprisingly imposing physical presence. For all that Pine and Quinto are the nominal stars of the show, Cumberbatch’s tale is undoubtedly the most interesting and I would like to have known more about him (Marcus and his secret warships, by contrast, are merely set-piece fodder). On the other hand, two disappointments are also British in origin: Simon Pegg’s quite funny – he and his strange sidekick are the nominated comedians again – but his Scottish accent falls away terribly during the second half of most of his lines. Alice Eve, meanwhile, is awfully wooden, though it’s reassuring – if entirely unnecessary – to see that push-up bras are still going strong in the 23rd Century.
There is a larger niggle that I touched on in my review of Abrams’ first Star Trek: the whole thing is ultimately effectless. By placing these prequels at a time before the start of the original Star Trek, Abrams and his writers give themselves a problem, namely that regardless of the high-stakes, certain-death situations Kirk, Spock and others (even our chief villain) find themselves in – and regardless of some other plot developments I won’t give away – we can all rest easy in the knowledge that they’ll make it to the end credits*. You might well ask what studios are supposed to do in this situation; the answer is ‘stop making cash-in prequels and give us some new ideas’, though I realise this is a lot to ask.
All told, I feel much the same about Star Trek Into Darkness as I did about Skyfall. Yes, it’s lovely to see filmmakers producing spectacular visuals and throwing out bones for fans to gnaw on, but they can only be a temporary distraction from the fact that there’s not a lot of substance behind the spectacle or meat on the bones. Given the characters’ de facto immortality, I would have welcomed more characterisation and less action, or at least cleaner lines of action that didn’t require the incessant prompting of a thudding score to hit home. Star Trek Into Darkness isn’t a black mark against Abrams by any means, though next time – of course there’s going to be a next time – he could go considerably more boldly.
NOTES: Unless I’m taking events too much at face value. Having done a little research, I now realise that this set of Star Trek characters is playing out on an alternate timeline. But why, then, is Nimoy here? And why do the characters so slavishly possess the mannerisms of their original timeline counterparts? And since Abrams is hardly going to actually kill off any of his golden geese, is there any need to be asking these rhetorical questions?